Bell Leotards is the next big name in gymnastics fashion
Knoxville-based graphic designer Melanie Bell's leotard designs have been to the Olympics. Now she's got her own line of products disrupting the fashion of gymnastics.
Growing up, Melanie Bell loved five things: ice skating, gymnastics, drawing, pink, and sparkles. Now as an adult, she works with four of those on a daily basis.
“I’m a graphic designer, but also a leotard designer,” said Bell.
After graduating from Carson Newman University with a graphic design degree, Bell’s career took her in a lot of directions designing a lot of things.
“I’ve designed shirts, billboards, flyers, posters, websites, a little bit of everything, but there’s nothing like designing leotards,” she said.
Bell spent several years as the leotard designer of a major company, where her designs could be seen on gymnasts at the Olympic Games and World Championships.
“I always design with paper and pencil first,” she said. “So going from a sketch to a prototype, and then you see it flipping in the air on TV, it’s the wildest thing.”
Bell also liked the challenge and camaraderie that came with this type of design, often working directly with gymnasts and choreographers to make ideas come to life.
“It’s also very challenging because you don’t have a lot of fabric to work with,” she said. “It’s very small and you also have to be considerate of the placement of things. It’s very challenging trying to try to put all of your creativity on this little garment that’s itty bitty and tiny, but it’s so much fun.”
A couple of career moves took her away from the gymnastics world, but even a few years removed while working other graphic design jobs, Bell couldn’t stop thinking about her love of leotards.
“I was talking to my husband about it probably for like the thousandth time, and he said, ‘well, why don’t you do it?’” she said. “I don’t know how to even make that happen and he’s like, ‘well, figure it out.’ And I figured it out, and here we are.”
Bell officially launched Bell Leotards in July 2022, and it’s taken off faster than she could have imagined. “It’s not even a year in yet and I’m already working on my third collection,” she said. That’ll be out later this month.
So what sets Bell’s leotards apart from the big companies like where she used to work? She said it’s that undying love of pink and sparkles.
“I think how bright and vibrant they are. All of my designs are super bright and vibrant and that’s just the vibe that I want because I love to say that it’s one big party,” Bell said. “I want these girls to have the brightest leotards in the game. Anytime they walk into a gym, the heads turn.”
She takes input from her clients and her over 4,000 Instagram followers to make designs gymnasts want that she can be proud of. Bell calls her social media followers her ‘Bell besties.’
“They’re the group of people that have been around from the start,” she said. “I can’t say enough how thankful I am for them, because Bell Leotards wouldn’t be here without them.”
In an effort to grow her new business, Bell applied and was accepted into Cohort 6 of 100Knoxville, an initiative to help double the revenue of local Black-owned businesses through the investment of time, talent, and access to social, political, and financial capital. 100Knoxville’s goal is to help Black-owned businesses in Knoxville grow by $10,000,000 in five years.
“It was amazing to be around people that have the same mindset as me because it’s all about who you’re around, your circle,” said Bell.
The five-week program was grueling, with Bell finding time to do the homework between working her full-time job during the day and packaging orders at night. She said she learned a lot, especially from her assigned mentor, Damon Rawls.
“I would always hear how important it is to have a mentor, but I didn’t really think much about it,” said Bell. “And then I got into that program, and I started working with Damon Rawls, and now I really understand why it’s so important to have a mentor. It was like having someone on the outside looking in. He was amazing to work with.”
She also hit it off with the other four business owners in her cohort. They all finished the program in December but recently met for coffee as a group, and want to keep checking in on each other every few months.
“Entrepreneurship is a different ballgame,” said Bell. “Some people don’t understand it, and some people don’t get it and that’s great, that’s totally fine. But it helps having other people that know what you’re going through.”
Bell has started businesses before, but she knows Bell Leotards is the one that will stick. She’s finally doing what she’s dreamed of – working with pink and sparkles for a living.
“I want to be able to run Bell Leotards and just turn it into the biggest leotard brand. That’s my goal. It’s going to take some time, but we’ll get there,” she said. “I’m going to make it happen.”
Bell is always looking for more ‘Bell besties.’ Follow her on Instagram and check out the leotards for sale on her website.