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.
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