June 9, 2017

While there is value in the jobs and products created by Central Ohio’s fashion industry, the more lasting benefit may be reputation.

“(Columbus doesn’t) have an identity,” said Thomas McClure, founder and executive director of Fashion Week Columbus, speaking on a Columbus Startup Week panel in May. “We’re No. 3 in the nation for fashion. This is an industry that is seen by the world. If we get laser focused, we can start showing the nation.”

That No. 3 ranking comes from The Atlantic’s CityLab site, which said Columbus has the third-highest concentration of fashion designers in the U.S., trailing only New York and Los Angeles.

The city is home to more than 600 fashion designers including at large retailers and independents, he said.

That standing prompted a recent good-natured rivalry between Columbus and the ranking’s No. 4 city, Nashville, Tennessee, as to which is really the No. 3, fueled by the New York Times.

But third or fourth doesn’t really matter as much as the fact that Columbus’ growing fashion scene is quite real and it is well-positioned to grow.

Stitching a future

Columbus native Kelli Martin returned home in 2006 after going to school and working in Los Angeles. She runs Anti-Label, her own brand, and is co-founder of Alternative Fashion Mob, a collective of independent designers and professionals that promotes the industry.

“Keeping people here is our goal,” she said. “Because it’s awesome.”

To that end, she and Amee BellWanzo started Fabric, a design center that has been in the Columbus Idea Foundry but plans to open this fall in space on the city’s south side. The project includes a dozen or so work spaces and already has a waiting list for tenants. Plans call for cutting tables and other amenities so if a designer doesn’t get a studio spot, they still can come work in the facility.

But the venture isn’t just about design. The hope is also to support models, stylists and photographers.

The second phase calls for e-commerce capabilities, turning the facility into a fashion house for Columbus designers. And there’s hope to bring in resources such as accounting and legal services.

“Anything they need to start growing their business,” Martin said.

The space will be open to the public, with events and classes in the works.

Most of the city’s design jobs come from the major retailers headquartered here: L Brands Inc. and Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch Co., Express Inc., Lane Bryant and Justice. Those employers provide steady income and they foster talent. Marc Desrosiers is one example. He spent years at Abercrombie & Fitch but now has opened Kiln, a men’s apparel and lifestyle store in the Short North with his fiance Maren Roth, owner of Rowe, a 10-year-old women’s boutique in the popular shopping and dining district. The shop features his designs under his Bold Coast brand.

Fabric isn’t the only fashion-related venture moving to a more high-profile space. Columbus-based Express is taking the three-story, 20,000-square-foot former Weisheimer Vacuum building at 235 N. Fourth St. where it will house photographers, videographers, stylists, hair and makeup artists, copywriters, art directors and more in that downtown space.

“We’re excited to extend our creative development to a state-of-the-art facility that is in a vibrant and flourishing area of downtown Columbus,” Express CEO David Kornberg said in a statement. “The new studio will allow us to amplify our process for creating engaging customer content right here in our hometown.”

Building the fashion scene

Events are growing, too. Fashion Week Columbus, which McClure started in 2010, has grown from three days to eight, and he said he’d like to do two a year.

McClure said the event draws international designers and in addition to giving local designers exposure, also helps students. The Columbus College of Art & Design is another resource based here.

It isn’t the only local festivity. Alternative Fashion Mob will hold its fifth annual fashion week next month. There’s also Highball Halloween, an annual Short North event that draws thousands and has a strong fashion component. Fashion Meets Music Festival is in its third year.

Still, the community seeks more support. Both Fashion Week Columbus and Fabric are nonprofits constantly searching for funding, the founders said. More events, more visitors and more jobs will help that.

Manufacturing is an opportunity as well. United Apparel in Lewis Center helps fill that void, but more is needed, including companies that can handle midsize orders too, BellWanzo noted.

“There needs to be some in-between options,” she said. “A lot don’t need 10,000 pieces.”