You might not know that Nashville has one of the largest concentrations of apparel designers outside of New York City and Los Angeles – it’s a city worth paying attention to. This week, I had the pleasure of speaking with pioneers in building momentum around Nashville’s design and production community, Libby Callaway and Van Tucker. Libby is the incoming Board Chair and Van the CEO of the Nashville Fashion Alliance, equipping designers with the infrastructure and business education that they need to flourish. The duo’s respective creative and finance backgrounds are a powerful force in unison.
There’s a wealth of creative talent in Nashville and the surrounding region. Take Otis James, for example, known for handmade and custom neckties. Not too far away, Billy Reid, started by a current CFDA member, is headquartered in Florence, Alabama. Prior to 1980, 80 percent of clothes made in America were produced in the South. For a period, manufacturing declined as services moved elsewhere and abroad. Now the region is experiencing a tremendous resurgence. Locals joke that the city bird of Nashville is the construction crane. Libby Callaway describes the growth as “crazy, in a good way – new people are moving in every day.”
Says Van Tucker, the place is imaginative in a way “beyond cowboy boots and hats – there are plenty of boots, hats, and country music, but the city also houses world-class restaurants, noteworthy art galleries, and many budding genres of music. The Black Keys and Jack White are based here. It’s a place for creativity and business.” Of course, any rapidly changing city experiences growing pains. However, Van is hopeful about the city’s new mayor, Megan Barry, a “brilliant” advocate for neighborhood and community development, better public transportation, and maintaining affordability. “She’s been in office for around 90 days and is already making an impact.”
An Ecosystem for Design
The Nashville Fashion Alliance emerged, according to Libby “out of necessity” to provide independent brands with the infrastructure they need to start and to scale. It’s a trade organization whose mission is to incubate and accelerate fashion design companies through four pillars: advocacy, economic development, shared resources, and education. The city is one of the largest employment hubs for music, and similarly famous for healthcare and technology – these industries already have supportive institutions. The NFA will equip the apparel design community with comparable resources.
As Van explained to me, at the core of every productive ecosystem for fashion development is the designer or brand. First and foremost, designers need raw materials, wholesale trade suppliers, and equipment in their locale. Next, designers need access to manufacturing capabilities. The NFA strives to build out these layers of infrastructure by attracting design and production talent to the city.
One way that the NFA is enabling production expansion is by growing a new skilled workforce in manufacturing. Libby admits that the city’s manufacturing industry “desperately needs labor – people who know how to sew and produce.” The NFA is partnering with the Sewing Training Academy to train underserved populations such as refugees and the unemployed in apparel production. The demand for manufacturing jobs clearly exists; Libby views it her duty as the new NFA Chair to entice nationwide talent to fill that need.
Beyond production capabilities, the industry needs distribution channels and a suite of supplementary commercial services such as trade consulting, photography, styling, modeling, e-commerce support, and web and graphic design assistance in order to be successful. Van advocates, “we are geographically well-positioned from a distribution perspective.” Many large brands such as Under Armour, Macy’s, and The Gap have already opened large customer service and distribution centers in the Nashville region.
Creativity + Business
One of the biggest endeavors the NFA is excited to tackle involves arming the design community with sophisticated business skills. Many creative brands lack business fundamentals but need this knowledge (or need to outsource it) to grow and sustain themselves. In 2016, the organization will launch a professional development workshop series and an intensive pilot incubator program. The NFA is also partnering with several education engines. Design schools and renown post-secondary institutions will form student alliances, in which business and design students will pair together to launch ideas.
Other initiatives center on awareness. The organization will invest in economic impact cluster analysis to prove the positive economic impact of fashion brands to the region. A continuing challenge involves generating awareness among the design community itself about what the NFA offers and how designers can participate.
The Right Mix
Libby, as Board Chair, and Van, as CEO of the NFA are the perfect pair to bring creativity and business together in Nashville, given their complementary backgrounds. Both have childhood roots in Tennessee. They work together daily in a very hands-on style, constantly cooking up and executing ideas. They are big proponents of collaboration and offering the microphone to diverse perspectives. They envision building a shared creative workspace, or “combined civic center and incubator of sorts” – where designers as well as performing artists, visual artists, and chefs can rent affordable working space and commingle at community events.
Van calls Libby “a true fashion industry connoisseur and a real insider.” After obtaining her Master’s in Journalism, Libby was an editor in high fashion, based in New York City for ten years; she’s written for Elle, Glamour, and Travel + Leisure. When she moved to Nashville in 2004, a full-fledged high fashion scene didn’t exist. She worked as a stylist as well as a media and marketing consultant for various local designers such as Amanda Valentine and Emil Erwin, and as branding director for Billy Reid. She views the NFA as an institution providing resources on a larger scale than she could herself. Libby prides herself for “seeing something in Nashville” before others did – to her, “it was obvious that New York City and Los Angeles couldn’t continue to be only major happening cities in America.”
Libby claims Van has “done more in six months than most people do in three years – she works so hard. She understand local politics and knows how to rope in the city, state, region, and even the nation, piquing their interests.” Van has carved a fruitful career in financial services for creative industries such as music and entertainment. She has long recognized “a gap between art and commerce and loves having a skillset to bridge that gap.” She holds an MBA from Vanderbilt University and previously ran Bank of America’s national entertainment division. She founded a local bank called Avenue Bank that focused on creative entrepreneurial ventures. She also founded a consulting company to help brands build out their business infrastructure.
We are excited about the renaissance that Nashville is experiencing and how Libby and Van are pioneering the movement!
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