St. Louis is working to revive its fashion industry.

In what potentially could be a prototype for other cities to adopt, the Saint Louis Fashion Incubator is now accepting applicants with the hope of revitalizing what was once a healthy fashion epicenter.

Leading the initiative is Eric Johnson, who returned to his hometown after eight years with the New York City Economic Development Corporation, most recently as vice president for fashion and arts. Designers looking to embark on the two-year program can now apply online through July 14. The 10 finalists who are shortlisted in late August will be invited to visit St. Louis and tour the 7,500-square-foot incubator where six of them will be based once the selection panel has the final say. The Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Lisa Smilor, Timo Weiland, Fern Mallis and Gary Wassner will be among those sizing up the talent.

Reached Tuesday during what he described as “a genuine fact-finding mission” in Detroit, where he was visiting Detroit Denim, Shinola and local designers, Johnson said he also plans to visit cities like Chicago and Dallas to help spread the word about the Saint Louis Fashion Incubator as part of a nationwide search. No longer tied to a 400-person team, as was the case at the NYCEDC, Johnson said his new role mirrors the start-ups he is trying to help. “We need to have all the energy of a new business. Our mentality is as scrappy as a start-up. We need to be plucky and resilient,” he said.

The St. Louis Fashion Incubator is a nonprofit that is halfway through a $2 million fundraising effort, financed by corporate, private and civic supporters, Johnson said. The investment company Edward Jones recently kicked in $100,000. The Saint Louis Fashion Incubator is an offshoot of the two-year-old Saint Louis Fashion Fund, started by Susan Sherman, a supporter of the Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis.

Once the incubator winners are revealed in October, the women’s and men’s ready-to-wear and accessories designers will have a few months to relocate to Saint Louis before the January start of their program. With one-bedroom apartments going for $855, the city’s “built-in affordability” offers applicants “a compelling value proposition,” Johnson said. In the 1920s the city’s garment district stretched 10 blocks and by the 1930s and 1940s, it was one of the largest needle trade centers in the U.S. There are still a few factories in operation. Designed by Arcturis, the 7,500-square-foot downtown incubator space will house design studios, an area for light manufacturing and sample making, and an area for retail.

If the incubator evolves as he imagines it will, participants will host trunk shows in places like Kansas City and Nashville.

Cameron Silver and other fashion resources are being recruited to be part of an advisory council. Johnson and his team will also work with Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, and its business school.

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