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Social Distancing Could Breed New Opportunities for Nashville Fashion Week

Social Distancing Could Breed New Opportunities for Nashville Fashion Week

Connie Cathcart-Richardson (left) and Marcia MasullaPhoto: Eric England

Nashville Fashion Week was supposed to celebrate its 10th anniversary in the coming days, but on March 12, organizers announced the postponement of all NFW events and programming until early August. This includes shopping events at retail stores around the city, interactive workshops, panels and educational sessions, and runway shows at OZ Arts Nashville.

Not that anyone in Nashville ne to be reminded, but the combination of an EF-3 tornado ripping through the city in the wee hours of March 3 and the rising threat of coronavirus has turned even the most extroverted social butterflies into social-distancing hermit crabs. 

“After thousands of hours of planning from a dedicated volunteer team and generous support from sponsors and partners, this decision is heartbreaking,” NFW managing partner Marcia Masulla told the Scene via email on March 16. “However, it’s the responsible thing to do. We feel the tremendous weight of not being able to support our local fashion community as planned. Our focus and commitments need to be alongside our fellow Nashvillians experiencing devastation. We have already set Aug. 4-8, 2020, as the rescheduled dates and are working with sponsors and partners to make that happen.”

The Scene talked with Masulla and her fellow managing partner Connie Cathcart-Richardson several days before they announced their decision to cancel the event. At the time, they reflected on 10 years of NFW and how the regional fashion community has matured during that time. Even after a decade, both women are accustomed to having to justify why the city should have a fashion week at all.

“There’s still this misconception that Nashville Fashion Week is just for designers,” Masulla told the Scene. “There’s still this misconception that fashion week or fashion is just about beautiful people and fancy dresses, and that’s not what it’s about.”

So if NFW isn’t just for designers or beautiful people who like fancy dresses, then who — or what — is it all about?

“I would say it’s really about the evolution of building a fashion community and then turning that into an industry,” Masulla added. “Supporting the future of people in the industry [and] moving forward with the fund. It’s about the people.”

The fund Masulla refers to is NFW’s Nashville Fashion Forward Fund, an endowment established in 2011. Managed by the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, it was created to support and advance the careers of local fashion-industry professionals. One recipient is selected each year by a committee organized by the CFMT. 

“It’s about the people, that’s why we do this,” said Cathcart-Richardson. “It’s for everybody that’s involved, whether it’s the production person or the model, and giving everybody a platform to show off what they do. ‘Nashville Show-Off Week’ is what it really is, on every level.”

Masulla and Cathcart-Richardson fondly recalled the genesis of the idea, which started with a group of six individuals who launched the first NFW in 2011: Scott McClure, Mike Smith (who, full disclosure, is the Scene’s publisher), Cindy Wall and Robert Campbell. Over the years, the other four co-founders gradually left the organization, but Masulla and Cathcart-Richardson soldiered on, planning annual citywide fashion and retail events, an awards show, educational panels and runway shows featuring local and national designers

Megan Prange “We knew that there’s this creative community that can be an industry, so how do we drive attention to it outside of this misnomer that fashion is just for creatives, or that it’s frivolous?” Masulla explained. “We knew just from doing research [on] other regional fashion weeks and organizations that we wanted to lead with the fund because it was so much bigger than us. … Any funds that we raise through sponsorships or donors, it has to pay for production and the platform and for everything to do with Nashville Fashion Week, and then all of the proce that are left over from that go directly into the fund,” she added.

“For fund recipients, there’s not a set amount that’s given every year — it’s based on their request,” Cathcart-Richardson said. “It’s an experience. It’s not, ‘I need a sewing machine,’ but what experience can help you be better at what you do, and then bring that experience back home to help you grow.”

This year’s Nashville Fashion Forward Fund recipient is Megan Prange, owner of Prange Apparel, a cut-and-sew manufacturing facility located in Donelson. Prange attended one of the early NFW runway shows, where she says she was enthralled by the promise that NFW held. She started attending every year while working with local designers on freelance pattern and sample work. Prange says she noticed designers struggling with scaling their businesses. Six years ago, she launched Prange Apparel to offer small-batch apparel manufacturing to help independent designers expand their businesses. Over the years, she’s worked with several designers who have shown at NFW, and her current client base includes designers from all over the country.

“Most designers start off by making everything themselves, and when the demand increases, we are there to help them keep up with it,” Prange tells the Scene via email. “It also allows them to focus on what they do best — designing and marketing — but also have small batches readily available for taking to markets and wholesaling to boutiques. We also offer pattern creation and pattern grading services for designers who drape and sew garments, but do not have the ability or time to make manufacturable patterns.”

Prange plans to use the award funds to attend the Gerber Technology Ideation Software Conference, where she hopes to learn about expanding her company’s product development so she can improve turnaround time and work more efficiently with designers

“It has helped build an entire fashion community around the area, and now it’s not only about fashion, but it’s really about Nashville fashion,” Prange says of the connections she’s made at NFW. “Every year, I get to connect with new and upcoming designers through NFW, and it helps me find new ways that my business can work with and benefit the local fashion community.”

NFW also encourages the community to support local retailers through Shop Nashville events held at stores around the city. There are also the Learning Labs — interactive educational sessions, instructional workshops and panel discussions. (These events, along with the runway shows, have been postponed until August.) The 2020 runway shows would have featured 21 designers, with 19 from Middle Tennessee. Eight of these 19 designers were first-time participants at NFW. 

Emily Phillips Nashville designer Emily Phillips, whose namesake collection of women’s shirts and dresses are ethically and sustainably made in the USA, was among the group of eight. Phillips, who has a retail store in Germantown’s 100 Taylor building, has grown her three-year-old business by focusing on wholesale and creating national brand awareness. She was eager for the regional exposure her NFW runway show would have offered. 

“I was hoping to help increase local exposure and create new relationships within the design community here in Nashville,” Phillips says. “I was excited to get some press and marketing content. The NFW has created this amazing opportunity for designers to participate in a professional runway show without the exorbitant costs that are typically involved in something like New York Fashion Week. Of course, designers incur extra costs with runway shows, but I think that having runway experience and great marketing content will certainly outweigh the small extra costs of participating in NFW.”

Phillips says she wishes NFW organizers would consider adding a market to future events, which would promote business between designers and fashion retail buyers.

“One thing that’s missing from NFW that the city of Nashville would really benefit from — and be able to pull off — is a wholesale market for retailers, media and the press,” she says. “I think Nashville would love another opportunity to show off our incredible city. We’re setting trends and creating style here.” 

Although Phillips is new to NFW, she was previously a member of the Nashville Fashion Alliance, a nonprofit trade association that dissolved in May 2019 due to loss of funding. Launched in 2014 by banking veteran Van Tucker, the NFA operated entirely separately from NFW, although there were certainly some common goals — and personnel — between the two organizations. The NFA focused on accelerating business and supply-chain development and building a supportive infrastructure for the region’s fashion industry. Robert Antoshak, managing director at Olah Inc., was chairman of the NFA at the time. He tells the Scene that he had hoped the NFW and NFA could merge and share resources.

“I pushed that really hard,” Antoshak says. “It was a natural merger of the two, and it should’ve happened. For the life of me, I don’t know why it didn’t happen sooner. This market is too small to have two groups. It should’ve had a unified message with a fashion runway show as part of it.”

Antoshak says runway shows can be a beneficial part of a designer’s marketing and business plan, especially since competition at a larger fashion week — like New York City — would be fierce.

“I see it as a marketing mechanism,” he says. “It’s better to get small-market exposure with recognition and press coverage than virtually having no chance of doing that in New York.”

While it may be difficult for a local designer to garner national attention, Nashville designer Amanda Valentine certainly has, although she notes that her path was unconventional. After competing on the hit TV show Project Runway in 2013, Valentine showed at New York Fashion Week twice and was voted back as a fan favorite to compete on another season of Project Runway, where she placed second. Valentine participated in the inaugural NFW in 2011, and 2020 would have been her sixth appearance showing her namesake womenswear brand at NFW. 

“It’s been extraordinary being able to show at the first Nashville Fashion Week and many over the years,” Valentine says. “I think it’s useful for businesses and consumers to see what’s available right in their own backyard. The variety of talent here is really awe-inspiring, and I really respect that Nashville Fashion Week has given us the platform to show that off.”

Valentine’s long involvement as a designer with NFW and the Nashville fashion community in general has provided a unique vantage point on how this community — and NFW itself — has evolved over the past 10 years.

“Obviously, the focus on Nashville in general has become a little broader and brighter — 10 years ago we were putting on punk rock fashion shows at Exit/In and Mercy Lounge, selling out but not making a dime,” Valentine says. “A lot of the same folks are still around, but most have moved on to more stable industries. I don’t think anyone could have predicted the force of influencers and social media on fashion, and I think that has really taken center stage.”

Amanda ValentinePhoto: Daniel Meigs Social media influencers now have nearly as much pull as conventional industry leaders. Every move on social media is an easily tracked metric, allowing designers to effectively reach consumers and track purchases. While no one is suggesting that the entire commerce — or creative — side of the fashion industry should be run through Instagram, it does raise the question of how relevant runway shows are to the overall fashion business model in 2020. According to Masulla, producing one runway show for NFW costs “in the $20,000 range.” Fashion shows may be fun, but at such a steep cost, are they necessary, if NFW, as Masulla and Cathcart-Richardson claim, aims to build the local fashion community into an industry? 

“It’s not just the live fashion show and all the glitter — that’s important, I’m not saying don’t do it — but I’m saying, now’s the time to come up with an online solution,” Antoshak says. “I’ve found both Marcia and Connie to be very capable and smart, and my advice would be to take advantage of the opportunity that the [coronavirus] is providing all of us, which is to step back and reevaluate what we do.”

As Antoshak notes, much remains unknown about coronavirus at this time, and there’s a possibility that events may need to be postponed past August. But, he points out, now is the perfect time for NFW to create an online solution.

“I was surprised, for example, that they didn’t come up with a virtual runway showshow the designer’s latest product and film the entire runway show,” he says. “That would’ve been super cheap to put on and could have been available on social media. That would probably be the single most important thing they could do for Nashville, because that would go viral to the global business. Everybody is stuck behind closed doors right now, and that’s the only way to reach them.”