2014 Midwest Fashion Conference

MFC Audience Fern Mallis Fashion as a Civic Agenda Stan Herman Fashioning a Community in St. Louis aow stlfw panal_-19

Photos by Adrian O. Walker

In addition to a phenomenal designer lineup, Saint Louis Fashion Week presented the first annual 2014 Midwest Fashion Conference: Forum for Fashion. Partnering up Washington University’s Sam Fox School, the conference was held on-site Saturday, October 18th closing out an extraordinary fashion week.

The conference kicked things off with a panel discussion titled Fashion as a Civic Agenda presented by the Saint Louis Fashion Fund led by Fern Mallis, New York Fashion Week Creator and former Executive Director of the CFDA. Panelists included fashion industry experts Stan Herman, designer and former CFDA President; Gary Wassner, Co-CEO of Hildun Corporation; Derek Blasber, Editor-at-Large at Harper’s Bazaar; and Timo Weiland, designer.

“Be nice,” was the career advice from Fern Mallis on making it in the fashion industry. While giving out bits of advice, the main conversation between panelists was about incorporating fashion into the St. Louis economy.

The fist question asked to the audience was, “Who bought something new this week for STLFW?” Most of the audience raised their hand, proving that fashion weeks stimulates the economy, both locally and nationally.

Is a fashion week viable for St. Louis? Yes, said Gary Wassner, and I agree with him. It’s viable for any urban area. Mallis added, “…Expectations need to be managed and not compared to New York Fashion Week.” This is a great point. I’m sure many fashion week organizers use NYFW as a model, but that shouldn’t be the case. Every city is different, and though NYFW is a good model, planners have to take in account their cities audience and what they want to accomplish.

The Saint Louis Fashion Fund is planning a fashion incubator on Washington Avenue, the once renowned garment district, comprised of 8-10 fashion designers and all the business entities that are necessary to have a fruitful fashion industry. Mallis and Herman talked about their experience with a similar experience setting up the CFDA Fashion Incubator. The incubator took cooperation from the CFDA, City of New York, financial institutes and landlords to make it work. The landlord offered property for low, rent-controlled rates while the City of New York and CFDA worked together on programs for entrepreneurs and financial institutions helped designers find investors. Without this cooperation the incubator would have never taken off. St. Louis can learn from this. If different components of the fashion industry and municipality come together we can revive the fashion industry in St. Louis.

Returning to the basics was a common theme throughout the panel discussion as well. “You can buy a swimsuit for the price of a cappuccino,” commented one of the panelists. How disturbing?! This obviously means working conditions and wages are not adequate in these situations. Stores like Forever 21 come to mind here. Bringing back those manufacturing jobs to the USA, more importantly St. Louis, can bring a whole new sense of awareness and pride to our city.

Getting to the point of being profitable as a clothing manufacturer may take time and investments, but St. Louis is a prime location. Right smack dab in the middle of the USA means quick shipping time to either coast. Bringing manufacturing back to the states also means lower travel costs for businesses and better quality control. Designer Timo Weiland stated he now manufactures in the USA and has been able to control production, visit factories more often and has even seen less returns.

So, where do we start? Locally. All local businesses can benefit from a growing or booming industry. Businesses and investors just have to realize the value in the local community. If we don’t support our local retailers our city is losing money. I can’t believe I’m saying that because I LOVE online shopping, but it’s true. We also need to start by getting over our inferiority complex. As Mallis stated, “Get over the World’s Fair.” We have so much going right for us, St. Louis; we just need to keep that ball rolling.

After the inspiring talk by fashion big wigs, Fashioning a Community in St. Louis was up. A town-hall discussion took place, featuring local civic and cultural leaders, moderated by Jill McGuire, Executive Director of the Regional Arts Commission, including panelists Jerry Schlichter, President of Arch Grants; Kitty Ratcliff, President of the St. Louis CVC; and Mobin Kahn, Director of Economic Development and Research at the Downtown St. Louis Partnership.

During this session, panelists talked about the benefits and practicality of a booming fashion industry in St. Louis. Again, geography was a major focal point. St. Louis is ideal for a fashion center. It was once a booming fashion center and can be once again. Does it have to be done in the same way or in the same area? No. It’s important not to compare St. Louis with the coasts but instead create a unique environment here.

One thing St. Louis has going for it is the low living expenses. LA and New York are expensive cities to live in. That’s not the case here. The talent and the interest is here, someone just needs to pull it together and remember, “If you build it, they will come.”

The energy felt in the room at this point was electric- there was so much passion and excitement for regenerating St. Louis as a fashion destination. Though we have lots of great local retailers, we really need to step it up a notch and actually have them selling local designer’s work. Most importantly, we can’t just wait around for the fashion incubator to start. We need to keep this momentum generated by STLFW going and start now!

Throughout the morning sessions I was meticulously scribbling down notes while also being mesmerized, soaking in as much as possible from the leaders and professionals. Then, it was time for a break. A delicious lunch was served and I was revived and ready for the afternoon concurrent sessions.

Two types of concurrent sessions broke out- A Critical Eye: The Impact of Fashion on Contemporary Culture and Polish: Professional Development for Emerging Fashion Professionals. Both sounded very interesting and I wish I could have attended all the sessions, but alas, I could not.

I went with the Polish sessions as I thought it would be most beneficial to me. The three areas touched on were The Art of Story Telling in Fashion: A look at impactful styling, photography and narrative for brands and blogs, Brand Smart- Brainy Solutions for Creating Your Market Plan and The Business of Fashion: A Look at Entrepreneurship in the Fashion & Lifestyle Space. All of the talks were very helpful, especially the tips from attorney Alisha Huls of Husch Blackwell.

Needless to say, I left the Midwest Fashion Conference utterly inspired and maybe a little tired. A champagne toast after the conference was the perfect ending to a fabulous STLFW. Can’t wait for what next season has in store us.


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