city fashion hub jasu New York

While Paris, Milan, London and New York still have a lock on their claim as leading global fashion capitals, the money crowd has started expanding its horizons.

Montreal, Nashville and Sydney are seen among emerging hubs for next-generation brands as these cities incubate and attract creative talents, and export mold-breaking business models.

“Investors are looking everywhere,” said Sarah Willersdorf, a partner and managing director with Boston Consulting Group, suggesting the days of investors looking to only a handful of traditional fashion capitals is quickly on the wane. A solid opportunity for growth is the only true goal, and modern financiers know it can come from almost anywhere now.

“Things are more global and people are open to new brands everywhere and if they’re not, they should be. Investors are looking for growth stories and that’s where you have to understand things on a city basis, because it’s not about country anymore, it’s about city,” she said

Willersdorf pointed Copenhagen, Stockholm, Berlin and Seoul among locales ripe with these types of young brands, as well as an on-trend modern aesthetic. These cities are “seeing a real renaissance across fashion and design,” she noted.

The hyper-modern architecture of Seoul (left) followed (clockwise) by Sydney, Copenhagen, Berlin and Montreal. 

Fashion success stories in each of these cities are easy to come by. Just Female started in Copenhagen in 2006 with a line of monochromatic basics and now offers a full range of apparel and leather pieces online and with retailers worldwide, similar to Mads Nørgaard and Ganni; Stockholm is well-known as the home of Acne Studios, but it’s also incubated COS, Cheap Monday and Filippa K; Berlin is home to avant-garde designer Michael Sontag as well as the popular brand Lala Berlin; and Seoul’s booming streetwear scene has produced brands like Ader Error and Kye by Kathleen Kye.

Although there are many cities home to new, innovative and growing fashion-focused companies that can’t yet count themselves as true industry destinations, there is certainly no shortage of contenders.

Nashville, Tenn., is one that seems to be brimming with creative types, from designers, to photographers, to models, who are starting to leave their mark on Music City, and the infrastructure is coming up around them to help.

The Nashville, Tenn. downtown area and the Cumberland River are shown onNashville Skyline, Nashville, USA

A view of Nashville’s growing downtown area from across the Cumberland River.  Humphrey/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Jeffry Aronsson, the founder of an eponymous consulting group and a former luxury fashion executive who served as chief executive officer of Oscar de la Renta and Marc Jacobs, pointed to Nashville as a city full of “entrepreneurs with early stage business,” “low cost real estate and mobility,” and local stakeholders that see the emerging opportunity.

“Overall, there is a local sense that a movement is under way, fueled by inspiration and an ethos prizing collaboration, innovation, sustainability and other positive social impacts,” Aronsson added. 

Manufacturing is one hang-up in the city’s fashion development. There’s still a dearth of resources for younger companies facing growing demand for their small batches of products, but Van Tucker, founder of the Nashville Fashion Alliance, said the picture is improving.

“I wouldn’t say we have a full ecosystem here, but we’re building one,” Tucker said. “The biggest missing piece is reliable, high-quality manufacturing, but that’s not just a Nashville problem. There’s supply chain disruption — were moving from analogue to digital, and I think there are some pretty serious opportunities that [Nashville is] going to be able to focus on. We don’t have a lot invested in legacy systems…we have every opportunity to innovate.”

In terms of financial backing, Tucker said Nashville has been on the radar of mainly private investors for a while, noting that when a company or brand hits $5 million to $10 million in revenue, they tend to get an outside cash infusion.

Tucker added the NFA’s recent and audited economic impact study found Nashville has the largest number of fashion companies per capita in the U.S. outside of New York and Los Angeles. And private equity and venture capital investors are regularly there, sniffing around for growth prospects.

High-end women’s wear brands like Cavanagh Baker and online capsule-only line Goodwin are based in Nashville, as is clean beauty brand and retailer Lemon Laine, and Reese Witherspoon’s fashion venture Draper James chose the city as home to its first freestanding store last year.

The story of Nashville’s breach into the fashion industry — marked by ideas and energy mixed with a want of nearby, cost-effective production resources — is similar to several of the other up-and-coming cities on the fashion map. Montreal, Berlin, Copenhagen, Sydney and Seoul are on the rise as more and more creative types gravitate to them, and produce waves of brands and companies.

Newly public Stitch Fix, for example, didn’t start in, or even around, a traditional fashion capital, nor did any of its tech-forward peers, like Everlane, Warby Parker, Ssense and even Amazon. Instead, they hail from living rooms in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Montreal and Seattle — none of which evoke a notion of “fashion.”

Katrina Lake, Stitch Fix’s founder and ceo, said earlier this year that the willingness of consumers “to try new things and new technology is just mind-blowing,” adding that the future of shopping “is going to be based on recommendation” between consumers online.

“Clearly the Internet allows designers and brands to connect with their customers without having to rely on established retailers or media — they can own both for themselves,” Simon Collins, a former dean of Parsons and the founder of Fashion Culture Design Unconference, said. “It doesn’t make their products better, but it does remove potential roadblocks.”

When it comes to products, new brands coming from outside fashion’s traditional bubbles seem to be gravitating to a different structure on that front, too — focusing on small range or even a single product or design and waiting to expand until demand and opportunity converge.

“It’s sort of cyclical, but I see a shift in fashion generally in terms of what consumers are looking for,” Willersdorf of BCG said. “They want a level of excitement and newness and things that other people don’t have.”

She said brands that tend to break out to the next level of success, like Everlane, founded in 2010, or Canada Goose, founded in 1957, generally develop a deep local following with limited products and with that comes a certain amount of brand equity that can float them through the risk of a new category.

“When you see the success of some of these small brands (my mind goes to Canada Goose and Moncler), they are amazing stories, and it’s not the Michael Kors or the Tory Burch story,” Willersdorf noted. “They’re doubling down around a specific look or position.”

Canada Goose and Moncler are only two out of many examples of focused brands getting a big private equity boost or simply getting acquired outright. Icebreaker, for one, a performance wool apparel brand out of New Zealand in early November inked a deal to be absorbed by VF Corp. for an undisclosed sum. Skate-centric Supreme also recently gave about half of itself to Carlyle Group for $500 million.

Recent research by HSBC also suggested some focused brands founded in out-of-the-way places could be acquisition targets for multi-brand groups in the years to come. One is Shinola, a watch and leather goods brand started in Detroit in 2011, and another is MCM Worldwide, a Munich-based line of high-end monogrammed and studded leather goods.     

Not everyone sees outside investors trodding new ground first to back fresh or innovative brands.

Nicolas Topiol, chief executive officer of Christian Lacroix, said private investors “still do look mostly at more traditional cities” when searching for brands and companies to tuck their dollars into, and that most career opportunities in fashion are still concentrated in New York, Paris, London and Milan.

Nevertheless, Topoil singled out Montreal as an emerging force on the fashion front, with its “fantastic creative vibe” and a slew of companies born in the French-speaking city that have grown through outside investment. Accessories brand Want les Essentiels de la Vie, jacket line Mackage and handbag collection M0851 all started in Montreal in the last 15 years or so.

“[All] have been able to expand significantly outside of Montreal,” Topiol said. “Because of its ecosystem, I believe that we will see more fashion come out of it.”

Tom Nastos, president of global trade show producer UBM Fashion, agreed that Montreal, along with Nashville, Copenhagen, Seoul and Sydney, are cities becoming more important for fashion, mainly from the product development side.

“There’s talent everywhere, but we see these cities as really driving it,” Nastos said.

As for what’s drawing fashion-minded people to these cities, Nastos cited things like more affordable cost-of-living and production costs, but also pointed out that these cities have relatively new fashion design schools or expanded programs. He said this educational push is “creating a new dynamic in the global marketplace.”

For instance, the Scandinavian countries, which include Denmark and Sweden, together count a population roughly the same as Florida, and are home to about a dozen universities either with fashion design programs or solely dedicated to the fashion arts.

Availability of fashion education is also being led by historic fashion schools pushing into new markets. France’s École supérieure des arts et techniques de la mode, also known as ESMOD, has permanent campuses in Berlin and Seoul, and Parson’s The New School for Design counts campuses in Stockholm, Cologne and Melbourne.  

Outside of a surge in trade education — an area where traditional fashion capitals still top any list of the best schools — Nastos said the biggest driver of change in the industry is the rise of and accessibility created by technology over the last 15 years.

“It’s allowed talent to be recognized from everywhere and it levels the playing field,” Nastos said. “Someone in Copenhagen with skill and talent can really reach out to the rest of the world — there are really no barriers anymore.”

He went on to argue that, considering the boundless effect of the Internet and social media, the idea of a fashion capital is verging on antiquated, since the “where” of a brand or company has less and less influence on its success.   

“The fashion community just really loves talent and it always has,” Nastos said. “Without the traditional barriers, where it’s coming from will continue to expand.”

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