Standing in his glittering Nashville showroom, Manuel Cuevas watched as one apprentice pressed rhinestones into a red dress and another embroidered arrows onto a suit jacket.
Cuevas - known better as simply Manuel - is just as passionate about teaching young people his craft as he is creating custom designs, which have been worn by generations of celebrities. Offering apprenticeships is the fashion legend's answer to what he's identified as a problem in Nashville's growing fashion industry.
"I know that all the manufacturing and all the craftsmanship died almost. It's almost dead in America," Cuevas said, referring to U.S. fashion production moving overseas.
"I am doing my little part - of course one individual can't do that much - but I try to refurbish that interest, to get that dream back and institute it in these kids that come from colleges and come to learn from me."
The U.S. apparel manufacturing industry has been hemorrhaging jobs for the past two decades, with employment dropping more than 80 percent from 1990 to 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A significant majority - 97 percent - of clothing sold in America is manufactured overseas, according to data from the American Apparel & Footwear Association.
Still, Nashville's fashion industry is burgeoning.
The city that's best-known for its music and health care industries has a growing contingent of designers, stylists, boutiques and models.
National publications from Yahoo! Style to Women's Wear Daily have touted the local fashion industry. Most recently, Forbes Travel Guide cited fashion as one of the top five reasons "Nashville is on fire."
Nashville will celebrate its fashion community Tuesday-Saturday during the annual Nashville Fashion Week, a citywide celebration that helped spur the industry's growth when it launched in 2011. Ticket sales from the five-day event, which includes runway shows, educational panels, a gala, retail events and more, benefit the Nashville Fashion Forward Fund to help advance the career of a local fashion professional.
This year's event will showcase more Nashville talent than ever before, said Mike Smith, one of six Nashville Fashion Week co-founders.
Beyond boots and hats
Recent Nashville transplant Cavanagh Baker, designer and owner of luxury women's wear company Stowe, has dressed clients from Mayor Megan Barry to country music star Kelsea Ballerini. Baker is a Birmingham, Ala., native who moved to Nashville from Boston to grow her fledgling brand.
"I think what's so special about being located in Nashville is a lot of people that live in Nashville or come to visit Nashville really are looking for unique pieces to leave with," Baker said.
Baker is just one player in Nashville's diverse fashion community, which has evolved well beyond the cowboy boots and hats that populate Lower Broadway.
Other local talent includes high-end denim label Imogene + Willie, "Project Runway" Season 13 runner-up Amanda Valentine, women's wear label Elizabeth Suzann, leather goods maker Nisolo, custom tie maker Otis James and menswear designer Eric Adler, a former apprentice under Cuevas.
In the past year alone, the fashion industry has taken major strides with the launch of the Nashville Fashion Alliance, a nonprofit working to build a sustainable and globally recognized fashion industry. The group's key pillars are advocacy, economic development, resources and education.
Following a successful Kickstarter campaign in May 2015, the Nashville Fashion Alliance has grown to about 350 members. CEO Van Tucker said the organization has helped raise awareness about the industry, offered educational training for fashion professionals and college students, and partnered with Omega Apparel Inc. and Catholic Charities of Tennessee to launch a sewing training academy. The group is preparing to launch an economic impact study with consulting firm Gherzi.
Also in the past year, more retail shops have opened, such as the first outpost for actress Reese Witherspoon's lifestyle brand Draper James, 157-year-old Memphis-based clothier Oak Hall and fashion-forward clothing and home goods store Two Son, which has its own American-made clothing brand for men and women.
"I think that is going to start happening more and more - I think stores will open and then have their own labels tied to them," said Libby Callaway, a local fashion expert and board chairwoman of the Nashville Fashion Alliance. "There are some really interesting retail-design models happening here."
Some of the biggest hindrances to the fashion industry's growth is finding skilled workers and the lack of American manufacturers willing to offer small-scale production for designers.
Omega Apparel is one local company working to bridge that gap. CEO Dean Wegner recently repositioned Omega - which has supplied dress clothes to the U.S. military for two decades - to work with more small designers. The fast-growing company recently opened a new Nashville facility.
Luring other creative manufacturing companies to the region is a top priority for the Nashville Fashion Alliance. Callaway and Tucker are advocates of government incentives to support the city's thriving creative class, which includes the fashion community.
"I understand the economics of large corporate relocations and sports teams and the impact they have on the economy, but as we grow the city, we can't have a one-note economic development policy. It has to become more diverse," Tucker said.
Another challenge is helping college graduates break into Nashville's fashion industry. Cuevas considers it his personal mission to mentor those young creatives.
Caitlin Arabis, a Middle Tennessee State University grad who majored in fashion merchandising, struggled to find a job after she decided to stay in Nashville post-graduation.
"I was just looking for different opportunities in the industry and really could not find anything. It's really hard to break into the big companies here," Arabis said.
Arabis landed a coveted job at Cuevas' showroom on Broadway and was later promoted to manager, a position she's held for the past year. She oversees the sales floor, does the visual merchandising and handles client relations. Cuevas is also teaching her to make garments, starting with skirts and moving next to pants.
"I know about Nashville and I've been watching Nashville for the 28 years I've been here, and I can see it. I can see the heart moving; I can see the palpitations coming back. I can see there are a lot of little kids (in college) that are full of force, and they want to let it loose somewhere," Cuevas said.