Country music, cowboy boots, hot chicken; Nashville is known for a lot of things—fashion generally isn’t one of them. And yet, after a fruitful five years of growth, Nashville’s burgeoning fashion scene is ready to explode. Thanks to an incredibly supportive community, increasingly sophisticated infrastructure, and one industrious nonprofit organization, there’s a good chance the city may just be poised to become one of the country’s fashion destinations, alongside Los Angeles and New York.
Trust me, it’s not as farfetched as it sounds.
For one thing, Nashville’s done this reinvention thing before. While today the city is synonymous with country music, that wasn’t always the case. The music industry was largely based in New York and Los Angeles when, according to born-and-bred Nashvillian Van Tucker, “sometime in the 60s, some very visionary leadership decided to build their own music community, outside [of those] infrastructures, which they felt were not meeting their needs.” The community thrived, and the rest is history: Music City, as we know it today, was born.
Now, Tucker, who co-founded Nashville’s music-industry-geared Avenue Bank (they have a band) in 2007, is hoping the same thing can happen for the fashion community. This month, Tucker launched the Nashville Fashion Alliance (NFA), a nonprofit organization that acts like a mini-CFDA for the local community. “We’re very inspired by what our music community has done to build business infrastructure over the last 50 years to become the largest center of employment in the music industry in the world,” said Tucker. “While Nashville is certainly home to country music, this infrastructure is now leveraged by a diverse array of musical genres. We hope to emulate the music industry’s success in Nashville for the fashion community.” That community already has its success stories: There’s Imogene + Willie, a denim brand that has collaborated with J.Crew and counts Gwyneth Paltrow as a fan, and Elizabeth Suzann, a million dollar label that launched only last year. For those, and, more importantly, for the beginner brands just starting out, the NFA could become an invaluable resource.
“We have a significant concentration of brands in our region that need help to scale and grow their business,” said Tucker. “The NFA will help to properly incubate and accelerate their businesses with more readily accessible resources like business education, skilled workers, manufacturing, and technology.” One of the NFA’s current initiatives is a partnership with the Sewing Training Academy, which trains a portion of the underserved population to be commercial sewers, providing the workforce needed for the growing fashion industry and living wages for the workers. They’re also working with manufactures to “solve the problem of small batch production” that so many small brands need to achieve success.
In a lot of ways, the city is an ideal breeding ground for a fledgling label. When Patrick Woodyard first had the idea to launch Nisolo, an ethically produced shoe line, he was living in Trujillo, Peru, where he had encountered a talented but dying shoemaking trade. While half his the business is still based in Peru, Woodyard knew he needed a U.S. homebase. After considering several cities, he eventually landed in Nashville. “The city is the perfect size—not too small and not too big—for early and growth stage designers to call home,” he said, of his decision. “Rooted in the juxtaposition a thriving creative community (largely fueled by the music industry) and a booming start-up community, the amount of talent, passion, and resources available to young people in Nashville is nearly impossible to match.”
In addition to the city’s already-established music industry, Nashville frequently ranks among the top ten best cities for tech jobs. Its state-of-the-art Entrepreneur Center, coupled with the still-growing music and health industries, has helped fuel the tech industry’s growth to a whopping 43%. That climate has been advantageous to the aforementioned brands, which predominantly sell online directly to consumers all over the country. Elizabeth Suzann founder and designer Elizabeth Pape says that though her business is based in Nashville, most of her orders come from New York, Portland, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. As the direct-to-consumer, e-commerce-only model slowly becomes the norm, the proximity to buyers, editors and brick-and-mortar shoppers that cities like New York and Los Angeles offer is becoming less important. Meanwhile, Nashville is uniquely equipped to ship out all those online orders: it’s a major distribution center for commercial shipping, print media and, to a lesser degree, fashion (companies like Macy’s, The Gap, and Under Armour have distribution and operation centers there).
The other reason Nashville is so attractive to young brands is also the most obvious: It’s cheap. Average monthly rent in the city—New Yorkers brace yourself—was $812 in 2014. In addition to housing, utilities are 33% less than the Big Apple, groceries 29% less, and healthcare and transportation 25% less. “Our cost of living is significantly lower than New York or L.A., which lowers the risk for incubating brands, as well as back room operations for major brands,” said Tucker. “We’re an attractive city for creative companies who look to keep their back room costs low, yet provide a creative environment in which they can operate.”
Yet the number one reason Nashville could turn into a real fashion destination is the community itself. Last week, I visited the city and met with a handful of local designers and business owners. I was blown away by the degree to which they all supported and collaborated with one another. Ashley Balding, who designs the clothing and jewelry line Ona Rex, is a prime example. Balding shares a studio with two other brands—contemporary label Jamie and the Jones and textile designer and weaver Allison Volek-Shelton of Shutters and Shuttles, the latter of whom has provided fabric to both of the former brands. Meanwhile, Balding, a trained seamstress, has helped Volek-Shelton create clothes making patterns for her nascent clothing line. Balding also works with local handbag designer Ceri Hoover, who, when I met her last week, was wearing one of Balding’s designs. “Nashville is pretty unique in that we choose to build each other up and make a stronger industry in the process,” said Balding. “I can buy fabric from Allison. She can source me for pattern work. I can borrow a Jamie and Jones top to style a photo shoot for Ceri. It's all about helping each other get out there.” The community has been a mental and emotional boon as well: “There have been countless times where the discouragement of starting your own line feels like the biggest weight in the world, but being able to share this with a group of women who are going—and have gone—through the same issues has literally made all the difference,” said Balding. “We constantly use each other for support as well as resources.”
When I ask Tucker what she thinks makes Nashville’s fashion community so unique her response is swift: “Oh my—that’s easy,” she said. “Our community embraces the ‘rising tide raises all boats’ mantra.” Which is about as un-New York as it gets. And that might be a good thing.
“We’re not trying to be New York or L.A.,” said Tucker. “We see our role as an attractive incubator for emerging brands.”