Byline: Stacy Bonner

MOBILE, Ala. — Three twentysomething Mobile, Alabama, women are making their mark on the fashion world with their Southern roots intact. “You don’t have to be in New York to design clothes,” says Michelle Estes, vice president of design of Southern Alternative. “It’s all a state of mind. We’re trying to show people there is more to the South than long flowing dresses.” The six-month-old company will remain headquartered in the deep South. “We’re trying to help the local economy in Mobile. We really shine in our hometown — everybody really believes in us,” says Alexandra Keeling, vice president of marketing. Melissa McElroy is president. The line consists of easy-care dresses in basic styles, with high-quality, funky fabrics, and was launched out of Estes’ Mobile boutique, Elizabethan Age, last summer. The response was overwhelmingly positive. “It’s such a small town, people spread the word as soon as we had the fabrics spread out on the floor,” she says. Estes plans for her own designs to compete with the lines she stocks her store with: French Connection, Urban Outfitters and Betsey Johnson. The line consists of variations on slip-style and baby-doll dresses, with lengthy versions for evening. The clothes will also be carried in specialty stores across the country, and have sold to Dayton’s and Marshall Fields. For their debut at the Miami market last October, decorations were needed for the showroom, so a friend created portable displays — painted Samsonite suitcases with retro flower designs. “We looked like vagabonds getting off the plane with our sunflower suitcases,” says Keeling. “But the reaction at the mart was really positive — people couldn’t believe we were so young and that we were from Mobile.” This year’s retail sales are estimated at $120,000 and they’re hoping to double that figure with their fall line.
The young designers have relied heavily on the support of friends and family, from legal advice to public relations. “We have had every member of our families help us out in some way,” says Keeling. “Our friends really want to see us succeed. “We wouldn’t have had that support in a big city like New York — we would have just gotten lost,” adds Estes.
Southern Alternative uses strictly local talent for photography and modeling. “I get agencies on the phone all the time trying to sell ‘better’ models. They just don’t get it. The models we use are average heights and body types, not all six feet tall and skinny,” says Estes. Wholesale prices are very moderate, ranging from $21 to $52. “This is Southern style but with lower price points,” explains Estes. “Nobody has $100 to spend on cutesy dresses anymore.” Comfort is a top priority. “If you can’t wear it, don’t design it,” is Estes’ motto. “We look for lightweight feel and use flowing material so it doesn’t really matter if you have the perfect figure.” The line consists of 13 basic silhouettes with over 50 styles. Easy-care fabrics are a priority for Estes, who does most of the designing. “I stay away from dry-clean-only fabrics. You’re paying $5 every time you wear it so it’s like you’re renting out the dress. By the time you’re done with it you may end up paying $300,” says Estes. “Everything is made in the USA with environmentally correct vegetable dyes,” adds McElroy. For fall, Southern Alternative plans to expand into sportswear and feature shirts, jackets and skirts. The spring 1995 dress collection will debut at the Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and New York markets.
All three women explored various parts of the country before returning to their hometown. “We liked the trends from the bigger cities, and we saw that Mobile was lacking its own style. We’re designing for our own age group, Generation X,” says Keeling. “In Mobile, we have the best of both worlds. We have low overhead and I can be more productive staying in the South. It’s easy to stay focused without the hustle and bustle of the city,” says Estes. “Southern designers have stayed within a small area. We want to compete with New York designers. Right now, we are trying to be little fish in a really big ocean.”