Bellwethr Magazine

Southern Comfort

A big city and a bond over seersucker fabric led two women to launch their made-in-America dress line.

WORDS BY Kathleen Rubino // ART BY Ally Balcerzak

It all started with a seersucker dress — made of light-woven cotton fabric, ideal for the spring and summer weather. Jolie Bensen, 30, and Sarah Elizabeth Dewey, 27, met while working together at BCBG, a trendy New York brand known for its contemporary style. They bonded over working on the only seersucker dress in that season’s lineup and noticed a gap in the dress market. Both being New Orleans natives, they appreciated the fabric’s flare and believed the material’s distinctive qualities would translate beyond the Mason-Dixon Line. Their New Orleans heritage and belief in the fabric served as the catalysts for Jolie & Elizabeth, their business that launched in 2009 at the height of the economic recession.

“We didn’t really look at the economic recession as far as being a threat,” Bensen says. “We thought there was a market for Southern dresses.”

They were right. Bensen says they’ve made more than 10,000 dresses in total and pumped more than $420,000 into the New Orleans economy through payments to their 15 to 20 factory workers. They expanded this year to include bridesmaid dresses, and J&E clothes are currently sold in boutiques in 14 states, including Texas, Vermont, and Ohio.

Bensen and Dewey started small and built up. “We actually went to the library and read as many books as we could about how to start a business,” Bensen says. “There were a lot of companies that were privately funded, but there wasn’t really two young girls who started on their own without private funding, without investors, without crowd funding.”

“We’re not trying to overtake the retail world, but we are doing what we can to make a successful American-made young company,” Bensen says.

From the start, Bensen and Dewey decided against manufacturing overseas. Instead, they keep everything within American borders from the shipping boxes and printing companies to the fabric from New York and zippers from Chicago. They found their factory in New Orleans — 20 minutes from their office — working at half capacity since Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans was the ideal location, known for its rich manufacturing history and prominence of Mardi Gras balls and debutantes.

“We’re not trying to overtake the retail world, but we are doing what we can to make a successful American-made young company,” Bensen says.

Dewey says they use e-commerce to reach a wider audience. In the beginning, they didn’t open a storefront, because few people knew the brand. Instead, they sell in boutiques. Professor Tony Frontera, who teaches at Binghamton University’s School of Management, calls merging e-commerce with brick and mortar stores a big business trend. “It creates a competitive advantage by using the strengths of both,” he says. “Opening your own retail store is a whole different game. What they’re doing is smart.”

E-commerce offers the convenience of shopping from home and avoiding traffic obstacles, while physical stores allow consumers to see the product, try it on, and ask questions. Combining the two also helps businesses overcome the disadvantages of both. For example, if an item isn’t in stock at a store, customers can order online.

Both Dewey and Bensen design the dresses. Each season, there’s a two-week period of intense design. Sometimes they revamp the oldies — altering hems or necklines — other times they combine parts of different dresses, or they start fresh. Customer feedback helps the process too. “People will comment on our Instagram or Twitter, and tell us what they want to see more of or what they don’t,” Bensen says. “Because we are the age of our customers, it’s easy to visualize.”

Bensen and Dewey also hope to inspire young designers with their JE Junior Design Challenge founded in 2011, which asks high school and college students to submit designs.

J&E clothing ranges in price from skirts for $45 to formal dresses for $349, though most dresses cost between $99 and $200. “I think we aim to design dresses for everyone from your sister’s age to your grandma’s age to wear and to have for years to come as an investment,” Bensen says.

“We train models who look like they will be your best friend, not steal your boyfriend,” Bensen says.

Laura Flannery, the owner’s assistant at Hemline Chartes in New Orleans, which carries Jolie & Elizabeth, says the boutique’s best-sellers are the high-neck, cinched-waist, pleated Jackie ($99, in silk or seersucker), the Katie ($188) reversible halter dress, and the Carolina Seersucker ($196) with a slight V-neck front and back. “They’re so Southern with a New Orleans flare you can’t find anywhere else,” Flannery says. “Everyone in New Orleans is wearing the seersucker. It’s a Southern trend.”

Lindsey Morrison, a jewelry sales representative at Maureen Shinners LLC, which does merchandising, says fashion is becoming more conservative and classic, favoring Southern styles. “When people wear the seersucker fabric, they feel like they are living up to a standard,” Morrison says. “It’s more the mentality of the Southern lifestyle that makes people want to wear these clothes. The vibe seersucker gives off makes it so trendy.”

Because there are few Southern modeling agencies that fit the J&E mold, working women model their clothing. Bensen says it’s easy to find beautiful women doing their day-to-day jobs. “We train models who look like they will be your best friend, not steal your boyfriend,” Bensen says.

Bensen and Dewey started with seersucker, but they keep rolling out ideas. They’re currently designing resort wear. “So many people want our spring and summer styles earlier, so we’re going to do a whole collection for that,” Bensen says. “It’s fun, and it’s a challenge to always keep the factory occupied. Keep on going is our main thing.”

Jolie and Elizabeth's one-of-a-kind dresses are a mix comfort and class, making them go-to choices for everything from weddings to first dates. PHOTO BY JENNIFER LIOY.
Jolie and Elizabeth's one-of-a-kind dresses are a mix comfort and class, making them go-to choices for everything from weddings to first dates. PHOTO BY JENNIFER LIOY.
8

READERS' PICKS

  • Paradise Pictured

    WORDS BY Ashley Branch

    The newest trend in travel, selfie hotels, encourages everyone to snap a great vacation.

  • 7 Best Millennial Suburbs

    WORDS BY Lauren Boudreau

    On the quest for cheap rent and cultural diversity, 20-somethings are reinventing the burbs. Here are seven of the nation’s finest.

  • ‘Wethr Report

    WORDS BY Chris Landers

    What to read, watch, and listen to now.