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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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