There is no question that the fashion industry has been undergoing major changes in recent years, particularly in terms of business operations, sustainability goals, and navigating a modern world buoyed by technology and the internet. But that doesn’t mean that the industry still isn’t as strong as ever, particularly within local communities around the country. In Fashion Mingle’s “Mingle Mastermind Session, “Building a Stronger Fashion Community,” the panelists discuss the challenges and rewards of organizing the fashion industry, and how to create win-win situations for everyone involved. In cities like Austin, Columbus, Portland, and New York City, our panelists have been instrumental in creating thriving local fashion communities, and are eager to share how to build a stronger fashion community community in your city.
How to Build a Strong Fashion Community: A Look at Austin
Austin, Texas has experienced a major fashion boom in recent years, with brands like Chanel and Louis Vuitton building manufacturing plants in the city. Samuel Alexander, founder and CEO of C2C (Concept 2 Conception) Fashion and Technology LLC, has been at the forefront of this boom, and has been instrumental in growing a technologically advanced fashion industry in Austin. Samuel’s company and his expertise work to bring together the fashion and technology industries with product design and development, sourcing and production, and strategic branding and marketing.
Samuel got his start in the industry nearly 40 years ago when he was asked to help a local high school build a fashion incubator. His work in education has continued, and he was recently involved in establishing the Fashion Incubator program at Austin Community College. Samuel is also working on building a separate two-year school that offers a degree in Fashion Technology Engineering.
In the meantime, Samuel understands that the changes the fashion industry has had to face in recent years have not all been positive. “We’re going to have to really change as an industry. If you really look at our industry, we lost 42,000 retailers within the last two and a half years,” said Samuel. But that certainly does not mean that all hope is lost for local, national, and international fashion communities. “Our focus right now is collaboration and rebuilding an industry from the ground up. But we have the tools to rebuild,” said Samuel.
Using the tools available to him, Samuel’s major focuses right now (in addition to working with education) including reshoring production, creating a circle economy, and implementing sustainability. He is also undertaking a major venture in developing a small business banking system that would serve ONLY small businesses. “If we don’t have a local economy, we don’t have a national economy,” said Samuel. So, in terms of how to build a strong fashion community, Samuel advocates for focusing on education and economic support, as well as embracing technological advancements.
Interested in learning more about the Austin fashion community? Check out these groups and events that Samuel has proudly participated in: Austin Trash Makeover Challenge, McCallum Fashion Show, and Austin Fashion Initiative.
How to Build A Strong Fashion Community: A Look at Columbus
Meanwhile, major things have also been happening in the Columbus, Ohio fashion community in recent years. One of the main people to thank for that is Thomas McClure, who learned how to build a strong fashion community after founding the Columbus Fashion Council, a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide scholarships to fashion design students and provide a platform for emerging and local fashion designers. Thomas and Columbus Fashion Council are largely responsible for developing Fashion Week Columbus, which WWD ranks as the number 3 fashion week for fashion designers.
It may seem surprising that this Midwest city has created such a name for itself, but Columbus actually has a pretty established corporate fashion industry, with companies like Express, Abercrombie & Fitch, Lane Bryant, and DSW all having major hubs in the city. And just like these larger companies, smaller independent companies have had to largely pivot their business by implementing online sales and producing products like masks and scrubs.
Despite the trials and tribulations these smaller companies have faced, Thomas and his organization just recently worked tirelessly to pull off 2020 Fashion Week Columbus. The event included five fashion shows and two virtual panel discussions. Three of the shows were fully virtual, while the other two, including the finale show, were in person. While over 1,000 people attended the finale show in 2019, this year less than 100 were allowed in, and they were all under strict COVID guidelines.
Still, when given the opportunity, Thomas couldn’t turn down a chance to give back to his local fashion community. “These designers, who are also small businesses, depend on our platform to launch their brands, to get their name out there, to get clients, to get connected to buyers, and whatnot. There’s no other platform in Ohio like that,” said Thomas. “So, we just said, ‘we’ve got to do this, and we’ll just pivot as we go along.’ It was a lot of work, but it was worth it.”
The event, and other Columbus Fashion Council events from previous years, have been possible thanks to the army of volunteers Thomas and the organization work with. In fact, Columbus Fashion Council is based almost entirely on volunteers, with Thomas citing over 2,000 volunteers participating with the organization since its founding 10 years ago. Thomas and the council have built such a solid community and are responsible for so many successful events, other fashion weeks, including Baltimore Fashion Week and Denver Fashion Week, have reached out for collaboration and promotion opportunities. “I think that is one of the best ways to succeed: to just really lift each other up within your local community and within other smaller fashion communities around the country,” said Thomas. And that right there is how to build a strong fashion community.
How to Build a Strong Fashion Community: A Look at Portland
Out west, Britta Cabanos has spent many years establishing herself in and growing the Portland fashion community. Britta, who studied Fashion Design at F.I.T. in New York City, and has over 25 years of experience as a Leading Design Director in athletic and active apparel. She is also the Co-Founder and Chief Design Director of Creative Capital Design, a woman-owned consulting studio working with small to midsize clients.
Creative Capital Design very quickly found success, and Britta and her business partner found themselves constantly being bombarded with questions from designers and other industry professionals regarding production, merchandising, development, and much more. This led to the development of Inside Fashion Design, which serves as an on and offline resource, offering workshops and events for those in the fashion industry. These small workshops led to big things for the fashion community. “We found that after those workshops, those dozen or so people just wanted to hang out and connect further and network,” said Britta. “So, it just started naturally and organically forming this little community.”
Britta has worked to continue to build this community, and is currently working on the 2020 Ethical Fashion Festival, which will be held November 5-7. The festival will feature fireside chats with industry professionals, virtual presentations from artisans, designers, and educators, and popup shops from ethical, sustainable, and social enterprise artisans, brands and designers. While the event was originally meant to be in person, hosting it virtually has actually allowed for more speakers and events. “Our vision for this event is really to support artisans and makers and marginalized groups wherever they are in the world.”
To reserve a ticket for the 2020 Ethical Fashion Festival, click here.
How to Build a Strong Fashion Community: A Look at NYC
New York City has long been one of the most significant fashion hubs in the world. But within the city, smaller fashion brands and businesses have banded together to form a tight knit community. One notable fashion figure is Catherine Schuller, who started her career as a plus-sized model in New York in the 70s. Cat, who has a passion for inclusivity and sustainability, and has been instrumental in the growth and success of many of New York’s most creative designers, models, event producers, and more.
After finding success as an early plus-sized model, Cat founded Runway the Real Way, which became known for hosting diverse and inclusive fashion events. She has also recently began doing sustainable fashion work for the United Nations. “I want to do for mother nature what I did for plus-sized women,” said Cat. This has included working to implement the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and raise awareness about sustainable practices within the fashion industry.
Fellow New Yorker Dale Noelle, owner and founder of TRUE Model Management, is instrumental in creating opportunities for New York’s freshest faces and working with many of the world’s most famous brands. Same as Cat, Dale began her career as a model, and is now passionate about creating connections and opportunities for women-owned businesses through events and partnerships. She is a committee member of Women’s Entrepreneurship Day, and works to bring some of the most successful women in New York City together. “I suggest to anyone in the industry, put yourself out there,” said Dale. “Networking is scary, but if you make the effort, it will help both you and the people you connect with.”
Queen of connections herself, Dee Rivera, supports this idea of putting yourself out there. With a career in PR working with major brands and publications, Dee is known for creative strategies that build emerging brands through DCG Public Relations. As a serial entrepreneur, Dee is the founder of Latinista.com, Hampton’s Fashion Week, and Times Square Fashion Week, three platforms that create promotional opportunities for emerging designers, beauty, and wellness brands. “If you want to make those connections, you have to reach out,” said Dee. “I suggest LinkedIn or email. Either way, don’t be afraid to make a move.”
The more connections you are able to make, the more you understand about your industry. Branding and fashion lawyer Shirin Movahed has made a career of guiding her clients through the legal challenges of starting and protecting their businesses. She has also served on the Fashion Group International boards for New York City and Toronto. “Making connections and building my resources has been invaluable to me on a personal level, and also for my business as a fashion and branding lawyer,” said Shirin. “Now when my clients come to me looking for a resource within the community, I know exactly how to address those needs.”
Besides hard work and an entrepreneurial mindset, what do all of these wonderful New York City women have in common? They are all a part of the same community, established by Fashion Mingle and its cofounder and CEO, Melissa Shea. Inspired by the Austin fashion industry, Melissa used her 20 years of experience in the tech industry to create a platform that connects fashion professionals with the resources they need locally, or anywhere in the world.
It is this kind of community building that has united incredible groups of people, including our panelists. As Shirin said, “I don’t think any of us would be here if it wasn’t for Fashion Mingle. That is the ultimate online fashion community and it has brought us all together and I’m really thankful for that because so much has spawned from that. So, hats off to Melissa and Fashion Mingle.”
6 Tips on How to Build a Stronger Fashion Community
- Volunteer. Take Thomas McClure and the Columbus Fashion Council: “With the volunteers we have, it becomes a win-win situation. I tell all of them, ‘I want you to come on board, and I want to know what your expectations are of the organization. How can we help you, and how can you help us?’” Not only are you giving back to your community, but volunteer opportunities provide the chance to learn about your local fashion industry and connect with other professionals.
- Participate in Events. Participate in them and create them! Britta Cabanos began creating workshop events through her business, and they were so successful, they led to larger events like the Ethical Fashion Festival. Just like volunteering, attending and creating events provide learning and networking opportunities.
- Focus on Social Issues. It can be uncomfortable to bring up social issues, but they have a major impact on the fashion industry and communities in general. Our panelists have been heavily involved in issues regarding inclusivity, diversity, and sustainability, just to name a few. If we can’t unite to make the world a better place, we can’t build a strong fashion community.
- Just Reach Out. Networking can be incredibly intimidating. As Dale Noelle said, “I think people can be hesitant to step out of their comfort zone or ask for help, but just getting involved is the most important first step.” If you want to connect with someone, you have to be the first one to reach out, because chances are, they aren’t going to reach out first.
- Get Involved at the Government Level. Public policy plays a huge role in the fashion industry. In order to create organizations or events, or really just make some great connections, you’re probably going to have to get some politicians involved. As Samuel Alexander suggests, start by doing work within your local education system and government. Then start approaching larger government offices.
- Don’t Give Up. There really are so many opportunities to connect, learn, and grow. “If one opportunity doesn’t work out, look for another. Find the right fit for you,” said Melissa Shea.
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