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SEWN IN THE SOUTH: Jolie & Elizabeth

Designer: Jolie & Elizabeth

From: New Orleans, Louisiana

There’s a trend emerging in Southern fashion, but this one won’t die out after next season. Much like the slow-food movement, designers are enjoying a growing allure to clothing made on a smaller, homegrown level. If stores like Forever 21 are the junk food of fashion, then a new crop of new designers are the artisan bakers and locavore charcutiers of the scene.

At the forefront of this movement in Louisiana are Jolie Bensen and Sarah Dewey, the owners of the clothing label Jolie & Elizabeth. Who exactly wears Jolie & Elizabeth? The type of girl who borrows her mother’s diamond earrings for a first date, who understands the value of high quality clothes but isn’t prissy about it. She’ll go have tea like a lady and take the pirogue out for a sunset excursion, all in the same day. She’s youthful and charming. She might have a bit of a potty mouth, but she still says, “yes, ma’am,” and, “no, sir,” when she needs to. Jolie & Elizabeth designs are classic, but that doesn’t mean boring. Their Spring 2012 season included sophisticated, ladylike silhouettes offset by shocking shades of cobalt, coral, and more subdued creams and slate blue. The Rougelot is a standout piece. The fitted bodice and flared skirt makes for a flattering fit: It’s prim enough to wear to a spring wedding, yet it doesn’t feel stuffy thanks to luxurious chiffon and a beautiful, cut-out back. Seersucker, however, is the label’s signature fabric, offered in an array of styles and colors each year. No matter if it’s served with a side of pearls or kicked-up Chuck Taylors, those puckered stripes are the ubiquitous Southern summer staple. Bensen and Dewey keep the well-worn from going stale by sticking to fresh silhouettes: Slim pencil skirts, timeless wrap dresses, and a dress featuring a trend of the moment—a high/low hem—play off the expected stripes.

After graduating from Louisiana State University with degrees in fashion design, Bensen and Dewey met while working together for BCBG in New York City. The women were determined to make fashion from home, so they chose New Orleans, Bensen’s hometown. With little to no job opportunities outside of retail for fashion designers, they knew they’d have to carve out their own space in the industry in order to see their clothing line succeed. Sketching out designs and whipping up samples was the easy part—finding a factory to manufacture the garments proved challenging. Not wanting to outsource production, in 2009 they found an available factory in New Orleans East that was all but decimated after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the already inadequate levees. The factory specialized in children’s clothing, but had so few orders that the doors were practically closed for good when Bensen and Dewey approached them with their sketches. The factory agreed to produce the line, and a new era of fashion in Orleans Parish began.

While a “Made in Louisiana” label is lovingly stitched into each Jolie & Elizabeth garment, their fashion isn’t for local consumption only: Boutiques across the country are calling in wholesale orders. While there’s at least one other similar production making clothes in the New Orleans area (NOLA Sewn, opened recently by designer Lisa Iacono and seamstress Tam Huynh), Jolie & Elizabeth is the sole design house that mass produces garments and enjoys a nationwide distribution. As Bensen puts it: “Thousands of people throughout Louisiana have the ability to sew and design a single garment—but to conduct a women’s contemporary apparel design business is another world. There is a big difference. And we are happy to lead the way.” Working with venerable retailers Perlis and Rubensteins, the ladies are also developing a skilled-labor program at Delgado Community College. The aim is to provide more workforce in alterations and mass production as well as shed light into the actual manufacturing process.

“The ability to impact New Orleans is huge—we’re always thinking, planning and hoping, dreaming,” Bensen says. Purchasing a product with a “Made in the USA” tag can invoke pride. But “Made in Louisiana”? Isn’t that even better?

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