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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.
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."
The first recipient of this award was Julianna Bass, a born and raised Tennessee native, who used the check to fund a trip to Berlin where she got an investor, and now operates her line out of both Berlin and New York City.
"She showed her collection for the second year in a row and got rave reviews from Vogue," Masulla said, describing her pride at seeing Bass’s collection in posh local retailers and on attendees at a local Carolina Herrera show. "The girl has hustle, but it’s incredible; I had a moment where I realized we had given her the seed to accomplish this."
At the most recent Nashville Fashion Week, Poni Silver snagged the event’s Rising Star award. She’s quickly gaining notoriety outside of the city for her sleek, sporty designs. This is a city that isn’t afraid to invest in its own talent, and that investment continues to pay off in dividends. As the city proves it can support and nurture talented, creative people, they are more and more willing to put down roots in Tennessee instead of venturing elsewhere.
As a music editor, I’d been tipped off to the fashion community in Nashville by Nikki Lane, an independent country singer who released her latest record All Or Nothin’ via New West Records to substantial critical clamor in 2014. Lane had a background as a designer in New York before she ditched that fast-paced track to pursue music, but she always kept fashion on the back burner. She continued to collect and curate vintage clothing in Nashville, selling items on Etsy and at flea markets, until over the last year it evolved into a full-fledge storefront in East Nashville. Given the two year gap between records, it wasn’t that surprising that Lane was out of town recording a follow-up album, but her influence on the city’s vintage scene spoke in her absence.
High Class Hillbilly’s brick and mortar location is way out on Gallatin Pike, one of the main thoroughfares in the city’s booming outskirt neighborhood of East Nashville. A stable of tried and true vintage fashion peddlers have popped up as the neighborhood quickly gentrifies, and Lane’s shop is just one of many in the area. When she’s not working on her own line, or other Dream House projects, Smith keeps shop for Lane at High Class Hillbilly and also works on collaborations with Lane.
Their most recent project is a pair of "Fuck Off" panties, which were hand sewn locally by Megan Prange Productions, a small batch agency founded by Prange herself in 2011 to help local designers ethically produce their work on a small scale. Aside from Lane, Smith, Stephens and Silver have all utilized Prange’s efficient, budget-conscious services to complete their lines.
As for the panties, after Prange’s company sewed them, they were chainstitch embroidered with Lane’s signature skull by Iron Thread in Vermont. Nothing feels more indicative of the scene’s local, collaborative creativity and fierce spirit — and it’s a great indication of the spirit behind Lane’s music too, if you’re not familiar.
The recent influx of young talent into the city — particularly East Nashville — includes a boutique run by Kimberly Parker called Sisters of Nature. Parker opened up the store in 2013 after quitting her job as an ESL teacher, citing her mother’s recent passing as an impetus to live in the moment. She began building the store and doing some designing, but dove headfirst into the business in 2015. In this April’s Nashville Fashion Week, she showed her original Sisters of Nature designs for the first time.
"I think we’re right at the cusp of the renaissance," Parker said. "It’s definitely very much in its beginning phases, and we have a lot of things we need to get here like production places and wholesale fabric places. But it’s definitely growing quickly. I can see in the next three to five years [Nashville] being a place that you can really really thrive as a fashion designer."
As the emerging scene flourishes, the bedrock of Nashville’s vintage fashion remains, underlying the city’s deep connection to clothes. East Nashville’s Hip Zipper is one of the oldest vintage stores in the city — if not the oldest — and continues to remain a staple for the community. The owner, Trisha Brantley, ran her store during the day and waited tables for 13 years in order to initially keep the shop afloat.
"As far as I know Hip Zipper is the oldest vintage clothing store in Nashville," Brantley said. "There were other stores open when I opened in 1999 but they’ve since closed, so to date, we are the oldest vintage store."
After working in A&R at RCA Records for several years, Brantley quickly realized she wanted to do something else. A friend’s offhand comment led to the idea that became Hip Zipper.
"I’d always go yard sale-ing and estate sale-ing," she said. "I had collected a pretty good bit of clothing and accessories and everything. When I decided I didn’t want to do music industry stuff anymore, a friend of mine said, ‘You know, you have enough stuff to open your own store.’ She was making a joke, and the light just went off. So I decided to give it a go in East Nashville."
Hip Zipper is close to the nearby Fanny’s House of Music, a music store run by and for women that features some vintage clothing curated by other local members of the community. Also in the area is Local Honey, a shop that’s part salon and part vintage store. These hybrid businesses drive home the ever-present economy of older, used clothing as part of the city’s cultural imprint.
"There are so many vintage clothing stores in Nashville, we’re not all selling the same red ball," Brantley said. "We’re all selling something different, something that we’re passionate about. You’re talking about a timeline that’s 1930s to 1990s, that’s a long time to call something vintage. Everybody is drawn to something in that timeline. Vintage is always going to have a place in fashion."
These influences stick with designers who are trying to create their own pieces, and are inspired by the individuality of vintage pieces.
"There’s just more character to the vintage pieces because they weren’t mass-produced in our lifetime," Stephens said. "So they’re always a little more unique, and I try to translate that into my pieces too. They’re still wearable and everyday, but there’s something special about them."
And even as the fashion ecosystem begins to take hold in music city, Nashville’s gateway into the clothing industry will always have roots in its historic past. Vintage stores in music city house clothing from scrappy young designers, and provide them a relevant day job while they work on their own lines.
"Vintage is a nice place for people who are into fashion to start off or end up," Smith said. "You surround yourself with clothing history. That’s where a lot of people come from and you get to be inspired by everything you see every day."
This inspiration is manifesting itself in brand new designers who are fearlessly dismantling past preconceptions about how and where the fashion industry can thrive. Nashville is coming into its own as a cultural epicenter for all sorts of things — not just music — and if it continues at the current pace, what once felt impossible will soon feel natural.