Nashville's profile as a city with a surplus of unbridled creativity has never been higher. The outside world has noticed (finally!) that our musical prowess extends far past the confines of Music Row, and locals like Kings of Leon, JEFF the Brotherhood, Paramore, Jack White and The Black Keys prove that we rock as hard as we twang. Our culinary scene is garnering plenty of outside attention as well, with The New York Times praising East Nashville's eclectic and adventurous food scene, or The Catbird Seat getting attention from, well, everyone.
But one creative pursuit remains the redheaded stepchild of the group: Nashville fashion.
If you had spoken those words a decade ago, you'd be getting snickers from outsiders. To much of the world, our fashion spectrum starts with The Beverly Hillbillies and ends with Dallas. We put the question to Heidi Jewell, the photographer and Nylon Daily Nashville editor who runs the popular style blog Under the Guise: What is the biggest misperception that outsiders have about the Nashville fashion scene?
"Hee-Haw, glittery, cowboy country," Jewell responds by email. "And it's here, but you'll only find it on the tourists."
There's truth to what Jewell says, however painful it might be for some to hear. For years, when a national cable outlet showed a shot of Nashville, they'd pan across Lower Broadway, where there's a 98 percent chance of seeing something pink and sparkly — hat- or boot-shaped — on the passers-by. It's like the episode of Sex and the City where Carrie Bradshaw identifies a woman as a non-New Yorker because she's wearing a hair scrunchie. We know the sparkly pink thing is not native to Nashville. But is that how everyone else sees us? Is the local fashion scene a victim of "cowboy glam"?
Perhaps, in the past. But forward-thinking designers, photographers, bloggers, models, stylists and artists are broadcasting a different look to the world — a Nashville Fashion 2.0, if you will. And now that national — and international — media have a heightened awareness of our musical and culinary tastemakers, it's a good time to show them what's in our closet.
- Eric England
- Libby Callaway in her home
"It's really interesting how so many media people are interested, all of a sudden, in Nashville," says Libby Callaway, a local fashion writer and consultant. "It's like we're untapped — like we're the belly button or something, when people look down and say, 'Oh my God, I have a belly button!' "
Cleveland, Tenn., native Callaway, an occasional Scene contributor, lived in New York City for nearly a decade, where she had a coveted front-row seat as a fashion writer at the New York Post. She returned to Tennessee in 2004. "When I was moving back to the South," Callaway recalls, "Nashville appealed to me because I knew that if I decided I didn't want to be a fashion writer, I could work as a stylist — which is exactly what I did — and it would be easier to get my foot in the door in Nashville than in New York."
In addition to her self-described "piecemeal" styling work, she wrote a fashion column for Glamour magazine, which hired her after she moved to Nashville. "I was valuable to these editors in New York because I was able to talk as a woman living and shopping in Nashville," Callaway explains. "It gave an outside perspective."
Fast-forward to present day, and Nashville is more than just an outlying perspective. In June, GQ called us "Nowville," featuring an eight-page spread of stylish locals. In an early September piece at The Atlantic's Cities site, Nashville was named fourth in the nation's leading cities for fashion, with the tie to the music industry being an important factor in its ranking. Shopping bible Lucky Magazine's August issue looked like a tourism ad for Music City, with a Nashville retail city guide, gorgeous spreads featuring Lady Antebellum's Hillary Scott and supermodel resident Karen Elson, and transplant Kelly Clarkson on the cover.
But this barrage of attention can't hide the fact that Nashville lacks many of the essential resources necessary for growth.
"I personally don't believe there is a fashion industry in Nashville," says Amanda Valentine, a wardrobe stylist who doubles as a clothing designer with her own label, Valentine Valentine, which showed on opening night of Nashville Fashion Week 2012. "There is a fashion community, for sure, but not an industry."
Valentine says her biggest struggle is finding supplies and the infrastructure to support her production, and that she has to travel to New York City, Chicago or Los Angeles to buy fabric at the price and quantity she needs. Many designers would consider that cost-prohibitive.
"The community is still too young," Valentine says. But she sees hope for its development. "It will mature and get a little more diverse," she says.
- Styling by Milton White, photograph by Amy Philips of EYE Photography.
Milton White, a stylist who has worked and lived in Washington, D.C., and New York, believes Nashville's retail climate has grown tremendously compared to a decade ago. White believes the design community will follow suit, if they're nurtured and supported.
"I try to pull from [local designers] as often as I can, both for editorial as well as red carpet," White says.
Despite the progress the retail and designer communities are making, the current perception of "Southern fashion" is still somewhat one-dimensional.
If you look at the designers who've had the most attention outside of Nashville —Imogene + Willie's upscale bespoke denim, Emil Erwin's handcrafted artisan leather goods, Peter Nappi's timeless small-batch boots — they all fall into what Callaway dubs the "heritage Americana" movement, the kind of stuff you'd see in the pages of Garden & Gun.
This certainly isn't a negative view of the South. But it is a fairly limiting one, unless you believe all Southerners are into bourbon, tweed jackets and footwear that costs more than a car payment. It also neglects another side of Nashville fashion: the designers who are creating edgier, contemporary ready-to-wear clothing that could be embraced by young trendsetters who can actually afford it. It's the kind of clothing created by Valentine, Ettes drummer Maria Silver, or the designers who Callaway pegged for a breakout from the local scene, O'More College of Design graduates Jamie Frazier and Hannah Jones.
- Eric England
- Black by Maria Silver at Nashville Fashion Week 2012
Frazier and Jones showed their Jamie and the Jones collection during Nashville Fashion Week 2012, and were the recipients of the nD Festival's Emerging Designer Competition in 2011. Despite these early successes, they went on hiatus earlier this year.
"Honestly, when we called for a break, we weren't sure what we were going to do or what the plan was," says Jones, who is currently part of O'More's design faculty. "The problem we had was managing our time with just the two of us and managing our resources with a limited amount of money.
- Michael W. Bunch
- Jamie Frazier and Hannah Jones
"What we quickly learned in the two years we worked in the fashion 'arena' of Nashville was that we needed a tribe to help our success, and we needed to let ourselves step back, breathe, and take the time to build that tribe."
Jones says she and Frazier recently decided to regroup. They're currently creating new pieces for the fall and plan for a big relaunch in the spring.
In addition to clothing designers, Nashville has a considerable community of stylists, photographers, models, and hair and makeup artists. Many flock to job opportunities in the music industry, but they struggle to balance their "day jobs" with their sideline creative pursuits.
Renae Morton owns Midtown salon Lucy Pop and works as a freelance hairstylist and makeup artist. Morton says national media attention and the influx of young, independent designers have provided more opportunities for work. But getting that work doesn't necessarily equal getting paid.
"I haven't seen as much growth in the availability of fashion-related jobs or gigs that have enough of a budget to substantially compensate hairstylists and makeup artists," Morton says. "From my point of view, the hardest thing is that most [freelance artists] have to rely primarily on income from working in a salon. You may be offered a freelance job, but if you are scheduled in the salon that day and know you would make more money there, you have to make a decision."
Morton is not the only one who feels the squeeze. Many models, photographers and stylists work for a fraction of their day rate on a regular basis. "Everyone needs to get on the same page and realize that the fashion industry is a business, and not a hobby," Morton says.
That realization is just dawning on Nashville's fashion scene. Pre-Imogene + Willie, few people in Nashville would have paid upwards of $200 for jeans. Not long after opening in 2009, Imogene + Willie caught the attention of national brands including J. Crew and Anthropologie. Callaway credits owners Matt and Carrie Eddmenson (for whom she once worked) for opening the door for much of the fashion coverage Nashville is getting.
"They're responsible for a huge part of the attention," she says. "They're kind of like the godparents of the local talent, and they're becoming tastemakers, not just locally, but nationally."
Callaway hopes to bring more educational programs to area designers to strengthen the quality of what is being produced in Nashville, and to instruct designers on how to run their business.
"A big fashion designer is not going to move to Nashville, because the infrastructure is not here," Callaway says, echoing Valentine's sentiments. "We're trying to figure out how to build our own infrastructure."
And when we have visitors, she says, we need to put our best shoe forward.
"I see my fashion editor friends a lot more than I used to when I moved here," Callaway says. "When journalists come to town, we need to make sure they know what's happening here. The more people we can get down here, the more people who are talking about it."
And when we get them here, what will they find, other than a fledging scene bursting at its nicely sewn seams with ambition and creativity?
"The raw talent, drive and individual style of the city itself, as well as its fashion leaders — also its diversity," says Milton White. "I'm so sick of hearing people say that they are going to make Nashville fashionable. It already is."
- Model: Esseri Holmes; art director: Elizabeth Jones; photographer: Michael W. Bunch; hair and makeup: Betsy Briggs Cathcart, Studio BBC; stylist: Abby White; assistant: Heather Hauser
- Esseri is wearing: peplum top, Valentine Valentine; Elizabeth stretch indigo rinse jeans, Imogene + Willie; cuff, OMG (Old Made Good); boots, model’s own