Top Takeaways from First Midwest Fashion Conference: Be Nice and Buy Local

By Dacy Gillespie
In Style

Fashion industry students, business owners, bloggers, academics and special guests gathered at Washington University on Saturday for the first-ever Midwest Fashion Conference. The full day of panels and discussions held as the culminating event of STLFW ignited passion and enthusiasm for revitalizing the fashion industry in St. Louis.

Photo courtesy David Vassilli Midwest Fashion Conference Saint Louis Fashion Week fall 2014

Photo by David Vassalli.

The first expert panel, moderated by NYFW creator Fern Mallis, featured several of STLFW’s special guests including renowned designer Stan Herman, fashion financier Gary Wassner, influential editor Derek Blasberg and designer Timo Weiland. After opening with her biggest (and best) piece of advice—”Be nice”— Mallis and Herman (former President of the Council of Fashion Designers of America) regaled the audience with tales of fashion shows in New York pre-“NYFW” (including a falling ceiling at a Michael Kors show, editors stuck in elevators at Donna Karan and a power outage at Isaac Mizrahi), proving that even the glamour and development of New York Fashion Week had its own growing  pains.

The panelists soon settled into a discussion of if and why St. Louis should (and could) focus on creating a center for fashion. Gary Wassner, CO-CEO of Hilldun Corporation, pointed out that fashion is a completely sustainable industry–after all, we all wear clothes. Making another important point, Mallis asked the audience for a show of hands of those who had purchased new clothing for STLFW (there were many), underlining the point that events like regional fashion weeks bring an economic boost to the area. (New York Fashion Week brings an estimated $840 million to the NYC economy, Mallis said.)

Photo courtesy of Adrian Walker Midwest Fashion Conference Saint Louis Fashion Week 2014

Photo by Adrian Walker

Having decided that St. Louis would benefit from creating this community, how would the city collectively need to go about doing it? Is it possible to attract manufacturing back to the area, once the second largest garment district in the country? In Derek Blasberg’s opinion, the current trend toward domestic manufacturing, locally made products, a desire to know and trust those who are producing your clothes, and a move away from fast fashion could spell an opportunity for the St. Louis area. Blasberg, a St. Louis native and Editor-at-Large for Harper’s Bazaar, spoke from a personal perspective, saying that he would prefer to purchase high-quality, locally-made items, even if they come at a higher price point.

Designer Timo Weiland, who moved his production from Asia to New York, said that designers are able to ensure a higher level of quality control and save on travel and shipping costs when production is in the United States. However, in order to produce clothes locally, there needs to be a trained workforce. Area colleges and universities would have to produce students capable of doing all the jobs required for producing garments, not just design.

Photo courtesy of Adrian Walker Midwest Fashion Conference panel Saint Louis Fashion Week 2014

Photo by Adrian Walker

When the discussion was opened for comments from the audience, many members voiced the idea that St. Louis does have the resources it needs for this revitalization, it’s just a matter of pulling them all together in one place. This could be accomplished with the Downtown design incubator being planned by the newly formed Saint Louis Fashion Fund and by providing fashion students with more professional opportunities within the city. Not wanting to neglect the importance of retail, Tania Beasley-Jolly (Marketing Director for Saks Fifth Avenue) advocated for St. Louis shoppers to stay in town when they make their designer purchases, instead of traveling to New York or Chicago.

Photo courtesy of Adrian Walker

Photo courtesy of Adrian Walker

The second session, a “town hall”-style discussion, was moderated by Jill McGuire, Executive Director of the Regional Arts Commission. The panel was made up of Jerry Schlichter, a lawyer and the president/founder of Arch Grants; Kitty Ratcliff, president of the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission; and Mobin Khan, the director of economic development and research at the Downtown St. Louis Partnership.

As in the first session, the topic of discussion was around the economic benefits that revitalizing the fashion industry in St. Louis could have for the area. Khan elaborated that in addition to creating jobs, it’s important to create a creative class, which encourages cross-pollination of ideas between sectors. This in turn attracts more talent to the city and keeps current talent here. The Arch Grants program provides an example of the success of this approach, Schlichter noted.

Although all panelists agreed that it is possible for St. Louis to create a center of fashion, it was clear that it is no easy task. It requires huge amounts of collaboration between landlords, manufacturers, educators, marketers and financiers. Schlichter reiterated multiple times that it will take one person making it their full-time job to spearhead the effort.

Blogger Tamera Darden and designer Emily Brady Koplar. Photo courtesy of Adrian Walker

Blogger Tamera Darden and designer Emily Koplar. Photo courtesy of Adrian Walker.

The discussion continued into the line for lunch. I spoke with Emily Brady Koplar, the St. Louis-based designer of Wai Ming, about how we can support local designers. Aside from the obvious (buy her clothes!), Koplar said that spreading the word about local designers on social media and with stores helps. Customers also have to realize that the cost of clothing made locally will rise.

For those of us who were able to grab lunch quickly and head back into Steinberg auditorium, there was a lecture about the history of fashion design at Washington University, given by Jennifer Ingram, lecturer at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. Throughout the day, conference attendees were able to shop the BUTIK Market, a curated collection of makers.

Photo courtesy of Amber Jovian

Photo courtesy of Amber Jovian

After lunch, conference attendees had a choice of two tracks of breakout sessions. As much as I wish I could have attended “A CRITICAL EYE: The Impact of Fashion on Contemporary Culture,” as a small business owner, I opted for the track entitled “POLISH: Professional Development for Emerging Fashion Professionals.”

Expert after expert, from stylists to lawyers to marketing professionals, shared wisdom on aspects of the industry like trademarks, contracts, market research and long-term business plans. Panelists included such talents as Sarah Stallmann (Fashion Editor, ALIVE Magazine), Lara Eurdolian (Founder & Editor, PrettyConnected.com), Attilio D’Agostino (Fashion Director, ALIVE Magazine), Marcia A. Masulla (Co-Founder & Managing Partner, Nashville Fashion Week), Laura Kathleen Baker (Designer) and many more. A panel sponsored by Fashion Group International gave tips on promoting brands and bloggers in the digital area. The “Made in St. Louis” theme continued in the final panel discussion, with Tracy Kennard encouraging participants to devote time to searching out needs locally, rather than looking to other cities first.

Those attending “A CRITICAL EYE” were treated to lectures by Cheryl Wassenaar (Associate Professor and Chair of Design, Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts), Heather Bennett (lecturer, Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts), Robin Verhage-Abrams (Associate Professor, College of Art, Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts) and Kedron Thomas (Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis).

Photo courtesy of Amber Jovian

Photo by Amber Jovian

Bottom line,  the development and growth of the local fashion industry is sure to change our city’s creative landscape for future generations, and judging by the energy and excitement generated by Saturday’s conference, that future may not be too far off.

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