Is Nashville America’s Next Top Fashion Hub?

By Caitlin Musselman
Photo courtesy Nashville Fashion Alliance

Music City, USA is home to a burgeoning Made in America fashion scene.

In a city known for its country music and sold out shows at the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville is now making strides in the fashion industry. Over the last few years, Nashville’s fashion scene has grown immensely, and is now home to over 150 brands.

Fashion is a $1.2 billion industry in the United States alone, and in 2012, Tennessee ranked highly in employment in a number of various sectors of the fashion industry.

The state ranked fifth in apparel manufacturing, ninth in textile mills, and 15th in leather manufacturing and in clothing stores, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The eco-system for the fashion industry is much broader and deeper than the pages you see in Vogue,” said Van Tucker, CEO of the Nashville Fashion Alliance. “Many people focus on the fashion designers, but it’s much deeper than that. There are stylists, models, photographers, manufacturers, technology companies, distribution companies, textile designers, and many others that work in the fashion industry.”

Two years ago, the Nashville Fashion Alliance (NFA) was just a thought. It started out as a conversation between four people over breakfast — and developed into a nonprofit organization determined to build awareness of fashion brands in Nashville.

Tucker did not have a background in fashion before she fronted the creation of the NFA. Tucker spent 35 years in the banking and finance industry before starting her own consulting brand. After attending industry panels at the 2013 Nashville Fashion Week, Tucker met local designer Amanda Valentine, a former Project Runway contestant.

Tucker and Valentine started working together, and Tucker provided Valentine a detailed business plan and goals for her to meet. For her part, Valentine gave Tucker a starting point for what would be a massive amount of research and development into building a local fashion industry.

The NFA will provide local companies with the support and necessary resources they need to maintain and improve their business. The alliance will also focus on job creation, education, and training the next generation to work in the apparel industry.

The ultimate goal of the NFA is to see apparel manufacturing return to the U.S. shores.

Prior to the formation of the alliance, Tucker spearheaded a survey with Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management to identify key data points of the fashion industry. The Nashville Fashion Industry report was released last year and it revealed the size of the industry, what challenges it faced and what areas should be focused on for growth.

Respondents identified networking opportunities, funding, additional business training and regional manufacturing as the key needs for Nashville's fashion industry to advance. The alliance is working to tackle some of those issues.

On April 16, the NFA launched a Kickstarter that hit and surpassed its fundraising goal of $100,000. The campaign raised $103,321 through over 600 backers. The money will be used to fund programming and educational events for Nashville’s growing roster of fashion industry workers.

It also will allow the alliance to focus on four key priorities they believe in: advocacy, economic development, shared resources, and education.

NFA’s board members — who include representatives from Imogene + Willies, Ceri Hoover, Kayce Hughes, Omega Apparel, Billy Reid — will be responsible for providing leadership and direction of the four priorities. Since the alliance is a fairly new organization, the goal for the next year or two is to focus on the priorities.

As part of the NFA’s mission to build a new workforce and create jobs, part of the Kickstarter campaign is also dedicated to help Catholic Charities of Tennessee expand its job training programs to incorporate a Sewing Training Academy, catering to the needs of underserved communities in the area.

The NFA and local apparel company Omega Apparel are partnering with the Catholic Charities of Tennessee and The Housing Fund to grow its job training programs by introducing a six-week long sewing program for underserved communities in the region. The hopes of this program is that graduates will get a job with either a local designer or Omega Apparel.

What the NFA plans to do within the next year could have a major impact on Tennessee’s apparel industry and on the domestic production of apparel nationwide.

Want to learn more about Nashville fashion? Here’s a look at some of the local brands:

Imogene + Willie: If you are a Nashville native, chances are you are familiar with Imogene + Willie, the popular denim brand and clothing store. Founders and owners Matt and Carrie Eddmenson owe their success to their family, especially their grandparents. Named after Carrie’s maternal grandparents, Imogene + Willie is a celebration of family, especially the grandparents who shape who you are as a child and support you as you grow. Matt and Carrie learned everything there is to know about denim from Sight Denim Systems, a company owned by Carrie’s family. Their goal is to provide a pair of strong, well-fitting jeans for their customers all while keeping their products made in America. They work toward that goal everyday by sourcing the finest fabric that America can provide.

Otis James: Otis James got his start at making matching ties for members of local Nashville wedding parties, and soon after began selling his creations at Imogene + Willie. Within a year of selling custom neckties and bowties, James quit his job, created an online website, and now runs the company full time. Inspired by the connection between the designer and the customer, James is passionate about making high quality products through the manufacturing process. All of James’ neckties and bow ties are handcrafted in his Nashville studio with strong attention to detail. Every detail is hand crafted, from the stamps to painting on the labels to the buttonholes and slip-stitches on each tie.

Kayce Hughes: After the birth of her first four children, Kayce Hughes used her design skills to turn old fabrics into nightshirts for her young daughters. She hired a seamstress to make the nightshirts along with some dresses and shorts for her children. Marketing them under the label Pears and Bears, Hughes took the clothes to a handful of stores who immediately fell in love with the clothing. Now Hughes is a mother to seven kids, and the company has expanded to a 200 piece (and growing) collection that includes children’s apparel, babywear, a flower girl collection and a women’s line of clothing and accessories. With more and more children’s, women’s and wedding boutiques all asking for her collections, it was time to make the jump into a corporate office and warehouse space. With the ongoing success of her company Kayce has plans to expand the collection even further by adding a home and possible men’s collection.

Ceri Hoover: When Ceri Hoover was sewing a pillow case she flipped it over and realized that it could be women’s clutch instead. In that moment Hoover realized this was the product she had been looking for. Hoover launched her company in 2013, and since then her products have been sold in more than 150 stores in the United States and Canada. These classically designed handbags are designed by Hoover in her Nashville studio, and then manufactured in a small factory in Indiana.

Omega Apparel: We profiled military outfitter-turned-fashion player Omega Apparel earlier this month. Overseen by former Army Ranger Dean Wegner, the company continues to produce items for the military while also maintaining a client list of more than 50, including local bridal designer Olia Zavozina and Oscar-winner Reese Witherspoon, who launched her clothing line Draper James in the spring. Omega wlll soon open a retail space and showroom for its own brand, and will accommodate smaller-batch production.