Dressed Up And Places To Go

May 31, 2019

Local woman works for nationally acclaimed designer

By Lisa Savage

Combs works on fitting a gown to a dress form at Heidi Elnora Atelier in Birmingham.
Combs works on fitting a gown to a dress form at Heidi Elnora Atelier in Birmingham.

Carolyn Combs learned how to sew in her high school home economics class, and the skill came in handy after her children were born. She made most of their clothes because they were so small, and she made her own patterns so the clothes would fit.

Now, almost 50 years later, the Fyffe woman still produces patterns and works for nationally acclaimed wedding gown designer Heidi Elnora.
Combs started sewing in local manufacturing plants, and eventually her self-taught pattern-making skills led to top industry jobs in Chattanooga and at Carter’s in Atlanta. That’s where she met Elnora, an assistant designer. Combs is old enough to be Elnora’s mother, but they connected.

“From day one, Carolyn has been nothing but a blessing to me and my company. I would not be the designer or person I am today without her,” Elnora says.

Combs loved helping with Elnora’s creations and began working for her in 2004, crafting the patterns from Elnora’s sketches and stitching the dresses. “Over the past 14 years, she has not just been an employee of mine, but a mom, sister and very best friend. She has an incredible talent and work ethic,” Elnora says. “She is truly a diamond in the rough.”

Elnora, a graduate of Savannah College of Art and Design, auditioned and made the cut for the reality TV show “Project Runway” in 2005. The following year, she returned to her hometown of Birmingham and created her company, Heidi Elnora.
For the first few years, Combs’ father was sick, and she worked from her home — located between Geraldine and Fyffe — so she could take care of him. Elnora lived in Birmingham, and the two would meet in the parking lot at Walmart in Springville to exchange the dresses Combs made, along with fabric for the next ones.

“I went by Heidi’s sketches and the measurements she would send me,” Combs says. By 2008, Elnora had created her first specialty line, Build-A-Bride, giving brides about 20 interchangeable options in one set. NBC’s “Today” featured the line in 2016.

Nordstrom placed the first big order by 2011, and by 2015, the reality TV show “Bride by Design” featured Heidi Elnora designs. “During filming, we worked nonstop,” Combs says. “We built 20 dresses in eight weeks. It was interesting to see all that went on behind the scenes.”

For the last three days of filming, Elnora and the crew worked all night. “It was hard, but it was also a lot of fun,” Combs says. “It was a challenge, and I’ve always loved a challenge.”

Facing Challenges

Combs grew up mostly in Louisiana as her father, J.B. Selby, followed work on the oil rigs. Her mother, Fay Overton Selby, and the kids went with him until the family returned to DeKalb County when Combs started 10th grade. After high school, she married Jimmy “Trigger” Combs, and they have two children.

Life was challenging. She had planned to quit as the kids got older, but her husband lost his job at the steel plant in Rainsville. So, she kept working.

“I could sew with my eyes closed,” she says. “All I wanted to do was go faster. I was stuck in a rut.” She convinced her supervisor to let her try her hand at pattern making, and she found a niche.

Her creativity shines through her hobbies, which include making wedding cakes, crocheting, creating pantyhose dolls, gardening and panning for gold, to name a few. “I’ve done all kinds of things on the side,” she says. “I like a challenge, so I like to figure out new ways to do things.”

At Heidi Elnora, Combs often helps solve problems, from alterations to new designs. That’s one reason she has loved it so. “I have told all the younger girls to do everything you can to learn all you can,” Combs says. “Having a challenge and finding a way to meet it and seeing Heidi succeed have been my reward.”

The Heidi Elnora Brand

The reputation for quality and originality of the Heidi Elnora brand has caught the attention of several high-profile individuals. Combs had a hand in making country music star Sara Evans’ runway gown for the red carpet at the Country Music Awards a few years ago. She also helped with the wedding dress for one of Nick Saban’s daughters.

Heidi Elnora gowns are recognized for simplicity, fine attention to detail and a warm, feminine touch. They reflect the company’s commitment to quality construction. The team of artisans at Heidi Elnora, including Combs, has a hand in each detail to ensure it reflects the bride’s personality while maintaining the simplicity and beauty associated with Heidi Elnora designs. Elnora opened Heidi Elnora Atelier, a shop on historic Morris Avenue in downtown Birmingham, in March 2016.

Some dresses are designed specifically for the bride, but she also has a variety of dresses available for purchase online and at the shop.

One of Elnora’s designs is called the Evergreen Howard, named for Combs’ grandmother, a half-Cherokee Indian. The design is now retired. “That was special,” she says.

It’s been fun for Combs through the years, and she doesn’t know how much longer she is willing to drive to Birmingham.  “I’ve told Heidi that I’m not driving to Birmingham when I’m 70, and that’s next year,” Combs says.

Regardless of how much longer Combs works, it’s been quite a ride. “The Lord’s been good to me,” she says. “I’ve been fortunate to work with Heidi and do something I love.”

This story appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of FTC Connection.

Dressed Up And Places To Go magazine article