"In your dreams you imagine what could happen," says local designer Jamie Frazier, recalling opening night of Nashville Fashion Week last year. She and business partner Hannah Jones had no idea what to expect as their label Jamie and the Jones debuted its new line at a splashy and ambitious debut event in a small city not exactly known for a thriving fashion culture. The designing duo jokingly imagined a standing ovation, like arena rockers after an encore. Past that, they could not summon an image of what success might mean.
To Frazier's amazement, her imaginings (and beyond) were realized.
"Great things happened," she says. They got not only their standing ovation, but a cascade of press attention and accolades in the months after NFW 2011, including winning the Belcourt's nD Festival Emerging Designer Competition a month later. "I do think [NFW] propelled us to be able to win," she says. "Because we had that experience, we had great garments that we had already made for Nashville Fashion Week to show, and great photographs of them."
Participating in NFW 2011 opened doors for Nashville designer Amanda Valentine as well.
"After last year's show, I was invited to several other fashion weeks across the country and contacted by online boutiques," she says. "I think the association definitely increased my legitimacy."
Marcia Masulla, co-founder and co-director of Nashville Fashion Week, says that although the event brings in collections by global fashion brands like Versace and Eva Franco, the long-term goal is to promote emerging Nashville designers. "To see an Amanda Valentine or Jamie and the Jones showcasing on our runways ... and to see the growth," she says, "That's why we do what we do."
By creating a buzz around local designers, models, stylists and other creatives, Masulla and NFW hope to sow the seeds of a Nashville-centric fashion community with its own regional flavor.
Indeed, the wider fashion world has taken notice of the South's growing fashion brands, the likes of Billy Reid and Alabama Chanin, Nashville's Otis James and Imogene + Willie. But the odds of making a name for yourself as a designer in Nashville can still feel stacked against up-and-comers like Valentine.
"At the end of the day, there is not an industry here," she says. "I still have to look outside of Nashville for most of the information [and] resources I want."
That's why NFW, in partnership with Imogene + Willie, is curating an educational arm of the event, hosting panel discussions with guest speakers like Natalie Chanin and J Brand jeans co-founder Susie Crippen, who'll address the nitty-gritty of creating a successful fashion business, from sourcing and manufacturing to branding and marketing.
Carrie Eddmenson, co-founder of Imogene + Willie, says she hopes events like NFW will help Nashville fashion begin to define itself. "I don't know what Nashville fashion is," she says. "We're still learning what's going on here, who's here." She envisions NFW as an opportunity to connect young designers with the infrastructure they need to compete at an international level. "I would love to look up every year," Eddmenson says, "and see big designers coming here to teach the cream of the crop how to translate their brand into a global brand."
"Hannah and I keep telling people this, and we thought people weren't listening," says Jamie Frazier, expelling a relieved breath when I ask her about the need for education and mentoring here.
"People think once your name's in the paper, that you've made it," she laughs. "But we've been feeling like a small fish in a huge pond. ... We're kind of like, 'You don't understand. We don't know what we're doing! We need some help!' " Help with the unglamorous practicalities of stitching together work ethic, talent and a little prestige into a flourishing business: How to find affordable materials and studio space? How to manufacture your product more efficiently without losing its uniqueness?
"If other people feel the way we do," she says hopefully, "that sounds like the start of something that might happen."
Melanie Shelley, celebrity stylist and owner of Trim Legendary Beauty, has a vision of what might happen, one that echoes Carrie Eddmenson's. It's a series of long-odds what ifs: What if NFW plays a role in changing how Nashville sees itself, as a broadly vibrant creative hub instead of a one-note industry town? What if talented designers decide to stay here instead of moving to Brooklyn? What if they grow into Billy Reids and Natalie Chanins and spur a garment manufacturing resurgence in the South?
"I don't think we need to worry about competing with New York or L.A.," Shelley says. "I think we should just put out kickass little designers with really different perspectives, the same way that Southern chefs are starting to win Top Chef.
"In the same way Catbird Seat is creating a need," she adds, "we have to whet Nashville's appetite for local design. ... I think you have to invest time and money in something that seems impossible ... to take a risk."
Masulla and her co-founders are willing to take that risk, to put countless volunteer hours and their reputations on the line, on the strength of what could happen. "All our profits and proceeds go into the Fashion Forward Fund," she explains, some of which is awarded each year to a rising fashion star — models, designers, writers, stylists, and photographers are eligible — while the rest is invested in an endowment, a growing stake in Nashville's fashion future.
"We don't just want to throw a frivolous party," Masulla says. "We want to advance the career and the future of local talent. And there's a lot of talent here."Related Stories:
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