In the back room of East Nashville’s Fond Object Records Poni Silver is trying to typify the vintage clothing style she prefers. "We both sell vintage here," she says, gesturing toward her fellow designer, Leslie Stephens, who sits across from her at the cluttered folding table. "But if you see anything that’s super ‘70s sportswear, that’s mine." A pop-up shop in the store’s front room houses minimal streetwear-infused designs from Poni’s Black By Maria Silver line and Stephens’ generous, playful line Ola Mai.
This article was originally published on Racked.com.
Outside, one of the several bands playing at the shop’s Record Store Day event began to blare so loudly that our conversation ceases for a moment, before a dazed-looking customer wanders into the store. Absentmindedly, he picks up a pair of ostentatious tortoiseshell sunglasses before setting them back down and moving on. Their tag reads "Moxie Grey," the chosen persona for Stephens’ vintage curation, and they display her attraction to feathery and fiery objects. This aesthetic also manifests in Ola Mai, which she named in honor of her late grandmother.
Later, I’ll pick up the same sunglasses, still thinking they’re too flamboyant, telling myself I’m purchasing them for a friend, but by the end of my trip, I’ll be rocking them myself. Maybe it’s the stubborn spirit of the south, or maybe it’s the fact that the city is far enough outside the spotlight that a freedom to own your own choices — whatever they may be — slowly returns. Whatever the case, the force of this city begins to blossom in you; a quiet confidence that seemed impossible until, suddenly, it feels natural.
Poni and Stephens are longtime friends, and work together curating vintage for the record store, but above all else they’re Nashville-based fashion designers — and they’re not alone. When I embarked on a tour of the city’s vintage stores one recent sunny Saturday afternoon, visiting the city on an unrelated press trip, I expected to find a good, worn-in golden locket, and be done shopping in time to attend my first Grand Ole Opry later that night. I did find the locket, but along with it, I found an entire community of thriving designers, eager and equipped to make their own lines happen outside the confines of New York Fashion Week or LA’s celebrity orbit. Instead of consigning themselves to the pressure of launching a line in one of these notoriously expensive cities, young designers are increasingly moving to regional hubs like Nashville to establish themselves and get their business and brands off the ground.
Just ask Isabel Simpson-Kirsch (aka Isabel SK), one of Nashville’s native daughters. She moved to New York to attend Parsons, but eagerly returned home in 2013 after she graduated.
"My senior thesis collection in college took off and blew up so I had a brand already from that," she said. "But, really, I planned on moving back to Nashville before my senior year of college even started. That’s when Nashville started blowing up, and as a local, I wanted to get back there and be a part of this creative scene."
The same goes for Macy Smith and Juliana Horner, who both attended Pratt to earn degrees in Fashion Design. They graduated a year apart, but each chose to move to Nashville independently after finishing school. Smith and Horner moved in together in Hillsboro Village and soon began working on collaborative projects. Horner’s background is in textile design, and at the moment she works mostly on that end of the industry, but the two of them formed Dream House as the creative home for their "mutual love for all things cute, creepy, and glittery."
"I stayed in New York for about a year after I graduated trying to figure stuff out financially and work on a line up there," Smith said. "It just wasn’t happening. I had a good opportunity to move into a house in Nashville that my dad bought years ago. I had no idea there was a fashion community down here; I kind of thought I was moving to a small town. But then I moved here and realized it was actually this huge booming city full of arts and people and music, which was a nice surprise."
For Horner, who grew up in the south, moving back to Nashville was something of a no-brainer. Her connection to textile design allows her to support herself financially while still working on passion projects like Dream House.
"Dream House is kind of an open-ended platform for us to do whatever we want between the two of us," Horner explained. "We definitely don’t like the seasonal aspect of fashion week in New York. We couldn’t handle that type of stress. There’s a fashion week down here too, but we’d so much rather do a shoot on our own time."
Most recently, the pair hosted an event highlighting local artists of all disciplines at their house as part of Nashville’s Fashion Art Mecca week. It showcased all sorts of creative communities within the city, including everything from fashion, textile art, and embroidery, to illustration, poetry, performance art, and pottery.
Still, the existence and success of events like the Fashion Art Mecca owe an obvious debt to surprisingly philanthropic Nashville Fashion Week, which just finished up production of its sixth year in early April. Marcia Masulla, one of the organization’s six co-founders, followed a boy in a band from St. Louis to Nashville in summer of 2008. The boy didn’t last, but after some struggle, Masulla’s stint in Nashville did. By 2010 she was founding Nashville’s own fashion week to spotlight the city’s robust scene.
"Music City is so much more than just music city — there’s so much fashion and culture here," she said. "We had this crazy idea of starting Nashville Fashion Week, and six years later, it’s insane the growth and exposure we’ve had, and the type of support from the community, both at home and internationally."
For the uninformed, Masulla explains that regional fashion weeks have taken an important place in the fashion industry. Prior to her Nashville move, Masulla was part of the very first St. Louis Fashion Week, and other cities, including Charleston and Atlanta, host their own weeks as well. However, what makes Nashville’s iteration so different is that they don’t charge designers to show at the event.
"I don’t get a paycheck from this, none of my partners do," Masulla said. "We basically do it as a gift. The Nashville Fashion Fund is another part of the week, which is a gift to the city. Each year in the fall applicants can apply, and it’s so much more than designers — you can be a model, a retailer, a photographer, a blogger, a stylist. Anything that’s a viable fashion career or industry. We choose a winner each year, and literally give them money: ‘Here, take the money and grow your career."
Photos by Justin Chesney