This North Carolina Designer Says Party Dresses Are the New House Dresses, and We Are So On Board
Sarah Doggett Evenson has seen a lot in five years of owning and designing her women’s clothing line, Marie Oliver. But nothing quite prepared her for COVID-19.
“It’s been a rollercoaster,” says the Greensboro, North Carolina-based designer. “If you had told me in March that come mid-October, we’d still be here and wearing masks, I would’ve told you you’re crazy.”
Now, Evenson designs and sells masks in fabrics that complement her own collection. It’s just one of the ways she and her team have pivoted to navigate an unusual—and for many businesses, devastating—set of circumstances.
But she says there have been silver linings of the pandemic too.
“It has allowed us to really focus on what’s meaningful to our business and what’s meaningful to our customers,” says Evenson. “We get to meet our customers’ needs and be creative in different ways… It has been super challenging at times, but it’s also an opportunity to be optimistic.”
Evenson’s sunny perspective is the kind that only comes with passion, something that’s been woven into her brand from the very start.
“I had this realization [when I was 25 and working in insurance] that I was going to be 60 years old one day and would never have tried designing my own line, and I would be so regretful,” says Evenson. “That fear of not trying something really motivated me. I was okay to fail, if that’s what happened, because I was so passionate about what I was doing.”
So she took her business degree and love of fashion and started Marie Oliver with her husband, Peter (the brand’s name is a combination of their middle names). Five years later, their team of two has grown to a team of nine. “We’ve touched every aspect of this business and we’ve been so fortunate to build a wonderful team around us,” she says.
That they’ve done it all in their shared hometown of Greensboro only makes it sweeter.
“Being in North Carolina gives us the headspace to build our brand and business as we foresee it, rather than doing it the same way everyone else does,” says Evenson. “It’s a different pace, and I think the refreshing nature of it is reflected in everything we do, from how we conduct our sales team to the collection that we’ve designed, and how we market ourselves.”
While Evenson’s Southern surrounds may influence everything from her sales approach to the use of color and pattern in each collection, it’s her mother and grandmother who inspired the purposeful, easygoing silhouettes for which Marie Oliver has become known.
“Both my mother and my grandmother worked full-time in the family business, while also raising children and having very active families, so I’ve learned a lot about juggling it all from them,” says Evenson.
She’s also learned a lot from her now-83-year-old grandmother about the power of personal style.
“When I was young, I would walk to her house and show up a wrinkled mess, and she’d take my clothes and iron them, even if they were play clothes,” says Evenson. “She really instilled in me that fashion, even your most casual wear to the grocery store, communicates something about you.”
It’s this ethos of look-good, feel-good that’s become all the more important during the course of the pandemic and is keeping Marie Oliver as relevant today as it’s ever been.
“A big theme for us right now is taking party dresses and wearing them as house dresses,” says Evenson. “My grandmother’s approach to style speaks to that so, so much. I went to her house one day for lunch, and I was wearing our Luciana Maxi Dress, and she was like, ‘I love that dress, Sarah! Can I please have one of those? I want to wear that instead of my housecoat.’ Maybe our core customer isn’t an 83-year-old woman, but it was so rewarding and inspiring that she saw me, at 32 years old, in one of my dresses and thought, I can replace my housecoat with that dress and wear it every day!”
While the coronavirus means there won’t be in-person festivities to honor the brand’s hard-earned five-year anniversary, Evenson says there is still plenty to revel in. “For me, I see it as an opportunity to say thank you and to celebrate where we are and where we’re going.”
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