By Lauren Donia
Editors' note - This piece originally ran on 9/7/12. In honor of this week's New Orleans Fashion Week we've re-posted it.Both Jolie & Elizabeth and Blackout are NOLA Fashion Week featured designers.
Fashion designer Sarah Dewey recalls a September 2009 lunch in New Orleans with her friend and former boss, Jolie Bensen. The two had met when they were both working at BCBG in New York City. Dewey and Bensen both had ties to the south and independently of each other, they moved to New Orleans. It was during this lunch that the two women decided to team up and create a women’s fashion line.
“We both wanted to get involved in a fashion industry that did not exist,” Dewey explained. “We decided to blaze a trail and hoped people would follow.”
‘Jolie & Elizabeth,’ dubbed a “classic Southern women’s apparel line,” launched at the beginning of 2010 and a year later, New Orleans Fashion Week debuted. An industry trail had been blazed in a new city.
Women’s designer Ashlie Ming, for one, was pleased to have that trail ready for her.
When Ming was growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, she believed the only way she could pursue her dream of working in the fashion industry was to move to New York City or Los Angeles. When it came time for college, Ming left her home and headed west to L.A. where she attended the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising.
Ming eventually decided to move back to the south and assumed she’d have to give up her fashion aspirations, but then she learned about New Orleans Fashion Week and the New Orleans Fashion Council. Ming realized a move to New Orleans might not actually be a step away from realizing her dreams, but instead a step towards it. She recently started her own brand, Blackout, and hopes to complete her Spring 2013 collection by this coming February.
To an onlooker, especially one who does not live in the Big Easy, a New Orleans fashion industry may seem surprising. Here is a city that was nearly demolished just seven years ago last week, and not only has it rebounded, but it’s coming back stronger and in new ways.
For the crop of new designers getting their start in New Orleans, the city is not just home to business headquarters, where designs are being born, but also where the garments are being manufactured.
When we asked Jolie & Elizabeth’s Dewey why having “Made in New Orleans” on the label is important to her, she offered several reasons. She mentioned that the relationship she and her partner have with the seamstresses and others who work in the factory is irreplaceable; that it’s important to the community; that the brand, office, and company cultures are important to them. If they were making their clothes anywhere else, it would not be the same – Jolie & Elizabeth would not be the same.
While Dewey is contractually obligated to not disclose the name of the garment factory that produces their pieces, she does mention that the local factory was working only at partial capacity and the added business from the burgeoning line allowed it to get to full capacity.
Ming’s response hits similar notes: “I like to be so involved in everything, I can run to them at any time and address problems myself. I work with them and talk to them, we have a great working relationship,” she said.
NOLA Sewn, a factory that is not yet two years old, produces Blackout. While the workforce of the factory expands and contracts with demand for garments, it has been holding steady with a staff of 12.
“Everyone there had to fight and build this because it didn’t exist after Katrina,” Ming said of the staff at NOLA Sewn. “Everyone is giving 110% all the time. They’re easy to work with and the quality blows away anything I’ve ever seen.”
Quality. It’s a word both Ming and Dewey repeat many times during our discussions. Both women stress the quality of New Orleans' craftsmanship and how durable it makes their pieces. Dewey is confident that the quality of a Jolie & Elizabeth piece means its owner will be able to wear it for years to come.
It’s worth noting that Dewey and Benson’s Jolie & Elizabeth, and Ming’s Blackout are aesthetically different.
Dewey describes Jolie & Elizabeth as “appropriate, respectable dresses.” She says the key is fit. The designers focus their efforts on getting a chic, A-line fit, and worry much less about runway trends. While they may keep abreast of the trending colors of a season, you won’t find any chain-metal or man-made fabrics in their clothing. They use durable materials, like cotton and silk.
Despite the differences in lines and cuts, what’s on the label is the same, and so is the inspiration. Both women mention being inspired by the sites and sounds of their city. Dewey says Jolie & Elizabeth reflects the weather and events a Southern woman may find. Ming finds inspiration in the color, music, and unique people of the area. She says, “There is no one cookie cutter image for fashion or art in New Orleans.”
And does that “Made in New Orleans” label benefit the companies who display it? Dewey and Ming both say yes.
While Dewey stresses that she and Benson do not make “Made in New Orleans” the key selling point for Jolie & Elizabeth, they know it helps.
“People will keep coming back for the great fit, (Made in New Orleans) is the cherry on the cake,” Dewey says.
Ming’s apparel is not yet for sale, but she says the Made in New Orleans label has helped open doors. She’s found people to be more supportive of her when they find out her garments are being made locally. Ming says people are willing to pay more, and to give her a chance when they know her clothes are creating jobs and generally helping the city grow.
And maybe that’s the point.
New Orleans’s nascent fashion industry embraces its sense of community. Not only do designers have a support network of their peers, the fashion council, and their fashion week, they also have a city that is ready to be known for something far beyond a devastating natural disaster.
The Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM) has gone on record countless times stressing the importance of American manufacturing to the U.S. economy, especially as it relates to growing the middle class. Designers and garment makers in New Orleans are proving this to be true. When the designers have their pieces made locally, they not only keep people employed (or create new jobs), but they also strengthen their brands by giving consumers an extra reason to buy the clothes.
Photos provided by Ashlie Ming and Sarah Dewey. Photo information on Flickr Page.