Lisa Hu wants to make St. Louis sexy. Not only in a fashionable way, but with a desirable economic engine.
Hu's posh, eco-friendly handbag company Lux & Nyx has already been featured in national and local fashion magazines, and the St. Louis venture has only been around for about a year and a half. That’s partly because of her connection to the St. Louis Fashion Fund.
She’s a Fashion Lab resident at the nonprofit. She takes meetings, designs and interfaces with others in the fashion and business world, all at the fashion incubator. Its purpose is to give emerging designers access to collaboration and production. It also promotes education and community through fashion.
The fund sits at Washington Avenue and 16th Street, in the heart of the historic garment district where many milliners, dressmakers and shoemakers worked during the late 1800s and the early to mid-1900s.
At the turn of the century, St. Louis was second only to New York in the fashion world. Business was booming for designers and manufacturing companies — largely because of easy access to the Mississippi River, railroads and cheap labor.
“One of the reasons it became such a big manufacturing center is that the manufacturers were hoping to have reduced labor costs from what they would have had in New York or Chicago,” Emily Jaycox, the head librarian for the Missouri Historical Society, said. “So, St. Louis was able to attract immigrant workers and migrant workers who could be persuaded to work for lower wages.”
During the late 1890s, the epicenter of trading and buying goods was near the present-day Gateway Arch grounds. However, once St. Louis began to grow, manufacturers and production companies moved west down Washington Avenue, and the garment district was born.
Times and customers change
A variety of shops lined Washington Avenue in the early 1900s. Jewelry stores, cigar shops and appliance companies were sprinkled in with mom-and-pop knitwear, hosiery and millinery shops. Sixth and Seventh Streets on the north side of Washington Avenue were anchored by major department stores like the leading high-end shop Stix, Baer and Fuller and manufacturing powerhouses like Hamilton, Brown Shoe Company.
“A lot of the biggest department stores started out in the dry-good business. And the idea was that back in the day, you would buy your fabric and your notions and your threads and your trim, and you would be putting your own clothes together,” Jaycox said.
Once women entered the workforce in greater numbers, demand for ready-made apparel grew since sewing and stitching one’s own clothing was time-consuming and impractical. Many St. Louis businesses met the new needs of consumers.
As mass-produced clothing became a money-maker for St. Louis, the city’s shoe production began to skyrocket. Nearly 48 million pairs of shoes were produced and shipped around the globe in 1905, which led to St. Louis being dubbed the shoe capital of the world.
Boom, bust and back
Into the 1920s and '30s, the city was still a shoe and apparel production and retail hub, but the boom didn’t last.
Around the 1950s, companies in the garment district closed as shopping malls became popular in the growing suburbs. Production started to be outsourced overseas.
Jaycox said few companies held on to their fashion businesses in the district, and it became a part of the city’s forgotten past once developers came in and revamped old manufacturing companies and department stores into businesses and hotels.
Now some 60 years later, St. Louis is slowly becoming a fashion hub again.
“There are some really successful designers who design in St. Louis,” said Mary Ruppert-Stroescu, a Washington University associate professor of fashion design. “They have their great market, and they are completely happy with that size of a business, and the end-all, be-all is not necessarily going national.”
Ruppert-Stroescu focuses on sustainable fashion and how textiles can be used scientifically and medically. Some of her fashion students are experimenting with engineering students on how to rethink the process of zero-waste fashion.
Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Art opened a new fine-arts building this fall. It houses a fashion lab and makers’ space where students can use high-tech laser machines and 3D visualization products.
“I think where St. Louis is really going to shine is in integrating technology into the fashion process,” Ruppert-Stroescu said.
And now with social media, Ruppert-Stroescu believes St. Louis’ fashion talent will be appreciated nationwide once again.
‘A blank canvas’
Local high-end and streetwear designer Brandin Vaughn understands the power of social media. He said when he posts consistently to Instagram his orders are non-stop, but when he falls off for a few weeks his sales drop.
Vaughn began repurposing furniture and sewing for himself and friends as a teenager near University City. The designer left St. Louis for Chicago after high school and returned to open his eponymous clothing store because, he said, the city is affordable.
“[St. Louis is] a blank canvas,” Vaughn said.
Since coming back to take a chance on his home town, Vaughn has found that St. Louis has something to offer fashion designers. He has a steady customer base, and his business is scaling while in the middle of the country.
On-the-go handbag designer Hu is having similar results. She said her company is profitable here and has no plans of moving her headquarters out of St. Louis.
“Let’s not be followers anymore. I feel like many times we are the ones that are following trends from the East Coast and West Coast,” Hu said. “Let’s surprise everyone and do something completely different and make St. Louis a fashion hub.”
Andrea Y. Henderson is part of the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City and Portland, Oregon. Follow Andrea on Twitter at @drebjournalist.
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