Local business leaders and elected officials gathered today in a warehouse in East Nashville to open Catholic Charities of Tennessee's Sewing Training Academy, a new initiative that aims to provide skilled workers for Nashville's growing apparel manufacturing industry.
The training academy, which has the capacity to graduate 24 skilled workers every four weeks, is a collaboration between Catholic Charities, the Nashville Fashion Alliance (NFA) and Omega Apparel Inc., a private manufacturer that wants to hire 1,000 workers over the next five years.
Advocates of Nashville's fashion industry, including more than 150 local brands organized under the alliance, cite the training program as a crucial next step in building the industry.
"The [Sewing Academy] can help provide badly needed jobs for the fashion industry, but it's also a valuable skill in the creative process," said Van Tucker, founder and CEO of the Nashville Fashion Alliance. "Many of our [local] brands distinguish themselves for high-quality," she said.
"And, if we're going to expand this industry and recruit companies, one of the first questions people will ask will be about the local skilled workforce," she added.
Tucker and others believe that Nashville can become America's third fashion industry hub, behind New York City and Los Angeles. Increasing local production is a large component of that, and arguably, the hardest. The city already has the creative talent, brainpower and entrepreneurial city to make it happen, they argue - just look at the music industry.
The fashion industry has already made strides in the past two years, when a group of locals began organizing the industry behind the scenes. The Nashville Fashion Alliance, a trade group, launched in spring 2015 and already has given the industry more weight. The city's first apparel trade show is happening this fall, and this summer, a contingent of fashion writers visited Nashville, leading to several write-ups about the alliance and its members.
Speaking today at the ribbon cutting, Congressman Jim Cooper joked that he didn't know much about fashion.
"But this is about jobs," he said. "People need the dignity of labor. ... Great things are happening here in the corner of a factory, in the corner of a warehouse. ... If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere."
The first class of sewers, 10 women, started on Monday. They range in age and ethnicity. Two of them, a mother-daughter duo, came to Nashville eight months ago from the Congo. They speak some English, but through another nonprofit, are able to have a translator part-time with them in the program. Another group of women are immigrants from Burma and also have a translator who assists in the program.
Mayor Karl Dean, speaking today, applauded Catholic Charities for its work helping integrate refugees and immigrants into Nashville through job training. He pointed out that Nashville's foreign-born population has grown from two to 12 percent during the past 10 years.
The sewing academy instructor, fashion designer Trishawna Quincy, said about half the women are new to sewing. The class runs four days a week for three hours, with an open "lab" day on Friday to practice skills. Quincy said the women will graduate with the basic skills to qualify for a job at Omega Apparel. The fee right now is $60, the cost of a sewing supply box all participants will receive, said Quincy, but the organization is looking at ways to offset that.
Omega, owned by former Army Ranger Dean Wegner, is opening a 20,000-square-foot sewing factory near the airport this fall. Omega, which was at one time the largest supplier of dress uniforms for the U.S. military, had to switch its focus to smaller-batch production following federal cutbacks. The company saw an opportunity with Nashville's growing fashion industry, and will soon launch its own line of basics.
Wegner plans to hire up to 1,000 workers at Omega's new Nashville factory, and is relying on the sewing training academy to help fill that pipeline.
"I want to go into sewing and help where needed," said Valegia Wilson, a 44-year old Nashville resident enrolled in the program. "It makes me feel like I've got another shot at something in life."