Last Sunday was unusually hot for June (we’re getting so many of those these days . . . ) and I had a six-hour drive to Nashville and back from Louisville facing me. The car’s air conditioner worked – for most of the drive down. A friend from Louisville-based textile company Anchal and I had decided to go to our first Elizabeth Suzann sample sale. We’re both decidedly not the kind of women who drive six hours to buy a jumpsuit (or anything for that matter), but that’s the kind of thing cult clothing designer Elizabeth Suzann can get you to do.
When we arrived, a line of people wrapped around the huge white tent down the parking lot and out on the street, and racks and racks of clothes hung patiently under the tent waiting for five o’clock when the sale would open. Scores of folks waited chatting quietly until they were told the sale was open and they could go in the tent to browse and purchase clothing.
Elizabeth and her husband have created and nurtured this remarkable space outside a warehouse in the suburbs of Nashville where women felt comfortable striping down to their undies to try on clothes. People felt comfortable in their bodies, excited to clothe themselves with garments cut and sewn just yards away. Admiration for the brand that Elizabeth has built was palpable. Some ladies were actually running to the racks grabbing sturdy canvas pants, drapey linen jackets, and flowing silk tees. It was a well-mannered frenzy. I’ve never been a part of anything like it before.
At six there was a short tour of the factory. Elizabeth answered questions about their processes at ES, about her inspiration as a designer, and the company’s five year history. She was warm and open, and she acknowledged when someone on her team might be better prepared to answer a question than she was.
She explained to us how all along the way people have told her that eventually she’d have to outsource the sewing work, that made-to-order wouldn’t scale, that their process of one sewiest making a garment from beginning to end would eventually have to change to an assembly line of machine operators. But Elizabeth was stubborn about how she wanted to make garments, dug in her heels, and didn’t listen. Now she owns an incredibly successful clothing company that doesn’t follow the established rules of the industry. She has proven those voices wrong who told her it wasn’t possible to do business the way she wanted to do it.
In the words of those early detractors of ES I heard echoes of the 19th century cotton mill owners explaining that they had to use child labor, or they’d be priced out of the market. They didn’t have a choice in the matter, it was simply necessary. It was customer demand, pricing, the realities of the industry, everyone else was doing it this way, the kids wanted the jobs . . . . the owners just didn’t have a choice.
But we do have a choice in how we make things, how we treat employees, and how much we pay them. We’ve always had a choice. Elizabeth is proving every day how doing things the right way can work and grow into an incredibly successful business – that there’s a market for clothing made by workers who are not exploited. That people will wait for quality and actually crave it. That consumers actually want products from companies where the people who work there enjoy their jobs.
This is not an ad, I don’t think Elizabeth has ever actually even paid for advertising. This post is written in admiration for a company built by a young woman who treats her employees with dignity and makes and prices clothing in an honest way. I’m so grateful to have a model like Elizabeth Suzann, and thrilled to have a piece of clothing they’ve produced to call my own.
It was an amazing trip to see the space where this work is happening and speak to sewers who have found good jobs there. Long may it continue and grow on Liz’s terms.