Is Manufacturing the New Black?
For years, news about the manufacturing sector in the U.S. has been bleak, punctuated by tales of factory closings and outsourced production. But in the beginning of January, the Labor Department offered a little glimmer of hope. It seems that manufacturing companies have been adding jobs for the past two years. No, we’ll never beat China when it comes to stocking the shelves with mass produced commodities at Walmart, but we do a pretty good job of turning out high-quality goods for niche markets. And guess what? The “Made in America” label is increasingly enticing to consumers, and can be a competitive edge for entrepreneurial companies.
Take, for instance, New Orleans-based Jolie & Elizabeth, started by Jolie Bensen, 28, and Sarah Elizabeth Dewey, 24, two southern girls who met at BCBG in Manhattan. When the two decided to start their own company, they hit the road for Bensen’s home turf of New Orleans—far from the hyper-competitive fashion scene in New York and Los Angeles. With Bensen as the chief designer and Dewey handling sales and marketing, the two launched their line in the Spring of 2010 with help from a manufacturing partner in New Orleans East. “The factory was really hurt by Katrina and was about to shut down,” recalls Bensen. “We begged them to let us help them.” The owners agreed and the young partners got cracking on their first line.
Today, says Bensen, Jolie & Elizabeth, which makes feminine, functional dresses with a Southern-girl flair, is “one of the only completely vertically integrated clothing companies in the South.” The company has six-figure revenues, a growing network of retailers and, say the partners, a strong commitment to remaining in New Orleans—where their dresses now account for 45 percent of production at their manufacturing facility. “At BCBG, we saw that if you wanted to change something minor, you just couldn’t get it done,” says Bensen, referring to the downside of manufacturing overseas. “And if they make a mistake, then you get 700 of the wrong dress.” Bensen and Dewey, on the other hand, are at their factory almost every day to keep a close eye on production. If a button needs to be moved, or the length of a sleeve changed, then adjustments can be made without the communications snafus that frequently come with distant partners.
From a brand and marketing standpoint, the company’s New Orleans roots give it a strong point of differentiation. “We have a 'Made in Louisiana' label in every dress, and that’s one of our best sales strategies,” says Dewey. “We sell to some boutiques that only carry products made in the U.S., and I think we’ll see more and more retailers favoring goods made here.” Jolie & Elizabeth dresses are now carried by 30-plus retailers and revenue for their fall and winter collection doubled over last spring. Bensen and Dewey also speak frequently to girls at southern high schools and universities, hoping to spread the word that the south is a great breeding ground for young designers, and that manufacturing at home helps build local economies.
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