A handful of designers are igniting Nashville's underground fashion scene 

Cruising down a leafy stretch of 12South dotted by boutiques and restaurants, it's easy to miss the handwritten sign for Local Honey. Planted in curb soil with its Sharpie-on-white-poster-board aesthetic, it points you down Linden Avenue with a skinny arrow. Find the unassuming boho cottage stuffed with furniture, bric-a-brac and vintage threads, and it's even easier to miss the significance of the 5-foot-long clothing rack front and center. It is but a few flimsy poles bolted together, holding a dozen or so curious items.

There are flirty cotton jumpers with romantic swish. Clingy jersey knit dresses with geometric patterns that both hug and forgive volume. Whimsical micro mini-skirts with thick elastic waistbands that lengthen the leg and cinch the silhouette. Each is handmade and one-of-a-kind. But more important, local designers forged everything on this rack. Taken together, this oblong structure is a beaming spotlight on Nashville's burgeoning fashion scene.

The designers represented here are all under 30, mostly female and mostly self-taught. By day they alter garments for cash and work at boutiques and screenprinting shops. So they're forced to stitch on lunch breaks, rifle through fabric bins on weekends, and peruse blogs about Swedish, Japanese and Italian street fashion late at night, ever hungry for an innovative cut, an unexpected embellishment, or an offbeat combination of material swirl.

They haul their new creations to Local Honey and plop them on owner and designer Shea Steele's pristine countertop, hoping she'll give the nod that whisks these pieces off to the mighty black-and-silver rack and its intended audience: Nashville's cool kids.

They are the fashionable and young—the skinny-jeaned, vintage-bloused and tulip-skirted droves of young ladies you might see sipping coffee at Fido, lining up at Mercy Lounge or browsing vinyl at Grimey's. They're women who pride themselves on original style the way music geeks fetishize obscure vinyl.

In fashion, having something no one else has is prized above all else—particularly in the era of fast fashion, when garments are mass-produced on a dizzying scale. If you're not paying attention, you'd never notice that buying the latest designs from Target, as affordably chic as they may be, is the style equivalent to eating at McDonald's. So it's no surprise that the latest trend is slow clothes—movements found in cities like San Francisco and Vancouver, where the locally produced and lovingly stitched are becoming highly sought.

This is what draws young women to Local Honey. But even more compelling is that, unlike in more cosmo cities, Nashville's wares sell at only half the cost of typical boutique fare. Most pieces go for well under $75. And though you can find locally produced clothing, T-shirts and totes at a handful of places around the area—Nashville Clothing Co., Mesh in Murfreesboro, Whole Body and Magpie Apparel—Local Honey's rectangle of retail is the hottest game in town.

You'd expect to find these quirky creations in the boutiques of Brooklyn, Seattle, L.A. or Chicago that target the hip and chic. But this is Nashville—a city with no fashion industry and certainly no fashion reputation outside the glitzy garb of Music Row, Manuel's rhinestone-studded suits and Katy K's Western wear. A city where trends arrive two years too late and stick around for three years too long doesn't make anyone's short list of scenes to watch.

But Nashville's underground designers are thriving despite that, mainly because they've managed to tap into a niche audience: the kind of girl you'll find anywhere in the world, the one who'd rather die than wear the latest Old Navy jacket everybody else has. And Local Honey has tapped into Nashville's notoriously casual aesthetic by focusing on creations that can fit into day or evening wear.

"It's gotta be wearable," says Steele, whose freshly scrubbed face and waifish frame make her look more 15 than 28. She describes her clientele as "hip people who like to do fun things and wear fun things." Her line White Rabbit—funky jumpers, hybrid reconstruction dresses and those elastic waistband minis—is popular for its one-size-fits-most flexibility. "A girl wants to buy something she knows she's not just going to wear once. So when something is louder or fancier it takes it a little longer to sell. By loud I just mean heavily adorned. Things do better when they are easily incorporated into everyday."

It's a concept former business partner Amanda Valentine applauds. The two split amicably when they realized the business was small enough for Steele to handle on her own. But Valentine—whose résumé includes frequent wardrobe and styling work in Los Angeles with Kelly Osbourne—continues to be a Local Honey top seller with her swingy, wildly patterned jumpers and reconstructed pieces combining something vintage and something new.

"I'm not dressing the people that are wearing the stuff in fashion magazines," says Valentine, a striking 26-year-old with a coltish beauty. "I'd rather know what my people are wearing. And those are people with really great taste in music and who have some artistic pursuit. I think they're not obsessed with how they look, but they appreciate setting themselves apart and taking time with style—but who aren't vain about it by any means."

It's not surprising that these designers are cut from the very scene they draw their clientele from. When Steele began booking rock shows in Local Honey's backyard, her customer base instantly expanded. Valentine once played in the dance-party band Spring Hill Spider Party. Twenty-two-year-old designer Lauren Taylor, another success story, spent most of her time hanging out in the hardcore scene—back when there was one in Nashville.

Her Lladybird Designs reflect a casual spunk—jersey knit dresses with oddly shaped patterns that emphasize all the va-voom, but that you could still outfit with a pair of Chuck Taylors.

"A lot of what I do is American Apparel-inspired," explains Taylor, whose gesturing and inflection, taken with her spiky hair and dark eyeliner, recall a junior-high style gossip session. "I think a lot of their stuff looks good on different body types. I think people should show off their butts. I think they should show their curves off. So I do a lot of jersey and knit and sweaters. Pretty much anything with a stretch in it."

And she'll use pretty much any kind of fabric. "My favorite thing to do is to go to thrift stores and find the ugliest thing I can find," Taylor says proudly. "And then I take a picture of it. Like, I found this black-and-white polka dot muumuu one time. I cut it up and made it into a little cute mini-dress. And then I get all these compliments on it, and I show people the picture of what it looked like before."

Talk to some of Local Honey's regular customers, and they emphasize two points that justify their loyalty: unique designs and affordable prices. Beth Cameron, who fronts local post-rock outfit Forget Cassettes, says it's a dream come true to find vintage-inspired clothes that fit her petite frame.

"What gets me so excited about Local Honey is that you can buy one-of-a-kind pieces and find vintage one-of-a-kind pieces for petite people like myself," Cameron says. "I find it's hard to buy vintage that runs small, so I get giddy when I go into Local Honey. I love White Rabbit and Lladybird. I have never walked out of there empty-handed, and because everything is so affordable, it's easy to rack up."

Twenty-one-year-old Brooke Diamond finds the affordability and uniqueness a boon, especially when she's on the receiving end of compliments. "Whenever I am out and about wearing something from Local, I always get compliments on the interesting designs."

One rack of clothes sounds more like a blip compared to the hustle of New York, which spits out designers as fast as it spits out new fashions. When becoming the best is typically defined as competing against the best, why stay in Nashville, when everyone knows the real game is in New York?

But it's the very obstacles that prevent large-scale success here that make Nashville a haven for the indie scene.

"I want to do this here because I'm in a place where the fashion scene is growing," explains 22-year-old designer Anne Thessin, whose more high-end work—custom-made gowns using everything from upholstery to silk charmeuse—comes with a higher price tag. Since Thessin's sleek dresses sell for anywhere from $200-$400, she's priced out of the lower end Local Honey insists on. She sells instead through word of mouth, but tapping into her audience—women with sophisticated taste, a little extra dough and the willingness to take a risk on an unknown—can be a challenge.

"Finding the clientele can be difficult—somebody who's willing to spend that kind of money on a dress, and finding someone who will sell it," Thessin says. "If I need to sell something I'm making for $250, the boutique would have to sell it for $350 or $450 for profit and there aren't really places around here that do that. We're not L.A. People won't just spend money at the drop of a hat. I don't know if people are ready for it."

But in New York, Thessin would struggle for years to make contacts and build a portfolio that turns heads. And she could still be nothing. "It's not that I'm even something here yet, but at least I can get my foot in the door. Nashville lends me more opportunities even if I have to break more barriers. The opportunity is what I'm going for. I have more opportunity here as long as I can cross the barriers."

Talk to designers around town, and they'll tell you the same thing. It all boils down to holding out in a place where standing out is more affordable and less stressful.

"In Los Angeles, I realized, I could be one of tens of thousands of young girls trying to be a fashion designer," explains Valentine. "Honestly, it's easier to make waves here, and that's really exciting. It's easier to get attention and be able to meet other people just because you stand out a little bit more."

What competition there is here is aggressively friendly rather than oppressively back-biting.

"We have the feeling that we're all in the same boat," says Valentine. "We're all starting from the ground up. That was really hard in L.A. There'd be kids with trust funds who'd say, 'Oh, I wanna start my own line.' And they'd already have hundreds of thousands of dollars behind them. And I was like, I'm going to be sewing in my basement. I feel like the designers in Nashville all understand how much work it involves, so it's really hard to hate on anyone's game."

And that game is made easier when resources are easy to find. One of the industry's best-kept secrets is that materials don't always come from a crystal cave at the top of Fashion Mountain. They often come from a pair of secondhand bedsheets or a forgotten couch. And while some designers make the occasional trip to New York to score fabric, finding funky materials in Nashville's less pilfered thrift and fabric stores doesn't involve shooing away rivals.

"The advantage we have is that thrifting out here is so good," Valentine says. "Most of my fabrics are vintage, accumulated over years of thrifting. I spend a lot of time digging through bins, and it's rare, but every once in a while you'll hit a gold mine.

"We've got Joanne's. Textile Fabrics is great and they have gorgeous, beautiful stuff and I love that they're not a chain. But it's pricey. So when you're thinking about things like having to mark something up, you can't pay retail fabric prices. You just can't. So that's where the Internet comes into play again. There's really good vintage fabric sites online. You can't pay normal fabric prices and expect to mark it up enough to make any money here."

And the drastically more affordable cost of living here means having to work less at your day job just to get by.

"You don't have the competition here you have in other cities," explains Jamie Atlas, who chairs the fashion department at O'More in Franklin, one of only a handful of schools in town offering design programs. "And if you do want to get a little place or a studio, it's way more cost-effective."

But doing it out of Nashville also means doing it all yourself—sewing, promotion, consignment and shows.

"There's no Fashion Week," says Valentine. "There's no big machine. So I think you have to continue to look outside of Nashville. You have to be on the Internet and you have to be thinking about getting into other boutiques in other cities. There's no way you can just operate in Nashville."

Atlas, who says only two of her last crop of 13 graduates chose to leave Nashville, still encourages students to stay open to opportunities elsewhere. "There is a big trend of more people staying here, which surprises me," she says. "Because you have the music industry here but that's about it. You do have the wealth of people staying here who can afford what students are creating. I think it's great if they stay here, but if you were living in New York, you'd just have so many businesses who want to hire someone. And you have to be there to get those opportunities."

Nashville also has zero opportunities for mass-producing a clothing line, which means expensive outsourcing. And when it comes to putting on a show, you need models and stylists and someone who understands the thump-and-strut vibe that captivates buyers.

Rachel Dodson, who owns the AMAX modeling agency, says the lack of high-fashion models with runway experience poses a problem.

"There's a lot of good talent here but not a lot of fashion work, so any models we get that are really high-fashion we place in other markets. It's definitely a more commercial market here. We've had some high-fashion shows here. The Oscar de la Renta show, the Victoria's Secret show and the BMW Apparel show were here. They had to fly in some models, but the rest were local. So we have some here with runway experience, but not a lot."

Nashville designers also realize they can't expect top-of-the-line resources when they haven't quite earned them yet. Many still host their designs on MySpace, have cottage industries set up on craft sites like Etsy.com, or post regularly on sites like Crafster.org. They also rely on word of mouth, fashion and trunk shows like those popping up in places like Mad Donna's in East Nashville, or club-like organizations springing up to spread the word.

Four years ago, there wasn't so much as a single rack devoted to underground designs in town. At the time, vintage hounds had to sniff out Local Honey, which then was just a closet-sized room up a staircase above Grimey's record store on Eighth Avenue. The notion of an underground fashion scene consisted of vintage goods and whatever trendy kids ordered online from Urban Outfitters.

Steele, a Watkins art-school dropout from Memphis, held that principle in mind as she scoured the region for quirky, obscure vintage items to sell. She'd always dreamed of being a hub for designers. The problem was, she only knew one or two. In those Spartan years, she squeezed their work in among the racks of vintage finds. The first few tries didn't take. But when Steele moved to 12South two years ago, everything changed.

"Out of nowhere, Hana Hattori approached me," says Steele. The Japanese-born Hattori has enjoyed top billing in the local scene for her exceptionally crafted line of hyper-feminine, brightly patterned sundresses. And when Steele realized she needed to rent the top floor of her store, in stepped designer Helen Stevens, who creates romantic, vintage-inspired dresses and skirts from rich fabrics under the name Rae Clothing.

Valentine offered her reconstructed shirts, and then there were three. But they would need to find their people—like-minded, fashion-conscious artists and designers who would ignite a spark. People who wanted to give Nashville the ultimate makeover, stitch by stitch.

That spark came from Patrick Weber and Billy Gemmill. Weber was a designer known for his Only 50 label, consisting of limited-run batches of rock- and vintage-inspired T-shirts. Business partner and former model Gemmill had once graced a much-coveted Abercrombie & Fitch retail bag.

The two knew leggy women and fashion-conscious kids from the rock scene. They also knew how to commemorate an all-nighter with a collectible T-shirt after throwing sold-out dance parties at 12th & Porter. Naked Without Us—shows that hinge on the notion that fashion and rock 'n' roll are inextricably linked—seemed not just like a logical extension, but a slam-dunk.

Naked Without Us held its first show at Exit/In last year. With a mere $500, Weber and Gemmill produced Nashville's first fashion show marrying local designers and bands. They barely secured backing, so they listed fake sponsors on ads to seem more official. Having promised the headliner, the eyeliner synth-rock band Luna Halo, $25 more than the entire budget, they crossed their fingers and hoped Nashville's apathetic rock scene and amorphous fashion loyalists would turn their heads.

The show sold out. Naked Without Us now does two shows a year, all with equal success, and just booked its first out-of-town show at next year's SXSW—the first fashion show the indie rock festival has hosted. To Weber and Gemmill, it doesn't just prove that Nashville audiences are interested in fashion, but that they've also tapped into an audience who would otherwise be excluded from high-end fashion events.

"There are high-end dressmakers here," Weber explains. "But a fashion show for them? The tickets are $40, or if it's for charity or a benefit it could be $75. People like us can't afford to go to those shows."

"Our shows are $10," Gemmill adds. "That's five bucks more than you'd pay for a regular rock show. I think a third of the audience is there for just music, just for the bands. Another third is just there for the fashion, and the rest is there for both."

While most designers are looking away from Music Row, some are beginning to forge connections with the higher-end designers who make couture for red-carpet events like the CMAs.

One such pairing is Shannon Lea and Jessica Maros. Lea, with her alabaster complexion, honey hair and luminescent blue eyes, looks more like a moisturizer model than a designer, but the 27-year-old's floaty, undulating knit dresses are Prada-like, unabashedly romantic creations that are frequently hailed for their originality by members of the local fashion scene. She also holds the distinction of having made it to the final 40 in the recent season of Project Runway.

Lea helped Maros with a gown that was worn at the recent CMA awards by up-and-coming singer Jessica Andrews.

The pair are collaborating on two pieces for Exodus, a joint fashion show they're planning for March. It will feature fashions inspired by the photos of Talia Shipman, whose works include modern interpretations of the 10 biblical plagues. Models will be wearing both women's fashions, and Shipman's photos will also be featured in mixed-media style.

"I think people are looking for experimental stuff here," Maros says. "I want to make the sort of things that if you brought back from New York, people would stop you and ask where you got it from. That's what Nashville is lacking. That sense of style and that sense of risk. That's why I think what we do here will hopefully catch on and create its own thing."

Like the rock scene embracing the slick production values of Music Row, so may underground fashion have to cater to the larger industry if it wants to sustain itself.

Robert Campbell has just trademarked Nashville Fashion Week, and plans to hold the city's first, set for next fall. But he'll have to bring in a headliner, hopefully an international designer, to attract the sponsorships needed to pull of such a big event.

"Our approach is going to be a lot different than what you'd see in New York," Campbell says. "Our approach is more on the retail side of it. The main objective is to draw people from all over the country, and not just to see a designer's collection but be able to purchase it. Our focus is to use fashion to just showcase the city. A lot of people still associate Nashville with Music City and think that's just country. The goal is to celebrate Nashville as an artistic city with a lot of different artistic expressions, so we'll incorporate music and art with a primary focus on designers who are local, but many who are not. We can't draw people here just to see local designers yet, but local designers can benefit from the draw of international designers."

Campbell has been working on connecting fashionistas since 2006, when he founded Nashville Fashion Group. He's well aware of the city's obstacles as a fashion center.

"Neiman Marcus said in 2005 that Nashville was their second or third largest market for online sales," says Campbell. "In 2004, we were named the No. 1 city for online shopping. We don't have a strong retail representation when it comes to the high end. Nordstrom was talking about coming here for 10 years, but they couldn't figure out the demographic. It goes back to Nashville being a melting pot and not having its own identity. It's not that Nashville has never had the clientele for high-end fashion. It's that no one has ever been able to target the demographic."

And as more and more boutiques are drawn to the city, designers may also see a boost as Nashville becomes accustomed to the new aesthetic. Posh in Hillsboro Village has held down the trendy front for years, and White Stripes frontman Jack White's wife Karen Elson is opening a vintage store on Belmont with former Venus and Mars owner Amy Patterson.

Two years ago, Rachel Lowe opened Two Elle, a 12South boutique that sells a New York urban-downtown aesthetic, and is one of the few that also caters to the hipster male. Lowe opened the boutique when she discovered that she loved living in Nashville, but couldn't shop here. Now that Valentine is on staff, Lowe is considering also hosting local designs.

"If you look at the kid who hangs out at Fido, that style I found was missing when I went shopping," she says. "That made me want to open the store. That look is definitely here, but I didn't understand where they were shopping. Then I noticed it was a lot of Urban Outfitters product on these kids. But there's no Urban Outfitters in Nashville. So I knew there was an eye for that kind of style, but they had to be going to other cities to buy it."

Urban Outfitters will open in Nashville next year, but it will only be a matter of time before every rock show and coffee shop patron may find him- or herself wearing exactly what everyone else is wearing—virtual death to any hipster's sense of individuality.

Uniqueness is key to the one-of-a-kind handmades selling at Local Honey, and in small amounts at Nashville Clothing Company. Recently, Mesh in Murfreesboro has begun selling Nashville designers. But when designers are too unique for Nashville, as was the case for sundress designer Hana Hattori, moving to bigger cities may be inevitable. Hattori got her start at Local Honey selling her childlike, delicate sundresses that only the waifishly adorable could pull off. But a few weeks ago, she packed up for hipster central in Brooklyn.

"My stuff was doing well in Nashville but not as well as I hoped it to be," Hattori says.

She's meeting with buyers and visiting boutiques to get her stuff in stores. "I think I just wanted to see what's out there," she explains. "I love Nashville, and I think it's a great place for fashion right now, so part of me wanted to stay. But I think all designers will eventually wonder, 'What if I was in Brooklyn, and what if I could have access to the fashion opportunities in New York? What could happen to me there?' "

It's a gamble, to be sure. Hattori had established a market here, with the added advantage of being able to see the women wearing her dresses out on the town. In Brooklyn, that's a rare amenity.

"The size of Nashville definitely let me meet people who actually knew my clothes," Hattori says. "In a bigger city you probably won't have that. Nashville is growing, and if I stay there long enough, I know there'd be more and more opportunities. But New York is the place where everyone talks about fashion. I wanted to see what I could be."

At least Hattori can take comfort knowing that if the jungle proves too hostile, the metal rack at Local Honey will still be there.

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