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Gateway to Women's History

Leslie "Les" N. Wilk, 1931-1995, served as the Resident Director of Texas Woman’s University’s Southwest Institute of Design in the department of Fashion and Textiles. The Woman’s Collection at Texas Woman’s University houses over one hundred clothing items designed by Les Wilk, including the outfit worn by Texas Governor Ann Richards at her 1991 inauguration. Each of Wilk’s labels is represented in the collection with ensembles ranging from casual denim to evening gowns accented with sequin and feather detailing. Browse Entire Collection


Les Wilk was born August 21, 1931 in Houston, Texas. He graduated from Trinity University in San Antonio with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1953. In 1956, Wilk moved to Los Angeles, where he worked in the costume department for NBC’s Comedy Hour. He and his family returned to San Antonio in 1957. After a short stint as a dance instructor at the Arthur Murray Studio, Wilk opened his first boutique, Les Wilk Fashions, a ladies’ specialty dress shop.

“Today’s woman wears blue jeans, tennis clothes, and Les Wilk!”
- Donna Sickinger, Fashion Showcase

Wilk moved to Dallas in 1963 to pursue a career in design. He worked for several designers, including Fred Lief of Dallas Sportswear and Ann Murray, a Dallas label specializing in pure silk garments. In 1969, Wilk opened his own design firm in Dallas. Throughout the course of his career, Wilk designed three separate fashion lines: Les Wilk, LW Country Couture, and LW II. LW Country Couture, started in 1973, represented a designer slant on sportswear. LW II, started in 1975, was his couture collection. Wilk became well known as a designer and his clothing was even offered as prizes on the television show Wheel of Fortune. The Woman’s Collection houses examples from each of Wilk’s distinct lines. Browse advertisements.

“King of the drop-dead dress”

Wilk was best known for his formal wear, especially the gowns he designed for the contestants of the Miss Texas and Miss America Pageants. In 1972, a complete wardrobe of Les Wilk original dresses was offered as a prize for the winner of the Miss Texas Pageant. Thereafter, Wilk was the official designer of the Miss Texas wardrobe until 1987. In 1978 he designed the entire wardrobe for Susan Perkins’ reign as Miss America. Browse examples of Les Wilk pageant dresses and formal wear.

Les Wilk won numerous awards during his career. In 1974 he won the Silver Fashion Award. He was the first and only Dallas designer to win the BAMBI Flying Colors Award for designer dresses in 1976. In 1980 he was the first Dallas designer to be the guest designer for of the Couture Show at the Dallas Apparel Mart. In addition, Wilk also won Louisiana International Fashion Award, the Wild Basin Award, the Outstanding Service Award for Marketing and Distributive Education for the state of Texas, and was named one of America’s Ten Great Designers by Decasalon National Preview of Designer Collections.

“Les made a viable contribution to the Texas fashion industry but his true gift is teaching.”
– Kim Dawson, Fashion Director of the Dallas Apparel Mart and founder of Kim Dawson Agency, Dallas’ first modeling agency

The Texas Woman’s University Southwest Institute of Design in the department of Fashion and Textiles was formed in 1979. The program focused on training students for careers in the fashion industry. The Institute taught courses in fashion marketing and merchandising, interior design, fashion photography and illustration, fashion journalism, textile research, fabric weaving, ceramics, and jewelry design. Les Wilk served as Designer in Residence for one year before being appointed the director of the Institute by President Mary Evelyn Blagg-Huey in 1981. Wilk quickly built a reputation at TWU as an excellent teacher who prepared his students for the fashion job market. His students competed in and won prizes in numerous high profile fashion competitions. On several occasions TWU students accompanied Wilk on trips abroad. One such occasion was in 1987 when Wilk was invited by the Soviet Union to head a delegation of ten American designers participating in the Design for Peace Program in Russia. He also invited five students to serve as his assistants when he was chosen to design the outfits for the 1991 inauguration of the Governor of the state of Texas, Ann Richards.

“It’s almost tempting to run for governor just to get to wear [his clothes] again.”
- Jane Stanton, former executive director of Southwest Apparel Manufacturers Association

After being selected to design the inauguration outfits for Gov. Ann Richards and Jan Bullock, wife of Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, Wilk chose five fashion scholarship students to help with the design: Delbra Green, Linda Secor, Margaret Hinojosa, Shannon-Marie McDonnell, and Debbie Younger. The six worked diligently creating the designs, working 10 to 15 hours a day for six weeks. The final result was two suits for Richards and two suits and a ball gown for Bullock, all made from Texas materials. The governor wanted to “showcase Texas products, Texas textiles, and Texas talent.” For Richards, the team designed a blue wool suit for the “Texas our Texas Inaugural Gala” and a white wool suit with matching mohair coat for the inauguration. Bullock received a purple wool suit with matching coat for the inauguration, a black mohair suit designed by Hinojosa for “Texas Our Texas,” and a black long-sleeved dress and black wool coat for the inaugural balls. Browse inauguration outfits.

Sources:
"TWU's Designing Women". TWU Pioneer Spring 1991: 16-7.
"Dallas Knows that Where there's a Wilk, there's a Way." Dallas Times Herald August 29, 1983.
King, Kit. "The Designing Man- Study in Contrast." Denton Record-Chronicle Jan 9, 1991.
"Top Designer Knows His Business." Denton Record-Chronicle August 19, 1981, sec. H: 6.
"Les Wilk." Denton Record-Chronicle July 11, 1980, sec. A: 9.
"Les Wilk Obituary." Denton Record-Chronicle November 29, 1995.
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