We’ve all heard the story: D.C. isn’t a place for fashion. It is a place for policy and change. Fashion is for New York and Los Angeles, where well-dressed celebrities walk the sidewalks, and the fashion industry is a viable part of the cities’ economy.
In February 2011, TBD interviewed fashionable outsiders to get their opinions on D.C. fashion. The general consensus? D.C. is too serious and drab to care about haute couture.
“There’s definitely a push to become a more fashionable city. Overall it’s very difficult because the mentality is different, people are focused on power and prestige and...don’t see fashion as an art. The city has a long way to go,” Aaron Griffith, a fashion label president, told TBD.
But, as evidenced by D.C. Fashion Week, there are quite a few people in the area — fashion bloggers, designers, merchandisers, professors and attorneys — who would say that D.C., too, can be a fashion powerhouse.
“I don’t believe the D.C. fashion industry is nonexistent or handicapped,” says Mariessa Terrell a local fashion attorney and founder of SBC Law Group, a brand management and intellectual property law firm. She is also a fashion blogger and a board member for Fashion Law Week DC, a week of programs on intellectual property issues in the fashion industry. Started in 2011, it is presented by Howard Law School’s Intellectual Property Students Association (IPSA).
“We need to promote the things we do well. We have designers, we are a fashion law capital, and we have an international presence,” says Terrell.
But what will it take to get the outside world to catch on?
“I feel like [D.C. residents] are taken seriously about just about everything else,” says Nina Thirakul, a fashion and retail management professor at the Art Institute of Washington in Arlington.
A Washington area native, Thirakul believes that because D.C. is mostly celebrated as an educated city , and as the “heart of American politics,” some residents have a “utilitarian” attitude towards dress.
For this reason, Sai Sankoh of the D.C. fashion blog, Because I am Fabulous, believes it is important that people understand what an asset a viable fashion industry can be to the local economy.
“It could create a lot of resources, and more jobs for people. When I moved here, and was just getting into fashion, my mother was like, ‘You need to be a doctor or lawyer’ because she did not see the career opportunities in fashion,” says Sankoh.
Born in Sierra Leone, Sankoh has lived in D.C. for the past 13 years. A nurse by day, she began blogging about D.C. nightlife over a year ago, but soon realized her readers were more interested in what she was wearing. Now her site gets over 250,000 page views monthly and in December she was featured in a profile of local fashion bloggers by Washingtonian magazine.
Sankoh believes the quality of fashion shows in the city needs a boost in order to properly display the work of talented local designers.
“There are so many designers who are so talented. We just need to open up platforms for them to show that their talent is on the level of bigger cities that already have influenced fashion,” she says.
Thirakul, who worked at the House of Chanel for 10 years, believes a lack of corporate buy-in is part of the problem.
“My dream is that corporate companies will plant some roots here. There’s pretty much just the retail end, so there is not a lot of expansion for creativity in the D.C. market. Fashion corporate headquarters are not here either. We don’t have a support system for fashion here,” she says.
According to Thirakul, many fashion companies have headquarters in New York City because much of their apparel is manufactured there, making it prime real estate for fashion companies. D.C.? Not so much.
Most importantly, D.C.’s retail landscape needs a reboot, says Terrell.
“We spend millions in other districts. We need to be rebuilding our fashion economy,” says Terrell.
However, there is hope. The majority of Thirakul’s Art Institute students are from the Washington region, and many don’t feel obligated to rush to New York immediately after graduation. Instead, she says, they find opportunities here in upper-level retail management jobs and by starting their own businesses.
The recent surge in the number of D.C. fashion bloggers may also be a good sign.
Sai Sankoh recently joined CapFABB, an online community for fashion and beauty bloggers in the area, that launched in February 2011. It now has 400 registered members.
“And it’s growing constantly,” says Sankoh.
Cutting out a new design
The D.C. government is also helping to push the industry forward. Well, sort of.
A few years ago Mariessa Terrell and Christine Brooks-Cropper, president and founder of the Greater Washington Fashion Chamber of Commerce, drafted The Commission on Fashion Arts and Events Establishment Act of 2007.
The bill would create a 15-member board responsible for having fashion events, creating opportunities for D.C. children to learn about fashion design and merchandising in school, offering scholarships and internships to aspiring designers
It was signed into law by then-mayor Adrian Fenty in May of 2008, but has yet to be staffed.
Terrell was told that it would be implemented this month, yet there are no signs of progress. Repeated attempts to reach the DC Commission on Arts and Humanities for an update were unsuccessful.
Though there have been more tangible efforts made to elevate D.C.’s fashion scene. In 2009, Greater Washington Fashion Chamber of Commerce launched the D.C. Fashion Foundation, which provides educational programs and networking and mentoring opportunities for young Washingtonians interested in the field.
One of its most popular educational offerings is the Fashionably Business program. Also launched in 2009, it provides free fashion business workshops, in subjects such as merchandising, marketing, financials and strategic planning and low-cost fashion skills workshops.
Plus, Spring/Summer 2013 D.C. Fashion Week is fast approaching. Despite the negative reviews it has gotten in the past, it provides a platform for local designers to be seen.
“We have a venue for local designers to say, ‘I’m from Washington. I am a designer and I want to show my creations,” says Thirakul.
It’s a start, right?
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