Words by Ashley Locke
Styled photos by William Heuberger
Group photo by Shannon Finney
Sheri Turnbow was not a fashion designer. As a self-described animal lover, her job at the World Wildlife Fund was a perfect fit. She spent her days helping companies become more sustainable in their day-to-day operations—until she decided to pivot to fashion.
In recent years, Americans have started trending toward sustainability. Paper straws, compostable materials, and locally grown food have become a regular part of many Americans’ lives. A habit that has been harder to break is reliance on fast fashion. Stores such as Forever21 and H&M have dominated the retail industry, but the times are changing—something that Sheri recognized.
Thanks to her Southern upbringing, Sheri had always been taught to dress sustainably—even if she wasn’t thinking of it that way. “Growing up, I was heavily influenced by my aunt, an elegant and fashionable woman with a great sense of understated style,” she says. “Rather than following the trends, she knew what looked good on her and invested in beautifully-made, quality items that she could enjoy from season to season.”
Her aunt was on her mind when she was struggling to find well-made dresses that weren’t made to wear once and throw away. It was this hunt that led her to create Bespoke Southerly, a made-to-order apparel company. Sheri wanted to enable women to enjoy the same level of customization and care as men do for suiting, emphasizing investment dressing and sustainable clothing made at home in the United States.
“Our brand name and classic garment styles are inspired by my Southern upbringing in Georgia and Virginia. Southerly means ‘a wind blowing from the South’ and I wanted to honor my roots,” she says. “So, our garments evoke that ‘Southern Woman’—perennially pulled together, but often a little flirty, and definitely feminine and elegant.”
Sheri is as serious about quality as she is about style. Bespoke Southerly uses all silks and silk blends rather than petroleum-based fabrics. The strapless styles have interior corsets with separate zippers to prevent women from constantly having to pull up their dress at an event. They work with a couture patternmaker to ensure superior construction, making their beautiful garments true wardrobe staples.
“I appreciate timeless, classic silhouettes and launched the brand with cocktail and formal dresses because this is what women wear to some of the most special events in their lives, and it embodies my initial vision of ‘One dress, beautifully made, that not everyone else is wearing,’” Sheri says.
For Sheri, fashion was only one part of the equation. She also focused on sustainability, a through-line from her previous work at WWF. She was able to rely on that experience to create sustainable operations from the ground up. “It is important to me that our garments are made with care in the United States. I wanted to ensure good working conditions and living wages, and I wanted to know the people making the clothes so I could have a personal and trusting relationship with them,” she says. “In addition, because we work with makers that use cutting edge technology and a made to order model, they are able to cut each order with little to no waste—and with no minimum order quantities—so we don’t need to worry about excess inventory ending up in a landfill.”
Even though she knew exactly what she wanted for Bespoke Southerly from the beginning, the road to getting there was not always easy. “I think my success to date, just a little over a year after launch, is in large part to not knowing what I did not know!” she says. “If I knew all the hurdles I would face, I may never have started down this path.”
Sheri walked into the fashion world with no formal design training, but marketing has been the biggest hurdle for the brand. “It has been very difficult to gain brand exposure,” she says. “Even with the learning curve I had creating the garments, the hardest part of all this has been trying to break through the online retail clutter and actually get my designs in front of the right customer.”
Sheri’s hard work paid off in a big way. This year, just over a year since the company launched, Bespoke Southerly was nominated as a Finalist for the 2020 Fashion Group International Rising Star Award—a major achievement in the fashion world. "I realize it sounds cliche, but it truly is an honor just to be named a finalist in the 23rd Annual Fashion Group International Rising Star Awards. The list of past winners and finalists alike is so impressive. Names like Tory Burch, Jason Wu, Misha Nonoo to name a few. Even if we are not the winner, I believe it will open doors for the brand. I am still pinching myself!” Sheri says.
“We are seeing a serious trend in customization and people moving away from fast fashion to clothes that are made to last,” she says. "Being a finalist in the 23rd Annual Fashion Group International Rising Star Awards confirms my belief that classic never goes out of style. Even though Bespoke Southerly is competing in the womenswear category with several high style and rather edgy brands, the fact we are included in this group of finalists shows our timeless designs and business philosophy of investment dressing has a place in the fashion world—and in your closet!”
Though all of the clothing will continue to be handmade in the south by talented seamstresses, Sheri has big dreams for Bespoke Southerly. “Our future vision includes like-minded retailers using this model as a differentiator by creating a showroom style space that has samples in all the sizes and available options that customers can try on and then order for later pick up—usually within two weeks,” she said. “One thing women still want to do even with online shopping available is try on a cocktail or formal dress before buying.”
Her vision and drive are how Bespoke Southerly earned the 23rd Annual Fashion Group International Rising Star Award nomination, and it is how Bespoke Southerly will continue to find success in the future. The 23rd Annual Fashion Group International Rising Star Award winners will be announced on January 28, 2020.