By  on January 17, 2012

DALLAS — A handful of young designers with fast-growing businesses are rejuvenating Big D’s fashion scene.

“There has been great improvement compared to what it was,” observed Brian Bolke, co-owner of specialty retailer Forty Five Ten. “It’s huge.”

The city’s dress and sportswear industries shrank to nearly nothing in the Nineties as moderate labels moved manufacturing offshore and pricier labels like Victor Costa, Todd Oldham and Tracy Feith closed or moved away.

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The biggest successes of the new guard are Nicole Musselman of Koch and Abi Ferrin, while Khanh Nha Nguyen of Nha Khanh, Prashe Shah of Prashe, Shirin Askari and Elizabeth Anyaa are gaining traction. The women produce nearly everything in Dallas.

“It’s wonderful — I can’t tell you how fast things have gone for us,” said Nguyen. Her two-year-old ready-to-wear collection was purchased by 14 stores nationwide for spring, including Tootsies and The Shak. The signature piece is an A-line, high-low asymmetric dress wholesaling from $195.

“Her look is different — sophisticated but still young,” said Shannon Moore, buyer for The Shak contemporary store at Stanley Korshak.

It helps that three nonprofit groups have formed here since 2007 to encourage the industry’s growth: Texas Next Top Designer annual competition, the Fashionistas promotional and scholarship organization and the Pin Show, which puts juried new designers in a runway show. Supported by various sponsors, these groups throw parties and host seminars and shows.

“Dallas used to be a huge fashion capital,” said Heidi Dillon, founder of the Fashionistas, which coordinated debut runway shows for Nha Khanh, Askari, Prashe and Anyaa. “We want to help rebuild that.”

Winning Texas Next Top Designer in 2007 was a turning point for Ferrin. The honor not only attracted individual clients, it also provided mentoring and a free studio for a year at the South Side on Lamar loft complex.

“Dallas people are willing to help — people from all different areas of expertise went out of their way to lift me up and share their resources,” Ferrin said. “I remember thinking, what do these people want? And they really wanted their friends and fellow entrepreneurs to be successful.”

Ferrin’s draped jersey and silk dresses, jumpsuits and separates will be carried in 120 Nordstrom doors and 58 independents this year, she said. Business roughly doubled in 2011 to $3 million, she said. Her transformable “five-way” dress wholesaling from $118 is a bestseller.

Ferrin is paying it forward with the Freedom Project, the philanthropic arm of her company. It employs 40 women rescued from the Cambodian sex trade to carve the coconut buttons that hang from every piece she ships. The income built a home in Phnom Penh last year and a sewing facility opening this month.

“We will continue to produce our main line in America, but I can’t compete with the Chinese prices on Ts and slips, so they will be made by these freed people in Cambodia,” Ferrin explained. “It’s really neat.”

Musselman (no relation to the late Dallas retailer Shelly Musselman) started Koch with hand-printed silk handbags in 2004, but the label didn’t take off until she introduced clothing in 2010. The breezy contemporary sportswear is now in more than 100 specialty stores, including Kitson, Calypso and Isetan, she said.

“What I love about being here is there are so many good production people to work with, and it’s nice to be removed and have your own point of view,” Musselman reflected. “I have found that people respond to the fact that we manufacture in the U.S. People take it seriously.”

The city’s sewing contractors are mostly immigrants, including Vietnamese who began settling here after the fall of Saigon in 1975, as well as Latinos and Koreans.

“As a Vietnamese, I can easily find employees here as seamstresses and patternmakers, because most of the skilled workers are Vietnamese,” said Nguyen, who immigrated with her family in 1993. “In the Eighties and Nineties, they went into the nail business. Now in their 50s and 60s, they still have that skill set in sewing and cutting. That is why we produce everything here in Dallas.”

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