The Label Maker

Kelli Cooper’s fashion sense finds purchase in the South and beyond

by Allison Gorman

Kelli Cooper spent her childhood cutting pictures out of fashion magazines and plastering them all over her bedroom walls. But she had never cut out a pattern, or really sewn at all, when she enrolled in MTSU’s fashion design program. “I just looked through the catalog and thought,

‘Ohhh . . . I want to do that!’ And that was it,” she says.

Sometimes audacity can propel you when statistics would stop you in your tracks. In speaking with Cooper, one gets the sense that it never occurred to her not to pursue a career as a fashion designer—even though she admits that the uncertainty that comes with the job can be “terrifying.” With the exploding interest in fashion, fueled by countless reality shows like Project Runway, the market has become saturated and the odds of succeeding in the industry are long. “It’s just so hard,” Cooper says. “There are so many designers, and boutiques are swamped with lookbooks and line sheets and phone calls and emails. And they ignore them.”

She’s already beaten the odds by launching a successful clothing label, Loretta Jane. And now that she’s catching the attention of national media, it’s clear she’s made the cut in a notoriously tough industry.

Cooper’s career path hasn’t been seamless, or even straight. In fact, it parallels her description of sewing: “You always have to be thinking a step ahead, and it’s a constant learning process. It’s more complicated than you’d think.”

That path took her from MTSU, where she graduated in 2002; to Nashville, where she worked for a bridal and formal-wear designer; to Atlanta, where her mother lives; and back to Nashville, where she eventually started working at Hemline, a boutique in Green Hills. There, Cooper got invaluable lessons from the buyer’s perspective: she met small designers, saw new clothing lines scrutinized, learned about price points, and began to understand what stores and their customers want. In 2008, she put together a collection of nine pieces reflecting what would become her signature style: lightweight retro fabrics, short skirts, and feminine silhouettes evocative of mid-20th-century couture. The owner of Hemline in Nashville bought the collection, as did franchise owner Brigette Holthausen, who placed Loretta Jane pieces in several Hemline stores, including its flagship location in New Orleans.

And that’s where Cooper relocated in 2010, after traveling to the Crescent City to meet with Holthausen. “As soon as I got out of the cab in the French Quarter, I was completely in love with it,” she says.

Cooper found limited success sending her portfolio to stores—a shotgun strategy all aspiring designers use. “I sent out maybe 15 look-books and got a call back from one,” she recalls. More often, Loretta Jane sold itself. Buyers saw the line in other boutiques and began calling Cooper, who went from sewing all her own clothes to outsourcing piecework to factories in New Orleans and Atlanta. Loretta Jane now has a presence in six states, including New York, and Cooper hopes to hire her own production staff as she expands to boutiques across the country.

She explains that succeeding in the fashion industry is all about strategy—and staving off self-doubt. “You’ve got to think so far in advance; you’ve got to have your style, your aesthetic, your samples ready six to nine months before your collection actually comes out. And every season you think, ‘What if nobody buys my stuff this season? What if nobody buys it next season?’”

Those questions were running through her mind last November, when she packed up her spring 2013 samples and drove to her first trade show (in Atlanta). Like dozens of other designers, she spent the first excruciating hours sitting in a booth on a nearly empty floor. Unnerved by the quiet, she finally took a break to visit the market showroom upstairs. Within minutes she got a text: “Southern Living just came by your booth. They love it. Get down here now.” By the time Cooper got back to her booth, the writer was gone.

In life, as in fashion, timing is everything.

Despite the slow start, Cooper made good sales in Atlanta, and the praise for Loretta Jane started coming in—first on industry blogs and then, in January, on Southern Living’s website, The Daily South, which named Kelli Cooper one of Five Southern Designers to Know in 2013.

By then, of course, she was already a step ahead, creating her fall collection and preparing for the New York trade show. And her plans extend far beyond that: “I want to go all the way,” she says. Odds are, she will.