Dupioni silk and chambray cotton may be soft enough, but as local clothing designers Katherine McDonald and Lindsey Carter will tell you, the business of fashion is harsh. It’s a ruthless world ruled by trends that shift faster than sand on Folly Beach and profit margins as slim as ultra-skinny jeans. Even so, a cohort of emerging designers and industry veterans alike is making a go of it, here in Charleston, far from Paris runways and New York’s garment district.
From the heart of King Street to Upper Meeting, they are stitching together dreams, launching labels and accessory lines, opening storefronts, altering their expectations and business plans, and learning the ropes and threads of this fickle industry, which, as late designer Alexander McQueen noted, has been turned inside-out in our Internet and social media age. “It’s a new era in fashion,” McQueen proclaimed in 2010. “There are no rules.”
Given fashion’s unruly new frontier, a growing creative class in Charleston, and an emerging Southern vogue that’s venturing beyond seersucker and bow ties, the Lowcountry’s style and garment makers may finally be poised to make both a fashion statement—and a profit. “Fashion and a rich variety of retail options are among the top five things that make Charleston an appealing destination,” says Charleston Convention and Visitor Bureau director Helen Hill. “People love exploring King Street and discovering designers and styles and stores they’ve never seen before—that delicate balance of familiar national chains and one-of-a-kind boutiques is part of the fabric that makes us unique.”
According to Hill, over the last nine years, the runways of Charleston Fashion Week (CFW, which is owned by the publishers of Charleston magazine; see page 168) have helped launch a more robust local fashion community, allowing young talent to take flight, at least initially. “Fashion Week spotlights people doing something special here,” she says, including drawing media attention to hometown designers. Fern Mallis, the former executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America and creator of New York Fashion Week, who has consulted with CFW since 2011, agrees. “Do people in New York pay attention to CFW? Well, I’m one of the folks in New York, and I pay attention to it,” Mallis says.
“These regional fashion weeks do bring attention to various cities and generate dollars and broaden perspectives,” she adds. “They are a terrific opportunity for young designers to express themselves and put their collections on a runway. It celebrates regional talent, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Not All Glam
In 2009, Lindsey Carter was one of those emerging designers debuting on a CFW runway. Today, she’s in her airy office/showroom/workroom at 1630 Meeting Street, the headquarters of her women’s clothing line, TROUBADOUR, with scissors in hand. She’s got to cut 7,000 six-inch pieces of string in time for the FedEx pickup, so Anthropologie will have hang tags for the biggest order she’s received in her label’s five-year history.
“As you can see, it’s not always glamorous,” says Carter, a North Carolina native and graduate of UNC Chapel Hill and New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, who launched TROUBADOUR in Charleston five years ago after stints designing for J.Crew and Madewell. Since that 2009 CFW Emerging Designer show, Carter has been fine-tuning her line of bold prints-meet-Audrey-Hepburn-glam apparel, with sales growing each season. “I had this romanticized vision of what having my own label would be like, and here I am cutting thousands of pieces of string. You do what you have to do,” she adds.
Though tedious, cutting 7,000 pieces of string means Carter landed a 7,000-piece order—no small feat. Her prior big break was getting picked up by Neiman Marcus. It took four years of cutting her teeth (and string) to land the Anthropologie deal, a process, she says, that entailed “really zeroing in on my aesthetic,” finding the right showroom to fit her brand and represent it well, and then assuring buyers that she’d be able to produce season after season.
And for the then-fledgling designer, the Holy City was the perfect place to do just that. “For the South, in terms of fashion weeks and that inherent energy, there’s definitely more fashion going on here than in Charlotte or even Atlanta. I think that’s largely because CFW has brought light to it and Charleston is drawing more creative entrepreneurs,” says Carter, who landed here because of her husband’s family business and launched TROUBADOUR’s first collection in the spring of 2010, getting a nod from Women’s Wear Daily as a “designer to watch.”
“Charleston definitely influences my designs. I’m a Southern designer, and TROUBADOUR is ‘coastal quirky,’ classic silhouettes with fun prints,” she says. But Carter also adds that she couldn’t have gotten the traction she’s now finally getting, including her first Rent the Runway order, without being represented by a New York showroom. “I love being headquartered in Charleston, but sadly there is no production being done here. And it’s the New York showroom that’s getting my designs in front of buyers. If there was no electronic communication, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do from Charleston,” she says.
Carter’s friend and fashion colleague Katherine McDonald of the bridal lines LulaKate (bridesmaid dresses) and Kate McDonald Bridal (gowns) has found similar success, and limitations, in establishing her business here. McDonald, a native of Charlotte, moved to Charleston in 2002 and in 2003 launched LulaKate as a ready-to-wear line of women’s dresses and bridesmaid frocks from her King Street showroom. She transitioned the brand solely to bridal in 2008, when the economic downturn impacted the ready-to-wear market, less so the bridal. Her startup capital included a $5,000 loan from her father (since paid back), a home equity loan, and a credit card. “Not a traditional route, or one I’d recommend,” she says.
Opening a street-level storefront on King about four years in (she’d established a second-floor retail space after her first year-and-a-half), was her smart move, McDonald notes. “The timing was right—it was before the economy turned and right when people were really starting to discover Charleston.” Her aesthetic struck a chord: LulaKate is fresh but classic, timeless-not-trendy, a look both inspired by and reflective of its hometown’s graceful surroundings. “Charleston definitely helps position my product on a consumer level—the charm of the city sells it as much as my design does,” McDonald says. “Especially with bridal, people love that it’s from this romantic city with lots of history.”
With a retail presence in some 60 bridal boutiques across the country, LulaKate and now Kate McDonald Bridal, which launched with her most recent bridal collection, are steady players in the couture bridal market. McDonald’s King Street showroom (now back on the second floor, “better space, lower rent”) serves as company headquarters and a place where clients can see and feel fabrics and even get a custom design.
Like Carter, McDonald outsources most of her production, using factories in New York and Tennessee for her bridal cutting and sewing. Her Charleston cutting room at the Navy Yard, however, does all the bridesmaid dresses, which then go to New York for sewing. “There’s simply not the manufacturing base here,” says McDonald, who finds her labor resources by trial and error, including numerous site visits and colleague/competitor referrals. “That’s the biggest hindrance, I think, to Charleston becoming a real player in the fashion industry. The major garment cities [New York and Los Angeles] have large pools of skilled sewers.”
Heather Koonse Johnson knows about the shortage of skilled sewing labor here. For nine years, she stayed busy as a freelance seamstress and pattern drafter in the area. When local designers (including Carter, McDonald, and Rachel Gordon of One Love, among others), needed a sample mocked up or a technical issue resolved to achieve an effect they envisioned, Johnson was their go-to. “I was at capacity,” she says, and so three years ago she founded the Charleston Garment Manufactory.
“My vision was to try to build a local infrastructure, with sewing rooms, studio space, and seamstresses, to be a resource for nurturing ideas, cultivating sewing skills, and helping designers develop their product to the point where they could see if it worked or not,” says Johnson, who has been sewing since age five and is trained as a technical designer.
“I believe there’s a paradigm shift going on in the fashion industry,” Johnson adds. “A move toward mass customization rather than mass production, a community of designers thinking a different way. And there’s a need for these collectives that can work on a smaller scale and create product that is thoughtfully made.” But unfortunately, there wasn’t yet enough support, in terms of skilled seamstresses and financial backing, for Johnson’s vision to fly. The Charleston Garment Manufactory packed up its needles and thread last year.
Fast Fashion’s Anti-Crusader
Perhaps no one in Charleston knows the fashion business’s brutal vicissitudes as well as industry veteran George Ackerman. Back in the early 1970s, Ackerman was a collegiate golfer not quite good enough to go pro, so he took a sales job at J. W. Robinson’s Department Store in California. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I’d always loved clothes,” says Ackerman, who quickly realized that upward mobility in apparel was in wholesale and administration, not on the retail floor. He sought an internship with the venerable C. F. Hathaway shirt company in Waterville, Maine, where he began studying the business from the seam up.
“I learned how to make a single-needle seam, how to create a pattern and properly bow and drape a shirt. At the end, I had to wear this shirt I had made with my own two hands before the company president,” he recalls. “If the shirt passed muster, you got a job offer.” He did.
In 2004, Ackerman retired from a storied apparel career in New York, where he worked alongside many noted names in fashion. (From fashion, he moved to furniture and served as president of Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams until 2012). His career trajectory—from trainee to traveling salesman to eventually spending 10 years as president and co-founder of Chaps by Ralph Lauren, then becoming president of several Donna Karan lines, including DKNY jeans, and president of many Calvin Klein labels—is decidedly old school. “No one gets that kind of deep-seeded background any more,” and that can be detrimental to understanding what it takes to succeed in the apparel business, believes Ackerman, who bought a home in Charleston in 2006 and moved here full-time two years ago.
Today, he’s back to square one, launching a line of handcrafted artisanal leather goods called 79 Ashley. The brand (also his address: “I want it to connect with a real person, a real place—a brand that doesn’t just live in some office somewhere,” he notes) features wallets, belts, and bags made from exquisite vachetta leather—the same leather from which Roman sandals were made. “It’s subtle, smells great, is completely organic, and is made by only a few families in Italy who dye and rub the hides in a centuries-old process,” he explains. “On my first trip to Europe, I fell in love with it, and I’ve been addicted to it ever since.”
The timeworn leather, together with the modern-yet-classic forms of his products, speaks to Ackerman’s affinity for the refined over the mass-produced, the enduring rather than the cheap and disposable. “I like things that don’t go out of style. I’m on a one-man campaign against ‘fast fashion,’” he says, referring to big-box retailers offering inexpensive trendy clothes. And for that reason, he’s intentionally starting small and slow with 79 Ashley, offering a limited number of goods, which he designs in Charleston; has handmade in Massachusetts; and sells online only, though he may eventually open a small local storefront.
Success in the industry boils down to one thing, says Ackerman: “Great product always wins.” But, he’s quick to add, “There’s a certain skill set and unique talent to creating a really great product.” First and foremost, he notes, “You’ve got to have something to say. To know what you’re bringing to the table that’s different from everyone else—a wow factor.” For 79 Ashley, Ackerman landed on the concept of “generational leather”—fine leather goods that grow more beautiful with age, “a briefcase that your son or grandson will want to use after you, because it’s still stylish and beautiful and is imprinted by your hands.”
But a killer concept and compelling story aren’t enough, Ackerman acknowledges. Passion, knowledge, confidence, willingness to take a risk, and of course, funding are also required. “It’s a gargantuan effort to do it right these days. There are so many potential wrong turns to take and so much capital required,” Ackerman warns. “But I’m not pessimistic. At the end of the day, a great product with a great story always stands out, and I think Charleston’s beauty and its history inspire that. I’m optimistic because there’s a strong entrepreneurial spirit here. People are willing to take hits, to give it a try.”
Authentic & True
Though she’s one of the newest designer-entrepreneurs on Charleston’s fashion scene, Susan Hull Walker knows exactly what she and her line, ibu—an Indonesian word meaning “woman of respect” (pronounced “e-bu”)—have to say. “I want clothes that make me feel substantial yet still vibrant and zesty,” Walker notes. “Ibu tells a story, a global women’s story. We offer clothes that carry a sense of authority and artfulness and are flattering and fun to wear. These designs, created from artisan cloth handmade by women around the world, communicate that a woman has presence, that she is a force to be reckoned with.”
Unlike Carter or McDonald, Walker never envisioned herself as a clothing designer or a King Street retailer (ibu’s second-floor showroom is slated to open in early March). Formerly an ordained minister—a woman of another cloth—Walker left the ministry and increasingly found herself drawn to the more tangible “text” woven by women around the world into textiles. What began with travels to meet and learn from these artisans grew into a desire to help them find more sustainable, profitable markets for their wares. That desire, combined with Walker’s personal quest for clothes that spoke to her, birthed ibu. For Walker and her team, ibu represents a “movement—a worldwide web of women rising into self-created lives.” It’s about social change over and above a change of clothes.
“I start with the artisans’ textile skills, their particular strengths and then try to suggest ways to translate those to this market,” says Walker, who views herself “more as a presenter and a communicator than a designer,” though she and ibu seamstress Jamie Buskey design the line’s signature vests, jackets, and dresses. “For example, we found this beautiful Chiapas brocade and learned how to isolate it and put it against lots of white, so it’s fresh, clean, and modern,” she says. “But I don’t change the artisans’ techniques at all. That is their cultural language, which I want to help them preserve.”
Though Walker launched ibu on an intimate scale through trunk shows in her home and at friends’ residences in Chicago, New York, and Santa Fe, as well as online, she’s taking the brick-and-mortar leap to capitalize on Charleston’s tourist market. “In order to give my artisans the volume they need, I needed new eyes on the product. Charleston’s five million annual visitors are why we’re opening a showroom,” she says.
For Walker, as for Carter, McDonald, and Ackerman, setting up shop, or sewing machine, in Charleston isn’t about trying to make it a regional fashion hub, or competing with New York. “Charleston does not need to be like New York or Milan, nor does the world need another fashion capital,” suggests Walker. “But do we offer something unique? I think so. If it grows out of our culture, out of our history and identity, then yes, I believe Charleston can be a creative epicenter of things that are well-made, handmade, responsibly made, and ‘of this place.’”