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Economy & Business

New fashion director in St. Louis looks to lead industry revival

St. Louis Fashion Incubator Executive Director Eric Johnson is a John Burroughs High School graduate with experience as the leader of New York City's fashion and arts initiative.
File Photo | St. Louis Fashion Incubator
Eric Johnson is the first executive director of the St. Louis Fashion Incubator

The once-bustling St. Louis fashion industry could be poised for a rebound and a native with some big-time economic development experience is playing a key role.

Eric Johnson is the first executive director of the St. Louis Fashion Incubator. He is back home after spending several years as an economic development official in New York City, including serving as head of the city’s fashion and arts initiative.

The John Burroughs High School graduate oversaw more than a dozen fashion-related programs and was responsible for several high-profile projects in New York, including a $6 million public-private partnership to support fashion manufacturing.

Johnson started with the St. Louis Fashion Incubator Feb. 1 with the aim of reviving a sector with a rich history in the region.

The St. Louis Fashion Fund, which oversees the new incubator, says by 1920 Washington Avenue had more shoe manufacturers than any other street in the world and was known as, “Shoe Street, USA.”

It also says overall sales volume for the St. Louis-based garment industry totaled more than $85 million in 1950.

With that history in mind, Johnson recently spoke to St. Louis Public Radio about his hope to be at the forefront of a fashion industry revival in the city.

On his New York experience

Johnson says his group was part of the mayor's office of economic development and came up with ideas to support New York's massive fashion industry. He says the city is home to 200,000 industry workers  and more than 900 fashion company headquarters. His efforts included establishing and maintaining relationships with those employers.

On building upon St. Louis' fashion history
VerSteeg Shoe Co.
Credit St. Louis Fashion Fund
VerSteeg Shoe Co. was one of the businesses that helped Washington Avenue earn the reputation as "Shoe Street, USA" by 1920.

He says the city has pieces to establish an industry ecosystem. That includes companies like Caleres, which used to be known as Brown Shoe Company.

Johnson admits people usually think of other historic St. Louis attractions such as the Arch,  Cardinals and World's Fair. But he adds "that history of fashion certainly exists in St. Louis."

On launching the incubator
Rendering of St. Louis Fashion Incubator's ground floor.
Credit St. Louis Fashion Incubator
Rendering of the St. Louis Fashion Incubator's ground floor. The incubator will open this year at 1533 Washington Avenue.

Johnson knows it is a big task. "Rome was not created in a day," he said. The first step is to build out the 7,500 square-foot space on Washington Avenue. A nationwide search will take place for six fashion designers who will move their businesses to St. Louis. All of their design and a "good deal" of production will be done downtown. The goal is to have the space ready late this year.

On the biggest challenge
The runway at St. Louis Fashion Week in 2014.
Credit St. Louis Fashion Fund

Getting the word out is one of the biggest hurdles so far. Johnson says there might not be enough of an appreciation in St. Louis for the arts, culture and fashion that can be built upon. He would like to see more pride in the city's fashion heritage and that could provide a clearer picture of the possibilities associated with a fashion industry revival.

On the fashion-economic development connection

St. Louis based designer and former Project Runway star Michael Drummond
Credit St. Louis Fashion Fund
St. Louis based designer and former Project Runway star Michael Drummond.

Johnson admits many have a misconception about the industry. People think of the "glitz and the glamor" of runway shows, but many need to understand that it is big business in major centers around the world and has the potential to be that in St. Louis.

He adds that work is underway on an economic impact analysis. The results are still pending, but there is hope the first designers attracted to the incubator will be the start of "something much bigger."

On the incubator's education outreach plan

St. Louis-based designer Emily Koplar has a showroom in New York.
Credit St. Louis Fashion Fund
Emily Koplar (left) of Wai Ming is a St Louis-based designer who has as Showroom in New York.

He sees the incubator as a gathering place for the community and a headquarters for panel discussions and workshops to educate the public about the business of fashion and its opportunities. Johnson says a fashion-related economic ecosystem would include retail, marketing, advertising, modeling and photography-related supporting companies.

On startup costs

St. Louis Fashion Incubator at 1533 Washington Ave.
Credit St. Louis Fashion Fund
The St. Louis Fashion Incubator will eventually take up space in this building at 1533 Washington Avenue.

As with all ambitious plans, the launch of the St. Louis Fashion Incubator needs money. Johnson says the initiative is conducting a $2 million capital raise. It will help with the build-out of the space and fund ongoing operating costs over the next few years. Johnson admits there will always be competition for financial resources, but he feels fashion is an industry that "punches above its weight" and could help boost the innovation and entrepreneurship profile of St. Louis. Johnson says the city always tends to "rally around a cause." A key event will take place April 12 at Ballpark Village. More details at saintlouisfashionfund.org.

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