Fashion emerges as economic force in Nashville

Friday, March 28, 2014, Vol. 38, No. 13
By Jennifer Justus

At well past 5 p.m. on a recent Friday, the happy hour crowd had already started to gather on the porch of East Nashville’s Village Pub.

But across the street at boutique Black by Maria Silver, owner and designer Maria “Poni” Silver continued to work at her shop’s sewing machine piecing together a gown for her fall/winter collection that she’ll show at Nashville Fashion Week.

It’s part of a months-long process – finding inspiration, sketching on flats, pattern-making, sample-making, fittings – all while keeping up with the spring/summer collection in production.

Silver has shown her work on the runways of Nashville Fashion Week for three of the four years the event has been in existence. This year’s show will take place on April 1, with additional shows featuring about 30 designers ongoing through April 5. The week also includes fashion industry panel discussions and a gala with guest speaker, Fern Mallis, creator of New York Fashion Week.

It’s the big week in Nashville for an industry that’s changing and growing.

“Local fashion weeks are at their most effective and productive when they focus on building the careers of the fashion designers and companies in their area,” says creative consultant Libby Callaway, who will be moderating industry panel discussions.

“Providing access to new customers, potential buyers from a range of retail outlets – local, regional, national – and press that can help create buzz are all non-negotiables in my book. If you’re not using the funding and attention to foster the nurturing of local brands, you’re just putting on fashion shows.

“The NFF (Nashville Fashion Forward Fund, which fashion week supports to give endowments to participants) has done a great job of supporting local fashion start-ups, tomorrow’s stars; we need more groups to learn from their example.”

Local designer Johnathan “Kayne’’ Gillaspie, will show his Johnathan Kayne Collection on April 5.

“I am so incredibly proud to be a Nashvillian and to see how this amazing city has grown especially since I have been away. I have lived in New York City and Oklahoma City for the past 13 years and moved my business and home back to Nashville last year,” he says.

“Nashville’s fashion scene has gained some serious momentum over the past decade with the help of Nashville Fashion Week and its avid fans,’’ he adds. “The energy and pulse of this city is growing at a phenomenal rate, and I feel this is making Nashville such a hotspot for creative talent.

“We need to continue to cultivate and support this creative culture and continue educating the world that Nashville may be the Music City, but we have a heck of a lot more to offer than sweet tea and country music.”

One such newcomer, Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart of Vaute Couture, has the first all-vegan label to show at New York Fashion Week. She’ll visit Nashville Fashion Week for the first time from her home base of New York.

“I’ve always wanted to check out Nashville, so rich in its own music and fashion, that I was thrilled at the chance to explore for a weekend,’’ she says. “Vintage is my favorite, and I can’t wait to check out the Nashville thrift scene, and eat some amazing local food.”

Indeed, the scene has been changing and growing over the years.

When Callaway arrived in Nashville from New York in 2004, where she had been fashion editor at the New York Post, she said a fashion scene didn’t really exist.

“There have always been plenty of talented stylists here who sometimes sidelined into designing, but in terms of full-on fashion design companies, I can’t say I remember that there were any,’’ Callaway explains.

“Imogene + Willie coming to town changed everything. Not only did they help define a true ‘Nashville aesthetic,’ Matt and Carrie (Eddmenson) quickly became tastemakers on a national and even international level, which introduced other local brands like Otis James and Emil Erwin, which did a bag collab with Imogene +Willie that was a sell-out in J. Crew.

“Even if you don’t prescribe to the look they sell, there’s no arguing that they have changed the way Nashville thinks about fashion in terms of business and as a viable local industry.”

Mike Smith, co-founder of Nashville Fashion Week, adds that it’s important to have a strong fashion scene for the same reasons a strong food scene, or music scene, helps a city.

“It spurs more of the creative arts and enriches culture,” he says. “As Jon Meacham’s article in the recent TIME magazine issue offered, ‘culture is commerce.’ We’ve got a lot of both in this city right now.”

Callaway stresses that a strong fashion scene is good business.

“It’s all too easy for community leaders to underestimate their fashion scenes,’’ she says. “It’s common for them to think of clothes and the people who are interested in producing them as frivolous and inconsequential. But the truth is that a strong fashion industry adds to a community not only in terms of economics and job creation, but also in creating the ever-important PR buzz that brings new visitors to town not only to explore our retail stores, but to eat in our restaurants, see our many attractions, and stay in our hotels.

“Beyond that, having an aesthetic and a community of brands that catch a toehold in the national cultural zeitgeist as Nashville’s heritage community and its progenitors have goes a long way in building local pride,’’ Callaway explains.

“Nashvillians have a tendency to fell like underdogs, ‘less-thans’ in terms of style.

“The attention we’ve gotten over the last few years has changed the way we see ourselves in relation to other creative communities. I can’t help but think that this pride translates into dollars.”

And with a scene that’s still incubating, designers and other professionals in the industry have the opportunity not to just break into the fashion business but to help create it.

“It’s great doing it here because it’s new,” says Silver. “We’re all creating the industry from the bottom up, where as in New York it has been there way before you and will be there way after you, and you’re lucky to make a little dent in that. But to be part of it actually blooming is rare.”