All About Dresses

BY ROBIN HOWARD | PHOTOGRAPHS BY HOLGER OBENAUS

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In June 2013 a unique little dress shop quietly opened on Society Street. Everything that happened after that was decidedly not quiet. Little Black Dress is a dress shop, but it’s not just any dress shop—it’s only a dress shop. Shoppers looking for a special occasion dress or a boost to their daytime wardrobe don’t have to navigate racks of jeans, blouses and shoes to find what they want. “We’re all about the dress,” says co-owner Carrie Turco. “Last year I was looking for a formal dress and I just couldn’t find anything I liked. I realized there was a niche in the Charleston market for formal wear, so we created Little Black Dress,” she says, nodding toward her mother, Michele.

The store is a joint venture between the two, a partnership that works surprisingly well given their difference in styles. While Michele leans toward classic Audrey Hepburn, Carrie’s style is decidedly edgier. Their differences result in a range of options from trendy to enduring. “Charleston girls like to come in because they know us,” Carrie says. “We remember them and we care about them. My mom will give it to you straight, too,” she says, laughing. “You’re not going to leave here looking bad.” That mission is the second thing that makes Little Black Dress different: The team behind the counter is fixed on making shoppers feel like family.

“We want to build trust with our customers,” Michele says. “We don’t just want to sell you something. We want you to look and feel great, so we’ll give you an honest opinion. I won’t let a girl walk out of here looking anything less than classy.” It’s these words—spoken like a true mother, big sister or best friend—that make a shopper at Little Black Dress feel as if she’s going through her girlfriend’s (well-curated) closet. “Yes, we treat women like family here because that’s the way we would want to be treated,” Michele says.

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When her mom drops the Golden Rule, Carrie turns serious. “Every day women are told that they’re not pretty enough. When you step through our doors You. Are. Beautiful!” she says with enough ferocity that every woman in a five-block radius suddenly feels better about herself. Obviously, this duo knows that a dress is never just a dress, something Carrie figured out at a young age. Though she is more businessperson than fashionista, a peek into her past, courtesy of Michele, reveals an early penchant for design. “When she was little, she would design dresses from bath towels,” Michele says. “With belts!” Carrie adds. “And, when I was growing up we always had a big trunk of costume clothes. There was a runway show every day,” she says.

Customers benefit from both Carrie’s and Michele’s fashion savoir faire. The store carries unusual lines that are hard to find, including creations from Australian designers such as Cameo, Keepsake and Finders Keepers. In fact, the Keepsake dress currently featured in the window was recently seen on E! News television personality, Giuliana Rancic. The store carries cocktail dresses, mother-of-the-bride dresses, day dresses, long formals, and matching clutches and accessories. Though Little Black Dress is located smack in the middle of Charleston’s historic district, there are some distinctly LA-style options such as those from designer Navan. “These are great dresses for Charleston,” Carrie says. “They’re very summery, clean and simple.”

The mother/daughter team combines their design flair with each of their unique talents to make this venture go. Carrie brings her energy and business sense, learned in part from her father, while Michele lends her classic style, creativity and bookkeeping skills. A delightful part of the Turco family values is philanthropy, something that Michele and Carrie demonstrated right from the start. Last year they were sponsors of The Red Party, a Gatsby-themed soiree to benefit the American College of the Building Arts at the Old Jail.

Later in the year they sponsored a fashion show to benefit the Charleston Animal Society, an event that raised over $120,000. “I was raised to believe that what you give, you get back,” Carrie says. “This year we’re going to do some events to benefit women’s causes. So many women have gone through terrible things. For our customers, when they come in here, it’s a new day,” she says.

It’s likely this impressive foundation of compassion is what makes this partnership work. While many can’t imagine spending all day, every day with their mother (or their daughter), Michele and Carrie make it work. “We had to learn balance,” Carrie says. “I had to learn that when she expresses an opinion, she has my best interests in mind. We compromise and sometimes disagree, but we always love each other,” she says. “And I had to learn to let go and let Carrie grow and make her own decisions. She’s done a great job and I’m very proud of her,” Michele says.

It’s this welcoming family-style energy that frequently brings mothers and daughters in to shop together. Because there are fashions for all ages, occasions and price ranges, it’s a relaxed experience with neither encouraging the other to hurry up. “We know that shopping is social and women have fun browsing. We encourage that. There’s no pressure, we always just enjoy meeting new people and catching up with locals,” Michele says.

The idea of the dependable “little black dress,” that faithful friend that can make a girl feel good no matter what, may be evolving into the little red dress or even the little patterned dress these days. But for Michele and Carrie Turco, the idea that looking beautiful means feeling beautiful will never change.

Robin Howard is a full-time freelance writer in Charleston. See more of her work at www.robinhowardwrites.com.