NASHVILLE, United States — At Manuel Couture, a shop and showroom in downtown Nashville just a 20-minute drive from the Grand Ole Opry — the storied performance venue that has launched many of the country music industry’s most illustrious careers — there is a rack of 50 not-for-sale souvenir blazers, hand appliqued to depict one of the United States of America. A KFC bucket of chicken is embroidered onto Kentucky’s sleeve, a string of wild sunflowers onto Kansas’, the motto “To be, rather than to seem,” rendered in a childlike cursive on North Carolina’s, with a starry sky of rhinestones sprayed over each.
In the back of the store in a small workroom, Manuel Cuevas custom designs, fits and embroiders floor-sweeping capes, bedazzled gowns and artfully flamboyant suits for country music and rock’s elite: Elvis and Johnny Cash were clients, but so is Jack White. Manuel, as he is better known, has been tailoring clothes since the early 1950s, and yet his maximalist, novel creations are more akin to Alessandro Michele’s vision for Gucci than a fusty made-to-order shop stuck in the past.
Fashion’s link with country music runs deep, deeper even than Cuevas and his tricked out wares, and Nashville, its spiritual home, is inextricably linked to that. In the past, this gave rise to the costume-like dress favoured by country music singers of yore: yoked suiting embroidered with yellow roses worn by honky tonk musicians, or sequined gowns boasting unironic shoulder pads modelled by the community’s biggest crossover stars.
But this week’s Academy of Country Music Awards, which took place on Sunday, April 2, in Las Vegas, was just the most recent example of a more contemporary pairing between country music’s elite and fashion’s elite. Just as with the Grammys or the Oscars, red carpet arrivals — including Faith Hill in a burgundy leopard print Michael Kors wrap dress and actor Nicole Kidman (who is married to country music star Keith Urban) in a colourfully embroidered long-sleeved Alexander McQueen column — were rapturously discussed by red-carpet chroniclers including People, Pop Sugar and the Huffington Post.
And yet, country music’s elevated stance on the red carpet is just one reason the city of Nashville is betting that fashion can become not only a major driver of culture in the region, but also a significant driver of employment and industry. Fashion businesses pump $5.9 billion and 16,200 jobs into the area’s economy, according to a January 2017 report released by the Nashville Fashion Alliance (NFA) — a trade organisation established in 2013 that boasts nearly 370 members representing over 130 fashion brands — presented in partnership with Zurich-based strategic advisory Gherzi Textil Organisation. That impact, posits the report, could reach $9.5 billion and 25,000 jobs by 2025.
But while companies like VF Corp and Warby Parker operate segments of business out of the region — the conglomerate’s workwear subsidiary, VF Imagewear, is located there, as is the eyewear disruptor’s customer service center — the NFA believes that much of this growth will come from independent designers with a national, and often international, footprint.
“We want to become the location for emerging brands in the fashion industry, to make it attractive for designers to start their brands here. If we invest in those first, we can show bigger companies that this area is worthy,” says Van Tucker, chief executive of the NFA. A born-and-raised Nashvillian who spent the majority of her career working between the banking and music industries, Tucker believes fashion is thriving in the city because of its collaborative spirit, noting that Nashville is the home of “co-writing.” “There’s rising tide mentality,” she adds. “That originated in our music community.”
In the past half decade, Nashville has produced a surprising number of independent brands — more than 100 altogether — whose customers reach far beyond the confines of the city, including ethically sourced and produced Nisolo Shoes, handbag maker Ceri Hoover, bespoke leather jackets label Atelier Savas — designed by the Central Saint Martins-educated Savannah Yarborough — bohemian dress line Cavanagh Baker and basics brand Jamie + the Jones, which has seen orders triple in the past six months. Then there’s Elizabeth Suzann, the mid-priced minimalist collection set to generate $3.5 million in sales in 2017.
Founded in 2013 by designer Elizabeth Pape, Elizabeth Suzann produces every item on-demand in its Nashville factory and currently employs 22 people, including three pattern cutters and eight sewers. The company has managed to make its direct-to-consumer, online-only approach work with zero paid marketing — or name recognition — to start. Instead, she benefited from the generosity of the Nashville creative community, which tends to frequently travel between coasts, to spread the word. (The largest percentage of her customer base hails from New York and Los Angeles.) “We focus much harder on improving our engagement with current customers than on acquiring new ones, so the reach-benefits of wholesale aren’t a priority for us,” Pape says.
But Pape and her contemporaries may not be so well positioned if it wasn’t for Imogene + Willie, the label established in July 2009 by Matt and Carrie Eddmenson, whose family had been in the denim business for more than 30 years. “When I think of Nashville fashion, I think of pre-Imogene + Willie and post-Imogene + Willie,” says Nashville-based Libby Callaway, founder of The Callaway, a boutique creative consulting firm, who some like to call the “patron saint” of the city’s scene.
A longtime fashion editor at the NY Post, Callaway moved to Nashville in 2004 to report for local newspaper The Tennessean, but soon ventured into styling and selling vintage clothing. Today, she serves as the catalyst and connector between the New York establishment and local designers, and has done stints in marketing at Billy Reid — who is based between Manhattan and nearby Florence, Alabama — and Imogene + Willie. “They had a great brand, a clear vision and a beautiful product,” Callaway says of the Eddmensons, who opened their first store in an abandoned gas station in a neighbourhood known as 12 South. “It hit at the exact time as Americana was settling in, and there were connections to rock and roll, too. Jack White and the Black Keys came in and bought jeans. It brought all of these different communities in Nashville together.”
Imogene + Willie went on to open a store in Portland, Oregon, and collaborate with national retailers like J.Crew. “I remember when Imogene + Willie opened on 12 South, I thought, ‘This is going to be god awful, pre-distressed denim.’ Nine months later, they were on the cover of [now-defunct Japanese menswear bible] Free & Easy magazine,” recalls Elliott Kyle, a real estate broker and developer who is bringing New York cocktail bar Attaboy to East Nashville. (Its other satellite location is in Tokyo.) “Today, you go into Imogene + Willie, and international tourists are photographing both the store and the product,” he adds. “They’re there to get something inherently Nashville.”
Other second-tier cities have sprouted notable creative communities as rising rents and cost of living pushes artists out of more prominent cities like New York, San Francisco and to a certain extent, Los Angeles. But there appears to be a bit of magic dust swirling around the Nashville air, with the region adding 100 new residents every day, on average, according to the US Census Bureau, with a gross domestic product of $113 billion and a population of 1.8 million in 2015.
It also helps that while there is a great deal of wealth — along with music industry titans, celebrities including Kidman and Reese Witherspoon own homes in the area — the cost of living is still fairly low, even in gentrifying areas such as East Nashville. (On the Council for Community and Economic Research’s Cost of Living Composite Index — which looks at percent of income spent on goods, including groceries, housing, utilities, transportation, health care and more — Nashville hits 97 compared to Manhattan’s 228.2.)
Not to mention the number of creative elites who have settled here, from writer and director Harmony Korine to supermodel Karen Elson.
There’s a level of cooperation and interdependence. Designers here are a lot more willing to work together.
“The secret sauce is in the cultural relevance of this town. We have a lot going on here with creative people, painters, photographers, art directors, filmmakers and food: it’s all exploding here at the same time,” says Karen Fairchild of the popular country band Little Big Town. Fairchild, who is wearing ruffled J.W. Anderson booties and an embroidered Gucci logo backpack when we meet at local third-wave coffee mecca Barista Parlor, sells her own apparel collection — Fair Child — at Macy’s and Evine, the broadcast shopping network backed by Tommy Hilfiger and Tommy Mottola. Fairchild shops in Los Angeles and New York for designer labels, but she also spends plenty of time in Nordstrom’s Nashville location, which carries emerging designers through its Space concept. “Nashville is also a really great town to raise a family in,” she adds. “People brought their dreams here, and with that has come this explosion of fashion and interior design.”
“This is a frontier town, it was never like Louisville or Memphis. It never had high society, it never had a museum,” says David Rosen, president of Franklin, Tennessee’s O’More College of Design, a local feeder of talent into the fashion industry. “It was a hub for trains and transportation — in some ways, it comes with the same thing that any frontier place does: you’re not caught up with institutions.”
But whether or not Nashville’s fashion industry will be able to support 25,000 jobs in the region in less than 10 years depends on the success of the designers and brands currently established there.
One missing link is local manufacturing, which has become top of mind since the arrival of the Trump administration, whose anti-trade policies — including the proposal of a heavy tax on imports — have made some companies reconsider manufacturing apparel Stateside, which has decreased significantly since the 1980s and 1990s, when cheap overseas labour and somewhat liberal trade policies made it bad business to manufacture mass-market clothing in the US.
“In any business, you want look at how you can keep your costs low and mitigate your risk,” says the NFA’s Tucker. “What we didn’t fit into that equation was trade, trade policy and immigration policy. “You have a lot of brands manufacturing overseas, but the pendulum swung too far from a risk-mitigation perspective. We’re not looking to reshore all of American manufacturing, but to be able make things here is one of our big objectives.”
However, manufacturing has all but died in the region. Omega Apparel, which makes uniforms for the US military out of its Smithville, Tennessee, factory, transformed its 20,000 square foot space in Nashville from a full production facility into a brand development and sampling room called TBD Nashville after just a year in business.
What’s more, a lack of skilled workers means that finding even just one or two sewers can be a challenge. While O’More is graduating 60-some fashion students per year and claims 90 percent field placement, the number of degree holders who go on to become pattern makers, seamstresses or technical designers remains slim. “The previous generation has aged out of the workforce, and for the most part their replacements are not interested in traditional factory roles,” Tucker says. “Automation is going to require a significant amount of capital investment.”
Unfortunately, many of Nashville’s startup labels have not achieved the brisk success or mastered the on-demand model like Elizabeth Suzann. At the moment, it’s difficult to even have a sample made locally. It’s one of the reasons that, in 2015, Imogene + Willie moved its corporate offices to Los Angeles, where the majority of its denim has been manufactured almost since the company was established.
While the Eddmensons were able to manufacture jeans in their own shop for the first six months of business and utilise a denim factory in the southeast for a short time thereafter, “We outgrew the capacity at one of the small plants in the south, so within the first year we were manufacturing in Los Angeles,” explains co-founder Carrie Eddmenson. “We’re not a huge company, but denim is 76 percent of our overall revenue, and as we grew over the years, the overnight Fed Exes back and forth from New York to Los Angeles to get a fit approved for production, to check washes — we were spending ludicrous amounts of money to be able to operate from one coast to another. The margin of error was starting to become too much of a risk. Living out there, we are at a factory every day.”
The Eddmensons’ move to Los Angeles certainly shook Nashville’s fashion community. “Whether it be spoken or unspoken, there were people that were bitter about us making this move,” she says. “And we understand that, but we had to make the move in order to save the company.”
However, the challenges Imogene + Willie faced are indicative of what other, less well-established labels are up against. “Reshoring, automation, mass customisation… we think a big portion of manufacturing is going to be much closer to market,” says Karim Shafei, an international partner at Gherzi, who coauthored the NFA study. “It’s going to completely change the business model.” While major apparel brands have looked to Nashville as a potential manufacturing base — including pre-bankruptcy American Apparel — the infrastructure is not yet in place to achieve success.
But the Eddmensons are among a small but determined group of locals who want to make manufacturing and development in the city, which claims to have the third-largest number of working independent designers in the country after New York and Los Angeles — and more than 300 fashion companies altogether — a viable option.
To start, the NFA has proposed the establishment of a resource centre that will offer affordable studio and office space, shared equipment, small-batch manufacturing, as well as a skilled workforce training, all framed by a Y-Combinator-like accelerator program that will offer emerging designers access to funding and industry mentors.
“Contemporary brands are realising that there is a lot of value in having the creative process and the production process co-located,” says Tucker, who is currently raising capital to fund the resource centre. “The good thing about this region is that we’re not invested in any legacy systems. Our brands are looking at more advanced process technology, just-in-time manufacturing as opposed to having a six-to-18 month lead time. They want complete vertical integration.”
“Having studied the landscape here for the past three years, if you were to build a factory here tomorrow, you’d fail,” says David Perry, co-owner of East Nashville lifestyle store Two Sons and founder of The DSP Group, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm that develops and manufactures products for apparel brands. “That’s not sustainable for 100 different reasons.”
However, that doesn’t mean Perry isn’t bullish on Nashville’s potential as a manufacturing hub. He has plans to open a knits and wovens factory in the city in early 2018, focused on “higher-priced goods that are made in an ethically responsible way, to help brands go from concept to design to sampling,” he says. While Perry’s larger-scale clients will fuel the business, the factory will also serve as a launchpad for small labels only making a few units at a time. As for the lack of skilled workers? Perry says he will recruit those looking to relocate.
As for Imogene + Willie, Eddmenson says that they, too, have an impending announcement that will replant the label firmly in Nashville. “For everything that we’ve gained by moving out to Los Angeles, what we lost by not being there is devastating,” Eddmenson says. “What we want to maintain and strengthen in Nashville is our commitment and support in making it the manufacturing community it can be. We will soon have a much stronger presence in both places.”
Closing up that missing link in Nashville’s fashion ecosystem is sure to be challenging, if not impossible. But there’s something to be said for the character of the city itself. “I really think it has a lot to do with with gentility,” Callaway says. “Being open to your neighbour and helping your neighbour. There’s a level of cooperation and interdependence. Designers here are a lot more willing to work together.”
But it’s also that confluence of music, food, art and affordability that cannot be found in equal measure anywhere else in the country. “It’s providence,” as Perry puts it. “Right place, right time.”