For decades, and especially in recent years, St. Louis has struggled with its image as a slow-growth community beset with deep-rooted problems. Crime, racial tensions, the loss of corporate headquarters – for many, these kinds of issues have come to define the region.
But that view is far too narrow. It leaves out a huge part of the story. The St. Louis area is in transition. And a great deal of what is happening is positive -- shockingly positive.
The industries of the future are starting up and taking root in our community. First it was the biosciences, jump-started by the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. Now it’s the IT sector, which has become so fertile that the Washington Monthly recently called St. Louis an “entrepreneurial boomtown.”
The ever-expanding Washington University Medical Center.
The astonishing success of CORTEX, the innovation hub and technology district, which was established only a dozen years ago and now houses more than 150 companies.
Now we want to build on that momentum. And we want to do it in a way that’s as true to St. Louis’s roots as beer or baseball.
Just a couple of generations ago, St. Louis was second only to New York as a center of fashion in the United States. Focused on Washington Avenue, the industry here both designed and made the shoes, boots, lingerie, and dresses – especially young women’s dresses – that helped clothe the nation.
We want to bring some of that action back. Right where it used to be – on Washington Avenue, downtown.
By doing so, we’ll foster the creation of new companies. Bring more jobs and talent to downtown. Recapture a piece of our history. Educate and mentor fashion and design students across the region. And help create a little buzz – the right kind of buzz -- about St. Louis.
With help from people like you, we know we can do it.
Here’s what we have in mind.
The Saint Louis Fashion Incubator
Saint Louis Fashion Fund is a non-profit established in 2014. Led by a board of directors that includes leaders in culture, fashion, higher education, law and business, the fund has supported the activities of Saint Louis Fashion Week, among other activities.
Now, however, the Fund is developing its signature project -- Saint Louis Fashion Incubator (SLFI). Modeled in part after the long-established Council of Fashion Designers of America’s (CFDA) Incubator in New York, the incubator will be a state-of-the-art facility and activity center that will catalyze a thriving fashion and design ecosystem across this region.
The SLFI will leverage relationships with Washington University’s Olin School of Business, the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, and other local and national partners. With their help, it will offer a two-year program in business, fashion, merchandising, and retail to six designers selected through a national search.
The designers will each have a studio in the incubator and access to shared resources – cut and sew capabilities, a reference library, conference and meeting rooms, office equipment, and a small retail boutique to show their lines. And in addition to their work with faculty at the Olin Business School and Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts, they’ll collaborate with one another, with local fashion-oriented businesses such as Caleres, and with fashion industry leaders on our National Advisory Committee.
The rapid emergence of St. Louis as the chess capital of the United States.
With its partners, the SLFI also will stimulate local interest in the fashion industry and awareness of global fashion trends. Local business owners and designers will be offered access to programs, training, presentations, and the SLFI facility for a small annual fee. The public also will be invited to participate in pop-up sales by local and national designers, lectures and workshops. In addition, the designers will serve as fashion ambassadors in the community, mentoring high school and college students and other aspiring designers.
All of this will place the SLFI well beyond the level of fashion incubators in Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco, which have garnered fashion headlines.
In the end – within 5 years -- we expect to create to create a collection of successful stand-alone St. Louis-based fashion companies, with sustainable business models that are able to attract funding from local or national venture capitalists. Ruth Sergenian, economist at the St. Louis Regional Chamber, estimates that with a $2 million investment, we will generate 62 jobs and $6.6 million per year for the Saint Louis economy by 2020.
But we think that’s conservative. Because we also expect to create a magnet — a critical mass of talent, resources and energy that will lead designers, sewers, pattern makers, photographers, and other fashion and design-related businesses to move their own businesses downtown to be close to it and to be part of a supportive network.
In other words, we believe the SLFI will do for the design community here what the T-Rex incubator has done for the IT community downtown. T-Rex, meet your match — D-Rex.
Spawn companies and jobs. Further revitalize downtown. Stir excitement across the whole region. Capture the attention and imagination of the fashion industry nationwide.
And – by reaching back to our past -- give us greater confidence in our future.
The rebirth of large sections of South St. Louis -- now filled with restaurants, dynamic ethnic neighborhoods and young people seeking an urban lifestyle.
Why It Makes Sense
We know this can work. Here’s why:
Although Washington Avenue lost its position as a garment district years ago, St. Louis has retained some important assets in the fashion industry that we can still use as bootstraps.
The handsome old buildings lining Washington Avenue are still there. They give us the bones of a restored district. But even more important, the flesh and blood is still here – the talent and knowhow. Caleres, formerly called Brown Shoe, with headquarters now in Clayton, is a global, $2.6 billion force in footwear. Elan Polo International, Wolff Shoe Company, Soft Surroundings, Shoes.com, Build-A-Bear Workshop and other companies are here — evidence of our legacy in the industry or of our continuing ability to generate new companies. The Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts is another key asset. St. Louis has plenty of resources.
Washington Avenue looking east from Seventh Street from the Missouri History Museum
And although it’s under the radar, there’s already a surprisingly energetic design community here. As Style.Mic, a national fashion publication, reported just last year, “St. Louis is proving to be a real incubator for talent. … St. Louis is a destination for emerging designers to thrive.”
St. Louis is an Incubation Powerhouse
For half a century at least, the book on St. Louis was that it was a big company town where people didn’t want to risk a safe corporate job for a risky startup. So when the big companies stopped growing, so did St. Louis.
That’s not the book any more.
Now we’re “an entrepreneurial boomtown,” as the Washington Monthly put it. We’re one of the top 14 startup cities in America, according to Popular Mechanics. Kiplinger goes one step further: We’re one of the 10 best.
Science-based and tech companies that used to leave St. Louis in order to grow are now coming here to be part of the scene. Forrest Innovations, Kaiima Bio-Agritech, Evogene, Lacgene – these and many more examples show how the tide has turned.
The continuing redevelopment of downtown -- soon to be given another jolt with the completion of the Arch Grounds renovation.
How’d that happen?
Basically, because people here made it happen. They wanted to see St. Louis flourish and they started doing the hard work to make that happen. High among their agenda items --business incubators. St. Louis started creating all kinds: The Center for Emerging Technologies and T-Rex for the IT sector; Nidus and The Helix Center Biotech for bio-sciences; and many, many more. The community also started creating some of the other kinds of organizations needed to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem: accelerators like Capital Innovators, which offer a kind of boot camp to fledgling companies; Stadia, for sports; Prosper Capital, which focuses on startups by women; and Arch Grants, which lures startups here with funding. Now St. Louis has developed an entrepreneurial ecosystem that supports and mentors and pushes and invests and works.
We’ve seen how it can work. Now we just want to replicate it – in fashion.
A Supportive Ecosystem
We’re not in this alone. Learning from the success this community has enjoyed in the bio-sciences, in IT, and other industries, we’ve built an ecosystem of support. Among our partners are:
- Washington University, which undertook a four-month strategic planning process for our incubator through its Center for Experiential Learning
- Downtown STL, which led the effort to identify and negotiate space to house the Incubator, and which also helped win financial support from other civic agencies
- Cultivation Capital, whose partners have served on our planning process steering team
- Arcturis, which helped us design our space and whose leader headed the national search process for an Executive Director.
This is the right moment.
Businesses, especially those with a creative focus, want to be downtown again. There’s a growing dynamism to the neighborhood, which has added population every year for more than the last decade, yet costs are still low. One of the latest to announce a move downtown is Momentum Worldwide, an advertising firm that had been in Richmond Heights. Momentum’s chairman and CEO Chris Weil had this to say when the move was announced in April, 2016: “The growing energy and vibrancy of downtown St Louis is the perfect environment for us to create inspired, creative work that will continue to connect us and our clients with opportunities and people around the world.”
It’s the right moment too because a small but growing number of clothing designers and retailers are bringing production back to the United States from abroad. “Reshoring,” as the trend is called, appears to have started in about 2012 and has only grown since then. The result has been stories with headlines like this one, published just this past March in “Fast Company”: “Why Clothing Startups Are Returning to American Factories.” And not to leave you hanging, here’s why: “It’s no longer (just) about Patriotism or Marketing. These brands want to create the best, most innovative clothes in the world.”
So St. Louis is ripe for this. And so is the industry.
In the last 20 years, St. Louis has shown again and again that it can make exciting things happen when it sets its collective will to the task. Who would have dreamed in 2000 that more than 8,000 people would be living downtown or that St. Louis would be attracting young entrepreneurs in droves? Or that there would be so much live theater that it would be impossible to see it all? Or that the restaurant scene would be so vital that there would be two separate newspapers covering it?
The fashion industry was an exciting part of our past.
With your help, it can be an exciting part of our future, too. Please join us to support this critical vision for our community by using this link _____: Instructions on how to give a gift of stock and/or to use Neighborhood Assistance Program (NAP) credits is located here_____.