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New Orleans fashion entrepreneurs make Southern looks sizzle

By Adriana Lopez

Designers Jolie Bensen and Sarah Elizabeth Dewey are the epitome of Southern Belles, and their clothing line Jolie and Elizabeth reflects it: fun, ladylike, and sweet. However, these young entrepreneurs are not just creating pretty dresses, but paving the way for the future of a bourgeoning apparel manufacturing industry in New Orleans.

After moving back to New Orleans from New York City, where they both worked for BCBG Corporate, the two women found a lack of jobs in fashion that would allow them to use their degrees, foster their creativity, and move beyond positions in retail. In true Southern form, Bensen and Dewey commiserated over po-boys and eventually found a way to channel their frustrations into the birth of a clothing line.

Their concept was simple: Start a business with minimal capital that would help them jump-start their careers. Ultimately, however, building their label expanded beyond merely providing jobs for themselves during a time when opportunities were scarce.  They have established a sustainable business that has impacted the local economy in multiple ways.

It starts with the “Made in Louisiana” label sewn inside each garment, reflecting their decision to manufacture all their pieces locally in their eastern New Orleans factory rather than overseas, where the costs are significantly lower.

“Since we create high-quality women’s clothing, it’s important that we’re there for the entire process,” said Dewey, 24, about producing their line locally. “If we outsourced, we would not get to be there for every process that each garment goes through. Quality control is very important to us – from [the production of] each garment to overseeing our entire business.“

Jolie and Elizabeth also share the message of how their Louisiana-based product makes a local impact. They speak to high-school students about the positive effects that a single locally made garment can have on the economy. They also encouraged young talent by allowing one of their interns the opportunity to be a contributing designer for the Jolie and Elizabeth 2011 Fall/Winter collection.  Biaga Rosina, a junior from Sacred Heart, was featured at New Orleans Fashion Week last spring for her contribution to the line.

Her involvement inspired a Junior Designer Contest. Contestants were asked to design and then create a garment, with the winner to be produced under the Jolie and Elizabeth label next spring and sold to retailers across the nation. Young contestants also were asked to describe the details of and inspiration for their garments, a process that mimics that of a professional designer.

The designers value the competition as an integral part of their effort to motivate young, aspiring designers and contribute to the growing apparel manufacturing industry in Louisiana.

“I think that’s the best part about us – it makes us who we are,“ said Bensen, 27, about the teams reasons for keeping everything local. “We get to see so many faces of New Orleans that inspire us -- from women who are wearing our Jolie and Elizabeth pieces-to the high school students we give speeches to to our factory workers who love what they are doing and everything they are sewing.”

The designers also attribute their passion and success to New Orleans itself. The city, they explain, not only encourages entrepreneurialism and creativity, but also celebrates it.  And in a city without an apparel industry, they say, they see the challenge to create one as added motivation.  As entrepreneurs, they see limitless potential in what they can do in the future.

Their advice to other entrepreneurs?

“Reach out for help; don’t think that you can do it on your own. Share your ideas with others.  Through talking with other people, you can only figure out more things about yourself and your idea. You never know who you’ll meet who can compliment your business.”