Nashville Fashion Forward Fund Recipient Elise Joseph
Elise Joseph is wearing Elizabeth Suzann charcoal-gray Tencel twill jumpsuit, Elizabeth Suzann flax linen kimono (elizabethsuzann.com); thorn necklace, Clark Heldman (clarkheldman.com)
Fashion Editor: Milton White, The Fashion Office; Photographers: Amy Phillips and Fairlight Hubbard, EYE Photography; Art Director: Elizabeth Jones, Nashville Scene; Hair Stylist, Make-up Artist: Betsy Briggs Cathcart, Studio BBC Salon; Hair and Make-up Assistant: Sara Hooten, Studio BBC Salon; Assistants: Gigi Tremel, EYE Management, and Abby White, Nashville Scene; Photographed at EYE Management & Photography
Elise Joseph is not a designer. She does not manufacture clothes. Nor does she have a boutique. What she has is an eye.
Run into Joseph on the street, and her clothes look just like those she touts on her fashion and lifestyle blog Pennyweight. Something that looks comfortable yet modestly elegant, like she's somehow managed to find all of the elusive urban legends that comprise a personal wardrobe. The worn, lived-in jeans. The perfect-fitting leather jacket that can dress up or down. The neutral shift dress that skims her lanky frame, never revealing too much skin. The bag that goes with everything.
Joseph never wears anything that looks like she tried too hard. That quality — a natural, minimalist grace — may help explain why more than 1.3 million people follow Pennyweight on Pinterest. They buy on her recommendation. They look to her tastes, even though she's located about as far from a coastal fashion center as a tastemaker can get.
But why would Nashville Fashion Week award its highest honor — a cash prize from the Nashville Fashion Foward Fund — to a local blogger, as opposed to a local designer or manufacturer?
Nashville Fashion Week is used to such skepticism. When it launched in 2011, many wondered why the city would even bother. Nashville lacks many of the components that drive a profitable fashion industry: access to raw materials, a garment district, elements of factory production — even a market for buyers to attend.
On the other hand, advocates noted that several area apparel and accessory brands were already running sustainable businesses here. Today, their number includes Manuel, Imogene + Willie, Peter Nappi, Prophetik, Olia Zavozina, Otis James, Emil Erwin and LEONA. What's more, rising talents such as Jamie and the Jones, Black by Maria Silver or Valentine Valentine have been getting stronger with each new collection, without fleeing to a larger market.
Still, the larger point was hard to argue: The city's fashion proponents faced — and continue to face — an uphill struggle.
But in an industry that changes faster than the weather, a great equalizer is bringing democracy to the fashion business: the Internet. Nowadays, a fashion blogger from the Midwest can drive more sales through affiliate link click-throughs than a spread in Vogue. Anyone who can stand out from the sartorial spiderweb of blogs, Pinterest, Instagram, Etsy and online retailers can influence what we wear and what we buy — a major alteration in a world where a select group of fashion editors once held supreme power.
In the same spirit, regional fashion weeks like Nashville's are starting to rethink their philosophy. Fashion weeks that have sprouted up in cities such as St. Louis, Charleston and Savannah will never compete on the same playing field for international prestige as style-setting centers like Milan, Paris and New York. As individual entities, their influence will always be minimal. As part of a network, however, passing along designers and access to resources, their reach quickly adds up.
So when Nashville celebrates its fourth fashion week (starting Tuesday and running through Saturday, April 5, at venues across the city), it will offer all the runway shows, parties, educational panels and shopping events that lured patrons in years past. But it's expanding to recognize the growing roles of people like Elise Joseph, tastemakers who bring attention to a city through their carefully cultivated followings, and their own curatorial skill.
To be sure, no one involved has any delusion that Nashville will ever rival New York Fashion Week on its own terms.
The good news is, that's not what they're trying to do.
The founders of Nashville Fashion Week — a group of style enthusiasts, professionals and boosters of the local scene (including Scene publisher Mike Smith) — point to a small but pivotal distinction between the city's slow-to-start fashion industry, and its rapidly growing fashion community.
"Our focus was always to support the fashion community and the emerging industry," explains Marcia Masulla, senior community marketing manager for Yelp Nashville and one of Nashville Fashion Week's co-founders and managing partners. "Industry is people who are trying to make a living, or trying to impact the community as a whole. The community might [include] somebody who really admires fashion or who is contributing in other ways. In order to figure out how many people in our community are trying to be part of an industry, we have to see what it looks like."
To get a clearer picture, business consultant Van Tucker partnered with Nashville Fashion Week to create and distribute a survey. Tucker, aided by a committee of fashion professionals, gathered data to identify who makes up this community and what their needs are. (Full disclosure: I was consulted early in the survey's drafting.)
"Our mission for the survey was to conduct a thorough analysis of Nashville's fashion industry in order to understand how we can facilitate its growth and ensure retention of talent in Middle Tennessee, with a goal of long-term sustainability," Tucker says. "We clearly have the creative talent, but infrastructure is needed to support and grow the fashion industry."
The survey results will be not presented until the panel sessions on April 5. But Tucker hints that the data overwhelmingly affirms several needs: a business incubator program, solid business planning, small-scale production resources, advocacy and exposure, and access to capital.
"We know we don't have this huge production facility that's catering to designers, and maybe we don't have enough projects for photographers to do fashion photography, or enough paid work for models to make a living," Masulla says. "Maybe these are pie-in-the-sky dreams, but we're evaluating what our market really can support right now, and what we need to do to make progress."
Enter the Nashville Fashion Forward Fund. Culled from the net proceeds from Nashville Fashion Week, the fund supports professional development opportunities for promising talent. It is facilitated through The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, and it's open to individuals who work in the fashion industry and have ties to Middle Tennessee. Perhaps the most intriguing feature on the fund's application is the experiential requirement — a mandate that candidates must propose a plan to use the money to experience something, as opposed to simply using it as business or marketing capital.
The first year of Nashville Fashion Week served as a building period for the fund, so a recipient was not named until the following year. The first two recipients were Julianna Bass and Lauren Leonard. Both opted to travel abroad with their award money. Bass went to Berlin to expand her eponymous line internationally. Leonard — whose flagship store is located in 12South — traveled to Paris to meet directly with vendors and find inspiration for her upcoming LEONA by Lauren Leonard collections.
But Bass and Leonard are both apparel designers. When the award committee selected stylist/blogger Joseph, a former media director at Imogene + Willie, as this year's recipient, the move was initially met with some surprise.
"There was this kind of mindset, and maybe we didn't communicate this enough, but when we say 'industry,' there's so much more than just the fashion designer," Masulla says. "There's curators, bloggers, photographers, models, production."
Amy Fair, director of donor services at the Community Foundation, says that in the first two years of the fund, the strongest contenders were in the design category, which is why Bass and Leonard were chosen. But this year, the clear frontrunner was Joseph.
"Elise's application was just far and above," Fair says. "Elise's references were the absolute best that have ever been written about anyone in three years." One came from a creative director at Madewell, the New York-based women's apparel company housed under the J. Crew umbrella: "[Joseph] has her finger on the pulse of the best indie music, stylish home goods, new shopping destinations — the works. In other words, if it's artfully cool, you can bet it's on her well-rounded radar."
Marcia Masulla calls it "a massive statement" that Joseph was chosen.
"I think it shows the evolution of the fashion industry, that fashion is so much more than just a shirt hanging in a store," she says. "It shows that Nashville embraces this new fashion culture. We're talking about someone who is a curator, somebody who people turn to — whether it's a major brand like Steven Alan or Madewell — or somebody that's reading her blog. People look to her for trends."
Joseph's aesthetic has caught the attention of InStyle Magazine, Refinery29, Southern Living and Kinfolk Magazine. She's also collaborated with fashion brands including J. Crew, Need Supply, Steven Alan, Madewell, Equipment, Gap, West Elm and Warby Parker.
There is money in those partnerships. Apart from advertising or sponsored content, style blogs are monetized through affiliate links (i.e., when users click through on items featured on a blog). When bloggers can boast enough Web traffic to catch the attention of brands, they can negotiate the terms of these affiliate earnings directly with the brands or work through an agency like RewardStyle, which pays an average 15 percent commission on sales that close. Launched by then 24-year-old blogger Amber Venz in 2011, RewardStyle has driven sales in more than 130 countries, and top bloggers can make up to $40,000 a month. As of last fall, it was projected to make $150 million in sales in 2013.
Such rewards have encouraged a proliferation of mediocre, deservedly obscure style blogs. The things that distinguish Joseph from the growing pack are her distinctive taste and her palpable affection for the products she features. Her words and photos, in addition to being beautifully presented, convey a passion to expose emerging talents. Joseph believes she has earned the trust of her followers as well as the artists she features, and she does not take it lightly.
"My whole role is to support the people that I believe in, and to connect people," Joseph says. "And helping the smaller guys, the people who are doing incredible work by hand, and emerging designers. I feel like my heart is with them. I want to help get them off the ground in any way that I can. I'm fortunate to have the following that I have, even though I'm still, in a lot of ways, also a little guy."
A little guy Joseph has helped, and a good example of the kind of exposure Nashville Fashion Week hopes to build, is local designer Elizabeth Pape. She launched her Elizabeth Suzann line in the Emerging Designers showcase at last year's Nashville Fashion Week, and she initially reached out to Joseph shortly after.
"She was a blogger I looked up to, and her style and aesthetic was a good fit with my brand," Pape says. Since then, Joseph has been a big supporter of Pape. Last month, when Joseph made her first trip with her award winnings to New York, she made a point of wearing Elizabeth Suzann pieces to her meetings with brands and artists.
"I had a meeting with Steven Alan and was talking about Elizabeth's pieces," Joseph says. "I'm trying to bring Nashville other places and bring other things to Nashville — I feel like that's the way to grow."
Pape says that her sales have been directly impacted by Joseph's coverage. She will show her latest collection on opening night of Nashville Fashion Week.
"She really is a fan first and foremost of the clothes," Pape says. "I think the most significant impact has been the introduction to other outlets on the Internet. Her reach is very wide, and she has an involved audience. They admire her and respect her curation."
And when people look to Joseph to discover trends, Amy Fair says, they're also looking to Nashville.
"It's about telling everyone what kind of place Nashville is, and how it has so many people involved in the fashion industry," Fair says. "With Elise and her reach ... this gets the message out about what a great fashion center Nashville is."
Joseph, who spent most of the past year traversing the country, freelancing and collaborating with brands big and small, plans to use her fund award for further travel to cultivate relationships with new individuals and companies. But her dream is to open her own brick-and-mortar store. Two weeks ago, she hosted her first pop-up shop in Nashville, showcasing a variety of apparel, accessory and home decor items. And because she wants to inject a variety of inspirations into this dream shop, she's considering pop-ups in other cities that would expose artists to new markets and bring outside influences back to Nashville.
Fashion may be fleeting, but the Nashville Fashion Forward Fund is eternal. Or it means to be. Its permanent endowment fund is intended to outlive not only the resurgence of crop tops, but all of us. The fund currently stands at just under $90,000 and pays out 5 percent each year, while the remainder of the money is invested through an actively managed portfolio. Fair says that in the past two years, the portfolio has yielded double-digit returns.
The fund is distributed to only one individual or entity each year. But the founders of Nashville Fashion Week hope they can spur the community in other ways — for example, through the visiting speakers and educational opportunities the week provides. This year's panel sessions, presented by O'More College of Design and sponsored by The Arts & Business Council of Greater Nashville, will cover topics including content creation, social enterprise and sustainability practices; the aforementioned fashion industry survey results; and a conversation with the Council of Fashion Designers of America's Johanna Stout.
This year's schedule also includes four nights of runway shows (one of which will have models parading down Fifth Avenue of the Arts), parties, shopping events and a gala featuring special guest Fern Mallis, creator of New York Fashion Week. The Fashion Forward Gala will be held at OZ and will include pop-up performances presented by the Metro Nashville Arts Commission in celebration of this year's theme, "For the Art of It."
As in previous years, Nashville Fashion Week's runway shows will provide an opportunity for emerging local talent to share runways with renowned international brands. This year, Nashville Fashion Week organizers initiated partnerships with other regional fashion weeks and fashion incubator programs in St. Louis, Savannah and Chicago. The intent is to showcase designers from each city across multiple markets, making each city's fashion week a bridge instead of an isolated tower.
"There's power in numbers," Masulla says. "We're going to these other regional fashion weeks and saying, 'Hey, we may all have slightly different visions, but at the end of the day, we all want to support our local fashion communities, so why don't we work together?' "
Building the kind of infrastructure that grows a community into an industry will take years, if it happens at all. But perhaps the fashion community can take heart from another Nashville creative class: the city's culinary community. Over the past decade, bold visions, boosted talents, adventurous backers and some ingenious networking among many factions — from producers to consumers — have resulted in a vibrant food scene that has drawn nationwide attention.
The comparison isn't exact, except in one sense: A lively restaurant scene and a lively fashion scene — for wearing, for looking, for shopping — make a city more desirable, both as a place to visit and a place to live. For the next week, at least, Nashville will get to try that model for size — and see if it fits.
Camille is wearing Black by Maria Silver
Black by Maria Silver floral sleeveless full-length dress with polka-dot panels (Fond Object, blackbymariasilver.com); Alexis Bittar teatro moderne fringe earrings (Johnnie Q); Sam Edelman saddle-and-black wedges (Shoe Salon at Jamie)
Fashion Editor: Milton White, The Fashion Office; Photographers: Amy Phillips and Fairlight Hubbard, EYE Photography; Art Director: Elizabeth Jones, Nashville Scene; Model: Camille Birkhead, EYE Model Management; Hair Stylist, Make-up Artist: Betsy Briggs Cathcart, Studio BBC Salon; Hair and Make-up Assistant: Sara Hooten, Studio BBC Salon; Assistants: Gigi Tremel, EYE Management, and Abby White, Nashville Scene; Photographed at EYE Management & Photography