Tennessee makes a fashion statement

Nashville Fashion Alliance founder Van Tucker on the economic impact of our statewide couture culture.

Fashion is big business in Tennessee. Statewide, the industry contributed nearly $27 billion to the economy. Middle Tennessee’s impact alone accounts for $6 billion and more than 16,000 jobs. The numbers have convinced former CEO of Nashville Fashion Alliance Van Tucker that our state is poised to become a new hub for independent fashion designers and emerging seed-stage fashion businesses.

“When I say we have the largest concentration per capita of independent fashion companies outside of New York and Los Angeles, I always get a gasp of disbelief,” Tucker shared with our listeners on the latest episode of “Disrupt the Continuum.”

Tucker joined us backstage at last year’s 36|86 Entrepreneurship Festival, after joining other Nashville-based CEOs for a panel discussion about the city’s startup boom. Cities across Tennessee are successful at supporting independent business growth, she said, and the fashion industry in particular should become a focus to generate more jobs and revenue statewide.

LaunchTN brings ‘titans’ together at 36|86

“We have a huge entrepreneurial ecosystem here of startups and businesses that have already scaled and are having success,” Tucker said, referring to the statewide LaunchTN network of cross-sector resources.

“They’ve created this amazing family, working with entrepreneurs in different industries, and they’ve learned things that we can’t wait to learn and take advantage of. They have processes and successes that we’re hopeful to implement within our industry.”

Tucker called it “cross-pollinating” — the ability of different types of businesses to impact multiple industries through collaboration and technological innovation. “Some of the issues in the music business are scarily similar to the issues that are disrupting the fashion industry,” Tucker explained. For example: “the ability for musical artists or fashion companies to find their own communities and to speak and sell directly to their own customers, to eliminate the middleman.”

Collaborating on solutions is one of the “magical” things about Tennessee’s resource-rich entrepreneurial ecosystem, Tucker added. It’s also why she attends conferences like 36|86, where thought-leaders, investors and entrepreneurs come together to network, educate, and inspire one another.

“What was really cool about being on that stage was those are the titans of our economy here in Nashville — music, food, healthcare — and to have fashion now on that same stage is unbelievable.”

‘Fashion starts in the dirt’

Success isn’t always “sexy,” Tucker admits. But the socioeconomic impact local fashion companies can have statewide is meaningful.

Behind the scenes, fiber companies, manufacturers, textile companies, photographers, models, e-commerce partners, platforms, trade support, and supply companies weave the fabric of the fashion world.

It’s also easy to overlook the small players making big changes, literally from the ground up. “Fashion starts in the dirt,” Tucker said. “The industry includes agriculture, and Tennessee is the sixth-largest cotton-producing state in the United States.”

One of her favorite success stories is designer Sarah Bellos and her team at Stony Creek Colors, a Springfield startup that has participated in several LaunchTN programs. “She’s replacing tobacco beds with indigo beds,” Tucker said, “teaching farmers how to grow a different crop and then how to scale that commercial business. It’s really having an economic impact in a lot of ways.”

While modeling, photography, and runway shows will always be an important part of the fashion industry, Tucker believes that building a supportive ecosystem behind it is just as crucial.

And the first step, she said, begins with awareness.

Local companies make a statewide statement

Tucker believes one of the biggest opportunities in fashion lies in understanding the impact independent companies can have on local and statewide economies.

“They’re creating jobs and businesses,” she said. Plus, 52 cents of every dollar you spend with a local company stays in the local economy, compared to 13 cents with a national chain.

“We want [Tennessee] to be the best location in the United States to launch and build a fashion company,” she said. “Not just the designer-led brands or consumer-facing brands, but really any kind of fashion company.”

Tucker admits it’s a pretty bold goal. But then again, in the fashion world, it’s all about taking risks.

Subscribe to Disrupt the Continuum wherever you get your podcasts, and join LaunchTN for 36|86 — Aug. 28-29, in downtown Nashville.