It didn’t take very long for me to notice her, in a black cape embellished with jet beads that glistened like moonlight on the Vernon River. I ran after her and boldly asked, “Who are you?” The woman in black was Ellen Bolch, President and CEO of home health powerhouse THA Group, noted philanthropist and veritable style icon. Standing next to her was her daughter, Meredith Dulany, similarly tall and elegant. “I am most proud when people recognize her as my mother or me as her daughter,” says Dulany, a busy mother of two, philanthropist, community volunteer and the chair of this year’s Telfair Ball, which celebrates the 200th anniversary of the museum’s founding by heroine Mary Telfair.
Meredith is quintessentially, classically chic. Her effortless wardrobe of crisp white cotton shirts, skinny pants and fluid dresses is punctuated by special pieces designed by her friend Tish Cox. Her look is a cool understatement to her mother’s fashion-forward style.
Ever since our first encounter, I have secretly chronicled Bolch’s entrances and exits at Savannah’s signature events, noting her unapologetic sartorial swagger, building a mental checklist of her favored designers with awe. Without a doubt, she has redefined “business appropriate,” blasting into boardrooms and ballrooms alike draped in her own emphatically personal version of power dressing. From the American classicists Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors to the exotic eclecticism of Dries van Noten, Gucci and Erdem, Bolch approaches her wardrobe as a collector, curating her closet with statement pieces that call out to her. Here, the common denominators are embellishment, silhouette, fabric, quality and (by her own admission) a major dose of drama.
Carmela Spinelli: Your work accomplishments have definitely made a difference for many lives, but what you’ve also done is bring joy to your surroundings with your fashion philosophy and with the way you visually represent yourself. You and your husband, Jeep, have a very busy life and balance time with each other, work and family. How do you manage to make time to shop and acquire all these superb things?
Ellen Bolch: This year I asked my husband what his New Year’s resolution was and he said, “For you to go to bed with me.” Now, it’s not like what it sounds … I stay up late in bed, looking at the collections online. I like to be spontaneous, too. There was an Erdem dress in the Bergdorf Goodman windows, and I had no time to shop — I promised Jeep I wouldn’t. But I was able to negotiate four seconds to go into the store, hand my card to the associate and say, “Just charge that and send it to me.”
CS: I like to call that fashion serendipity. Meredith, did you inherit your mother’s spontaneity for dressing and shopping?
Meredith Dulany: I have always been a very practical shopper in general. I like basics. I like solids. Fabric matters a lot to me. Now, after shopping for myself for twenty years, I pretty much have all of the basics one might need and must refrain from picking up another perfect white blouse! I am still drawn to an olive drab safari dress, black cigarette pants, anything khaki!
EB: My daughter, she’s my earth-tone woman. I’ve worked on her and worked on her.
MD: Ellen just takes it all to a level I have yet to approach. I play clothes down where she plays them up. I may wear a dress with a bold print, but I am always wearing the strappy silver, gold or black heels that disappear — that bold print is plenty for those around me! And somehow that simplicity keeps me calm. I can’t take the chaos of layers that she can. I also can’t take the chaos of her work schedule! She is just able to do and be so much.
CS: You have acknowledged the differences between your and your mom’s fashion choices, and yet there has to be some of her influence that you’ve inherited. How does that manifest in your style?
MD: The piece must have something unique about it. The texture of the fabric, the bias cut, a surprise of some sort, something whimsical but not overwhelming …those are the things that make a difference to me. I also pick up things that are more on trend now.
CS: There is something compelling about personal expressiveness and the dramatization of the self. Style is power.
MD: My mom has described her clothing as armor at points in her life. I don’t know that I have ever needed armor, but fashion certainly can act as a security blanket at times. Fashion allows you to be as confident as you’d like to be upon leaving the house.
CS: Ellen, your closet is filled with garments that are the makings of a contemporary fashion exhibition — it could be titled Ellen Bolch, Fashion Alchemist. Who are the designers you’re most passionate about now?
EB: Definitely Dries van Noten. I love Dries. His fabrics are so lush, they have such dimension. He just struts it with such abandonment, and he has this fabulous unparalled old-world appreciation. I love Tish Cox. I love Gucci. I am in an Erdem phase right now. I just watched Erdem’s spring 2018 fashion show. I didn’t like everything, but whoa, oh my God.
CS: You’re very attracted to garments with exquisite fabrics, pattern, texture and surface details that evoke an emotional response. The Erdem dress in the Bergdorf Goodman window — you had a coup de foudre, a love-at-first-sight experience. What was it about that piece that spoke to you?
EB: The koi fish, the oyster shells. I live on the river. I’m very influenced by this place, and this dress spoke to me. I don’t know why that happens. Some clothes just speak to me. I can’t wear that dress without everybody stopping in their tracks.
CS: What was the first memorable statement piece that started your extraordinary fashion collection?
EB: The first piece I bought was from a boutique in Shadyside, in Pittsburgh. It had long sleeves and just fit like a glove. It’s a dress I gave to Meredith.
MD: That dress is a little bit timeless and a little bit nostalgic for the decade in which it was purchased. It has a ruffle around the neck and on the shoulders as well as at the base of the dress. It sits just above the knee, and it’s simple but very flattering. She told me she wore it on a date with my dad. I wore it on a date with my husband!
CS: Meredith, you must have some outstanding memories of your mom’s fashion and style, and of course, her closet.
MD: What I really remember of my mom’s fashion from my childhood is probably that it was like mine now. She collected great basics. She was a young professional, so she had appropriate, classic outfits. For as long as I can remember, my mom has had a walk-in closet. The size seemed to increase over the years as the houses changed. She now has several walk-in closets! As a little girl, I can remember spending an hour just pushing the hangers and seeing what was there, even if there was nothing new. I once got in loads of trouble for wearing a strapless top of hers (which she probably wore layered under a blouse) to her company picnic, but when I was older, in seventh or eighth grade, I was allowed to borrow specific blouses and wear them to school. I always received compliments from the youngest, hippest teachers when I wore those.
CS: Quality is such an essential element for both of you, and in our world of fast-fashion and capriciousness, it is important to educate the next generation on those values.
EB: Our granddaughter is an amazing athlete — she’s beautiful and a tiny thing. She graduated from Country Day and won the Hollis Stacy Award for the most versatile female athlete in Savannah, and she wanted to go to New York so we took her. She’s very into fashion, and it was so interesting to watch this girl lapping up every second of looking at these things. She could have gotten more presents but she wanted quality.
CS: Speaking of family legacies, another one of yours is philanthropy and community service. Meredith, tell me about your role as chair of this year’s Telfair Ball.
MD: This is a humbling assignment. I’m leading a team to design, plan and host a fundraiser worthy of the bicentennial celebration of the Owens-Thomas House and Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences, both Historic Landmark buildings. We will celebrate this momentous occasion with our Telfair Ball, a white-tie gala in Forsyth Park next February. Nearly two centuries ago, Mary Telfair bequeathed her home and its contents to the Georgia Historical Society upon her death, under the condition that it be preserved as an academy of arts and sciences. In doing so, she established Telfair Museums, the oldest museum in the country founded by a woman. As I work on this project, I think of Mary Telfair’s strength. I consider the fierce female who challenged 19th-century traditions, who challenged powerful men in conversation and who also counts among her legacy the first hospital in the state of Georgia exclusively dedicated to the care of women. She led her community into the future, so that now women around the world may lead each and every day