Made in Louisiana
When Jolie Bensen, 27, graduated from LSU in 2006 with a degree in apparel design, she had big dreams of leaving her native New Orleans behind and making her mark on the fashion industry in New York. And that's exactly how things began to play out. She started her career at Betsy Johnson and then worked at BCBG for three years, where she soaked up knowledge on design, branding, and vertical integration from CEO Max Azria. It seemed as if her dream had come true.
"During my trips home to New Orleans, of course I noticed the post-Katrina entrepreneurial activity going on," says Benson. "But when I'd go back to LSU to give speeches to the apparel design program there, I noticed a huge problem—girls I graduated with working at the mall, working in retail, and letting their degrees go to waste. It was heartbreaking." It occurred to her that she could work in the fashion industry for years, jetting between New York and Los Angeles, and never have a fraction of the impact she might have if she took her talent and ambition back home to Louisiana. For her, the equation was simple: fabric + manufacturing = company.
It wasn't quite that simple, of course. Then, as now, Bensen’s big vision was not just to create her own apparel design company, but to plant the seeds for a southern-based fashion industry that would allow young women like her to pursue their dreams closer to home. She teamed up with Sarah Elizabeth Dewey, 24, a Dallas native who was her intern at BCBG, and the two southern girls headed to New Orleans in February of 2009.
They called their company Jolie & Elizabeth, and funded it with their own savings plus seed money from an investor they found online (who they would later buy out). From the beginning, they knew they wanted all of their apparel to be manufactured in the south, so they began by using contract sewers in Dallas. A search for a closer manufacturing facility unearthed a half-empty factory in New Orleans East, but the company, which made intricately embroidered children's clothing, was on its last legs, having been beaten down by Hurricane Katrina. "Before Katrina, they were doing $5.6 million in sales, but they lost every sewing machine," says Bensen. "They were going to shut down on a Friday and we begged them for an appointment on Monday." She suspects the owners, an older couple, were won over by youthful enthusiasm, as well as the promise of a new revenue source. Thanks to the partnership that evolved, every item of Jolie & Elizabeth clothing has a "Made in Louisiana" label sewn into it.
With Benson as the primary designer and Dewey handling sales and marketing, the two initially went into production with no orders. Local boutiques resisted the overtures of the two young women, who pitched stores on Magazine Street with dress samples packed in their cars. But a mention in Daily Candy saved the day and their first collection, Spring 2010, sold out online. Three boutiques signed on, and over the next year, another 30 would follow; the company tripled its production, now has distribution in twelve states, and has broken even on every collection. Benson expects revenues to be well into six figures this year.
A year and a half after launching, Jolie & Elizabeth's manufacturer employs 40 people and is going strong. Benson sweetens the deal with home-baked cookies and brownies every Friday. "We've developed a great relationship with them," she says. "And we've set up a program where we can now also handle other designers' production at the factory.” Now that their own company is on solid footing, Bensen and Dewey are hoping to support and encourage other young designers. They created a Junior Design Challenge contest, asking students at southern universities to submit designs for a seersucker dress. The winners, from Savannah and New Orleans, will see their designs go into production under the Jolie & Elizabeth label next spring. "Our five year goal is to have groups of designers under our label," says Bensen. "It's about teaching girls to take their talent and degree and to make that into a job for themselves. We want to start a workshop that will teach them about branding and how to make dresses sellable."
Bensen and Dewey seem to have mastered that. They keep their price points under $200, use local students and young professionals as models, and talk constantly to their retailers and their customers. "We're very hands-on with everything," says Dewey. "We aren't caught up in the world of New York, where you're constantly comparing yourself to every other company. We listen to what girls want, and they want a dress they can keep in their closet for a long time."
DONNA FENN | Inc.com Contributing Editor
Donna Fenn is the author of Upstarts! How GenY Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit From Their Success, an exploration of the ways Gen Y is changing the entrepreneurial landscape.