In our latest installment of SBC’s monthly small business feature, we meet Annabelle LaRoque, founder and owner of LaRoque, a fashion design and apparel company based in Columbia, South Carolina. In a recent interview with business writer Susan Caminiti, LaRoque speaks about why she started the company, how it has grown, and why following your passion can lead to a successful business—and a fulfilling life.
Some folks know precisely which path they are meant to follow. Then there are those who discover their destiny by first figuring out what they don’t want to do. Count Annabelle LaRoque among the second group.
In 2006, LaRoque was working as a salesperson for a medical products company not long after graduating from the University of South Carolina. She knew her sales job was a solid one—especially with student loans to repay—but LaRoque, 30, says she realized something was missing from her life. “I really enjoy sales, but my job certainly wasn’t my true passion,” she explains. As a young girl, LaRoque delighted in the crafts and beautiful gardens her mother created and she felt strongly that she possessed that same gene. “I come from a creative family so there’s always been that side to me,” she adds.
About three months into her job—and during a break from her constant work travel—LaRoque decided to stop by and visit an aunt. “She was sewing this cute little skirt for my cousin, made with this upholstery fabric and I started watching her and asking questions,” LaRoque recalls. Figuring this might be a good diversion from her regimented work life, she went home that night with one of her aunt’s old sewing machines, some fabric, and though she didn’t realize it at the time, the beginning of her new business.
On the weekends and whenever she had a spare minute, LaRoque scouted around for interesting fabrics and sewed from her dining room table. Before she knew it, she had 30 skirts and decided to see if friends were interested in buying them. “All 30 of them sold in one day,” LaRoque says.
And so it went for the next year, with LaRoque selling medical products during the week and her one-of-a-kind skirts on the weekends. Eventually, she realized she had to make a decision. “I called my mom and said, ‘I’m quitting my job,’” she says. Despite the fact that her mother wasn’t thrilled with the idea of her leaving—and her boss predicting that she’d soon be asking for her old job back—LaRoque forged ahead. “I had no business plan and $300 in the bank, but I finally knew this is what I wanted to do with my life,” she says.
Over the next few years, LaRoque’s eponymous company grew through hard work, careful marketing, and some lucky breaks. In the spring of 2007 she capitalized on the Carolina Cup—a popular steeplechase horse race that draws upwards of 65,000 fans to South Carolina every spring—by promoting her ability to create the perfect one-of-a-kind dress for the women attending. “I printed up these flyers that said: ‘The race is on for the perfect dress,’ and distributed them everywhere,” LaRoque says. She took in orders for 75 dresses and charged $200 each. By asking for a 50-percent deposit from each customer, she was able to buy the fabric without incurring any debt. “I never bought the same fabric twice so all the women who ordered knew that no one else would have on the same dress,” she says.
Sales from the Carolina Cup proved two things to LaRoque: there was a market for her modern take on Southern style, and the business had outgrown her dining room table. In August 2007, she rented a small studio that was part of a larger store in downtown Columbia for $300 a month. When the recession hit the following year, the store owner that LaRoque was renting from went out of business and she was able to take over the lease for the entire space. “I was petrified because my rent went up to $1,200 a month,” she says. “I thought if I can make it through 2008 and this economy, I’ll never quit,” she says.
To meet the increasing demand for her apparel, LaRoque hired a few local seamstresses. They were able to help her with more intricate designs and sewing techniques. In the meantime, LaRoque kept a close eye on cash flow. “I drove a paid-off car, I paid off my student loans as quickly as possible, and I took my lunch to work everyday,” she recalls. “I just knew I wanted this to work.”
Attending the Atlantic Apparel Mart the following year gave LaRoque exposure to different retailers throughout the Southeast. Soon her clothing was being sold in 40 different boutiques. “The money I was making from the retail store in Columbia was funding the production of the clothing for these other boutiques,” she explains. She also continued to make her custom-designed dresses for the Carolina Cup.
As busy as she was, LaRoque’s business was about to shift into high gear when she entered a design contest sponsored by Belk department stores. The retailer was celebrating its 125th anniversary in 2013 and was looking for designers in the Southeast who represented modern, Southern style. LaRoque met with Belk executives and showed them her line. In May, Belk’s vice president of merchandising came to LaRoque’s boutique with a camera crew to tell her she was one of four designers who had won the contest.
LaRoque’s excitement was short-lived when she realized her local factory didn’t have the capacity to handle the order from Belk. Even though the retailer would provide the money to produce the clothing, the quantity and turnaround time were crushing. “They wanted 3,000 dresses within a six-month time period at a certain price point that this factory just couldn’t accomplish,” she says. To get the order done on time and for the right price, LaRoque began working with a factory overseas. “I had to put a lot of faith in this company because I had never made my clothing outside the U.S. before,” she says.
Later this month, LaRoque’s dresses, skirts, and tops will debut at selected Belk stores in larger markets. The designs are priced lower than those in her boutique—a cotton LaRoque dress in Belk will retail for around $188 compared with $300 for a silk dress in her store—but the aesthetic and style will remain the same, she says. “It’s really crazy to me that my designs are being sold in Belk,” LaRoque says. “I remember what a big deal it was when I was a little girl and my mom took me there to get my Easter dress.”
As she continues to build her company, LaRoque realizes her needs—both in financing and personnel—will evolve as well. Today, she has a store manager and several interns working for her. Charles Griffin, Vice President and Small Business Banker at Bank of America, says it has established a business credit card for LaRoque, started a retirement plan for her, processes the credit card transactions at her boutique, and will extend a line of credit to fund future growth when the time is right. “Annabelle is an example of the true evolution of a small business,” he says. “She’s growing her company organically and smartly.”
Inspiration for her designs, says LaRoque, comes from her travels around the world and the people she meets. But it’s doing what she loves that’s perhaps the biggest inspiration of all. “I’ve shared in the happy times in other people’s lives by designing dresses for weddings, anniversary parties, graduations, you name it,” she says. “But I never knew I could have that kind of happiness in a career. I’m proof that you can do what you’re passionate about and make a living from it.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.