I am not sure if I should rejoice with fashionable hallelujahs for the good fortune of Dallas-based handbag designer Allison Mitchell and fashion designer Charles Smith of Smith II, or selfishly shed a tear for Dallas, as we lose two local talents in one swoop to St. Louis. The designers are packing their creative bags and are moving to St. Louis, Missouri for a two-year residency program with the Saint Louis Fashion Incubator that begins January 2017. Clap, clap, sniff, and sniff!
Kudos to Mitchell and Smith, after garnering the judge’s attention from a national search to select the inaugural class of six designers. The entire process included 43 applicants from 11 states and 16 cities, and they made the proverbial cut. The other four designers—Agnes Hamerlik – Chicago, Emily Koplar – St. Louis, Audra Noyes – Delaware/NYC, and Reuben Reuel Riddick – Brooklyn, NY. And said judges, no slouches here—Lisa Smilor, executive vice president, CFDA, Fern Mallis, creator of New York Fashion Week and industry consultant, designer Timo Weiland, Christine Barberich, global editor-in-chief and founding member of Refinery29, Michael Fink, dean, School of Fashion, Savannah College of Art and Design, and Gary Wassner, Hilldun CEO and chairman of Interluxe Holdings LLC.
The Saint Louis Fashion Incubator, a non-profit organisation, is spearheading this project with financial backing from the department of economic development, which awarded the fund $250,000, and the fund will leverage another $500,000 in contributions from individuals. The board of directors is also raising $2 million to assist with three years of operating budget and renovating the space. The city, formerly known for its business of fashion and product design, is pushing for significant growth and a revival of its manufacturing industry. The incubator, a 7,500 sq. ft. creative hub located on Washington Avenue in the historic district of downtown St. Louis, will provide free workspace, mentorship from local and national advisors, and the ability to manufacture small-run samples and orders with sales opportunities in major fashion markets.
As a former board member at Fashion Group International of Dallas for five years, I’ve seen how hard it is for young talent to survive in Dallas. But Dallas can certainly boast about the incredible talents of local designers such as Nha Khanh, Abi Ferrin, Binzario Couture, Nardos Imam, Esé Azénabor, Levi Palmer of Palmer / Harding (London-based) and Michael Faircloth over the years. Early this year, FGI Dallas honoured Mitchell with the Rising Star Award for Accessories, and with strong roots already established in Dallas with support from Stanley Korshak and Elements boutique, it will be sad to see her leave, yet exciting to see her grow.
Mitchell shared, “I’ll always be indebted to the fashionable women of Dallas for supporting my line from its inception. My husband and I are planning on making the move to St. Louis in mid-November, before Thanksgiving. We both visited a couple of months ago to see the city and meet the board members of SLFI, and we were pleasantly surprised! The art scene is solid and sophisticated, the food is superb, the shopping is great, the people are wonderful, and there is major citywide development happening. It felt like Dallas ten years ago—headed for great things!
Smith, who will be showcasing his spring/summer 2017 collection, sponsored by Nancy C. Rogers and benefiting D.I.S.D. at the Dallas Contemporary October 2 added, “I always knew I would leave Dallas, but it’s all about timing and working on one’s self, constant research and vibes of what feels right for the era, in time I knew I would be ready to move on. But, I have to come back because SMITH II is Dallas, and it would not be anything without the support and love that I have received from Dallas. I will move to New York after I finish my two-year residency because all the roads to Paris go through New York, and as an American, I plan on working towards becoming creative director of Chanel after Karl Lagerfeld. Speak it into existence and it will happen. No point in doing this if you’re not reaching for the stars”. And it’s not just about talent, but attitude, personal motivation and perseverance that lead the path to success, of which Smith has in abundance, “being dedicated with endless motivation tied to a countless amount of will and heart to make the necessary sacrifices to gain success. I live by this in my heart, and even inked it on my body.”
It’s never easy as a struggling entrepreneur, and the fickle fashion industry is tough at best. For Mitchell the most difficult challenges have involved, “learning how to balance cash flow. In retail, there are slow months, but collections still need to be produced and marketed, so when sales are down, you have to get creative, or become the best sales person in your employment, in order to balance that monthly cash flow,” the residency program will certainly address challenges like this. Smith shared, “I’m a hood child so nothing is hard in my eyes, I limit the excuse of anything being hard. I simply do my research and make sure that I don’t give up and quit, but when you’re doing something that you love that comes naturally, then my sacrifice becomes my freedom in the long run.”
But while I feel sad for Dallas’ loss, the journey for Mitchell and Smith is truly an exciting one, filled with an abundance of learning, garnering industry knowledge, networking opportunities and acquiring significant business savvy. Smith shared, “I’m excited about mentorship, from those who know more than me on the business side of things, my basic knowledge and manageable understanding of the complexities need to be fine-tuned to create a seamless infrastructure in my business.” At an eager 27 years old, Smith continued, “I feel that I have a lot of energy to jolt into an industry that I’ve been conditioned in since I was 14 years old, so I’m looking to share my vision with the world.” Mitchell enthused, “of all the incredible resources SLFI is offering us, I am most excited about learning from the other designers. I think the secret ingredient to a successful business is people, and I think being in the same space with other artists will help develop my aesthetic and design sensibilities in ways I can’t even imagine.”
But behind every great idea is a genius, and behind the Saint Louis Fashion Incubator initiative is, executive director Eric Johnson, the former New York City economic development corporation’s vice president for fashion and arts. Yep, experienced with a $20 million budget in fashion initiatives and supporting fashion entrepreneurs in NYC. Now, that’s how you make a fashion impact! I wish Mitchell and Smith the very best on their new journey, but Dallas will miss them greatly.