By Tori Phelps
Photography by Andrew Alwert
It’s not your typical love story, but it’s a love story nonetheless. In this version, two like-minded fashion designers discover a shared passion for style that won’t make your mother blush and for bringing the “Made in America” label back into vogue. By all accounts, it’s the feel-good story of the year.
Sisters of the South
Like any good fashion story, this one begins in New York City—at BCBG, the largest women’s contemporary apparel design company in the world, to be exact. It was here that New Orleans natives Jolie Bensen and Sarah Elizabeth Dewey met, worked together for the first time, and eventually discovered they had more in common than an ability to sew a straight line. Bensen, whose job at BCBG included a lead role in the internship program, immediately felt a connection to new intern Dewey. “I loved recruiting girls from the South, as they seemed the most dedicated and hardworking,” Bensen admits. “One of those girls was Sarah Elizabeth. She left quite an impression because she stayed late to finish projects and was very detail oriented in her work.”
Dewey says their first meeting left quite an impression on her as well. “After my interview, one employee came running up, saying, ‘Is this the intern from Louisiana!’ That was Jolie.”
Two like-minded fashion designers discover a shared passion for style that won’t make your mother blush and for bringing the “Made in America” label back into vogue.
During the internship, the two worked together closely but eventually went their separate ways. Dewey returned to LSU to finish her degree, while Bensen signed on at Alice + Olivia, a smaller dress design company that provided her with a different perspective of the industry.
Though they received the education of a lifetime in NYC, each felt a similar dissatisfaction with the New York-or-bust design mindset. “After graduation, I traveled back to New York City for interviews, but something just didn’t seem right about being there,” Dewey says. “I truly wanted to stay in the South, to move to New Orleans, and be part of all the amazing things that were happening there.”
Bensen could have told her that would be impossible—if she wanted to stay in fashion design, that is. Bensen frequently returned to New Orleans to give speeches at various fashion programs, knowing full well that, if they didn’t move to New York or Los Angeles, most of the fashion students to whom she was speaking had few job prospects other than retail.
A catch-up lunch in 2009 between two old friends and colleagues would forever change that reality—as well as the course of their lives. Both in New Orleans for the first time in years, Bensen and Dewey discussed disappointments from their experiences in New York City and their frustrations with the nonexistent apparel industry in New Orleans, and then they kicked around the outrageous notion of launching their own line—in New Orleans. Whoa. “I had no intention of starting my own label,” Bensen says, “but within minutes of that lunch with Sarah Elizabeth, the idea was born.”
That idea became Jolie & Elizabeth.
It was an eyebrow-raising move, to be sure, but it felt right because the former coworkers immediately clicked—again—from their similar experiences in wholesale, retail, and design to their proud Southern roots and their assessment that there was something missing from the fashion landscape. “Eighty percent of women’s contemporary apparel comes from New York or Los Angeles,” Bensen explains. “We wanted to offer dresses of better quality, with a Southern sophistication. And seersucker—definitely seersucker.”
New Orleans is practically the third partner in Jolie & Elizabeth. Whether it’s the attitude and outlook embodied by the city’s residents or their wholehearted support of new entrepreneurs within their community, it’s the perfect fit for Bensen and Dewey. “We always say we would never want to or could do what we do in any other city,” Dewey says.
Bensen and Dewey pride themselves on having one of the only—if not the only—vertically integrated fashion houses in the South, meaning they design, create, work, and ship from the same place. Even the factory is only thirty minutes from their office. “We’re inspired by New Orleans and the South: the parties, the climate … everything about it. You can see this inspiration in all of our designs, so it only made sense to do our production here,” Dewey adds.
Being “Made in America” isn’t a nice quirk of fate: it’s something the Jolie & Elizabeth founders planned from the beginning. Rather than just making pretty dresses, they were determined to stand for something; they wanted to create a business that was about more than just a garment and that would funnel dollars right back into the local and national economy. Unfortunately, not many fashion companies can say the same anymore.
While other lines outsource to keep costs down, the duo believes this “irresponsible” approach is beginning to wear thin with the American public. Much like the movement to eat locally, there’s a growing awareness that buying apparel made close to home eliminates the sweatshop-or-not uncertainty that is inherent in overseas products. After all, it’s tough to enjoy a new dress if you’re concerned about the working conditions of the people who made it. “We’re very proud to be at the forefront of this shift to Made in America,” Bensen says. “We hope to continue being pioneers in this movement.”
Style with R-E-S-P-E-C-T
If designer duds have one flaw, it’s their lack of wearability. Haute couture may be fun to look at, but can you imagine actually wearing it? For most women, the answer is a resounding no. Your first clue that Jolie & Elizabeth is different should have been the word “seersucker.” They did indeed launch the company with seersucker, and even now, with the debut of the line’s fourth spring/summer collection, that material remains its key fabrication. The simple reason, according to Bensen: “We aim to design dresses that both your grandmother and your boyfriend will approve of—and that won’t trigger a feeling of regret years later.”
It’s almost impossible to create something genuinely different in the fashion world, but Jolie & Elizabeth has introduced legions of fans to something the designers call “respectful wear.” Rather than up-to-here hemlines and down-to-there necklines, it’s about a little more sleeve coverage or a to-the-knee hemline—features mandatory in a garment that can be worn absolutely anywhere.
That versatility is essential for today’s crazy-busy women, a lifestyle to which Bensen and Dewey can relate. Lots to accomplish? Check. Still want to be stylish? Oh, yeah. With a brand philosophy that’s feminine yet confident, classic yet inventive, it’s no wonder they’ve struck a chord. “We’re inspired by women of all ages and want to make them feel beautiful,” Dewey says. “We don’t pay attention to trends; we only incorporate elements you can wear season to season and event to event.”
Because their designs are timeless, some receive only small tweaks from season to season and keep flying off the racks to happy customers. These are the designs that, as Dewey puts it, “will just not quit”—styles that buyers and direct customers beg to be brought back, styles that some women have in four different colors.
Perhaps because they believe each dress has a persona of its own, each dress gets a name of its own. But before the next Adelaide, Kennedy, or Jackie gets a moniker, inspiration has to strike. That flash may come from a sketch or a bolt of fabric or a conversation between the two designers. “Sarah Elizabeth has an incredible eye for color, while my strength is in the overall design of the dress,” explains Bensen.
Perhaps because they believe each dress has a persona of its own, each dress gets a name of its own.
When the design is finally sewn, the head seamstress at their factory patterns the garment, and then it’s produced in mass quantities for wholesale accounts and website stock. It sounds like a simple prospect, but it’s usually about six months from a collection’s design to its debut, which means the Jolie & Elizabeth duo experience constant whiplash. With a strict schedule that includes not only design, but also production, photo shoots, and more, Bensen and Dewey scramble between two or even three seasons on any given day.
It’s certainly hectic, but their shared work ethic has led to some pretty big things in the three short years since the line’s launch—like a feature on Forbes.com that spotlighted the highs and lows of their entrepreneurial adventure. Quite an honor, Bensen and Dewey agree. “When it first came out, we read it and then sat back and marveled at how much we’ve accomplished,” Bensen says. “When you’re in the middle of the day-in, day-out grind, you rarely think to look around at all you’ve done; you just keep moving forward. To have such a prestigious publication acknowledge our hard work is an incredible feeling, but it’s even better to have an amazing business partner and friend to share it with.”
Not surprisingly, the design team is big on setting goals, and their five-year plan includes having an in-store presence in every state, as well as in countries such as New Zealand, Australia, and the UK. They also hope to hold more workshops for young, aspiring designers.
Their recent foray into bridesmaids’ dresses may be part of the long-term picture, too. What started as a favor for one of Dewey’s friends caught on like wildfire, with newly engaged friends of the designers—as well as complete strangers—lining up to request their services. If they’re surprised, they shouldn’t be. Jolie & Elizabeth dresses flatter many different figures, come in classic shapes, and are well made and well priced. For once, bridesmaids really will wear their dresses over and over after the wedding.
Their “little company that could” now has a well-documented record of success, and the founders’ profiles have never been higher. But the accolades aren’t what motivate Bensen and Dewey. Rather, their goal today is the same as it was the day they sat down to lunch and then stood up as partners: to create timeless, high-quality pieces that customers will have in their closets for years. The rest, says Dewey, is just icing. “Seeing women in our dresses is still the greatest feeling in the world. That’s when I feel most successful.”
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A special thanks to Sucré, The Roosevelt Hotel New Orleans, and Domenica Restaurant for their cooperation with VIE to grant photography at some of Jolie Bensen and Sarah Elizabeth Dewey’s favorite places in New Orleans.