“My parents thought it was just a hobby,” she said.
A hobby that started when her grandmother gave Emily her first sewing machine.
“I was just bored and started putting some things together. I had some of the worst mishaps in the world. I still have some of the old stuff. So that’s kind of how it came along.” Emily recalled stepping off a boat, and the seam splitting up the side.
Newnam, originally from Rocky Mount, majored in fashion design in college. She studied textiles at NC State and finished her degree at Meredith College. After graduating in 2007, she worked for Patsy Aiken, a children’s clothing designer based in Raleigh.
“I started out as a receptionist. I worked my way up through production and working with patterns, and they would throw me a little bit of design stuff now and then. That was a lot of really great experience even though, at the time, I would get frustrated doing little odds and ends jobs.”
The company downsized and Newnam was out of a job. That’s when she took a risk and joined a start-up company in Charleston, SC. She moved out on her own for the first time and took a risk.
“It was way outside my comfort zone, but they say your best discoveries and opportunities lay right outside your comfort zone,” she said.
In the beginning of 2010, the company in Charleston dissolved. After being inspired by the history and the culture of the region, Newnam struck out on her own – Southern fRock was born. From there, she moved back to Raleigh and her career took off.
“I started doing trunk shows for some of my best friends, and then some of their friends and it just kind of snowballed,” she said recently at the family’s second home in Beaufort. “I kept doing trunk shows to sell through the first season of inventory to see if it was something that would really fly. I ended up going to my first Atlanta Apparel Mart with five dresses and one skirt. So I had six items total in my booth. It was funny, just because we picked up six stores and wrote orders, and from then on we hit the ground running.”
After a year of running the business on her own, Emily asked her mom, Betsy, to join the company as her business partner.
“I don’t even think I thought about it. I just said, ‘OK, let’s go,’” said Betsy.
And so they went, piling racks of clothes into the Tahoe and driving to cities they had never heard of.
“We would just go to stores, meeting owners,” Emily said. “That’s been the best part. Half the fun is networking and meeting so many different people and knowing your customers so that when you talk to them on the phone, you know exactly who you’re talking to.”
After winning the Belk Southern Designer Showcase, Emily hired three full-time sales representatives that show the line from Maine to the Caribbean and around the Gulf to Mississippi.
“They’ve been incredible in spreading the word. They genuinely love the line, and I think that’s what propels the line; when somebody loves what they’re doing, and they’re genuinely interested in the product.”
Currently, Southern fRock is sold in many boutiques across North Carolina and the southeast. The line can also be found in Belk department stores in larger cities. Her new Beaufort store, located on Front Street, will be Southern fRock’s first stand-alone boutique, and Emily hopes to start several more.
With a vacation house in Beaufort, Emily and her family have been coming to the area for years.
“There’s something so familiar and so beautiful about this place. The Beaufort waterfront is incredible,” she said. “We’re excited about the new store.”
After Emily’s father retires in February, her parents are planning to relocate permanently to Beaufort. Emily said being close to her family and friends has made all the difference in getting things going. With her mom as a business partner and her father helping with the construction of a new store, Southern fRock has really been a family effort. She even has the photo shoots for her clothing lines in Carteret County. All of them have either been in Beaufort or over on Atlantic Beach.
“My models are my best friends, so it’s just a fun time,” she said.
Emily designs everything in the line, and then meets with her mom. Together, they make whatever changes are necessary, and then send the designs to the manufacturer in India. “Everything in the line is something I would wear, my mom would wear. We are very happy with our situation. We’re trying to get everything moving smoothly so we can expand into more things.”
But the two don’t only do the designs and planning.
“We do everything from the shipping, to the marketing, to the PR, to everything. The photo shoots, the styling, the production. We lick our own stamps,” explained Emily.
But no matter how far she’s come, Emily said she still owes it all to working for Patsy Aiken. “I just couldn’t imagine getting my start without being there and learning, working in the warehouse, doing small things like pulling orders, filling in with some of the design, seeing behind the scenes and how everything worked. It really was a good experience,” she said.
Currently, Emily and her family are working on finishing the Beaufort store. She is keeping the facade as historically accurate as possible. Though she wanted the store to be open before the season was over, Emily isn’t rushing the process.
“It was in awful shape,” she said of the site. “This is my big project, and I want it to be done right.”
The interior of the store is a reflection of Emily and Betsy being inspired by the places they’ve seen and will feature a chandelier made of coral that Emily found while antiquing on a sales trip in Florida. They both said they didn’t like the stuffy feel of some boutiques.
“We don’t want that feel at all. That’s not who we are,” said Betsy.
Emily is planning on having a grand opening party sometime in the spring with the launch of the new season.
She said, “This is hopefully the first of several more. We have many fun, supportive customers that I could see maybe some sort of Southern fRock franchise of boutiques. You never know what the future may hold, and right now it is sundresses, seersucker and beach cover-ups.”
Southern Frock can be found at AB Surf Shop, Dee Gee’s and the main store on Front Street in Beaufort. Designs can also be purchased online at southernfrock.com.