If you want to be an actor, move to Los Angeles; if you want to form a start-up, move to San Francisco; if you want to be a fashion designer, move to New York; and if you want to be a songwriter, move to Nashville. Or, at least, that was true once upon a time.
While the music industry continues to be the strongest economy in Nashville, the city is also proving itself to be a nurturing environment for young fashion brands looking to make a name for themselves outside of the crowded scenes in New York and Los Angeles. Imogene + Willie might have the most name recognition, but over 150 small-scale brands call Nashville their home. And now, thanks to Van Tucker, a former banker with a history of helping creative brands build business infrastructures, the fashion community has formed a trade organization with the hopes of incubating brands and preparing them for the global stage.
In April 2013, Tucker got together a small group of people from the fashion community to discuss putting a system in place to support the industry. "Nobody had just grabbed the reins, so to speak, to really develop the thoughts around an infrastructure — what it would look like or what it would do or how we would go about it," she said. Tucker recruited a student from the Vanderbilt's graduate business program to get some hard numbers on the city's designers.
"We took that information back to the community and presented it and said what do you think? What do you want to do with this?" said Tucker. "They overwhelmingly wanted to explore the possibility of forming a council or some kind of governing body." A group of about 150 people split into committees to evaluate different sectors and, flash forward to April 2015, the Nashville Fashion Alliance (NFA) was born. It's mission is to "build this infrastructure and nurture this ecosystem so that our brands can survive and thrive," said Tucker, by focusing on advocacy, education, sourcing and production.
Tucker took cues from the most successful fashion trade organization in the U.S. — New York's CFDA. Its president and CEO Steven Kolb visited Nashville in June and advised Tucker to "stay focused on the business infrastructure," she said. Kolb added that the NFA should focus on supporting brands, designers and manufacturers in order to prepare them for a global stage. "That was the most amazing compliment of all," said Tucker. "He felt that we could truly do this in a way that could help emerging brands and start-ups incubate themselves to be ready for bigger cities, like New York, L.A., London, Milan or Paris."
After raising $103,321 on Kickstarter in May to get started — which Tucker says was also a way to raise awareness about the organization — the NFA has one important program already underway. In partnership with the Catholic Charities organization, a sewing training academy will open in August to teach underserved populations how to produce apparel in order to serve local manufacturing facilities. "When [a designer can] get in a car and drive across town to an apparel factory, that can make all the difference in your time to market, and it can make all the difference in the quality of your finished garment," said Tucker. "It's a really critical piece of the creative process. It's not just that we're going to [design something] and pass it off to some nameless, faceless person."
Jobs with "living wages" are waiting for the trainees at apparel manufacturing facilities or with independent designers, many of whom employ sewers in house. One company eager to hire is Omega Apparel, a production facility in Smithville that has spent the last 20 years as the largest manufacturer of military dress uniforms in the country. In 2013, after shrinking military budgets forced President Dean Wegner to downsize the company from a peak of 212 employees to only 128, he approached Tucker. A retired army ranger and businessman, he had only bought the company in 2012 and was hoping to work with Nashville's fashion designers as a way to diversify his client base.
But Omega was not set up to produce less than 5,000 pieces of an item per week, and no designer is producing anything near those numbers in Nashville. So Wegner reevaluated how his company operated and thanks to insight from an employee named Becky Rhine — who used to work in Disney's costume division making small batches of Cinderella dresses and Goofy costumes — he invested in machinery and equipment and transformed production lines into production pods. Now he has almost 60 customers and a full service design team and is set to open a 10,000-square-foot facility in Nashville this fall. He plans to hire 1,000 sewers in the next five years and his new location will make it even easier for him to work with Nashville brands.
"I believe in five to 10 years that fashion and apparel will be synonymous with Nashville," he said. "I could not afford to invest all the training we would need for that number of people over the next five years but now that we have a partner in Catholic Charities, that has a certified sewing training academy, we can do that," he said. Wegner hopes the program will scale to other cities in Tennessee, which has 75 apparel factories, and across the country where trained labor is lacking.
In addition to investing in skilled laborers and domestic manufacturing, the NFA's other biggest priority for young brands is business mentorship. "The NFA is going to be really instrumental in helping people do something as simple as write a business plan," said Libby Callaway, a creative consultant and board member of the NFA who was part of the small group Tucker assembled in 2013. [Full disclosure: I travelled to Nashville on a press trip paid for by the city in July, and Callaway coordinated visits with designers and Tucker while I was there.] "These designers have good ideas and they've figured out to build the product, but they haven't figured out how to support the process or promote the end product," she said. Libby hopes the NFA will encourage the city to invest in the fashion industry as it has the music industry — with mentorship, time and resources.
That's not to say Nashville's fashion designers aren't already reaping the benefits of the city's unique environment. Brands such as Elizabeth Suzann, a million-dollar business that sells only direct to consumers online, can stand out in a smaller market and find a strong identity online — all without getting caught in the season-focused, overcrowded schedule of a city like New York.
"Nashville is a very accessible, collaborative city," said Tucker. "Part of our value system is always going to be playing a huge value on the creative class, I think that's just embedded in our DNA. It's part of our history, its part of our present and it will definitely be a part of our future. Fashion is the next step."