It's becoming increasingly clear that one need not live or study in a traditional "fashion capital" like New York or Los Angeles in order to make it in the industry. As a case study, one could look at Nashville's Belmont University, where a number of fashion design and merchandising alumni from its top design college O'More have successfully struck out on their own in the fashion biz.
Modiste, Pine + Sapling and Lady James are each women-owned and -operated small fashion businesses that were launched in the past couple of years by O'More alumni. Their founders have all contributed to Nashville's thriving indie fashion scene (according to a recent study, the city had the highest per capita concentration of fashion companies outside of NYC and L.A.) while finding their own niche and, over the past year, navigating a pandemic that's been hard on businesses of all shapes and sizes.
While each of their paths have been different, they've all applied a lot of what they learned at O'More to bringing their ideas and passions to life. Below, Jami-Lyn Fehr Hall, Cassie McLure and Emily James each share a bit about how they got their businesses off the ground, how they directly applied what they learned at school and from other jobs, and how they've made things work during a pandemic.
Jami-Lyn Fehr Hall, Founder of Modiste
Modiste is a consciously curated multi-brand boutique that currently only lives online, but founder Jami-Lyn Fehr Hall (class of 2018) says a physical showroom in Nashville is coming soon this year. The chicly-branded e-commerce site, which only launched in November 2020, features a thoughtful assortment of womenswear by independent designers like Bevza, Paloma Wool, By Far, Rachel Comey and more.
"I realized the shopping in Nashville isn't up to par with other major cities, and I wanted to do what I could to offer all of Nashville's fashionable residents and transplants the curated shopping experience that is commonly found in NYC, L.A., and Miami," says Hall. She also runs the business with an eye towards sustainability. "Something my education exposed to me is the harmful effects of the fashion industry on the environment and the ethical issues that arise with fast fashion, and has driven me to shop more consciously, and on that note, source brands for Modiste more consciously," she tells me. "We understand what we offer is at a higher price point, but we hope to encourage our clients to invest in quality purchases that they’ll want to keep in their wardrobe forever, rather than focus on the short term, flash-in-the-pan trends that fast fashion panders to. Because we don’t want to contribute to the excess of the fashion industry, Modiste only buys in very limited quantities with an understanding of our customer and how she shops."
Before launching Modiste, Hall spent about a year "concepting and planning" the business, pulling from her education as well as jobs she had prior to striking out on her own. Her Retail Buying and Textiles classes were especially beneficial. "I use spreadsheets and formulas I learned in Retail Buying classes on a daily basis making sure my markups allow for a profitable margin," she explains. "Textiles allows me to have an understanding of the fabrics and fiber contents of the pieces I source for Modiste, which has been especially important during Zoom buying calls where I’m not able to touch and feel the garments." She also came up with the name by looking through handouts from her Evolution of Fashion class; the term Modiste means "a female maker of or dealer in women's fashionable attire."
She also worked in PR, social media marketing, at a local luxury magazine, and as a freelance photographer (she shoots all the imagery for Modiste herself) in between school and launching Modiste. "My past employers have certainly taught me a lot as far as running a business goes, and I'm so thankful to have had the chance to learn from some of the most experienced women in Nashville in their respective fields."
Hall says the most challenging part of all this has been literally getting Modiste off the ground and getting it in front of the right people, which her marketing background has helped with. "I have to constantly remind myself Modiste has only been launched for a little over a month and that I need to be patient," she says. "The most rewarding part so far has just been seeing what was just an idea several months ago turn into a tangible thing people can now shop."
Cassie McLure, Co-Founder of Pine + Sapling
Pine + Sapling is also a multibrand online boutique, but it focuses on clothing and accessories for mothers and children by sustainably-minded brands. "We are striving to create a sisterhood of mothers that care about the impact we make socially, on the planet, and our health through the brands we do business with," says Cassie McLure, who graduated from O'More in 2015 with a Fashion Design degree, and co-founded the company alongside her sister, Callie.
McLure left her corporate job and launched Pine + Sapling in August of 2019, citing her daughter Goldie as her main inspiration. "After her birth, I felt this new sense of empowerment and I knew if I were to ever expect her to live out her dreams, I would need some experience in the 'dreaming and doing' department for myself," she tells me. McLure also credits her time at O'More with giving her the confidence to strike out on her own.
"I used to be so focused on doing things so perfectly that it would stop me from trying at all sometimes. I think a lot of creative people struggle with this. My time at O'More taught me a lot about how to process my inspiration into results," she explains. "Inspiration can be so daunting at times but to understand the process and steps in creating a clothing line or starting a business allowed me to see how my dreams could be reachable." She remembers coming across a quote while at school by "The Happiness Project" author Gretchen Rubin that she still thinks about: "Don't let perfection be the enemy of good."
She also says she learned "an extraordinary amount" from working for a small business while in college, even though it wasn't fashion-related; it was a small olive oil store called Olivia Olive Oil.
Of course, there have been challenges along the way. McLure says it's been difficult competing with fast fashion, but has found, "the more we can educate people on the effects this industry is having on the world, we can change their expectations and little by little change the industry." The pandemic has also presented issues, but by reevaluating things and getting creative, she's been able to learn things that will save time and money in the long run. She's also found support from other small businesses, and feels encouraged when she sees others making waves in sustainability and social impact. "The most rewarding part of running a fashion business is being on the positive side of change and finding that there are a whole lot more of us doing the same!"
Emily James, Co-Founder of Lady James Atelier
Lady James Atelier is a Nashville-based purveyor of custom luxury womenswear including evening wear, bridal wear, red carpet, separates "and everything in between." Emily James and her sister Sarah (who'd been let go from her job during the pandemic) launched the business and storefront officially in October of 2020, but Emily started working with clients after graduating from O'More with a fashion design degree in 2018. "My sister and I both wanted to achieve one main goal as a new business, and that is to empower women through beautiful clothing," she tells me.
Just about every aspect of James's education and work experience prepared her to launch this passion project. "With each custom piece I go through a design process where I illustrate, drape, pattern and construct the garment. All of these skills I learned and perfected through training under talented professors at O'More and industry professionals I apprenticed with." As a student, she worked as an in-store bridal stylist, then as an assistant bridal seamstress. She did a summer internship in New York with evening wear designer Cristina Ottaviano, where she developed a love of red-carpet dressing. And after graduating, she worked a couple of other local design assistant positions in Nashville, as well as on freelance design projects.
The pandemic has unsurprisingly created some challenges, especially given the lack of events for which people need to dress up. "With little to no live performances or formal events, we missed opportunities to grow our brand with our target audience," James explains. "We had to be creative in how we marketed our new and growing brand in an ever-changing industry during the midst of unprecedented times." There have been wins, though: In December, one of the brand's new designs for spring 2021 went viral on TikTok with over 2 million views. "My sister and I were not expecting that kind of response and found our inbox full of requests for custom designs."
If you want to see some of O'More's future fashion stars, check out the school's 2020 virtual showcase, which spotlights junior and senior design students and a special collaboration with Goodwill Industries of Middle Tennessee that was completed during the pandemic. And head here to learn more about O'More.