Tampa Bay Fashion Week Weaves Together Business, Technology And The Arts

The seventh annual Tampa Bay Fashion Week, complete with star-power designers and innovative runway technology continues to raise the profile of the region’s fashion industry. 

This year, the main event – the runway fashion show - will kick off the celebration on Wednesday, Sept. 17, showcasing 10 designers’ never-before-seen works. The line up is a balance of emerging designers and those with some Hollywood name recognition, such as Rhonda Shear of St. Petersburg, and Crystal Heffner and Kato Kaelin of Los Angeles.  

“Those who are really paying attention to fashion, realize it’s a journey,” says Tampa Bay Fashion Week’s Founder Nancy Vaughn. “You may not know them now, but we are highlighting designers, connecting them to boutiques, leveraging talent in our community. Either you support the talent that’s here or it’s guaranteed to go away.” 

“The Seven Year Stitch” theme this year, reflecting the show’s 7th year, is taking the best practices and lessons learned from previous years, rolling out an official series of core events, with many area businesses and museums adding their own with a coinciding schedule.  

A Fashion Democracy

New this year are a couple of innovative ways to bring all of Tampa into the fold.

Taking a page from Tim Gunn, private one-on-one fashion advice will be available to novices and fashionistas alike, free of charge September 12-20th at International Plaza. Guests can sign up through Fashion Week’s website with renown stylists Tasha Ong, who moved to Tampa from New York; Valerie Romas of Tampa and Jackie Walker, a Chicago transplant to Tampa Bay, to learn what fashion staples suit their lifestyle and body type. 

“This is so relevant to everyone – and anyone can go!” says Vaughn.  

Another nuance: a true fashion innovation is launching in Tampa, second only to New York and L.A.’s Fashion Weeks. Vaughn has partnered with Luevo, a new fashion technology that allows customers to pre-order right off the runway. Once the designs debut on the runway, even those not able to attend the show can view and order the items.

This is a big deal for those in the fashion know, and potentially a boon to emerging designers as well. Until now, typically customers would only have access to the designs they see on the runway if the designer gets picked up by retail buyers or boutiques, which rollout with a lag time of 6-8 months.  

“The greatest challenge for an emerging designer is to prove themselves to buyers and go to retail,” says CEO Ana Caracaleanu, Luevo’s model-turned-entrepreneur cofounder. As for the consumer, “it is very hard to find unique, quality and locally made products, as they are not found in your typical store.” 

With the Luevo platform, for the first time, customers can pre-order, and designers can ship directly to them, skipping the middlemen. Luevo’s designers agree to a 3-month maximum turn around, so the products expedite much sooner than standard. “All of the Tampa Bay Fashion Week designers will ship before Christmas!” she notes, of the designers participating on the platform. 

Luevo benefits designers beyond the immediate sales. Designers learn quickly what resonates with customers and glean their own data dashboards through the platform which they can in turn, use as a market validation tool.

Fashion’s Cascading Economics

For the un-initiated, designer Rhonda Shear, who has shown in the Tampa Bay Fashion Week since its start, is a shining example of fashion and business success in the local region. A former Hollywood actress whose global business is run out of St. Petersburg, is famous for her “Ahh Bra” which has sold more than 35 million to date. Her enterprise, consisting mainly of lingerie and loungewear, enjoyed annual sales of $72 million in 2012. The Home Shopping Network (HSN), also headquartered in St. Pete and a major seller for Shear, posted $3.4 billion in sales last year, much of which is merchandise related to fashion.  

Yes, this is big business.

But key to a fashion market’s success are the smaller pieces. A critical mass of boutiques, for example, allow for a true appreciation of fashion to flourish. Shoppers want unique pieces and creativity, says Shear, who applauds the growing local boutique culture. “The fashion market here reminds me of ‘early Melrose’ when young designers started setting up boutiques along Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles,” she says.

Also necessary to cultivating the market, is a designer’s ability to produce apparel in different sizes and ideally in small quantities, when marketing to boutiques. This can be a major stumbling block for newcomers, requiring financial heft as manufacturers have minimum orders starting at 1,000 or much more. Shear, for example, orders in quantities of 100,000. Tampa Bay’s fashion market is becoming strong enough to support new businesses that can fill this niche. 

Enter Victory Stitch. This up-and-coming apparel production manufacturer located in Oldsmar in Pinellas County, has no minimum run. That means a fledgling designer can take their sketch to Victory Stitch and access everything from pro-typing to patterning to small runs without the exorbitant financial and quantity demands.

“We are trying to take the designer to the next level,” says Nya Tanaka founder and CEO of Victory Stitch.  “We have no minimum and we’re flexible. We’ll do just one – we’ll even drop ship it.”

Tanaka started the business in 2012 and says she is amazed that the business is “growing so fast.” She offers her services nationwide but has been impressed by the number of local customers that come to her door. Victory Stitch is a sponsor of Fashion Week this year.

All of the pieces come together at Fashion Week – the boutiques, the sponsors, buyers, media and, of course, original fashion. Shear says Fashion Week is “vitally important” for designers. Her advice to new designers: “Make your buzz locally.”

Leveraging Talent

Tampa Bay Fashion Week started after Vaughn attended a Diversity Research Institute seminar in Washington in 2007. “The message was: use your talents and skills to help other people. When you teach that philosophy, in turn, it uplifts and helps others do the same,” recalls Vaughn. Mulling this over, Vaughn, owner of the White Book Agency, a Tampa public relations and marketing firm, and already well-versed in the fashion world, says she realized Tampa didn’t have a Fashion Week. She said quietly to herself, “I’m going to start one!”

She pulled together friends and colleagues with their own diverse talents and skills, and after a full year of research and planning, she and three friends launched Tampa’s first official Fashion Week in 2008. She says the event’s success is growing not just in terms of attendance (which has doubled since its inception) but also in terms of the caliber of partners and designers they are attracting. 

Shear, who could have her pick of runways, is a strong supporter of Tampa Bay’s Fashion Week. “I love to see my stuff on stage, like anyone else and we like doing it locally.  There is amazing talent here. It’s not just a little style show, it really feels big time. We are proud to be part of it.” 

Kendra Langlie, based in Tampa, is a freelance writer, communications consultant and lover of arts and culture. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Kendra Langlie.

Kendra Langlie is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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