Summer is always prime for dresses, but feminine frocks are definitely enjoying a moment in the sun. From the tailored lines of vintage-inspired pieces to gauzy dresses perfect for a garden party to classic motifs like ginghams and florals, warm-weather fashion seems to be harkening back to a time when getting dressed meant getting dressed. Dare we ask — could this be a sign that our long months spent in yoga pants are coming to an end?

We spoke to three Southern dressmakers who are participating in this movement towards feminine, timeless pieces. Each has made a conscious decision to build their business in the South, rather than migrating to cities typically associated with the fashion industry. And all three of them are invested in more than simply creating a clothing line. They’re forging relationships with the people who buy from them. They know these customers could just as easily buy a $30 dress online, but instead, they’re choosing to spend their money on well-made, beautifully designed pieces with a story.

Rebekah Murray | Virginia Dare Dress Co.

Rebekah Murray is a graphic designer by education, photographer by trade, and dress designer by chance. Her work as a wedding photographer and her travels abroad pushed her to create something that felt historically inspired, absent of current trends, and with a classic, pastoral elegance that felt memorable. Her grandfather was a fashion designer in New York, and Rebekah had the drive to learn the art of dressmaking from the ground up. With the support of her family and friends, Virginia Dare Dress Co. was born. If you’re not already sold by her timeless styles and ageless silhouettes, just remember the tagline on Virginia Dare Dress Co.’s Instagram: “Made with love and pockets.” Does it get any better?

Rebekah Murray of Virginia Dare Dress Co., a Southern dress designer

Rebekah Murray of Virginia Dare Dress Co. | Image: Virginia Dare Dress Co.

Did you always want to design clothing?

I’ve worked as a wedding and fashion photographer for almost 15 years, and the quest for cute dresses to shoot weddings in is a frequent topic in forums. I got to travel a lot for destination weddings and over the years felt like it was really difficult to find pieces I could comfortably travel in, wear for touring, and also be functional to work in. I really admire Kate Middleton’s style and found there weren’t enough dresses that had a thoughtful simplicity but still a feminine, classic cut, and designed to be versatile for seasons and day or night.

I also found it really difficult to find dresses that were a little more modest in coverage without feeling too old-fashioned. It felt like the most basic necessity but not easily found! Some years ago I felt like I wanted to pursue something besides photography, so the two needs met (for simple, classic dresses and also a new career path), and my parents and I had the idea for me to start a clothing company.

How have you worked to differentiate your brand and your style?

I want the brand to feel like a warm, welcoming place for our “kindreds,” as we call our community. Some ways we’ve done that are through a really beautiful packaging experience that hopefully feels like a gift sent from a friend, or in-person events inspired by our brand’s lifestyle aesthetic, like picnic day at a historic park, or a meet-up at a flower farm to pick bouquets. We also try to give the best service and experience possible. A lot of our design decisions are inspired by feedback and conversations with customers. When you’re a small brand, each individual is so valuable, and I hope they always feel that.

What do you wish consumers knew about buying from smaller, independent brands rather than fast fashion?

That while we can’t compete on price, we can care about giving a much better experience to them. And that their purchases are impacting our lives!

We don’t get the financial breaks that larger companies do when purchasing materials or larger batches of production, so our costs are always higher, but we can try to make it up to them by providing value in other ways.

What do you see as the advantages to starting and growing your business in the South rather than a typical fashion hub?

I’m so grateful for it! I think it could be easy to get swept up in the expectations of the fashion industry in a hub like New York, but here in Virginia, I feel so connected to the actual customers, and I get to keep them front and center when I go to work each day. I want to be completely here to help serve them and learn about what their needs or wants are, and then get to know them over time and celebrate their wins with them. A good dress is more than just clothing; it’s a uniform for a beautiful life. It’s a privilege to play a small part with these in our community.

A Dress We Love: The Chambray Alice Wrap Dress is a perfect pick for summer into fall. Wear it now with sandals, then layer it with boots and a chunky cardigan when a chill turns up in the air. You can buy Virginia Dare Dress Co. dresses on their website.

Chambray Alice Wrap Dress | Image: Virginia Dare Dress Co.

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Courtney Pugh | Piccadilly

Have you ever known a mother, daughter, and daughter-in-law to get along so famously that they decide to go into business together? That’s exactly what the three women behind Piccadilly did in 2020. These three talented creatives are designing darling dresses for girls that feel both classically Southern and worldly at the same time. And, lucky for us, they just launched their first women’s dresses this past spring with a floaty, feminine dress called the Camden.  Creating beautifully handmade clothing that’s 100% cotton and machine washable, Piccadilly set out to create heirloom-quality pieces that aren’t too precious to wear for everyday life. These are dresses that are made to be worn and lived in, yet they don’t sacrifice girlish charm. Now, we’re just hoping they keep expanding that women’s collection …

Picadilly founders

Picadilly founders (from left to right) are Katherine Pugh, Courtney Pugh, and Sadie Wilson. Image: Erin Bowman

What inspired you to start your own dress label?

Our very first dress was originally created for our own little one with no intention of replicating the design, let alone starting an entire collection. However, when that dress became the “go-to” for everything from jumping in mud puddles to sitting in church pews, we knew we had something special. Piccadilly was created to fill a market space in children’s clothing we couldn’t find ourselves — something posh and playful, classic and different, Southern and European. We built our brand in a way that focused on these elements for children exclusively at first but could pivot to eventually include women’s pieces.

What has the process been like scaling your business and working with manufacturers? Have you tried to keep your work local?

When we first launched in October 2020, we had plans to outsource to larger manufacturers to keep up with demand. However, we weren’t willing to compromise on quality to make that happen. There are two things that are essential to our brand: the way the clothes feel and how they’re made. We’ve all added things to our wardrobe we adore, only to see them fall apart after one wash. Keeping our work local and in-house at this stage ensures that will never happen to a Piccadilly product. Our goal is to eventually find partners to help with scale, but we’re careful not to rush into something — all good things take time!

How have you worked to differentiate your brand and your style?

Our mission as a brand is to create clothes that wear beautifully, wash easily, and are worn often. We highly endorse outfit repeating over here! When it came to trying to find our spot in the marketplace, we knew our style would be unique. Our goal with every design is to balance formal with casual, incorporate a Southern flare, and introduce European elements. We’re unique because our style isn’t the traditional Southern smock or the ultra-trend. We’re somewhere in the middle, and we see a growing market for that.

What do you wish consumers knew about buying from smaller, independent brands rather than fast fashion?

What we would give to have every customer as a fly on the wall from the second the “ding” of a new order notification rings to the moment their order ships from our doors. It truly is a labor of love, and no thread is stitched, item packaged, or bow tied without our hand in the process making sure every detail is as it should be. The number of hats a smaller business owner wears is truly baffling. On any one day,  we are designers, seamstresses, web coders, marketing officers, inventory supervisors, accountants, postal carriers, and social media managers. It’s A LOT, but at the end of the day, we know every order going out the door is one that will surpass customers’ expectations when they receive it – and that matters! Today’s world is all about instant gratification at the lowest price, but we believe that comes at a cost you inevitably pay for. It’s been eye-opening learning from our own journey what it means to support small businesses, and we will forever be grateful for the lesson.

Have you collaborated with other creatives either in the fashion world or elsewhere?

Wow, so glad you asked this question. We’re thrilled to announce we’re in the process of collaborating with one of our favorite creative designers for the fall collection. We’ve been huge fans of Meredith Owens from Design A La Mere based in Wilmington, NC, for years, and it’s a dream to be working with her gifted mind on the patterns for this next release. We’ve also been fortunate to work with incredible retail partners in this first year like Out of Hand in Mt. Pleasant, SC, and BumbleBaby’s new flagship store in Chicago, IL.

A dress we love: The Camden Dress is the gorgeous, lightweight dress you’ll wear all spring and summer long. Imagine frolicking through a garden, straw hat in hand, or strolling along the beach. This is the dress you’ll be wearing. You can shop Piccadilly on their website.

Camden dress from Piccadilly, a Southern dress designer

Camden Dress | Image: Erin Bowman

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Catalina Gonzalez Jorba | Dondolo

Dondolo started with a mission to support and empower mothers. Founder Catalina Gonzalez Jorba is a mother herself, but after her first child was born, she was yearning for a creative outlet and a way to share herself with her community. Originally from Colombia, she had the idea to create stunning, heirloom-quality designs for families and manufacture them in her home country. Now, Dondolo both supports the women in Colombia who are employed by the company, and she gives back to non-profits in Dallas to support her local community. Each purchase leads to a donation to an organization that betters the lives of women and children. 

As Catalina says on her website, “The word “Dondolo” means ‘to swing’ and I truly believe that the love you give is returned to you.”

Catalina Gonzalez Jorba of Dondolo, a Southern dress designer

Catalina Gonzalez Jorba of Dondolo | Image: Jeremy Klefeker

​​What inspired you to start your own label?

The brand idea came after I had my first child, Santiago. I was enjoying every moment of my new role as a mother, but I felt something was missing. In becoming a mom, my heart grew in a way that I never thought possible, and I wanted to share that love with not only my family but with other women and children that may be in need.

My dream for the brand from the beginning was always to “give back,” both by supporting my native country and the local community in Dallas where I live with my family. Today, Dondolo is a luxury lifestyle brand that provides children and women with beautiful, heirloom-quality clothing made by women in Colombia.

How have you worked to differentiate your brand and your style?

We’ve really focused on bringing heirloom quality clothing to life through creating vintage designs with a modern twist. Our differentiator lies in the details of the designs – each piece is hand-embroidered, hand-smocked and created with so much love. Dondolo is love in details and love in giving back.

What do you wish consumers knew about buying from smaller, independent brands rather than fast fashion?

Shopping small provides an amazing opportunity to create a sense of community and purpose. When a customer shops with Dondolo, they are not only buying a beautiful piece of clothing to incorporate into their precious family memories, they’re also making a difference in the lives of women and children in Colombia. Our statement pieces tell a beautiful story and spark conversation around giving back. It’s a topic we hope the women in our community can connect on and feel proud of!

Have you collaborated with other creatives either in the fashion world or elsewhere?

This year, we’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with some amazing female-led brands and businesses including LoveShackFancy, Gen Sohr of Pencil & Paper, and Born on Fifth’s Emily Hertz. I can truly say that when we work together as women, we are more successful!

What has your experience been as a designer in the South?

It has been incredible. Being in the South is one of the main reasons that Dondolo grew so quickly in the beginning. We had a loyal, passionate community of Southern boutiques and customers who craved vintage-inspired, heirloom clothing. There’s also a real sense of collaboration and support here. I’m so thankful to be surrounded by amazing women and entrepreneurs who helped guide and empower me at the start of my journey – and still today!

A dress we love: The Strawberries Long Dress feels like summer. You’re instantly transported to running barefoot through the grass, picnic in hand. And those charming scallop details along the chest and back are just the icing on the cake. You can buy Donodolo dresses and lifestyle products on their website

Woman modeling strawberries long dress from Dondolo, a Southern dress designer

Strawberries Long Dress | Image: Dondolo

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