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The Fabric of Fitness

Designing activewear for the long-ignored older body, Arizona-born clothing designer Shirley Kenan is outfitting America’s “actively aging.”

Jimmy Magahern | Jun 26, 2012, 3:06 p.m.

“And finally,” she adds with a broad smile and eye roll that brings to mind a mischievous Bette Midler, “I did!”

Mother of Invention

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In her mid-60s, Shirley Kenan embarked on a new venture, with no previous experience, and started the clothing line NEDLady.

Shirley Kenan admits her husband was not initially onboard with her decision to sink a $25,000 small business loan into a clothing design company, a field neither of them had any previous experience in.

“Most people don’t start up a whole new business in their mid 60s,” she observes. “Most people don’t do that!”

Kenan, who majored in interior design in college, says her first love had always been the arts. But, like many women of her generation, she was forced to take a variety of clerical jobs she found creatively unfulfilling.

“I had been an escrow secretary early in my adult years,” she says, “and eventually I ended up doing input work on computer systems” — mostly in Prescott, where the Phoenix-born Kenan lived for about 30 years. “But that was very dry, uninteresting work.”

She moved back to Arizona after marrying Bernard “Bud” Kenan, a retired Army captain and Vietnam veteran. It was then that she finally had time to pursue tennis and began drawing again — often sketching fashion ideas while watching pro tennis matches on TV.

“I’m not sure where the ideas came from in the beginning,” she says. “I never had any experience in fashion design. My grandmother on my mother’s side was able to look at a garment in a store and go home and make the pattern and put it together, and my mother could do some of that, too. She did a lot of costume designing.”

Kenan did some sewing, too, mostly just for her two daughters (she also has three grown sons). But she surprised herself when she sent some of her early sketches to Michael Thomas, owner of a California-based textile manufacturing company who specializes in working with startups and first-time designers, and got back rave reviews.

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Kenan became ‘Shirley the NEDLady’ because she listened to her friends who struggled to find suitable sportswear for their active lifestyles. Hazel Hulsey (left) and Shirley Kenan.

“He said, ‘This is an absolutely great garment, and it’s like nothing that I’ve ever seen before,’” she recalls. “So I figured maybe I’ve been given some kind of insight that I didn’t even know that I had. Apparently it’s something that comes natural to me.”

Kenan encountered a few setbacks while trying to launch her new clothing line. For starters, the name she had decided perfectly summed up her philosophy, No Expiration Date, had already been trademarked, in part, by a sports apparel company in Mystic, Conn., called No Expiration. After being threatened with a lawsuit, Kenan settled on NEDLady. “It’s catchy: people say I’m Shirley the NEDLady,” she says. “But I still really love No Expiration Date.”

Secondly, Kenan discovered it was hard to find a fabric maker who could provide the materials needed to suit the physiological, as well as the psychological, needs of the changing older body. “Form-fitting, but not too clingy,” she says. “I also wanted fabrics that are flexible, easy care, and don’t have to be pressed.”

After searching for a year and a half, she says, Kenan found her answer in Canada. “They had a warehouse full of this fabric, so I bought a whole bunch.” She found another manufacturer in Huntington Beach who could supply fabrics for other designs, but was turned away by many of the larger mills. “It’s hard to find suppliers that will deal with a small manufacturer like myself,” she says. “You need someone who’ll sell small yardage amounts.”

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