With the maker movement taking over the nation in a real, viable way, it's little surprise that Nashville--home of country music, Jack White, Harmony Korine and plenty of other artists creating original, thoughtful work--has its very own cottage industry of fashion designers, doing everything from 70s-inspired stage outfits to rugged leather handbags. I recently spent four days in Nashville visiting designer studios, shopping vintage and checking out Northern Grade, the traveling market that features American-made goods from around the country. What I found was a close-knit group of hyper-creative people treating design as a passion, not just a job. Click through to get a sense of the scene.
Label: Black by Maria Silver Who: Maria "Poni" Silver Designs: stage-ready womenswear www.blackbymariasilver.com
Raised in Queens, educated at FIT and trained in Broadway's Carelli costume shop, it's no surprise Ettes' drummer Poni Silver decided to launch her own line, Black by Maria Silver, in 2011. The '70s-gypsy-rock collection—featuring billowy palazzo pants, crushed velvet column dresses, and high-waisted trousers. It's for sale in Silver's studio/boutique, just one room in Fond Object, a sort of shop-meets-collective that she shares with Ettes' bandmates Coco Hames and Jem Cohen, as well as artist Rachel Briggs and Jeff "El Jefe" Pettit, who runs the record shop inside, aptly named Fond Object Records. In Silver's room, you'll also find buffalo bone jewelry by Atlanta's Fossil and Hide. The group is also selling a tiny selection of vintage furniture and tchotchkes in the front room. Oh, and there's a pot-bellied pig, two goats and a dog roaming in the backyard. So if these guys invite you to a barbecue, go.
Label: Peter Nappi Who: Phillip Nappi Designs: Italian-made shoes and other leather goods www.peternappi.com
It wasn't until Phillip Nappi moved his wife and child to Florence to become a shoemaker that he discovered his grandfather Peter Nappi was himself a cobbler. That fateful story is the basis of Nappi's Italian craftsmanship-meets-Americana collection of men's and women's boots, bags and accessories. The designer's shop and studio is in an old pump house, and basically everything, from the vintage denim jackets to the industrial chandeliers, is for sale. (You'll also recognize this space if you watch Nashville.)
Label: Emil Erwin Who: Emil and Leslie Congdon Designs: leather bags and belts www.emilerwin.com
Emil Congdon's studio—filled with rows of sewing machines and stacks of leather scraps—is located in Marathon Village, a long-abandoned automotive plant that now houses several designer studios and shops, a distillery as well as Antique Archeology, the vintage collectibles shop run by Mike Wolfe, star of the History Channel's hit show, American Pickers. Antique Archeology draws in the crowds, but it's outfits like the Congdons' that keeps the building cool. After collaborating with Imogene + Willie in 2010 on a limited edition bag that was sold—and sold out—at J.Crew, Emil Erwin was picked up by Barneys, and is currently the only Nashville-based designer on the department store's roster. This season, Emil Erwin will launch its first collection of women's bags.
Label: Valentine Valentine Who: Amanda Valentine Designs: print-heavy, '90s-feeling (read: hipster-y) dresses and separates. She called one of her past collections "Machu Picchu punk." www.amandavalentine.com
You might know Amanda Valentine from Season 11 of Project Runway, where she was eliminated in Episode 8. But the designer, who shares a live-work space with her artist-photographer husband, also works as a celebrity stylist and costume designer. Her next project? Launching an online store for Valentine Valentine. It's set to pop up on Amandavalentine.com on May 15.
Label: Annie Williams Who: Annie Williams Design: leather clutches, wallets and other handmade leather accessories www.annie-williams.com
Annie Williams fails to fit into any little box you try to put her in. She has worked as an industrial sewer for a climbing company, throws hoedowns at the new property she and her husband recently bought in Nashville, and released a song in 2011 that was recently featured on an episode of Grey's Anatomy. I met her for none of those reasons, but instead because of her leather clutches, which have been featured on Of a Kind. Williams loves working with leather as a medium, and commissioned Horween—the Chicago tannery that (I learned this weekend) pretty much every Made-in-America leather line uses—to create her own color, called Williamsburg grey. Williams shares her tiny studio in an old flour mill with Han Starnes, a knitter with whom she has collaborated.
Label: Otis James Who: Otis James Designs: ties and caps www.otisjamesnashville.com
Otis James and Emil Erwin used to share a workspace in Marathon Village, but now both brands are doing so well that they can afford to be independent of one another. James' niche is neckwear and caps, all made in his studio with fabrics sourced from around the globe. While he's got plenty of female clients who wear the caps, James is focusing on neckwear for women next. Soon, he's launching a line of soft-draping women's ties done in a delicate Japanese cotton.
Label: Josi Faye Who: Han Starnes Designs: handknit scarves, sweaters and accessories www.josifaye.com
Han Starnes creates her handworked knitwear, made from sheep's wool, silk and other natural fabrics, in a loft above Annie Williams' leather studio. (I spied an un-dyed black sheep's wool scarf when I was there, still speckled with little flecks of hay.) Starnes' first venture into wool was a line of handmade yarns, which she launched after being mentored by a guild of women spinners in New Zealand. After moving to Nashville, she began making accessories like hats, headbands and scarves, and collaborated on a clutch with Annie Williams for fall 2013.
Label: Imogene + Willie Who: Matt and Carrie Eddmenson Designs: denim, and a full range of men's and women's clothes Maybe the best-known Nashville-based label, Imogene + Willie's husband-and-wife team Matt and Carrie Eddmenson are denim industry veterans who decided in 2009 to build a collection that they and their friends would actually want to wear. It feels like the whole of Nashville is kitted out in Imogene + Willie's jeans, and it's difficult not to want the same for yourself after stepping into the converted gas station that is their store/studio. I know I didn't. A pair of jeans, khakis, one blouse and a shirt for my husband later, my credit card is hurting but my confidence in the American apparel business is high.