While New York is the undisputed center of the fashion industry in America, the east coast metropolis isn’t the only area in the country with deep fashion roots. “Many people don’t know it, but in Saint Louis, fashion is as important as baseball and beer,” says Susan Sherman, cofounder and chair emeritus of the Saint Louis Fashion Fund.
THE HISTORY OF THE FASHION INDUSTRY IN SAINT LOUIS // From the mid 1930s through the 1950s, the Missouri city was a thriving epicenter of fashion and manufacturing, second only to Manhattan. “Saint Louis had a complete fashion ecosystem that encompassed everything from buttons and thread to gloves, outwear, ladies’ garments, and men’s clothing,” adds SLFF executive director Kathleen Bibbins.
One of the city’s claims to fashion fame is the establishment of the women’s Junior clothing category. Before the start of World War II in 1939, the industry was generating $2.2 billion in today’s money annually. Washington Avenue, now home to the SLFF, was the heart of the historic downtown St. Louis Garment District, which was a booming, bustling thoroughfare. “Dry goods, shoe, and related industries established strong and dense manufacturing and wholesale operations in the district,” Bibbins says. Washington Avenue was even dubbed “Shoe Street USA,” due to the road being home to more shoe manufacturers than any other street in the world.
At the close of the war and through the late 1950s, manufacturing took a hit across the United States, as production operations moved out of the country to areas where labor was cheaper. Combined with the advent of new technology, foreign imports, and the introduction of super stores with lower prices, the once-flourishing fashion industry in Saint Louis ground to a halt.
THE BIRTH OF THE SAINT LOUIS FASHION FUND // As the years passed, the hole that the industry’s absence left in the fabric of the city was palpable. Civic-minded community members across many different disciplines—from magazine journalism to interior design, modeling, architecture, and retail—recognized the need for action. Among them was Susan Sherman, a public relations veteran with 35 years of experience in events and fundraising for nonprofits not only in Saint Louis, but in New York City as well, which made her perfectly suited to rally the troops. “The city had started talking about cities like Philadelphia, Seattle, and Toronto, and how they’d revitalized their communities,” Sherman recalls. “So, three of my friends and I started hammering out a plan in one of our living rooms about how to best go about bringing fashion back where it belonged.”
In 2014, they founded a board for the Saint Louis Fashion Fund (SLFF) with the key goals of supporting emerging designers, encouraging fashion education, and increasing community outreach to reclaim Saint Louis’s fashion roots and bring back the business of fashion and apparel manufacturing to Washington Avenue. “It took a while to convince people that we can have a billion-dollar industry here,” Sherman says. “But Saint Louis can be a center of fashion once again in a new and innovative way. We’re already seeing it happen.”
THE EVOLUTION OF THE FASHION LAB // With the help of Washington University’s Olin School of Business, the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts, and New York City-based Launch Collective—a company focused on business development for emerging designers—the SLFF secured a physical space on Washington Avenue and created the Fashion Incubator. The two-year program mentored six designers in the areas of business, merchandising and retail, supplying them with the space, resources, materials and paired mentorship needed to successfully launch a fashion business.
“We expect to create a magnet—a critical mass of talent, resources and energy that will lead fashion creatives and businesses downtown to be a part of a supportive network.” —Kathleen Bibbins
Celebrating its fifth anniversary this year, the SLFF has grown from a passionate dream to a wide-reaching organization that includes an evolving Fashion Lab that’s playing an integral part in revitalizing St. Louis’s once-thriving fashion district. And it’s just getting started. “We expect to create a magnet—a critical mass of talent, resources and energy that will lead fashion creatives and businesses downtown to be a part of a supportive network,” says Bibbins.
If the first crop of talent to come through the SLFF is any indication, the city is poised to reclaim its roots in style. “Our inaugural class of six each came away with knowledge of how to build and accelerate their businesses and brands,” says Sherman. Through the SLFF showroom, the designers were able to showcase their work and cultivate a clientele in Saint Louis. Some of the graduates, like handbag designer Allison Mitchell, and Audra Noyes of the brand AUDRA, have picked up accounts at Bergdorf Goodman and Stanley Korshak in Dallas, and are making an impact in the fashion world across the country. Others, like Reuben Reuel of the brand Demestik, and Emily Brady Koplar, the designer behind Wai Ming, have gone on to dress celebrities like Beyonce, Ellie Kemper, and Deborah Roberts of ABC, all while maintaining a presence in Saint Louis.
Thanks to the momentum generated by this inaugural class, the SLFF has gained national exposure, and young designers are starting to look to Saint Louis as the ideal location to launch their businesses, rather than immediately embarking to New York City and Los Angeles. “The revitalization that was initiated by The Fund is sure to attract creatives from all over the country, exponentially contributing to job creation and our region’s economic success,” Bibbins says. “What’s so exciting is that St. Louis has it all—location, an affordable cost of living, and most importantly, a talented and strong community of fashion and design visionaries.”
THE FUTURE OF THE SAINT LOUIS FASHION FUND // Looking ahead, the SLFF is pivoting away from the Fashion Incubator model, and focusing on The Fashion Lab—a decision that was made after careful consideration and in collaboration with the Saint Louis business community. “We decided that as a non-profit it makes more sense to be available and invested in the broader design community, rather than just six individuals,” Sherman explains.
Instrumental in this process is Bibbins, who joined the SLFF in March of 2018 following a long corporate career spent both stateside and abroad. Passionate about fashion since a child, her unique business perspective, global viewpoint, and status as a Saint Louis “outsider” have served her well as she’s prepared to launch the Fund to its next stage. According to Bibbins, through a process of mentorship, the Lab aims to create successful stand-alone Saint Louis-based fashion companies, with sustainable business models able to attract funding from local and national venture capitalists.
“Starting this year, we will accept applications from any fashion-related business, not only designers, who are looking for studio or office space and a community to interact with,” Bibbins explains. Each of the participants in The Lab will be able to build their brand and collaborate with like-minded individuals. They will also be paired with mentors and advisors who are most equipped to provide them targeted support.
The mentors and advisors are heavy-hitters in the fashion industry, like Peter Arnold, former head of the CFDA, Fern Mallis, founder of New York Fashion Week, Gary Wassner of Hilldun and Interluxe (which owns Jason Wu, among other brands), Liz Giardina of Proenza Schouler and Tomoko Ogura, former fashion director at Barneys. Mentors from the Saint Louis area are also vital advisors, like Martin Sneider, who ran the Saint Louis retail conglomerate Edison Brothers, and is now an Olin Business School Professor at Washington University.
“The Fashion Fund is a creative cortex. It’s all about the next generation, where you can come work, learn, and get started and supported.” —Susan Sherman
The Fund is also putting a big emphasis on community outreach in order to captivate a larger audience and continue to increase awareness not only for the Fund, but for the fashion industry in Saint Louis as a whole. Initiatives include a “Speaking of Fashion” guest-speaker series and a “Creative Process” networking program that are both free and open to the public. Additionally, the SLFF has introduced “Future Fashion,” an education program that targets students ages 14-18 years old who have an interest in fashion careers, from design to editorial.
“All of our programs are in keeping with our long-term goal of connecting the community, maintaining and creating new growth in the fashion sector, as well as revitalizing the Garment District,” Bibbins says. The synergy that’s created through all of the SLFF’s programing has the power to fuel the local economy and rebuild the fashion industry on Washington Avenue.
What won’t be changing is the SLFF’s role in fostering a creative community around the business of fashion. “The Fashion Fund is a creative cortex,” says Sherman. “It’s all about the next generation, where you can come work, learn, and get started and supported.”