Society Social brings its preppy-chic designs to South End with the opening of its first brick-and-mortar store.
by Cathy Martin • photographs by Richard Israel
styled by Whitley Adkins Hamlin • hair and makeup by Josiah Reed
Step into Society Social’s new flagship store in Atherton Mill, and you might feel more like you’re in Palm Beach than Charlotte. Pass under the canvas awning through the bright pink double doors, and you’ll find yourself in an airy space packed with pastel chairs and sofas, rattan lamps and mirrors, and a myriad of other colorful accessories hand-picked by owner and creative director Roxy Owens and her team.
Inside the 20-foot baby-blue pagoda in the center of the store — a nod to the chinoiserie designs often found in Society Social’s products — rows of color and fabric swatches line the wall. Elsewhere on the walls, you’ll find paintings by Southern women artists, including Nashville-based Kayce Hughes, Birmingham-based Liz Lane, as well as Charlotte’s own Windy O’Connor. Pale-pink-and-white gingham floors were hand-painted by Charlotte installation artist Kathryn Godwin of Studio Cultivate. Custom Brunschwig & Fils draperies adorn the windows, an exclusive French blue version of the popular Les Touches fabric design.
And then there’s the Sedgewick bar cart. You might walk right past it without a glance, but this handcrafted, faux-bamboo cart is where it all began.
Owens started Society Social in 2011 after several years working in the fashion industry, including in the buying division at the Belk department-store chain. AMC’s Mad Men was wildly popular, and the TV show set in 1960s Manhattan was beginning to influence everything from men’s fashion to home decor. But one midcentury staple that figures prominently in the show — the bar cart — had all but vanished from furniture showrooms.
Around the same time, the recession had taken a toll on the retail industry, including Owens’ parents’ furniture business in Hickory. The Te family started the company in the Philippines when they were right out of college. “They took out loans, they had us, and we lived in the factory when we were kids,” says Owens, the oldest of four siblings. By the time she turned 5, the family had moved to Hickory to open an upholstery plant, making furniture under private labels for big U.S. retailers.
“I kind of felt helpless during the worst, when the economy started to crash,” Owens says. “Because [my parents’] business really relied on other people’s businesses. And it was just devastating to see all the companies around us … so many people closed down. So many families went out of business; it was awful. And then to see my own family suffer.”
Spying an opportunity in the market, Owens came up with a plan.
“I was like, OK, I have these furniture companies that have been in my family for 40 years. I could probably design a bar cart and push it to market on e-commerce with little to no expense and see how it does,” says Owens, who has marketing degrees from N.C. State University and The New School’s Parsons School of Design. “And it put us on the map, and it blew up.”
What happened next was a combination of work and luck, she says. Using only social media to market the new business, interior-design magazine House Beautiful discovered the brand early on and included Society Social’s bar carts in its “The Best” list within months of the brand’s debut.
“We [had] launched at the end of August. They found us before we launched,” says Owens, who was 27 at the time. Other publications quickly followed, and before long Society Social was featured in Traditional Home, Southern Living, Elle Decor and other shelter publications. The business soon expanded into upholstery. Its sofas — all made in Hickory — can be customized with contrast piping, tassels and more. Tables, mirrors, dining chairs, ottomans and the company’s popular grass-cloth tables — which can be custom painted in any Sherwin-Williams or Benjamin Moore color — round out the line.
Roxy’s goal starting out was to produce high-quality furniture that was well-made and stylish but didn’t break the bank. As a 20-something living in pricey New York City, she was enamored with the high-end styles she saw when flipping through home magazines but couldn’t afford anything in the pages.
“I was like, let’s try to calibrate the designs to hit a price point that even a 20-something could possibly afford.” Many of her customers are millennials and first-time homebuyers, with sofas starting at about $1,500. Second-homeowners also drawn to the brand, a natural fit as many of Society Social’s products exude a breezy, beach-house aesthetic.
After a successful decade as a direct-to-consumer brand, Charlotte was an obvious choice for Society Social’s first brick-and-mortar shop. The Queen City is one of the company’s three biggest markets (others are in New York and Texas), and Hickory is within an hour’s drive. In addition to heading up creative and marketing efforts, Owens also helps oversee the factory.
So last year, Roxy and her husband, Alan, and their 2-year-old daughter, Austen, moved from New York back to North Carolina. Alan, who met Roxy while they were students at N.C. State, still commutes to New York for his job as an engineer.
“I grew up [in Hickory], so I call it home,” says Owens, who recalls biannual trips to High Point Market with her family from the time she was 8 years old. Though she’s back in the Charlotte area, her business still provides some jaw-dropping opportunities. In early December, just days before I interviewed her for this story, she posted a selfie with Drew Barrymore — the actress had invited Owens and four other women business owners to her New York home to help launch a new blue-light eyewear collection for her own brand, Flower by Drew. “That was wild. … I felt really cool — it’s not something I would normally get invited to,” Owens says.
With a successful online business — the only marketing tool Society Social uses is Instagram, where the brand has more than 96,000 followers — why bother opening a physical shop?
“I think that retail has changed in such a way that you don’t need as many brick-and-mortars. But you need one — at least one awesome flagship where your customers can come and have an experience with your brand,” Owens says. “It’s all about experiential retail these days. We knew that being a furniture line, it was very important to have a place where people could touch and feel and sit.”
So Society Social Charlotte opened its hot pink doors in November, enlisting the help of New York designer Sasha Bikoff. “It’s been a good experiment, and wonderful to see people come in who have been following us since the beginning and had never seen us in person before,” Owens says. “We hear a lot, ‘This store is so happy!’ and it makes me so happy to be here.” SP