When Betty Ford first heard that she was about to become First Lady, she popped out to welcome reporters wearing a sprightly, multicolored shirtwaist by designer Frankie Welch of Virginia. Later that day she canceled a doctor's appointment to discuss with Mrs. Welch another topic: her postinaugural plumage.

Frankie Welch is not a national celebrity—yet. But in Washington she ranks as the Perle Mesta of designers. For the past 11 years her cozy boutique in a pre-Revolutionary War Alexandria house has been the gathering spot for political wives—Republicans and Democrats alike. In addition to her own label designs, Frankie carries the latest from higher-priced designers (Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Kasper), as well as quality ready-to-wear clothes and the whole gamut of accessories. "Whatever is the fashion in New York is what I carry here," says the gregarious, Georgia-born shop owner.

Her regular clientele include Mrs. Barry Goldwater Jr., Mrs. Strom Thurmond and Mrs. Charles Percy. Now her most famous customer by far is Mrs. Ford. "She first came in about 10 years ago," says Frankie. "You could tell she had a fashion background. She is adventuresome in fashion as long as it's becoming to her. Her style is tailored—I call it casual elegance. Our prices are sort of middle-of-the-road—$40-$150 is average—and Mrs. Ford does buy some things on sale. The meat of the things she buys are off-the-rack designers, regardless of price but she never goes high, high like $700."

Frankie's signature is her scarves—over 700 in all—and both sides of the political fence have waved Frankie's fabrics. She designed Hubert Humphrey's 1968 HHH scarf, turned out Lady Bird's "Discover America" scarf and then created "Forward Together" for the Nixons—to say nothing of one for Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter (peanuts all over).

With an inside track to the White House (Jerry Ford often stopped by to buy Betty a gift and, notes Frankie, "none was ever returned"), what about advising a Democratic President's wife? "If I designed for just one party it wouldn't be professional," Frankie affirms. "In business you have to be an independent."