The Fashion Mission
Saint Louis Fashion Fund cultivates top design talent and brings the business of fashion back to St. Louis.
The desire to transform St. Louis into a competitive city to watch on the international fashion scene has inspired a group of local leaders to create a new nonprofit, the Saint Louis Fashion Fund. Harkening back to a time when St. Louis was an epicenter of fashion design and manufacturing second only to New York, Fashion Fund aims to strengthen the St. Louis fashion community and return the city to its former fashion glory. Led by a 32-member board of directors, which includes fashion professionals and civic leaders, the organization is poised to lead St. Louis into a new chapter of fashion resurgence, and it’s already moving full speed ahead.
Whether it’s bringing in internationally renowned fashion exhibitions, curating shows to give back to the community or nurturing emerging design talent through education and fundraising, Fashion Fund has created a network of supporters who have come together for the good of the fashion community. “In the last few years, fashion in St. Louis has seen significant growth with momentum from exhibitions and panel discussions at Washington University, The Fashion Lab at Craft Alliance and the tremendous growth of Saint Louis Fashion Week,” says Fashion Fund founding board member and chair Susan Sherman. “Ideas have been percolating and great things are happening, so we thought, ‘What if we created an organization that was the first stop for fashion in St. Louis?'”
Fashion Forward Once the ideas and goals began to take shape, Sherman and fellow founders, Saks Fifth Avenue Director of Marketing Tania Beasley-Jolly, founder and CEO of TalentPlus Sharon Tucci and co-founder of Saint Louis Fashion Week and ALIVE Magazine Elizabeth Tucker, realized they had identified an important need in the St. Louis fashion community. “As someone who is passionate about fashion and the landscape in St. Louis, when the opportunity came about for us to create something that would not only further our dream of supporting emerging talent, but also help our economy flourish as a thriving center of fashion, it was really all hands on deck,” says Beasley-Jolly, vice chair of the Fund.
Fashion Fund soon developed a solid plan, securing involvement with high-ranking community leaders and business minds, including Atul Kamra, head of advice at Wells Fargo Advisors; Diane Sullivan, CEO, president and chairman of the board at Brown Shoe Company; Pat Whitaker, founder and chairmain of Arcturis; and Mayor Francis Slay.
One of Fashion Fund’s first initiatives is a collaboration with Saint Louis Fashion Week on education-driven programming, led by New York Fashion Week creator Fern Mallis. The Fund is also helping to raise the bar of STLFW’s annual Emerging Designer Competition by collaborating on the Saint Louis Fashion Fund Emerging Designer Award, presented by Brown Shoe Company—the event’s largest award to date. The package includes a $15,000 award to the winner of the competition, which will be held on Oct. 15 at Union Station. Fashion Fund will choose six finalists, who will present their collections during Saint Louis Fashion Week in front of an elite panel of jurors, including New York Fashion Week creator Fern Mallis, Saks Fifth Avenue Senior Fashion Director Colleen Sherin and Refinery29 Editor-in-Chief Christene Barberich. As soon as the portfolios hit the judges’ hands, designers will be gaining valuable connections and priceless contacts to fuel the next phase of their careers.
But the largest and most ambitious Fashion Fund endeavor is the creation of a future fashion incubator—a space that would provide young designers a co-working environment in which to create, collaborate and take advantage of business mentoring and services to jump-start their careers. The idea of an incubator has been floating around the local fashion community for years, but Fashion Fund hopes to fast-track the process with the assistance of the city’s civic and political leaders who are active within the organization.
Other cities have had proven success with the same venture. Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco and Toronto are all operating efficient fashion incubators that provide resources for designers to launch their careers within their respective cities, and at least 20 more incubators have formed, or are forming, in cities like Seattle, Atlanta, Phoenix and Washington, DC.
“The Fund and the incubator provide a natural place for us to put business and fashion minds together to compete for and win the hearts and minds of the best design and fashion talent,” says Fashion Fund advisor Atul Kamra, whose wife, Anjali Kamra, is the locally based designer of Rungolee. “Watching Rungolee grow provided a bird’s-eye view of what it takes to go from an idea and vision to a business and a brand. A lot of the support and mentoring that talented designers need is somewhat common and can be shared in an incubator-like setting, letting their unique ideas and identities come through.”
The Business of Fashion The benefits of a fashion incubator in St. Louis are far-reaching— and they go beyond the fashion community. In addition to giving designers a launch pad for their creativity, an incubator would encourage local production, business and awareness, gaining attention from designers and fashion industry professionals near and far.
“One of our goals is for people to look at St. Louis as a production community,” Tucci, Fashion Fund vice chair, explains. “The talent is here, the resources are here—the only missing link is a group of people who can take on the mission, and that’s where the Fashion Fund comes in.”
From a business standpoint, a fashion incubator is also a win-win. “We have a civic mission in mind: We are trying to bring the fashion business back to St. Louis,” adds Sherman.
To fulfill the vision of providing designers with the resouces needed to bring their lines to market, Fashion Fund leaders will be looking to successful incubators in other markets for inspiration. Many utilize designers-in-residence programs to provide the necessary resources, including workshop and studio space, business support, mentoring and industry networking.
There’s no doubt Fashion Fund’s mission leaves the current crop of St. Louis-area designers encouraged about their decision to establish careers in their hometown. “It’s an amazing resource to give designers the much-needed support required to be successful not only in St. Louis, but nationally and internationally,” says Wai Ming designer Emily Koplar.
Even the young, aspiring designer set will be empowered. Fashion Fund plans to partner with educational organizations such as Lift for Life Academy—whose high-school-level fashion design program co-created by local designer Laura Kathleen has earned the attention of some of the city’s top fashion supporters, including Mary Strauss, Ellen Soule and Marylen Mann.
For phase two, Fashion Fund is taking its “all-hands-on-deck approach” to the Olin Business School at Washington University to help create a business plan that will allow the organization and its business partners to put the wheels into motion—and reach the ultimate goal of an incubator— as soon as possible. Although there is much to be done, the leaders are confident that the incubator will be well on its way by late 2016. “This is a huge step in the right direction of a much bigger picture,” says Tucker, Fashion Fund founding board member. “The sky is the limit. We are a strong and powerful city and our fashion community reflects that.”
The Saint Louis Fashion Fund will hold its inaugural gala at Union Station on Oct. 17 during Saint Louis Fashion Week, with honorees Karlie Kloss and Derek Blasberg and host Fern Mallis. For more info, visit stlfw.com.
Sharon Tucci, Elizabeth Tucker, Tania Beasley-Jolly and Susan Sherman
NYFW creator Fern Mallis with Sharon Tucci (L) and Susan Sherman (R) at STLFW 2013.
Photo credit: Wesley Law