by Abby White
With Nashville Fashion Week drawing to a close tomorrow, there’s been a lot of discussion about all things sartorial. And while the nightly runway shows and events provided an opportunity for the local community to congregate, celebrate — and perhaps even collaborate — the daytime panels on Wednesday set the stage for an honest conversation about the maturation of this community.
As we discussed in last week’s cover story, this community is experiencing some growing pains, especially among the designers in the group. Nashville is home to many talented apparel and accessory designers — Amanda Valentine, Jamie and the Jones, Otis James, Peter Nappi, Emil Erwin, to name a few — all of whom have helped change the perception of what "Nashville style" is beyond our city limits.
But the majority of these designers are a little stuck, limited by a lack of available resources and capital, or the lack of a plan — or maybe even a vision — of how to proceed with their respective brands. On Wednesday, the Emma Bistro provided a forum to tackle these problems.
The morning panel, The Business of Attire: How To Build a Fashion Brand, featured experts from all areas of the fashion and entertainment industry. Moderated by Sophie Simmons, designer of two successful NYC-based lines, Thread and Dessous, the panel participants gave designers concrete, step-by-step instructions on how to establish and grow their brands.
One of the first things Simmons did was ask the room how many people worked directly in branding or design, and more than half of the attendees raised their hands. This crowd came to learn, and the panelists dished out plenty of good advice.
"Because you’re so far off the grid of how the industry works, there’s this sort of hopelessness," Simmons said. She moved from NYC to Nashville a few years ago, so she knows what she's talking about. "What you have on this panel is every side of the biz you need — legal, production, designer and sales — the four legs that will hold your company up."
"Also, a lot of money," entertainment attorney Robert Darwell joked. Darwell (Sheppard Mullin) explained how his practice, which started in traditional entertainment and advertising, broadened to include fashion and beauty because "no one is in the arts in one particular area any more.”
Ah, money. Capital might be one of the biggest barriers that artists face in general — how do you source the funds to drive your creative vision? Creating a business plan to grow your brand is a necessary first step for investors to take you seriously.
Casey Summar, executive director of the Arts & Business Council of Greater Nashville, shed light on the resources that the nonprofit offers to local artists in order to build a more sustainable creative community in Nashville. The council provides free services from volunteer lawyers and accountants for artists who may need help with deciphering contracts, establishing a trademark or a copyright, or even building a business plan. They also hold intensive training sessions and seminars to encourage professional development training for creatives.
"You owe it to your work," Summar said. "You’re so passionate that you’re in this industry; you owe it to yourself to learn how to do this."
The fact that these educational and business development opportunities are available — for free! — is huge for local designers, who often take on other jobs to keep the lights on while they continue their creative pursuits and don't have the time or the money to consult with a lawyer. Every artist who is serious about running their creative pursuit like a business should look into these gratis services. The chatter around the room from out-of-towners was, "I wish we had this where I live." So take advantage of it.
David Perry of the Los Angeles-based DSP Group, a company that specializes in product design, sourcing and production needs for new and existing brands, praised Nashville for its creative talent. DSP, which employs branding consultants, marketing strategists, contractors, producers and designers, stresses domestic production, an issue that is near and dear to independent designers in this age of outsourcing.
Perry said that 99 percent of what they produce is based in the U.S. That led to his announcement he is opening a satellite office here this summer to help Nashville fashion brands.
“A lot of designers don’t have the resources we have in L.A., where there is a fashion center," Perry explained. "There is great talent here. Resources you didn’t know were available are; we have the facility to produce any garment at all in the U.S. There’s no reason why the brands in the South shouldn’t have those resources."
Perry said that the price of labor in China has increased at a rate of 20 percent a year over the past three years, and shipping continues to increase.
"By 2015, it will be as cheap to make your garments in the U.S.," Perry said. As you can imagine, this was well-received.
Panelist Lauren Leonard is a local designer who could have benefited from these services when she launched her Leona line.
"Everything I’ve learned about design and manufacturing has been a trial and error experience," Leonard admitted. She explained that her background — Leonard started working in retail at age 16 — taught her the importance of branding early on. She also told some horror stories of sleepless nights and working in the trenches to make her first big shipment happen. But Leonard is glad she got her hands dirty, because it made her more savvy in the long run.
"I was sewing with factory workers, doing all of the shipping, I was making own patterns, grading them myself," she recalled. "I was up for three days. It was the best learning experience of my life. I know how to do all those things 100 percent. Nobody can tell me that something can’t be done, because I know it can. And I know it can be done better.”
Cally Rieman, designer behind Kal Reiman, echoed Leonard's sentiments about the importance of designers understanding the retail and wholesale business. Even if you have the greatest product in the world, Rieman said, if you can't get retail outlets on board and figure out your profit margins, you're going to be out of business very quickly.
"Wholesale market is hard to penetrate, there is so much out there," Rieman said. "Finding a store who will stand behind your brand — every store we’re in really understands who we are, why our price point reflects what we do."
One attendee asked the panel if they thought Nashville could really be a serious player in the fashion industry.
"It’s absolutely possible," Simmons said. "It’s like the little engine that could. If you create enough talent here, the workers will come. It will take years to build the infrastructure, but if we have good designers, there will be work to be done."
The overall takeaway? Yes, our local fashion industry is missing some essential pieces of the puzzle, but they're not out of reach. That, and fashion is hard work.
"It’s such a beautiful business, but it’s a hard business," Simmons said. "It’s hard work, it's unglamorous. We’re the last one to get our nails done and wear cute outfits. It’s an intense industry."