Nashville Fashion Alliance Launches Accelerator Program (Linda Bryant, Nashville

Posted 01/21/2016

The Nashville Fashion Alliance is making a fashion statement ... of sorts.

Since successfully raising more than $100,000 on Kickstarter in May 2015, the entity has propelled forward with the mission of incubating and accelerating fashion design companies in the region.

For example, NFA in September partnered with Catholic Charities of Tennessee and Omega Apparel Inc. a Smithville-based manufacturer, to create a critical piece of the workforce training puzzle with the Sewing Training Academy. Omega earlier this month opened a 20,000-square-foot factory located at 5225 Harding Place in Southeast Nashville, further advancing one of NFA's primary goals: creating fashion-related jobs for skilled workers in Middle Tennessee.

Starting this week, NFA will put another piece of the puzzle in place with the introduction of the Fashion Industry Accelerator, a six-week immersion into the business fundamentals for fashion industry-related officials who want to grow and scale their businesses.

The program sold out within two days after it was announced on social media, said Van Tucker, NFA chief executive officer.

"Our ultimate objective is to create a fashion industry here that emulates the success of the music and health care industries in Nashville," Tucker said. "We want to walk before we run, so we think of this first accelerator as a pilot program that can change over time. We want to make sure we're covering all the right information and that we have a good feel for what our growing fashion community needs."

What many people don't know, Tucker said, is that Nashville has the largest concentration of independent fashion brands outside of New York and Los Angeles.

"We're in the process of building on that fundamental strength, and putting the infrastructure in place to address the missing pieces," she said. "We put the idea out there of a trade organization and were overwhelmed by the response. The community spoke loud and clear with the $100,000 Kickstarter campaign."

The accelerator is being taught by NFA board member James Szuch, an IT specialist, business analyst and coach educator who works as manager of software engineering at Cardinal Health and as a part-time instructor at O'More College of Design in Franklin.

Szuch said the curriculum for the accelerator has a strong emphasis on brand identity and technical business processes. The 12 participants will also learn how to prepare a compelling presentation to investors.

"Creative businesses usually have a unique set of challenges, certainly different than technology businesses," Szuch said. "I'm going to ask a lot of questions. Who are your customers, and how can you reach them? How can you delight them?"

Anne Marie Garcia, a recent transplant to Nashville who has worked in the fashion industry in New York and California, is enrolled in the fashion accelerator, which started Jan. 19 and runs through March 2.

"My goal is to have a clearly defined path for my business idea," Garcia said. "I'd like to utilize the guidance provided in the program to help me filter my ideas into a concrete plant of action."

Garcia said Music City's fashion culture and scene is different than those found on the East and West coasts.

"In comparison to New York or L.A., there's an overwhelming sense of community," Garcia said. "The industry here is rapidly growing, and I believe this is in part due to the community's willingness to help everyone succeed."

Going beyond fashion shows

Incoming NFA board chair Libby Callaway said the fashion accelerator represents one of the most important aspects of the budding trade organization.

"Accelerating growth is our reason for being," she said. "Education is at the center of just about everything we do."

NFA now has more than 200 members, including designers and brands such as Amanda Valentine, Imogene + Willie, Otis James and Elizabeth Suzann and retailers such as Emerson Grace, Stacey Rhodes and Draper James.

"As the NFA was forming, it became clear that we had people here making beautiful things," Callaway said. "But most didn't know how to build a growing business around their creativity.

"We knew we had to have more in place - more education, more knowledge and access to production, supply chain, sourcing," she added. "There are just a lot of things that haven't been available to Nashville designers that are already a part of the infrastructure in places like L.A. or New York."

Callaway, a former fashion journalist in both New York and Nashville who transitioned to fashion consulting and marketing, has strong feelings about developing a multi-dimensional fashion industry here.

"Some people think of fashion as a pretentious world for supermodels and celebrities," she said. "Certainly that can be a part of it, but that's not fundamentally what it's about. Fashion isn't just fluff; it's a business. And it's creative, vital and tribal. We are going beyond thinking of it as a runway show. It's a jobs creator. It's a community."

There are new fashion-related companies forming at a healthy rate in Middle Tennessee, Callaway said.

NFA board member and attorney Cara Jackson represents one of those businesses. In late 2015, Jackson launched CJ, which helps designer brands manage various facets of their businesses.

"Many creatives decide to start a business because they want to create - not because they're excited about actually running a business," Jackson said. "They end up spending 80 percent of their time running that business and only 20 percent designing and producing, which is what they love, what actually brings money in the door and why they took the leap in the first place. I see my purpose as adjusting those percentages."

Jackson said she believes the fashion accelerator will become a nationally recognized program.

"I see the NFA continuing to grow its membership ranks, building strong partnerships in both the public and private sectors and providing critical business education and mentoring opportunities," Jackson said. "I see it supporting the development of a skilled workforce and job creation, attracting additional pieces of the fashion ecosystem that Nashville doesn't currently have, and serving as a model fashion and creative alliance for other cities."

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