In a Smithville uniform factory, has Nashville found the missing threads for its local fashion industry? (Abby White, Nashville Scene)

Posted 04/02/2015

The development that could transform Nashville's fashion industry is not taking place in one of America's taste-making coastal centers. It's not even happening in Nashville - yet. It's on a quiet street about 75 minutes southeast in Smithville, Tenn., a town of roughly 4,000 whose previous claim to clothing lore for many years was a store called Walker's Shoes and Cheese.

The agent of potential change is no less unusual. For 20 years, Smithville-based Omega Apparel has been a primary supplier of clothing for the U.S. military, manufacturing meticulously crafted dress pants, skirts and shirts for servicemen and women. In June 2012, a retired Army Ranger named Dean Wegner purchased the company, eager to settle down in one place after moving his wife and children multiple times throughout the years.

"If I'd moved one more time, I was going alone," Wegner jokes, his blue eyes glinting with amusement.

Wegner's service history was an obvious incentive to purchase the No. 1 supplier of U.S. military dress trousers, slacks and skirts, and Smithville looked like an idyllic home base for his family of six. But he knew little about the apparel industry. This much he did know: His entire business, and its 150 employees, were dependent upon one customer, and that customer's needs were rapidly diminishing. He needed to diversify, and fast.

How he's solving that problem has ramifications that could go far beyond Smithville.

By expanding his business, Wegner has inadvertently supplied what local designers and fashion advocates say Nashville desperately needs: the missing cog required to create a sustainable, scalable industry. Not only that, it could provide a model for cities across the U.S. to train, educate and find long-term job placement for local workforces, all while returning manufacturing operations to American soil.

The story behind it involves a lot of hard work, some serendipitous meetings and a dash of Disney magic.

In some ways, it starts with Nashville Fashion Week, the yearly celebration that spotlights local and regional designers while bringing in big names from outside. Two years ago, just before the third annual Nashville Fashion Week, the Scene asked a variety of fashion industry veterans, newcomers and advocates the question: Does Nashville have what it takes to build a sustainable fashion industry?

The answer was not quite a resounding "no," but it wasn't much better than a "not yet." (See "Tools of the Trade," March 28, 2013.) Several area clothing and accessory designers - Valentine Valentine, Manuel, Imogene + Willie, Kayce Hughes, Otis James, Katy K, Jamie and the Jones, Prophetik, Emil Erwin, Peter Nappi, Olia Zavozina and LEONA - were steadily growing their businesses (and for the most part still are). Others such as Elizabeth Suzann, Black by Maria Silver, Ceri Hoover and Ola Mai stood, and stand, on the cusp of something big.

But experts told the Scene that while the city housed a lot of creative talent, it was lacking some elements necessary to coalesce the burgeoning fashion community into an industry. Chief among those missing components was one thing: a production hub with the ability to execute modest batches at reasonable cost with reliable skill.

Many local designers have been forced to create and execute many of their garments on their own. Others depend on the assistance of a small team - if they can afford it. Yet just as the exploding culinary scene here has restaurants grappling for line cooks, local designers are strapped for skilled laborers.

Even if those designers can get to the point where they're producing a line of clothing, without a local fashion market or showrooms to attract buyers from other cities, they're in danger of remaining small fish in a big sea. Two years ago, Metro Nashville Arts Commission executive director Jennifer Cole said the city needed to recognize that creative industries such as fashion design could be economic drivers, pointing to Nashville's Entrepreneur Center as a good model for starting and growing businesses.

"We know how to do this as a city; we've done it in health care and health care technology, to start businesses and grow them here," Cole told the Scene in 2013. "We have the ability, but we haven't done it with creative industries."

But no one stepped up to fill the production void - until Van Tucker got a call from Dean Wegner.

Tucker has more than three decades of banking experience under her belt. In addition to starting and leading Bank of America's first national entertainment industry division, she was a co-founder of Avenue Bank and has always been drawn to helping creative people build businesses. After attending panels at the 2013 Nashville Fashion Week, she met local designer Amanda Valentine, then a recent contestant on the 11th season of Project Runway.

Tucker and Valentine started working together, a symbiotic relationship in which Tucker provided Valentine a clear business plan and goals to meet. For her part, Valentine gave Tucker a starting point for what would be a massive amount of research and development into building a local fashion industry.

"I immediately realized there was no infrastructure," Tucker tells the Scene. "But I thought, holy cow, we know how to do this. We've done it with the music industry, the tech community, the entrepreneur community, the health care community."

Knowing that stakeholders or investors couldn't be recruited without concrete data, Tucker spearheaded a survey through Vanderbilt's Owen Graduate School of Management to find key data points of the local fashion industry. This survey resulted in the April 2014 Nashville Fashion Industry Report.

In addition to providing a clearer picture of the size of the market and areas to focus on for growth, Tucker learned that Tennessee ranked highly in employment for key sectors of the fashion industry - fifth in apparel manufacturing, ninth in textile mills, 15th in leather manufacturing and clothing retail stores. Tucker presented this report before 50 brands the following month, cementing the foundation of the Nashville Fashion Alliance, of which she is now the CEO.

That put her in touch with Wegner about a year ago, after he read a Nashville Business Journal story about her work with the coalition of local designers and professionals.

"He reached out to me because he had bought a factory in Smithville and wanted to talk about how he could help the local fashion community," Tucker says, recalling her first visit to Omega in the spring of 2014. "We discussed what the needs of a regional fashion industry would be in small- to medium-batch productions, but his factory was not configured to be able to accommodate that."

Meanwhile, the alliance spent the past year auditing the city's existing resources, while envisioning a "dream state" for the local industry. Led by founding board members Matt Eddmenson (Imogene + Willie), Andra Eggleston (Electra Eggleston) and consultant Kate O'Neill - and planning committee chairs Jamie Atlas (O'More College), Casey Summar (Arts and Business Council), David Perry (The DSP Group) and designer Sophie Simmons - the alliance identified its priorities and devised subsequent strategies to tackle each one. Yet it kept hitting a couple of persistent speed humps: the lack of a production facility and a skilled workforce.

In November, Wegner contacted Tucker again. This time, he told her that he'd made some updates to the Omega factory. In addition to expanding his production capabilities, Wegner had incorporated cutting-edge technology and a pod concept that would allow for smaller batches. While his previous output averaged 5,000 to 7,000 items of clothing per week for one customer, he now had a couple dozen clients, with runs starting as low as 50 items per week.

The effect has already been dramatic. Although his military business has been cut in half, Wegner says, in one year he's expanded his client base from one to nearly three dozen, producing everything from oxford shirts to satin robes. Recent clients include local bridal designer Olia Zavozina and another Nashvillian, Reese Witherspoon, who will launch a clothing line, Draper James, later this spring.

"We're like a 20-year startup. For 19 years, we focused on one customer. Now we have 34. We've added a lot of overhead to manage our growing complexity," he says.

As he speaks, he motions to his new equipment, much of which was purchased in the past several months. One machine can fasten an entire row of buttons at a time (don't stick your finger in there). Another, a screen printer that calls to mind a giant robot spider, can print 1,000 items per hour.

There's a massive embroidery machine that looks like an inside-out piano - don't stick your finger in it, either - as well as a precise laser cutter that moves with an absence of human error, but not without human supervision. Still another device can digitize any pattern - even any object - and create a pattern.

Each machine bears a sticker reading, "Sew it and own it." It's a testament to the pride Wegner wants each employee to take in his or her work.

"This is a very labor-intensive business," Wegner says, walking through the factory while the hum of sewing machines and other industrial equipment creates a rhythmic churn. "I'm most passionate about job creation, to provide for families, and to make a difference." As he walks through the factory line, he picks up a pair of pants.

"This uniform they're making right here, the Army blue dress uniform?" he says, looking momentarily sentimental. "I used to wear it myself."

Wegner isn't your typical factory CEO, though his résumé certainly has the background for one. While serving in the Army, he earned his finance MBA from Cal State and subsequently worked at KPMG, Procter & Gamble and Mars. (Although this is totally unrelated, hockey fans may be interested to know he played Division I hockey for West Point and currently sits on the Nashville Jr. Predators' board.)

Despite his corporate career history, instead of hiring outside consultants to create a plan to diversify his business and properly equip the factory for smaller batches, he pulled directly from his own workforce. That process showed him resources he didn't even know he had - one being Becky Rhine, who started working on the line at Omega in late 2013.

Rhine came out of retirement because she "was so bored," she recalls. What Wegner didn't know, and was floored to discover, was that she had 35 years' experience as a lead costume designer at Disney as part of the team that made everything from the iconic princess gowns to the "bibbity bobbity boo" wand from Cinderella (she still owns the prototype). He promoted her to research and development manager.

Today, walking throughout the factory, Rhine energetically flits around like ... well, a fairy godmother. She shows off the new equipment with the enthusiasm of a child showing off a toy - except these toys enable Omega to create smaller batches quickly, taking on more clients. How quickly?

"Three weeks from the time I meet you to production," Rhine says. If you wanted a sample garment produced within that three-week window, you'd need to provide Omega with a "tech pack" - an electronic pattern, specs, and the materials needed to manufacture the item. (If you can't provide your own fabric and necessary materials, they can help you with sourcing.)

That timeline is unheard of with an offshore manufacturer. For apparel manufacturing, Tucker says overseas production takes roughly nine to 12 months, and even then it can incur added costs and higher minimum runs while offering less oversight and quality control. Domestic production averages three to six months.

Bringing that work back home, or "reshoring," is a growing trend in the fashion business. According to A.T. Kearney, a global management consulting firm, the apparel manufacturing industry currently represents 12 percent of companies that are moving production from overseas back to U.S. soil (their recent report wryly noted that apparel manufacturing "had not been expected ever to come back"). Yet being able to boast that a product is "Made in the U.S.A." isn't the only draw. If maximum profitability depends on matching the pace of rapidly changing fashion trends, production speed is crucial.

"Our general timeline to go from initial contact to full production is 90 to 120 days, assuming no major delays," Wegner says. "Overseas can generally take nine to 12 months or more given language barriers, quality issues, et cetera. We have several new customers who abandoned the overseas production process and restarted with Omega."

The surprise is that even in this brave new world of garment manufacturing, there are still plenty of humans operating machines, including the Paul Bunyan-esque juggernaut that cuts 100 layers of fabric at a time. Wegner says his workforce is roughly 80 percent women. He also employs six refugees, whom he buses in from Nashville each day - and he's focused on hiring younger employees.

"In the last 30 to 40 years, production moved overseas," he explains. "We have to train the next generation."

At press time, Wegner was planning to hire 20 to 25 workers in the next couple of weeks. In the next five years, he says, he plans to hire 1,000. Obviously, a workforce of this size will not fit in his current facility. So Wegner is currently looking to expand in Davidson County, either by purchasing a facility that will accommodate future expansion, or by finding land to build upon.

He's specifically searching southeast Davidson County, an area convenient for much of Nashville's refugee population - a part of the community that Wegner hopes to help, along with the underemployed and unemployed. What he and other Nashville fashion proponents are starting to realize is that his facility may have the power to connect a lot more than threads.

Last fall, Tucker was researching options for Nashville accessories designer Otis James, who desperately needed to expand his workforce to keep up with demand. James had heard that Catholic Charities of Tennessee's job training program included sewing classes. They arranged a meeting with Megan Stack, the nonprofit's department director of family assistance and community development, who started the program a few years ago.

Stack was interested in expanding the job training program, which instructs approximately 70 to 100 participants each year. But the organization lacked resources, including a skilled instructor to create and lead the curriculum, which focuses on the precise craft of sewing. That set Tucker on the hunt for a veritable unicorn: someone who had both superb sewing skills and the desire to dive in headfirst on the project.

Such a search might have dragged on indefinitely, had another twist of fortune not fallen into Tucker's lap. As luck would have it, Trishawna Quincy had just relocated to Nashville from Los Angeles. Quincy had more than a decade of fashion industry experience under her belt, designing for brands such as Jantzen Swimwear and Forever 21. When Quincy got to Nashville, she reached out to her former University of Nebraska classmate - one Amanda Valentine.

Not only did Quincy jump right on board to work with Valentine's rapidly growing Valentine Valentine brand, but she immediately became invested in the Nashville Fashion Alliance's mission. Now, in collaboration with Catholic Charities' Stack and Omega's Rhine, Quincy will create and implement a six-week training program to launch the Sewing Training Academy.

"It will enhance what we're already doing," Stack says. "People going through our program will have the opportunity to be involved in this."

"Trishawna is truly a master teacher," Tucker says. "Catholic Charities, who has the training infrastructure for the population we're hoping to attract, has the space and the experience in putting people through a similar program. We hope to create a program to get someone through as a commercial sewer in a six-week time period, and have more of a master tailor or master alteration program that will last a little longer."

Tucker is optimistic that the first class will start in June, which means the first batch of graduates will be ready to work by August, either at Omega or directly with an area designer. For now, they'll utilize a Catholic Charities facility near Shelby Park in East Nashville, which has good access to public transportation, a key factor for the participants they're hoping to attract.

They're also working with The Housing Fund to ensure that participants will qualify for subsidized housing. In addition, they will develop a program through Metro Nashville Public Schools to develop technical skills for high school students, a parallel move to Wegner's push to hire and train a younger workforce.

To fund this program, the Nashville Fashion Alliance will utilize crowdfunding through Kickstarter - launching April 16 - and is also seeking assistance through outside investors. Tucker says she's confident in the alliance's ability to execute this program. She believes that Nashville is uniquely poised to lead the country's fashion manufacturing industry in best practices for reshoring, to provide homegrown brands the opportunity to truly be able to say that they are made in the U.S.A.

"There are a lot of cities that have fashion communities - Charleston, Atlanta, Birmingham, St. Louis, Dallas, Chicago - but none of those cities have really taken this kind of serious approach to building a business infrastructure that can help their brands be more successful," Tucker says. She notes that cities such as Portland, Ore., have adopted a co-op strategy, but that was more of a sharing of resources than an model allowing for growth, scalability or sustainability - all major tenets of the Nashville Fashion Alliance.

"I think that Nashville is the first market that has taken a professional business approach to pulling together the resources to build the infrastructure," she says.

So after many years of talk about the fashion industry Nashville could have - and two more years searching for the missing pieces that could make it happen - the city now finds its many loose threads connecting and tying together with dizzying speed. The question now is: Will the city's fashion scene be tightly woven, or loose-knit?


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