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Mom Crush: Four Women Changing Dallas

They do interesting work, possess serious style, and they just so happen to be moms. We took a peek inside their worlds to see how they do it.
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Elizabeth Lavin

Mom Crush: Four Women Changing Dallas

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Hanh Merriman

This fashion icon and blogger inspires us to dress well and pursue our passions.

New York Times street style photographer Bill Cunningham is selective about the people he snaps. But on a trip to Fashion Week this year, Hanh Merriman made the cut. Cunningham photographed her wearing a mix of Jean Paul Gaultier, Rick Owens, and Comme des Garçons. The famously circumspect photographer even threw in a compliment.

That Hanh considers this “a moment I will adore forever” underscores a reverence for fashion that goes back to her childhood in rural Vietnam, when her reward for perfect grades was a trip to the city to see the latest clothes. Suffice it to say, she studied relentlessly.

In 1994, Hanh moved to Dallas to reunite with her family and study business management. She also took a job at a salon. There, a client introduced her to, winemaker Mike Merriman, and after two years of his mannered persistence, Hanh agreed to a lunch date. They married in 2000, and have two daughters, 8-year-old Chloe and 10-year-old Emma.

Both girls possess their mother’s eye for fashion, mixing styles and sketching outfits they’d someday like to create. On mother/daughter shopping pilgrimages Hanh encourages them to “buy only what you really love, don’t settle for something you just like, no matter the price.”

When Hanh isn’t talking fashion, she’s playing badminton with the girls (their favorite pastime) or cooking weekly Saturday feasts for her extended family of more than 20. She also plans learning trips for the family, seeing “vacation as a time for the girls to get excited about new things.” They’ve made pasta in Venice, taken acting classes in New York, and watched whales in Vancouver.

Three years ago, Hanh launched her blog, Life in Travel, to chronicle her dual passions. Posts featuring her artful ensembles are shown alongside images of the family hiking and picking cherries in Portland. In fashion and life, she says, “You have to play and be adventurous, but not take it too seriously. Fashion is fun, but family is what’s really important.”

Kayli House Cusick

This creative powerhouse inspires us to tap into our inner artist.

Kayli House Cusick sits at the piano in her cozy Oak Cliff bungalow playing Mozart’s Sonata in B Flat Major. “I haven’t played this in forever, so I’m rusty,” she says between notes. Whether she’s running her Oak Cliff art collective, Oil and Cotton, with business partner Shannon Driscoll or keeping up with her 4-year-old daughter, Katy Rose, Kayli doesn’t have much time to practice complex piano pieces from her grad school days. Still, there’s magic happening here, and it fills the room.

Kayli graduated from Booker T. Washington, studied music, math, and physics at Reed College in Portland, and did a stint writing speeches for traffic engineers before obtaining a master’s degree in music composition at the University of North Texas. She then decamped to Manhattan, where she taught piano and met her future husband, artist Matt Cusick. Matt and Kayli married in 2007, and one month later, Kayli was pregnant with Katy Rose and the couple was headed to Dallas for the summer so Matt could prepare for an upcoming show.

They didn’t intend to stay, but before long Kayli and Matt were putting down roots in Oak Cliff, where she planned to “be a mom and teach piano.” A chance encounter with Shannon while volunteering at a pop-up art studio during Oak Cliff’s 2009 Better Block initiative changed things. The women connected over the two days spent helping visitors create art, and they set out to open a permanent space based on the concept.

Today, Oil and Cotton is one of the city’s more treasured creative resources. Kayli teaches piano and art at the studio and works with Shannon to oversee a bulging roster of classes, camps, and workshops for children and adults, ranging from drawing to screen printing and Shibori dyeing. “I get to do music, art, design, business—all the things I love,” Kayli says. “I see this rubbing off on Katy Rose. When I ask her what she wants to be when she grows up, she says a doctor, a chef, and a mother. She wants to wear more than one hat. I’d like to think that comes from how she sees me.”


Kimberly Schlegel Whitman

This author and lifestyle expert inspires us to bring back manners.

A preternaturally poised colleague once commented that being in the presence of Kimberly Schlegel Whitman makes her want to “take things up a notch.”

So mannered and gracious is the author, editor, philanthropist, television personality, and mother of 4-year-old JR that even women who possess those same qualities are impressed and inspired by her.

Kimberly hails from Canada. She moved to Dallas with her family as a child, and the combined influences of those places—Canadian friendliness and Southern manners—are at the core of her appeal. The SMU graduate is warm, approachable, and unfailingly polite, whether serving as past chair of the North Texas Food Bank’s Food for Kids program, creating a canine birthday party for one of her six books on entertaining, or dispensing lifestyle tips on the Today Show.

In a job seemingly tailor-made for her, Kimberly now has a new audience to woo as co-host of Texas Living, a one-hour daily live show focusing on community and lifestyle.

For work and play, Kimberly travels a lot. To manage her relentless schedule, she swears by a wardrobe of classic dresses. “I have been known to wear the same thing over and over because I often don’t have time to think in the morning. The thought of having to put a top with a bottom stresses me out,” she says.

Kimberly’s glamorous lifestyle is well balanced with low-key family activities. She says she’s happiest when hanging out with her “boys,” JR and husband Justin, exploring their neighborhood on leisurely, afternoon bike rides or going on nature walks.

The commonly sited but infinitely wise maxim, “The days are long, but the years are short. Make the most of them,” is always at the forefront of Kimberly’s mind. This is perhaps best demonstrated in what she calls her “most beloved tradition,” her family’s annual summer vacation to a tiny Canada town with a population of 950. “This slow family time is my idea of bliss,” she says. “We eat big meals, read, play games, go on walks, and just decompress. I can’t think of anything better.”

Paula Minnis

This entrepreneur and earth mother inspires us to lend a hand to our fellow women.

Infant twins, two tweens, and a couple of dogs is not exactly a formula for a chill afternoon, but somehow the vibe is just that at the Minnis household. Music plays, glasses of cold drinks sweat onto their coasters, and piñon incense burns. It’s decidedly mellow, not unlike the woman at the center, Paula Minnis.

Paula is well-versed at managing seemingly overwhelming situations. She was vice president of brand development for a retail services company, overseeing some 200 people. But before marrying her husband, Todd, in 2008, she paused to reassess. “I was burned out by the nonstop travel and the high-pressure job,” she says. “I wanted to make a home for Todd, Genevieve, and Will” (Todd’s children from a previous marriage).

On leave from work, Paula took piano and art lessons, and began creating a more environmentally friendly home. She and a group of friends also explored starting a charity aimed at aiding women.

Things clicked when Paula began mentoring refugees through the International Rescue Committee. One afternoon, she was helping her mentee, Catherin, learn English, when the image of a thimble prompted Catherin to reveal that she knew how to sew. “In that moment, the pieces just fell into place,” Paula says. “The concept for Gaia was born.”

Through Gaia, Paula provides work directly to the refugees she mentored. They craft accessories out of vintage fabrics and receive a living wage. The women are able to purchase their own sewing equipment from Paula over time, allowing them to take on additional work. And by using repurposed materials, Gaia celebrates her environmental commitment.

Gaia is now a thriving enterprise with five employees who create accessories sold at stores like Neiman Marcus and Forty Five Ten, structured around a model that allows for balance, especially crucial as Paula and Todd welcomed twins Gabriella and Charlie in March.

“The household hums with activity,” Paula says, “but this is my dream. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”