When most people think of American fashion, the first place that comes to mind is New York and the city’s storied Garment District, followed swiftly by Los Angeles and its easy, breezy SoCal style. Now, a new trade organization wants to put Nashville on the map.
Dubbed the Nashville Fashion Alliance and helmed by former banker Van Tucker, the nonprofit is dedicated to building a sustainable and globally recognized industry for the growing number of brands that call Nashville and its surrounding areas home.
With the likes of Libby Callaway of Billy Reid, community activist and model Karen Elson and Omega Apparel’s Dean Wegner in its corner, the group officially launched in April and raised more than $100,000 on Kickstarter a month later. As it gears up to kick off its first training program—a sewing academy in partnership with Catholic Charities—on Monday, Tucker gave Sourcing Journal the lowdown on the alliance.
SJ: When did you realize that Nashville’s fashion industry needed a trade organization and how did you get it off the ground?
VT: It’s been a very organic process. My background is in banking and finance. I spent 35 years in banking—I primarily worked in the music industry and media space so working with creative clients—and when I left I started a consulting company that focused on helping creative brands build an infrastructure. I met one of Nashville’s local designers who wanted to build a business plan and I realized quickly that unlike the healthcare industry or music industry or even our entrepreneur and technology industries, there really was no infrastructure for a fashion company to scale up and be more successful. And I knew that Nashville knew how to do this really well. One of the hallmarks of our city is that we’re able to collaborate and really pull together to build community. I knew about some of our local fashion brands, like Peter Nappi and Imogene + Willie, and in 2013 I started having conversations with some people and realized that there might be an opportunity there.
SJ: What happened next?
VT: We recruited a student from Vanderbilt’s business school to help us gather some data because we had no quantification of how big the industry was or what the demographics were. So we had her do some research, do a survey for us of our known brands, and then we took that information and we presented it back to about 40 brand leaders along with support from the mayor’s office and the Chamber of Commerce. They overwhelmingly decided that they wanted to really focus on the feasibility of forming a governing organization or a cohesive organization.
SJ: Were the companies themselves interested in this?
VT: By that time we had grown to about 150 brands. It’s amazing when you start to organize and people and companies come out of the woodwork.
SJ: What’s your mission?
VT: We’re quite simply a trade organization focused on building infrastructure and nurturing the eco-system of the fashion industry in our region. We’re not trying to be New York or Los Angeles. We’re not trying to be a major fashion city. But there are a lot of brands outside of New York and Los Angeles and I’ve been shocked at how many brands from all over the country have reached out. But there’s just no infrastructure outside of the major fashion cities and the truth is, those cities are hard for emerging brands to access. We just want to be Nashville and just do what we do; that is, help organize those fashion brands and really the entire eco-system.
SJ: Tell us about your four pillars.
VT: We’re focused on advocacy (speaking and acting as an industry versus individual companies), economic development (making the area known as a great place for fashion companies to do business and create jobs), shared resources (there are simply some things we can do much easier as an industry) and education (creative people are not always in tune with the best business practices and we don’t want them to have to figure it out on their own).
SJ: You held a community forum recently. What were some issues that were raised?
VT: We are very close to the community, and the real truth is the challenges that a designer has in Nashville are not that different from those a designer has in New York or LA. Sourcing is always an issue. Manufacturing is always an issue. Having access to capital to get the resources you need. The issues are not dissimilar.
SJ: Do all of the brands involved with NFA currently manufacture in Nashville?
VT: We do have 150 small-scale brands based within about a 300-mile radius of Nashville. Billy Reid, Imogene and Willie, some of our bigger brands do not manufacture in this area. They have some manufacturing in this area but when you get to be a $50 million brand you can’t manufacture in one place. But most of our small to mid-size brands do in fact manufacture very close by. We’re hoping to be able to grow that. We’re hoping to be able to be a leader in reshoring American manufacturing.
SJ: A lot of people say a lack of skilled workers and investment in machinery is the main reason why the Made in U.S.A. movement will be never be what it was during its heyday. What are you doing to change it?
VT: I don’t know that it will ever be as it was during its heyday. Frankly I’m not sure we would want it to be. Manufacturing has changed significantly since the ’80s and ’90s and a skilled workforce is a huge need. Much of manufacturing now is very technically driven and there’s also the opportunity to train workers in the area of industrial maintenance; to better train people in the area of technical design, that piece of the process that happens between the time a designer sketches and fabric and thread meet each other at a machine; digitization, the ability to manipulate that pattern in a digital environment; cutting, there’s a huge need in that area. We recognize skilled workforce development is going to be a challenge. We’re working with people across the country to ensure we’re supporting certified curriculums.
SJ: Do you think that will help improve things?
VT: There are some complicated issues around reshoring but I think many companies have realized there are huge hidden costs in manufacturing off-shore. There are certainly human conditions, human issues, that arise but even more so than that the cost of time to market. Many emerging brands can’t afford to manufacture offshore anyway. And we have new generations of buyers that are supporting what I call the farm-to-fabric movement.