For Columbia fashion designer Annabelle LaRoque, the trajectory of her career is simply an extension of her life and its major events. A native of the Charleston area, Annabelle grew up observing her creative mother as she cooked, gardened, hosted luncheons, and sewed, and often assisted her in her creation and care of florals, frocks, and food.

During her college days at the University of South Carolina, Annabelle, remembering the lessons her mother taught her, bought a handheld sewing machine and stitched pillows for her sorority dorm room. Later, while working a medical sales job after graduation, she borrowed an antique sewing machine from an aunt and began making skirts as a hobby. To her surprise, her friends and family fawned over her talent and skill, and she was soon setting up trunk shows at USC sororities and selling dozens upon dozens of custom-made skirts.

“I always knew that being creative was going to be a part of who I was,” recalls Annabelle. “I just thought I’d have a corporate job and be creative on the side. But after six months, I quit my sales job and rented a little 12 x 12 space on Devine Street, called my shop ‘LaRoque,’ and began sewing and selling clothing from there.”

LaRoque swiftly gained a reputation for being one of Columbia’s premier custom clothing shops, particularly popular with those involved with USC Greek Life and around classier events like the Carolina Cup. Often, before a big event, Annabelle would have to refuse new orders for weeks in an effort to keep up with demand. In 2008, when many shops on Devine Street and beyond were shuttered due to the economic collapse, Annabelle expanded LaRoque to its current size and began focusing on off-the-rack collections.
“As I have evolved as a person and a designer, so has the LaRoque brand,” says Annabelle. “We began as a very preppy custom clothing line, but my style and aspirations have changed since then, and it’s reflected in the clothing. I design pieces based on what I want to wear. Now I think we are a bit more well-rounded.”

With two collections launching every year, the LaRoque clothing line includes pieces that run the gamut from bohemian, sophisticated, edgy, vintage, classic, and vibrant. Annabelle often designs pieces that are inspired by her travels — a tie-dye maxi skirt after a trip to California, a structured dress after spending time among the concrete jungle of New York—or her upbringing, like the classic “Sunday Skirt” inspired by the fashions her mother would wear while hosting one of her Saturday luncheons. Paramount to her stylistic decisions is the wearability of each piece.

“We aren’t selling a style here, it’s a lifestyle,” explains Annabelle. “I am always thinking, ‘How is this going to feel when someone wears it?’ I think about the wearability of a piece on a runway, at church, at the Carolina Cup, at an engagement party, or on a date. I try to imagine the experiences that the wearer will have in the clothing, and design with that in mind.”

The limits of LaRoque clothing and its comfort have been most notably tested in the relatively new children’s clothing line, which Annabelle created while pregnant with her daughter, Emerson, a little over two years ago. Initially, she sewed a few dresses for Emerson and shared them on her Instagram page, but when some of her followers began begging her to create and sell the frocks to the public, she obliged. Again bridging the gap between her personal growth and the evolution of her brand, the line focuses heavily on nostalgic, feminine styles for girls, and takes up nearly the entire original 12 x 12 space of her Devine Street store.

Instagram and the social media atmosphere have evolved right along with Annabelle and LaRoque, and she attributes a great deal of her success to her online sharing.

“It goes back to selling a lifestyle,” says Annabelle. “I just take pictures of my life, kind of a behind the curtain look at what goes into everything LaRoque and the people behind it. It’s been a really grassroots evolution—we’ve never paid to get followers or market our brand in that way, and yet we have over 16,000 followers now and sell something through Instagram every day, all over the country. I think it helps us be relatable—people want that connection, and we want to share it with them.”

Today, in addition to the Devine Street shop and online, LaRoque apparel can be found in around 30 stores across America. The fashion line has been featured by many national outlets including the New York Times, Fox News, and Southern Living, and Annabelle released an entire collection for Belk two years ago. Thus far, Annabelle has shown the LaRoque line at Atlanta fashion shows yearly, but looking ahead, she hopes to branch out to high-end fashion shows on the West Coast and in New York. No matter where her career takes her, though, she maintains that Columbia will always be her home, and the home of LaRoque.

“This next year marks 10 years on Devine Street,” she says. “It’s been really fun to be part of this unique and emerging community of shops, restaurants, bakeries, and florists. We’ve tried to create a space that is high-end, yet attainable. We want people to come and feel at home themselves in this special place.”

Ultimately, Annabelle hopes that her designs evoke a sense of careful thoughtfulness that her clients can feel, which she hopes extends to a personal sense of pride for them.

“My greatest reward is when someone chooses one of my designs for a special occasion,” she says. “All the carefully thought out decisions I make for each piece are reflected in the final product, and I hope they can feel that. I hope that when they wear it, they truly feel that there was intention behind the piece, that someone cared how they will live a part of their life in that piece. Because I really, truly do care.”

By Jana Riley