Could Atlanta be America’s next fashion capital?
The city has long been a business and cultural hub for the Southeastern U.S. given its airport and central location. Now, with Atlanta’s growing entertainment, business and technology scenes, fashion outsiders are jumping on the opportunity that locals and early adopters are helping to create.
“Atlanta is a gem,” said El Lewis, founder and designer of tech apparel brand O. Studio Design, which is based there. “It’s one of those places with so much history and legacy and when people come here, they want to tap into that but there isn’t a roadmap.”
Among the newer retailer arrivals are Wish ATL owner Lauren Amos and fashion and culture journalist Eugene Rabkin, who in May will relocate their new Atlanta concept store Ant/dote from its soft-opening location to an entirely redesigned building at 525 Bishop Street near Atlantic Station.
The founders and a few designers and curators in Atlanta see Ant/dote, pronounced “antidote,” as long overdue. The 1,200-square-foot temporary location at Little Five Points sports a dark, lush interior with a selection of brands like Mugler, Dries Van Noten, Rick Owens, Jil Sander, Paco Rabanne, Y/Project, multiple lines from Comme des Garçons and Issey Miyake, Hyke, and Boyy, among others, that are being represented by pieces available exclusively at Ant/dote.
The permanent store designed by Chris Benfield, who created North American shops for Dior, Balenciaga and Rick Owens, is a bright and sprawling two-floor, freestanding location with hand-poured terrazzo floors and indoor and outdoor landscaping in a neighborhood between Buckhead and Downtown Atlanta that Amos describes as an “up-and-coming area with more money, restaurants…good furniture stores,” and retail.
“Being a retailer for quite a long time, I’ve seen people evolve and become more curious,” she said. “People here are interested in making a statement with what they wear. I tried to sell designer fashion at Wish and people were not as familiar with the brands at the time and not willing to spend the money. But we’ve seen the change.”
According to the Ant/dote cofounders, Atlanta is on pace to become the sixth biggest American city by 2040. The city’s current reputation rests on its Southern hospitality, food and communal culture, as well as newer entertainment exports.
Atlanta has consistently produced top music acts in hip-hop and R&B; is home to championship-caliber sports teams, like the Atlanta Braves, which won the 2021 World Series, and is arguably overtaking New York City as Hollywood’s go-to East Coast location for filming blockbuster films and hit television shows like “Avengers: Endgame,” “The Walking Dead” and “Stranger Things” (the films and series are filmed throughout Georgia). Tyler Perry has opened a 330-acre production lot on the former Fort McPherson Army base.
The city is home to 29 Fortune 500 companies, including Home Depot, UPS, Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines, as well as fashion companies like shapewear and intimates company Spanx and men’s grooming and personal care brand Bevel. Nike this month revealed plans to open a technology center in the city in 2023 to expand its supply chain and logistics operation.
Many agree that the city’s economic standing is rising. The 2020 Census reported Atlanta’s median household income to be $64,179 with a population of over 6 million people, growing over 1 percent year-over-year.
Amos and Rabkin met in 2015 at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta during its solo exhibit for Dutch fashion designer Iris Van Herpen and instantly clicked on several fashion topics, from their favorite designers to not finding runway looks in stores. Amos took Rabkin down to Wish, where she realized that sneakers and high-end ready-to-wear had merged.
“She came to me and said I want to open a designer multibrand boutique in Atlanta and that the city is ready for that,” Rabkin said. “I was too happy to come on board. I thought it was an amazing opportunity.”
Atlanta hasn’t been regarded for its fashion as much as New York City and Los Angeles. But Ant/dote –– as well as retailers like A Ma Maniere and a slew of top brands at Phipps Plaza and Lenox Mall –– should raise the antennas of fashion players looking for new stores in cities that aren’t the usual suspects. A number of luxury brands are already eyeing cities like Atlanta, Memphis, Nashville, Austin and Naples, Fla. that were in the past considered second-tier locations in the U.S. This interest comes as the pandemic is fueling a wave of WFH workers moving from major cities with high costs of living and myriad problems like New York City, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco to lower-cost locales with more space and fewer issues.
But Ant/dote, while recognizing the gap in the Atlanta market, has bigger ambitions than just local customers. The design-driven store intends to be a landmark for global shoppers similar to A Ma Maniere, Totokaelo in Seattle, The Webster in Miami, Notre in Chicago, and Forty Five Ten in Dallas. Many of the aforementioned stores expanded to other cities. So far, the cofounders don’t have plans or aspirations to expand elsewhere, but its existence speaks to Atlanta having the demand for more fashion brands.
“Someone like Eugene comes to Atlanta and is blown away by the patrons and kids in their hottest items,” Amos added. “If he’s seeing it in Atlanta then something is happening.”
A number of fashion designers that built viable businesses were born, raised or studied in Atlanta or nearby, like Carolina Herrera creative director Wes Gordon, who was raised in Atlanta; Emily Adams Bode and Bstroy duo Brick Owens and Dieter Grams, who were all born and raised in Atlanta, and Haitian-American designer Azéde Jean-Pierre, who studied in Georgia at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Their fashion paths led them all to New York City, as it has for many talents across the world, but a growing crop of talents from Atlanta are staying and growing with the city that has expanded right before their eyes.
There are designers Cedric Brown, also from Atlanta who studied at SCAD; Megan Huntz, who runs a boutique in Morningside Village, and Suakoko Betty founder Charlene Dunbar, who was born in Liberia and moved to Atlanta at 11 years old.
Brands like Lucid FC, Whensmokeclears, O. Studio Design and accessories label Homage Year operate primarily out of Atlanta, while consignment shops Yuri’s Market and No Signal provide high-fashion designs that aren’t commonly found in the city but find their way to it through e-commerce.
There are an increasing number of reasons to stay in Atlanta or relocate there.
Local fashion designers and entrepreneurs have seen opportunity in Atlanta for years because of the pace, the price to square footage of property, and the access to global companies and entertainment, but most importantly for being a haven for creatives seeking community at a lower cost than, say, Brooklyn, where the median rent is over 1.5 times the median rent in Atlanta for two-thirds of the square footage. Ant/dote may be a sign of the fashion industry catching up to what Atlanta has to offer and local consumers’ growing demand for high fashion.
Lewis of O Studio Design moved to New York City to start his fashion career as a stylist, but moved back to his native city to start his tech-driven knitwear brand, realizing that he has everything he needs in terms of family, space, time and its growing tech industry, which has been regarded by the press as “the next Silicon Valley.” O Studio Design is currently available in 10 stores, including Nordstrom and Nordstrom Canada, and is interested in selling at Ant/dote.
“If I come back, I can partner with these [design] talents from Georgia Tech,” he said. “Everything was aligning.”
In addition to Georgia Tech, Atlanta is home to HBCU schools such as Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College and Morehouse College, the latter two of which recently did capsule collections with Ralph Lauren. Then, of course, there is the nearby Savannah College of Design, long an incubator for fashion talent.
When asked about opportunities for young talents, Lewis said, “I think sometimes people don’t think on a macro level. If you’re a designer looking for art grants you’re looking for a grant for fashion design. I got a photography grant by submitting my styling work under imagemaking.”
The photography grant allowed Lewis to present photography at Mint Gallery in an exhibit called “El Lewis: Voyage to ATLantis” that told a bigger story about science fiction.
Lewis said Atlanta has a big mall culture with most shopping at Phipps Plaza and Lenox Mall. Balenciaga recently opened at Phipps Plaza.
The top global luxury fashion brands are well represented in Atlanta’s malls, but shoppers seeking more obscure brands and vintage finds look to consignment shops like No Signal and Yuri’s Market.
“People in Atlanta didn’t really grasp [archival fashion] in 2017,” Yuri Carter said about her business, Yuri’s Market. “It wasn’t really popular here and recently because of the overwhelming pop-ups of different archive Instagrams it’s so popular here. It’s hard to keep things in stock.” She added that The RealReal opened in the city, which she saw as a big deal for the smaller businesses.
Yuri’s Market is an archive vintage showroom on Castleberry Hill that first operated online for five years. Owner Yuri Carter moved to Atlanta from Chicago and worked in corporate consignment before starting her own business.
Growing up in Chicago, her mom would buy pieces on eBay for Carter, but seeing consignment shops on her way to school piqued her interest in luxury fashion and high-end design from Louis Vuitton, Celine and Marc Jacobs.
Yuri’s Market was recently the topic of a viral social media discourse involving Anna Sui, because the brand wanted to reacquire a dress from 1998 for its archives that Carter’s business partner Ashley Narcisse had sold. Many took to Twitter to say the new owner should give the dress back, sell the dress and negotiate access to runway shows, or keep the dress. Carter confirmed that her partner will not be selling the dress.
“We knew that when she got the dress it would go viral and it would help us to promote Garment Arsenal, [my sourcing agency with Ashley Narcisse], but I didn’t know it was going to be this big conversation,” said Carter.
Carter continued about the fashion scene in Atlanta, “The brands were already here, but I don’t think the consumer in Atlanta was ready. But they’re catching up. I remember when they opened a Helmut Lang at the Buckhead Shops and it didn’t last. The city wasn’t ready yet. But now you see a lot of Helmut Lang and Rick Owens here. I feel if they would reopen here it would do well.”
She sees Atlanta as a hub for many Southern U.S. cities in the Carolinas and Tennessee because of the fashion available in the city, and the indie music scene and growing number of art galleries, though Whensmokeclears creative director Thermal Taveras believes the city still has work to do for young people.
“There are not a lot of galleries,” Taveras said. “The only fine art destination in Atlanta I’m comfortable with is the High Museum.”
After the High Museum of Art held the Iris Van Herpen exhibit, it hosted the “Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech” exhibit in late 2019. The late designer teamed with Bstroy on exclusive products for the exhibit as well.
“There aren’t a lot of places for people to link and hang out,” he added, but he said that is changing with places like virtual reality bar Revery, which he described as one of the other spaces for art students to hang out. Taveras also throws events called WSC After Dark, a private lounge for young creatives to meet and talk.
“I feel like people don’t realize how big this country is,” Taveras said. “I pitched to a brand that we need to up our nationalism. If you’re in a major city you live in a bubble.”
Bronx-born Taveras began his career in film and formed a production company with a partner from Atlanta. They launched a merchandise component to their business and began with accessories in 2016, and later added ready-to-wear and footwear. Whensmokeclears is available in five countries and over 20 stores, including Holt Renfrew.
“We have a big warehouse and factory,” he said about moving to Atlanta. “It turned into a mini fashion school. New York City is faster in that you can pump out a necklace in a day while in Atlanta it’ll take three to four days. But I think it was something we needed because New Yorkers don’t appreciate slower-paced things. I feel way more balanced adjusting to the Southern pace.”
Taveras also emphasized the community building in the city. He said his connection with his screen printer and embroiderer are more intimate and hospitable, and there is greater potential to connect with celebrities in Atlanta.
“Young Thug is the last celebrity we met among the bigger names,” he said. “We had invited him to our pop-up and he showed up and interacted with all of our fans and it’s something I hadn’t seen in New York City before.”
Lucid FC, founded by twin brothers Chet and Betts DeHart based in Atlanta and London, in April held a runway show in their home city for their latest collection, as did designer Jason Harvey, stepson of comedian and entertainer Steve Harvey, with designer John Byrd-Olivieri at Magic City. CFDA President CaSandra Diggs was in attendance.
“This is our first runway show since spring/summer 2021,” Betts said before the show. “It feels right to do our show here as not many people present a show here. A lot of guests haven’t been to a fashion show. It’s the first time to have something of this scale.”
The duo launched their brand in 2012 after building a following on YouTube reviewing new styles by Polo Ralph Lauren and Jordan. Their income funded their first collection. Chet went to Central Saint Martins to study pattern making and trend forecasting and continues to work in London, but the business operates primarily out of Atlanta.
They launched a sister label, Lucid Dreams, during lockdown to sell more pieces at a lower price point. Currently, Lucid FC is available in North America, Europe and Asia and Lucid Dreams is online and at Urban Outfitters.
“In 2019 we made $25,000 on our site, and this year we make that in a month,” Betts said. “We’ve seen 500 percent year-over-year growth from 2019 to 2021.”
Their latest collection, called “Pain and Pleasure,” explores the joy and sadness of pain. They teamed with Atlanta tattoo artist Will Staples and About 3 Megawatts on the upcycled graphic collection inspired by tattoos.
“There is a lot of support in Atlanta,” the twins said. “You get support from your friends and then the whole city knows about you. It’s a unique city where people really support each other like no other city. There is so much in music and hospitality and in the past seven years there have been more films. Microsoft and Google are moving their employees here now.”
Walker and Company founder Tristan Walker moved to Atlanta in 2019 from the U.S. tech capital Palo Alto to operate men’s grooming brand Bevel after he sold the brand to Proctor & Gamble.
“I didn’t know what the results of that decision would be and I’m here to stay,” said Walker, who also saw similarities between Silicon Valley’s rapid growth and Atlanta’s renaissance.
“When you think about business, which for the last decade has been technology led, but here [going] forward for the next 20 to 40 years, business will be culture led. Folks want to align themselves with brands that get it. Atlanta’s influence on the narrative has always been here,” he said. “I’ve seen a bit of this before when I went to Silicon Valley in 2008. It predated Airbnb and Uber, but cranes were moving in. Once I moved to Atlanta I saw the same thing, but the only difference is it’s happening here in every industry.”
Jasmin Foster, founder of Be Rooted, one of Time 100’s Most Influential Companies of the Year, shared a similar sentiment about operating her business in the city.
“Being based in Atlanta allows me to have a strong cultural pull, but also have a deep network of Black entrepreneurs. It’s really been booming.”
She also mentioned Young King Hair Care, the natural hair care line for multicultural boys, and Range Beauty as two brands led by inspiring entrepreneurs. Both companies were featured on “Shark Tank.”
“One thing that is important to me is to work with as many Black-owned businesses as possible,” Foster said. “I’m seeing more Black brands start and thrive and also have Atlanta’s backing and support as well. I believe the best thing in Atlanta is we are not a monolith. There isn’t a single sector of business out there where Black entrepreneurs aren’t killing it in this space. Communities of color are not just untapped in the U.S. It’s also globally.”
The local activity also attracted Atlanta native and CultureCon founder Imani Ellis to return to her home city to kick off the culture and community conference’s three-city tour. CultureCon will be held from May 2 through 7 before heading to Los Angeles in June and New York City in October.
“We learned a lot about CultureCon at Home,” Ellis said about the virtual campus that CultureCon hosted during lockdown. “Though CultureCon was born in New York City, it was born in Atlanta because that’s my background. I came to New York City saying, ‘yes ma’am.’ We saw a ton of people tune in from Atlanta and across the world, but this is such a homecoming for our team and myself.”
Past CultureCon events were held in New York City and featured guests like the Pyer Moss team in 2019 to discuss the power of collaboration, as well as conversations about marketing yourself, business and mental health. The Atlanta edition will be hosted by Kat Graham and Olori Swank and will include activations from major partners such as HBO Max, LinkedIn, Wieden + Kennedy, Netflix, Instagram, Audible, Twitter, TikTok, and Soho House, among others.
When asked about this year’s sponsors, Ellis said, “I think it’s the investment in the future of creativity. It’s an indicator of where a lot of the talent is in Atlanta.”