While New York and Los Angeles host the most fashion designers in the U.S., the Columbus, Ohio, region has emerged with the third-highest concentration.

At first blush, some may find that hard to imagine, but considering that major retailers such as Express, DSW and L Brands have headquarters and major distribution centers there supports the notion. There are about 20,000 fashion designers in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. After Columbus, other concentrations of apparel designers call Texas home as well as New Jersey (commuters to New York City).

The 11-county Columbus region also serves as an important consumer test market for retailers and designers as well as a creative hub for convening the fashion and retail community. Here, Kenny McDonald, president and chief economic officer of Columbus 2020, shares some insights on the market and its role as a key region for fashion apparel retailing.

WWD: What are some of the attributes that make Columbus an “unexpected leader” in U.S. fashion?

Kenny McDonald: The Columbus Region’s influence in the fashion industry reaches worldwide. We’re home to the third-highest concentration of fashion designers in the U.S., topped only by New York City and Los Angeles, and have more than 8,200 people employed in fashion and retail company headquarters and distribution centers. Major retail brands, including DSW, Express, Abercrombie & Fitch Co., L Brands (which includes Henri Bendel, Victoria’s Secret, La Senza, etc.) and more, are headquartered in the region.

Our robust retail and fashion innovation ecosystem is comprised of a talented workforce and companies across all industries, offering a wide range of resources in manufacturing and packaging, logistics and operations, and store design and marketing research.

In terms of talent, we continuously add to an already strong fashion workforce, with 60 to 70 percent of alumni from the Columbus College of Art & Design remaining in the region to pursue work in the industry.

We are home to major store design firms like Big Red Rooster, Chute Gerdeman and WD Partners, who help retailers determine the best in-store merchandise layouts to optimize consumer interest, which in turn increases sales. Notable master developers like Steiner and Associates have transformed the retail industry. Steiner and Associates was hired by Leslie H. Wexner, founder of L Brands, to develop a $225 million, 1.7 million-square-foot award-winning mixed-use town center, Easton Town Center, which has become a regional attraction and a model for communities nationwide. The pedestrian friendly town center features national and local tenants, open-air pedestrian landscapes, and provides a variety of specialty retail, dining and entertainment venues.

WWD: What are some of the other attributes that set the region apart from other markets?

K.McD.: Ranked number four for a population most resembling the demographic makeup of the country by WalletHub, we provide an ideal test market for retailers to test the sku’s in their brick-and-mortar stores, with many major retail brands routinely using their Columbus stores as testing grounds for new store layouts and product launches.

In addition to big-name brands, Columbus boasts many fashion startups including Homage, a rapidly growing retailer that creates apparel celebrating sports, music, politics and pop culture, and Gwynnie Bee, an e-commerce company revolutionizing the online retail space through a subscription service for women’s clothing in sizes 10 to 32.

Our region is also home to many creative fashion organizations that host endless events and programs, and provide unique interactive fashion opportunities, such as pop-ups and incubators. Alternative Fashion Mob, a unique collection of fashion designers, industry professionals and couture enthusiasts, is just one of the many Columbus-based fashion organizations that aim to bring everyone in the industry together — students, designers, entrepreneurs, larger companies, etc. AFM plans to launch FABRIC – a multipurpose fashion industry incubation space — the first of its kind in the Midwest.

Columbus also celebrates its annual fashion week each October, bringing together top talent, including designers Adolfo Sanchez, Gerardo Encinas and Stephanie Foster.

WWD: Omnichannel retailing is transforming how fashion apparel companies and retailers serve consumers. It demands a high level of experience in technology. How does the workforce of Columbus measure up in this area?

K.McD.: Columbus is home to a highly skilled technology workforce. One major benefit to retailers and designers operating in the Columbus region is our growing IT sector. The region’s concentration of IT workers is 60 percent higher than similarly-sized cities, and statistically younger and more educated than the national average. In addition, we are constantly refueling our strong IT talent pool, allowing companies to recruit directly from the educational institutions that call the region home, including The Ohio State University, which offers many IT degree programs such as its popular data analytics degree program. With more than 20 career and technical schools in the region that offer vocational training in IT, it’s no surprise that CBRE’s 2016 Tech Talent Report named Columbus the No. 1 Best City for Top Tech Talent.

The pairing of IT and retail in the region has spurred innovative new retail tech companies such as Jifiti, a start-up that allows users to send anyone any gift instantly via text message or e-mail — taking the anxiety out of gift-giving. In addition, Columbus-based Alliance Data offers “tailored” private-label credit solutions to businesses, employing data analytics to help measure a brand’s engagement and develop customer loyalty programs.

While in-store shopping will remain a popular shopping method, technology will continue to impact and change how we do business in the fashion industry. It’s vital to our unique retail ecosystem that we continue to nurture an environment that fosters collaboration between our growing IT sector and retail and fashion innovation ecosystem.

WWD: From a proximity perspective, how is Columbus positioned? What are the benefits of choosing Columbus as a site for a corporate headquarters or distribution center?

K.McD.: We have a vast network of distribution, fulfillment and logistics operations, making Columbus the location of choice for companies with logistics needs. Nearly 50 percent of the U.S. population and 30 percent of the Canadian population are reachable within a 10-hour drive from the Columbus region, which is ranked the number-one major metro for access to the U.S. market.

The Columbus region is also home to multimodal logistics hub Rickenbacker Inland Port, the 10th-largest Foreign Trade-Zone, rated number one in the nation for total value of textile and footwear imports in 2015. Of the nation’s apparel and footwear imports that go through foreign-trade zones, about 70 percent pass through Rickenbacker’s foreign-trade zone. The foreign-trade zone allows for goods to be brought onto the location duty-free and without formal customs entry.

As one of the world’s only cargo-dedicated airports, Columbus’ Rickenbacker International Airport offers an uncongested option to move air cargo not only within the U.S., but also to and from the U.S., with nine weekly international wide body freighter frequencies between the airport and premier air cargo hubs in Europe (Luxembourg), Asia (Hong Kong) and the Middle East (Dubai). Our prime location and complete logistics offerings provide the retail and fashion industry unparalleled access to global markets.

Columbus also offers the nation’s lowest effective tax rate for new distributions centers and office space: 40 percent cheaper than Chicago and 60 percent cheaper than New York. Major brands that have chosen Columbus as their U.S. operations location for distribution, fulfillment and logistics facilities include Gap, DSW and Restoration Hardware.

In addition to proximity, the region provides access to a logistics talent pool of more than 76,000 employees. More than a dozen educational programs throughout the region provide access to logistics skills training in all areas of education, from high school and vocational certifications to bachelor’s and graduate degrees, allowing for a continuous pool of strong and capable talent.

WWD: What are some of the quality of life benefits of the Columbus area?

K.McD.: Columbus has an open-minded approach to life, business and ideas. The Columbus region’s people, businesses and neighborhoods exemplify the philosophy that Columbus is open to all, creating an environment that encourages innovation, taking risks and thinking big.

The cost of living is low, while cultural experiences abound. The area’s youthful and progressive attitude — fueled by the presence of one of the largest concentrations of college students in the country — has attracted a diverse population that gives the city texture and a rich mix of cultural assets that top the charts. The youthful nature you’ll find in the Columbus region is complemented by an exceptionally stable economy that continues to see growth across a variety of sectors. Columbus is a leading metro for job creation and wage growth, which as a result provides its residents with a variety of career opportunities.

Columbus is an interesting place filled with interesting people doing interesting things. It’s a great time to be here.