AnnaBelle LaRoque is proof that you don’t have to live in Paris or New York to make it as a fashion designer. Her shop, LaRoque on Devine Street, is bustling with activity daily as clients arrange for her to custom design clothing for special and everyday needs or pop in to choose one of her designs from off the rack. When she is not measuring or adjusting a customer for one of her original fashions, AnnaBelle is designing her collection for the upcoming season. Her seasonal wholesale collection, which bears her name, is in more than 30 retail stores up and down the East Coast.
A Charleston native, AnnaBelle attended the University of South Carolina and was a member of the Kappa Delta sorority. She graduated in 2005 with a degree in public relations. For six months after she graduated, she worked in medical sales, covering the state of South Carolina. Then one day she visited her aunt, who was sewing a skirt for a cousin.
“I just remember thinking how cute it was,” says AnnaBelle. Her aunt and mother had always sewn and were creative, and she had dabbled at making a few dorm room pillows for some of her friends. However, what she decided to do next shocked her family and friends.
“I quit my job in medical sales and decided to make skirts for a living,” she explains. “I just didn’t feel creatively challenged doing what I was doing.”
AnnaBelle remembers her mother always painting, sewing, gardening and cooking. This struck a chord with her and led to her interest in fashion, color and art. When she quit her medical sales job, AnnaBelle’s aunt helped her learn her way around the sewing machine; then she took sewing lessons. For her first professional endeavor, she used an old sewing machine to sew a variety of skirts out of upholstery fabrics that she bought from Forest Lake Fabrics. “They were long, short, all sizes,” she says.
Because of her connection with Greek life at USC, AnnaBelle hosted trunk shows at sorority houses. One day a friend hosted a trunk show at a home in Columbia, and every single one of the skirts sold. AnnaBelle realized that she might possibly be successful as a fashion designer.
What really put AnnaBelle on the map was her clever focus on custom dresses for the Carolina Cup in Camden. She used the public relations skills she gleaned at USC to create flyers that she knew the Greek population on campus would see. They touted: “The race is on for the perfect Cup dress” and “You’re one of a kind; your dress should be too.”
AnnaBelle explained that customers could choose a fabric, and she would make one-of-a-kind dresses out of that fabric that no one else would be wearing at the Cup.
“That year, 2006, I had 70 orders,” she says. “I was sewing at my kitchen table. My mom and my aunt came over to sew in tags and hem dresses at the last minute.”
AnnaBelle became known in Columbia and the surrounding area for her distinct strapless and wrap dress designs. Currently, dress orders for each Colonial Cup total at least 250.
In 2006, she rented a 12- by 12-foot space on Devine Street, next to Devine Foods, and began selling her creations from there. Within a short amount of time, she was able to take over more space, where she now has her office, a retail store and a fitting area.
Busting at the Seams
AnnaBelle’s popularity grew so quickly that she has had to contract with professional seamstresses to sew her custom designs. A South Carolina factory now produces her wholesale line, which she shows at market in Atlanta, Ga.
She has been asked to design and outfit entire weddings: the wedding dress, bridesmaid dresses, flower girl dress, mothers of the bride and groom dresses and even the bow ties for the guys. If a bride wants distinct dresses for each bridesmaid, the bride chooses the color and each girl has a private design and fitting session with AnnaBelle. She also creates fashions for senior portraits, proms and other special occasions. For USC students, she has designed garnet and black sashes as well as bow ties that match the dress a guy’s date is wearing.
“I love making women feel special on an important day,” she says.
Inspiration for her custom looks and her seasonal wholesale line comes from art, travel, books and architecture. Buttons she found in an antique shop in Palm Beach, Fla., motivated her 2012 spring collection, which she says has a preppy, Southern, nautical feel. She describes her fashions overall as a modern take on classic designs.
Instead of upholstery fabrics, which distinguished her fashions early on, she now uses a myriad of silks, prints, seersucker and other fabrics. One sought-after custom AnnaBelle option, in fact, is a strapless dress design with three different fabrics included in the one dress.
Wearer of Many Hats
Even though AnnaBelle aspires to show in New York and would love to know that customers throughout the United States are wearing her fashions, she doesn’t want the fast track to success to take her at breakneck speed. She enjoys the many hats she wears as sole owner and only full-time employee of LaRoque, from traveling to shows and perusing fabrics, to meeting customers and working with them through the custom designing and tailoring process, to writing thank you notes and handling business details.
“I like being involved in all these aspects,” she says.
On her public relations radar has been the explosion of social networking. She has 5,000 fans on Facebook and 1,000 followers on Twitter. Whenever she has a new design concept or product, she posts it on these sites, and it goes straight to many recipients’ phones.
AnnaBelle also features a dress of the day on her mannequin in front of the LaRoque Original shop. Often, this will literally stop traffic and bring customers into the store.
“I have so many repeat customers,” she says. “I’ll do a wedding, and then guests who attended the wedding will come in. Or, I’ll outfit someone and her sister or mother or daughter will come in.”
AnnaBelle says another hat she hopes to wear someday is that of owner of a store in Charleston, her hometown. Currently, she shows at Charleston Fashion Week, and she also would like to be accepted to show in New York at Coterie, which has been described by New York Fashion Hunter magazine as “the chicest show in New York with a global clientele who understand sophisticated, directional and timeless clothing.”
“And I would, of course, like to be in stores nationwide,” she says, “but I already feel like it’s grown quickly. I want to grow at a rate that allows me to always do things well.”
No longer is anyone in AnnaBelle’s family concerned about that career switch six years ago. “I was probably just too young to be scared at the time,” she quips. “I guess I knew if it didn’t work out, I could always go back into medical sales.” Her mother, aunt and friends are fairly certain that is not in AnnaBelle LaRoque’s future.