When Amanda Valentine appeared on Lifetime's reality competition show Project Runway, the wider world was introduced to something it hadn't really seen before: a cool, quirky designer from Nashville whose aesthetic doesn't fall into either of the two boxes most often associated with Music City. Her style isn't Southern Americana — the amalgam of timeless plaids, finely crafted leather boots and investment jeans that Garden & Gun has propagated to the masses. Nor is it sparkle-and-twang, the countrypolitan look of Manuel-esque jackets and glitzy cowboy boots.
Valentine's name was already familiar to locals, through her burgeoning label Valentine Valentine. But her participation on Runway brought wider attention to her work. It also broadened the view of what kind of clothing is being designed and constructed in Nashville, and in the process made Valentine the unwitting poster child for Nashville's emerging fashion community.
Yet for many of the city's designers — Valentine included — it underscored just how far Nashville still has to go to build a viable fashion industry.
Locally produced or headquartered lines like Imogene + Willie, Otis James, Prophetik, Emil Erwin, Peter Nappi and Leona by Lauren Leonard are known and worn far beyond our city limits, to be sure. Farther down the ladder, however, a community of fledgling designers is working furiously just to survive. This fashion community, though rich in creativity, is strapped for the capital and resources necessary to launch and sustain a widely successful apparel line.
So even as the city celebrates its growing cachet in the national press, Nashville lacks the essential tools to build a functional fashion industry. And the time may be short to leverage that cachet to build infrastructure. As supermodel and Project Runway host Heidi Klum says on her show each week, "In fashion, one day you're in, and the next day you're out."
The good news? There are smart, creative people here who have the means and the muscle to make it work. And as attention focuses on Nashville Fashion Week, which returns April 2 to venues around the city, those needs — and solutions — will be foremost in their minds.
Since her exit from Project Runway, which played out on the March 14 episode, Valentine has returned to her day job in Nashville as a wardrobe stylist. That keeps the lights on while she designs and makes clothes for her Valentine Valentine line on the side. She acknowledges that her participation on the show helped raise her profile as a designer, but says it didn't launch her into fashion's inner circle.
"All of this attention is great, but I'm kind of in the same spot I was in before the show," she states bluntly. "I'm still making stuff in my apartment studio."
Even so, she says she's grateful for the experience. Especially the criticism.
"Those critiques are priceless." Valentine says. As a result, she feels confident she came back from the show a better designer, and she readily admits she deserved the harsh criticism from the judges — Marie Claire's Nina Garcia, designer Zac Posen and host Heidi Klum — and her fellow contestants, some of whom had already survived similar pressure while interning for Ralph Lauren or Anna Sui.
"I needed that ass-kicking," she says.
Part of the reason Valentine needed it? Her hometown fashion community is supportive — to a fault. At the moment, at least, Nashville isn't capable of delivering the kind of kick in the pantsuit that will make its best designers better. And as much as she appreciates the support she feels here, Valentine worries about the downside.
"It's hard to be a designer in a non-major market, because it's not as competitive," she admits. "I think it's easy to have people patting you on the back and saying, 'Oh, you make clothes? Your clothes are great!' "
Valentine says her involvement with Runway was a pivot point for her career, which she sensed before her time on the show began. "I needed to step up my game — and I knew that in my head — but I was always able to get by," she says. And working in the crucible of the show provided opportunities to refine her craft that she didn't have access to on her own.
Nashville writer and consultant Libby Callaway, former fashion editor of the New York Post and an occasional Scene contributor, agrees. "I think Amanda's stuff, the stuff I've seen since she's been back, is really good," Callaway says. "She knows she needed to up her game in terms of execution, and she is. A lot of that was getting feedback, spending one-on-one time with Tim Gunn, and finding out how to improve her designs. That kind of input will prove to be invaluable."
But not every Nashville designer can make it onto Project Runway. And without the sharpening effects of pressure and critique, they may not be able to reach their potential, or even know what it is. Callaway says sometimes Nashville designers suffer from a lack of objective opinion regarding their work.
"Is what they're doing the quality that will be sellable in Barneys, Bloomingdale's or even Macy's?" she asks. "We need unbiased feedback on what's happening here."
Sophie Simmons, a Parsons graduate who launched two successful lines while living in New York City — the upscale lingerie line Dessous and bridesmaid line Thread — says proximity to other designers is key. "In New York, everyone is in competition and is looking over their shoulder," she says. The less frantic pace in smaller markets can be detrimental to designers who aspire to fashion careers.
Not surprisingly, Simmons — who moved here with her Nashville-native husband to start a family after her luxury lingerie line took a hit in the economic downturn — says many of the emerging Nashville designers would benefit from a solid business plan if they want to play in the big leagues. "They need to look at their designs as a business instead of a one-off, and there needs to be a cohesive voice," she says.
Callaway postulates that a "fashion boot camp" — an event that would bring industry professionals to Nashville to provide educational panels, mentorships and workshop opportunities for local designers — could have a huge impact on raising the level of quality in design and execution. It could also encourage designers to look at their work as a business instead of just an artistic endeavor, and set realistic goals, whether it's creating an apparel line or running a store.
"That's what the [Council of Fashion Designers of America] does at the very top level," she says. "Billy [Reid, the council's 2012 Menswear Designer of the Year] went in and talked to Ralph Lauren and got mentorship from some of the best designers in the world."
The gap between that top level and smaller markets like Nashville is shrinking some. In a piece on CNN.com that mentions both Nashville and Amanda Valentine by name, Emanuella Greenberg writes, "Regional fashion weeks matter to the communities that host them — and they're starting to catch the attention of big-city fashion folk, too."
But turning that attention into an industry that can thrive while developing and sustaining talented designers will take more than boot camps and favorable press mentions. It will require rethinking the way we view creative industries that don't revolve around music, health care or technology.
Jennifer Cole, executive director of the Metro Nashville Arts Commission, believes Nashville has the tools to apply educational and business development strategies from other industries to local creative endeavors like fashion design. Creating opportunities for dialogue between peers and mentorships would naturally lead to a supportive culture for growth.
"We know how to do this as a city; we've done it in health care and health care technology, to start businesses and grow them here," Cole says. "And we've done it really well with the Entrepreneur Center. You can easily get a peer coach, and someone to read your business plan." Now Nashville needs to build similar pathways for creative people and businesses.
"We have the ability," she says, "but we haven't done it with creative industries."
Cole points to other cities like San Jose and Denver, both of which offer creative entrepreneur centers to provide coaching to creative startups. The holdup in Nashville stems mainly from mindset, Cole says, and it's up to arts advocates to make the case that creative industries are just that — industries.
"We need to say that these people are important to our local economy," she says. "We need to see them as vital, and as an economic driver."
Cole says the supply for the industry is here, should the demand be fully realized. "I see a lot of energy in fashion, design — particularly for product and set design — and people relocating and freelancing here, and creating their own industries," she says. "The talent pool is here."
The infrastructure, however, is not. And for a handful of Nashville designers, the demand has been realized — to the point that it has outstripped their ability to produce domestically. An important piece of the puzzle, then, if a fashion industry is to flourish here, is manufacturing.
Imogene + Willie owners Matt and Carrie Eddmenson discussed the issue in a frank, emotional TEDxAtlanta talk in October, sharing their story of trying to fill the largest order in their company's history using a high-volume domestic producer who could also meet their quality standards. Five-word TED Talk: That factory does not exist.
"The demise of production in America is killing our dream," Matt Eddmenson repeats several times throughout the talk, his voice catching a bit when he gets to the word "dream." Near the end, he proposes a kind of shared facility where factory workers are re-trained to make, say, Imogene + Willie jeans one day of the week, Emil Erwin leather goods another day, Otis James bow ties another day, and so on.
Hannah Jones, one half of the team behind clothing line Jamie and the Jones with designer Jamie Frazier, is among a think tank of local fashion professionals (which also includes Valentine, Callaway and Simmons) that believes just such a co-op could provide a solution for financially strapped designers. She points to the Portland Garment Factory — an independent manufacturing house in Oregon that offers services such as pattern drafting, size grading, technical design, design consultation, production and branding for small-batch lines — as an inspiration for a model that could be replicated for independent designers in Nashville.
"The Portland Garment Factory has all of these ways to develop a line of clothing or manufacturing small batches," Jones says.
According to Cole, alternative business models — like the Portland co-op, in which multiple businesses share resources — offer a lower risk factor for involved parties. "With a co-op, there's an economy of scale where the entry point for folks to get in and build their businesses doesn't have as much of a risk factor," she explains.
"We loved making clothes, but when you realize that you have to sustain a business, you have to start thinking differently," Jones says. "Getting someone else to sew your clothes is not the end of the world, which we thought at the very beginning."
Jones and Frazier, who showed at Nashville Fashion Week in 2011 and 2012 and were named the Belcourt-sanctioned nD Festival's Emerging Designer in 2011, produced their spring 2013 line in Seoul, where Frazier currently lives. The line will be sold in area boutiques, including Emmaline and House of Stella.
"We'd love to bring what we learned from manufacturing in Korea back to the States," Jones says. "I love the Portland idea of business; it would be so easy to do in Nashville. That is what Nashville is lacking in terms of production."
Nashville clearly doesn't have a garment district, but Simmons says we don't necessarily need one. While certain fabrics — like silks and poly blends — would have to come from external suppliers, materials like cotton could be sourced locally. And if introduced to the right manufacturers, designers could access the other materials in the quantities they need while remaining in Nashville to run their businesses.
Simmons says that in addition to providing the opportunity to rebuild her business on a "more mellow" level, her relocation has given her perspective on the advantages that a smaller market like Nashville offers.
"There's a lot of originality here; [the designers] are very individual," Simmons says. "I didn't feel that as much in New York. There are designers here with potential, and each has individual needs."
"Instead of trying to be New York, let's be Nashville and use our resources here," she says. "We don't have to move the industry down here. ... Cutting and sewing can happen here. For the small designers who want to stay individual, there are about five fabric manufacturers in New York who will sell to the quantities that these designers need."
That said, the thread still weaves its way around the bobbin back to New York City when it comes to exposure. "The big buyers are not going to make it down to Nashville to look at these designers," Simmons says, "and none of them have enough behind them to have their own showroom." But when the time comes, Simmons suggests another kind of co-op for designers looking to break out: banding together to share a showroom in New York to exhibit their work.
"Being a designer in Nashville is a little bit like being an actor in Michigan," Simmons says. "Until a lot changes, the designers will have to go to New York like an actress in Michigan has to go to Los Angeles for auditions."
With a strong base in Nashville, aspiring designers could be prepared for those auditions — and maybe even have a few of those ass-kicking moments behind them.
If proper critique can sharpen the local designer's skills, and a manufacturing co-op could provide the necessary tools to produce the garments, then the remaining essential piece of the puzzle is capital — capital to purchase industrial machines, capital to hire skilled workers and capital to rent spaces to house production.
"There is a network of venture capital in [Nashville] that the creative community has not accessed," Cole says. Looking at the bigger picture, nurturing and growing local creative industries like fashion could make Nashville even more attractive to outside industries, creating a kind of compounding effect.
"People doing local homegrown, cottage-based industries like distilleries, food, fashion or books — we have a core group of people making this community what it is," Cole says. "That's why we're in the conversation, nationally."
But staying in the conversation is another matter, and if Nashville doesn't find or build the tools to create, nurture and sustain a profitable fashion industry, talented young designers might fizzle out or flee to larger markets.
"On a macro level, the fashion industry is experiencing the same issues as other creative industries," Cole says. "The gap for us, as a community, is how do we keep those folks here, and how do we help them develop their businesses?"
For her part, Valentine isn't sure how to replicate the most challenging and formative moments of her experience on Project Runway. "I knew it would be a total sink-or-swim situation," she says. "But I'm still kind of in the same boat, but with a bigger audience."
To build a bigger boat, Nashville will need to create an environment where our best designers set trends instead of merely surviving them. And if we can't, Nashville may soon be out of fashion.
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