NEW YORK — After an eight-year run at the New York City Economic Development Corporation, Eric Johnson will soon be returning to his hometown as executive director of the Saint Louis Fashion Incubator.
Newly established by the Saint Louis Fashion Fund, the center is expected to open later this year downtown on Washington Avenue, which was once the heart of the city’s garment district. The Princeton graduate will finish his stint as the NYCEDC’s vice president for fashion and arts this week. Johnson said Monday that his successor has not yet been named, but “we are currently working on that.”
Building on the skill set he has developed through the NYCEDC, as well as his numerous New York fashion and apparel connections, Johnson said, “The ability to not only increase the profile of the city, and to increase the elements of fashion, design and culture was really appealing. If it had been in another city, it probably would not have been as attractive to me.”
Established two years ago, the Saint Louis Fashion Fund is a nonprofit that supports emerging designers and promotes fashion education and outreach. As of February 1, Johnson will be recruiting designers in residence for the fashion incubator program, working closely with Washington University in St. Louis and an advisory board of industry professionals on programming, outreach and education programs for the community at large.
The unemployment rate in St. Louis is currently 5.8 percent, according to a spokeswoman for the St. Louis Federal Reserve. Slightly more than half of the city’s businesses expect the local economic conditions to improve this year, according to a survey conducted in November. But Johnson noted certain sectors are thriving, singling out T-Rex, a 160,000-square-foot downtown venue that houses 110 start-ups. Aiming to bolster the regional economy, T-Rex is geared for new companies that advance technological development, encourage creative thinking through design and employ highly skilled workers. In addition, Cultivation Capital, Capital Innovators, SixThirty FinTech Accelerator, Billiken Angel Network, Biogenerator, and Nidus Partners are a few of the many organizations that have been instrumental in recent start-ups, Johnson said.
City of St. Louis Mayor Francis G. Slay said, “Eric’s connections to the fashion industry will be invaluable as we begin to build back a fashion ecosystem in downtown St. Louis. His work with Saint Louis Fashion Fund will help our City continue to grow as an innovation hub, as we attract and retain creators and companies we never saw before.”
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., according to a spokeswoman for the Missouri History Museum. Noting major employers like Kellwood and Caleres, and fellow St. Louis natives Karlie Kloss, Bravo’s Andy Cohen and Timo Weiland, Johnson said he is eager to help redefine the city’s fashion sector. Last fall, Houghton’s Katharine Polk, the 2015 winner of the Caleres Emerging Designer Award presented by Saint Louis Fashion Fund, showed her collection in the city.
Bringing designers to St. Louis and having designers represent the city in the long-run will be two priorities once he establishes statistics for the current size and scope of the city’s industry. Pointing to Portland, Ore., and Antwerp, Belgium, Johnson said they are secondary cities that are “punching above their weight” in regards to their respective creative communities.
Established in 2006, Saint Louis Fashion Week has gained in prominence in recent years, Johnson said, “I want to make sure that I go on record saying that while I’ll be based in St. Louis, this is not a good-bye to New York. I think part of the reason I was hired, not to overplay it, is that I do have strong ties to the industry here. I look forward to leveraging partnership opportunities,” he said.
But soon he will be focused on securing a place to live in St. Louis, which has become more challenging due to the recent floods. “Unlike New York where there are so many different options — Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn…there are fewer neighborhoods in St. Louis that make sense as a young professional to live. After the epic rainstorm over Christmas in St. Louis, it was difficult to see a lot of places,” he said. “My folks live there. If worse comes to worst, I can crash with them for a month.”