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Loren Wells, who built Bon Worth empire on polyester, dies at age 76

Loren Wells, shown in a Hall of Fame portrait, graduated from Hendersonville High School in 1960. Loren Wells, shown in a Hall of Fame portrait, graduated from Hendersonville High School in 1960.

Loren W. Wells, whose startup business selling ladies smocks and polyester stretch pants out of a plain brick house on Four Seasons Boulevard eventually expanded into a chain of nearly 300 retail outlets, died on Saturday after a period of declining health. He was 76.

 

Wells had suffered from Alzheimers that had become more serious over the past year or so, friends said. He was hospitalized recently after a fall at the assisted living facility where he was living in Brevard and died shortly after his discharge from the hospital.
He is survived by his wife, Keela Lyda Wells, and their daughter, Jingle Wells. The family has not scheduled a memorial service, said Jay Jackson of Jackson Funeral Services, which is handling arrangements.
Wells, a Hendersonville native, grew up in a modest home on U.S. 64 East. A star lineman for the Hendersonville High School Bearcats, Wells won a full scholarship to play at the University of North Carolina, where he earned varsity letters in 1962 and 1963. Wells played guard during some of UNC's most notable seasons in the running game. He blocked for quarterback Junior Edge and cleared paths for All-American fullback Ken Willard. Next to him was center Chris Hanburger, who would go on to become a nine-time All-Pro linebacker for the Washington Redskins and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
After graduating from Carolina in 1963, Wells joined the Army as a second lieutenant, said his close friend, Bub Hyder, and served as a tank commander in the early years of the Vietnam War. After his discharge from the Army, he got a job at a Milliken textile mill in the South Carolina Upstate, where he "learned fabric," as another friend, Gary Jones, put it.

The polyester empire

Wells was still working at the mill when he hatched the idea for a line of clothing that he thought would sell to women over 50, including snowbirds from Florida who liked to pull off I-26 and shop in Hendersonville. In the years ahead, he would build a clothing empire of nearly 300 stores on women’s stretch pants, capitalizing on the easy-care polyester fabric trend of the ’70s and ’80s.
“Where Applebee’s sits today there was a little brick house,” Jones recalled. “Bub’s family owned most all that land behind where the Go store is. It was a cornfield below the road. Bub bought that from his aunt and grew corn on it and he bought that house and rented it to Loren.”
Jones chuckles when he recalls a blazing hot summer day — he thinks it was the Fourth of July — when he rode by the brick house and spotted Loren marching into the house with armloads of merchandise that his mother had sewed. “She was his first seamstress,” Jones said.

“He’s got these pipes and wooden racks and he’s punching holes in all the walls and putting those pipes up from wall to wall. I never will forget it," Jones said. "I pick up one of the pants. I said, ‘Loren, look at this. It’s s--- brown, it’s polyester, if you light a cigarette near it you’re going to burn the house down. All you’ve done is taken a piece of fabric and looped it around and sewed a seam down the side. Nobody’s going to buy that.’”
The bluehairs and snow birds would, Wells said with his trademark wide grin. The stretch pants cost 67 cents to make, he told Jones, and he’d sell them for five times that. “He took it from me and stretched it.”
He had so many pairs of stretch pants he could barely display them all.
“There’s walls in the way,” Wells told Hyder, his friend and landlord. “Can I knock some holes in ’em? Bub said, ‘Loren, you can do whatever you want to because when you’re finished with that house I’m tearing it down,’” Jones said.

Wells was right. Women bought them — by the thousands.
The name of the store — a word suggesting value and quality — came naturally: Worth, which happened to be his father's name and Loren's middle name. Adding his mother's name, Bonnie, in front gave the brand a French cache — Bon Worth.
“He had everybody in town sewing for him,” Jones said. “I went with him one time to Seventh Avenue, where Carolina Specialties is now, and he had a bunch of ladies in there sewing. He just kept opening his stores and he had to have a bigger building for distribution.”
He expanded the production and distribution operations in a building on Thompson Street, near where Lake Pointe Landing is now. Later, he bought the property on Francis Road that was home to Ruth’s Originals, which remains Bon Worth’s corporate headquarters. Wells sold the company in 2013.
“He just made the company grow,” Hyder said. “He had a product women were desiring to have and wherever he put a store up it did very well. He was one of the larger employers of Henderson County at one time, when he was down on Thompson Street. He must have had 300 or 400 people down there.”
Eventually, he outsourced manufacturing to Mexico and other countries.
“He and I bought some land together. He developed a lot of commercial property down in Mexico and he’s got commercial property in several states,” Hyder said. Among the business properties he owned locally is the Hendersonville Crossing shopping center, formerly home to Bi-Lo, which he gave to his daughter about 20 years ago. He and Hyder jointly own the Elks camp property off U.S. 25 near the South Carolina line.
Wells has owned the historic Seely castle on Sunset Mountain in Asheville since 1984. He and Keela stayed there from time to time but used it mainly for an annual Christmas party.
“He told me one day — it was wintertime — I had them come fill up those oil tanks and it cost me $10,000,” Jones said. “I can’t afford to live here.”
Wells liked to golf and hunt. He joined Hyder and other friends on trips out west and once to Alaska, where they shot at “everything that moved.”

Flannel shirts and cowboys boots

Wells was modest about his business success and resisted being the public face of his company. Wells and Jones were on a trip to Florida in the early 1990s when Wells mentioned that he would be opening a store in the largest outlet mall in the Southeast, in South Florida. When Jones asked whether he wanted to attend the grand opening, Wells demurred. He had an executive that handled grand openings and could do a much better job, he said.
“If Loren ever went on ‘What’s My Line?’ — if you put ladies clothing manufacturer, that would be the farthest thing from your mind. And even if he told you, ‘I make ladies clothing,’ you’d say, ‘Nah, that’s not it, you’re lying.’ He was no fashion model himself.”
He was more comfortable in cowboy boots and a flannel shirt.
“He grew up here, went to Carolina, joined the Army and went to Vietnam and he never touched tobacco in any form his entire life and no alcohol ever passed his lips,” Jones said. “He was just the most upbeat, positive, jovial guy. He had the best one liners, quick-witted, smart,” he said. “He’d laugh and smile, I guess he was that way around everybody he liked. Really he wasn’t a big socialite at all.”
Hyder, who built his B&A trucking line and commercial real estate business while Wells expanded to nearly 300 clothing stores, was asked what he’d miss most about his friend.
“Well, I guess his sense of humor and his company,” he said.