Here’s a fact that may surprise you: Nashville and the surrounding Southeast region have the largest concentration of independent fashion brands outside of New York and Los Angeles.
And yet every time the topic comes up, people tend to say the same thing:
“Nashville doesn’t have a fashion industry.”
The Nashville Fashion Alliance plans to change that by growing the creative industry in a way that’s intentional, community-focused and sustainable.
If you haven’t heard of the NFA but are interested in the city’s growth, this article will be eye-opening. If you have, you may have some misconceptions about its mission.
Before we talk about the NFA, it’s important to understand what the NFA is not:
- The Nashville Fashion Alliance does NOT organize the fabulous Nashville Fashion Week.
- The NFA is NOT exclusive to Nashville. It serves the Southern region and works on projects across the Southeast.
- The NFA does NOT focus on the next fashion trend. It focuses on the business of fashion, and it supports visual art and brands of all kinds in need of fashion industry infrastructure to grow further.
Now, on to what the NFA is …
The NFA was launched in early 2015 as a community collaboration and commitment to growing the fashion industry, a new creative channel authentic to our strengths as a city and the South. This movement involves much more than a handful of designers. It is a true collaboration of the business community, the Chamber of Commerce, Mayor Megan Barry and local entrepreneurs connected to Tennessee’s economic development, all of whom have vested interests in diversifying our growth for the betterment of our community.
NFA’s CEO Van Tucker states, “According to the Nashville Arts Coalition, we are fourth in the nation in creative vitality, with over 40,000 creative workers. Yet we are the only city of our size that does not have a coordinated strategy on creative economy and retention.” In other words, our creative talent sets us apart. It’s what makes Nashville the growing “it” city of today.
As CEO of the NFA, Van is the heart and momentum of the organization, connecting the dots among organic “farm to apparel” fabric initiatives, needed manufacturing, designers and artists, local government and marketing support to make it all happen. Movement was swift in 2015 with a $100,000 Kickstarter campaign. She and the NFA board are creating a strong foundation by identifying industry needs, researching capability and potential size of economic growth in the Southeast and pushing the processes to make it happen.
The NFA is orchestrating the details of growing the necessary infrastructure. The organization is working with more than 200 designers and brands like Amanda Valentine, Imogene + Willie, Otis James and Elizabeth Suzann, who want to see the industry grow. It’s inspiring to see local designers not just pushing their own products, but collaborating with other makers in an effort to bring the industry along. And the NFA works with supporting industries like Smithville, TN, manufacturer Omega Apparel, which have developed a new manufacturing focus on small batch runs that can support growing designers. The NFA is also creating a curriculum for business education workshops and marketing promotion classes, as brands must develop skills beyond their craft to promote themselves and run a successful company.
As the NFA drives growth for industry infrastructure, Van and the board are committed to improving the community and supporting sustainable practices. This includes creating jobs to serve the industry and educating a workforce to fill those jobs.
One example of that is the Sewing Training Academy. Partnering with Catholic Charities and local manufacturer Omega Apparel, the NFA-created program teaches students patternmaking, alterations and manufacturing sewing services. The Academy, located in Catholic Charities’ Job Training Center in East Nashville, has 10 sewing machines and a serger for training, and the four-week courses are offered for beginning and advanced level students. Academy sponsors cover the costs for the beginners’ class, so students can take the class for free. The advanced class charges a small fee and many beginner students are coming back to improve their skills and learn new techniques. After completing their Academy training, students are then aided in finding industry jobs. Omega Apparel says 1,000 sewing services jobs will be available in the next five years, and is readily employing students at its manufacturing facilities in Smithville and the newly opened one in Nashville.
The Sewing Training Academy has been open less than a year and has already conducted five classes training 30 students, most of whom are refugees who speak little to no English and struggle to find work. What’s more is that to date, the Sewing Training Academy has placed 50 percent of its graduates in jobs. Needless to say, this school is life-changing for students who are searching for a career path and a long-term way to support their families.
The couple pictured, Salamu Mwinibondo and Johari Heri, came with their daughter, Rahema Salamu, from the Democratic Republic of Congo. They speak Swahili and understand little English. Because teaching sewing is such a visual skill, they have done well at the school. They and their daughter are all employed by Omega Apparel and are now able to make a living to the credit of the Sewing Training Academy.
Trishawna Quincy, the Sewing Training Academy coordinator and sewing instructor, practically grew up in a fabric store with her mom, a master seamstress, and four sisters. Sewing is her passion, which fits well with the missions of both the Sewing Training Academy and the NFA. After an introduction by designer Amanda Valentine, Van asked Trishawna to come on board to create the Sewing Training Academy. She immediately started to develop the curriculum. Trishawna loves not only teaching a skill, but providing a future for her students. “Because teaching others to sew is visual, it crosses the language barrier,” Trishawna says. “The students are so proud of themselves when they have successfully sewn a pocket or learned to use the serger. It’s wonderful to watch.”
With so many great things happening for the NFA, there’s the challenge of spreading the word about the organization and its mission. Libby Callaway, the NFA board chairman, says, “Part of the NFA mission is to bring awareness to the high-quality designers we have here. With our newly appointed board and Van’s planning, we have great partners in local government taking notice and seeing the opportunity for job growth and new industry. It’s gratifying to see these designers get recognition. And that recognition helps our local designers make a living running their business and taking care of their families and workers’ families.
“We have amazing designers here creating high-quality, wearable garments from shoes, bags, jewelry and clothing for both men and women, on par with designers in New York and L.A. You can outfit your entire closet with Nashville brands,” Libby says. And 52 cents of every dollar spent stays in our market when local goods are purchased (versus 13 cents from national brands), so it’s easy to support this effort with a purchase.
With a five-year growth plan and vision in hand, Van and the NFA are not ready to claim success yet. This year will be packed with an economic cluster analysis, business education class curriculum and development plans for a resource center as a thriving entrepreneurial and creative hub. (Imagine a future incubator for fashion brands, similar to the Entrepreneur Center.)
With the Nashville skyline littered with cranes, the growing concern is that we will turn into a cookie-cutter city of corporations and condo living. The NFA’s strategy of filling the gaps of our creative industry is an assurance that Nashville can stay unique to its roots.
So the next time you hear someone say, “Nashville doesn’t have a fashion industry,” remind them of the healthcare industry and our Music City moniker. Those industries started years ago with one company and one studio. Then tell them about the Nashville Fashion Alliance. They’re sure to be as impressed as they are proud that this is happening right here in the South.
STAY TUNED! The NFA is coordinating a shopping weekend to take place in March (date TBA) where attendees can meet designers and learn about their brands and craft. There will be a ticketed preview party on the Friday night before, and the shopping event will take place Saturday and will be open to the public. Stay tuned for details!
And until then, check out Nashville’s amazing local shopping scene. Get started by downloading our SB app. It’s FREE!
Special thanks to Katie DeSouza for today’s beautiful photographs.