Southern culture is not generally associated with high fashion. And when Southern students decide to pursue a career in that world, they are often forced to be creative in ways that extend beyond clothing design. Their creativity, however, relates not only to finding ways to get to New York, but also to creating a Southern fashion scene in their own backyards.
“Geography is definitely a challenge,” says University of Georgia Student Merchandising Association president Erica Whitfield. “Many [Southern students] have an interest in fashion but just aren’t willing or financially able to move to a city like New York…especially when so many internships are unpaid.”
Whitfield describes a challenge familiar to many students exploring careers in the fashion industry: affordability. Many of the most famous schools for careers in the fashion industry are located in cities like New York and San Francisco—cities with notoriously high costs of living. Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) is more conveniently located, but carries a hefty price tag: $34,329 for annual in-state tuition compared to $10,847 the University of Georgia. Combine this with pre-existing stereotypes about a lack of culture in the South, and entering the fashion industry can be a challenge for many.
“I think maybe a lot of us kind of have a chip on our shoulder because we didn’t study at one of the big schools,” says Whitfield. “But seeing my peers do amazing things—I have a friend who just finished a buying internship with Saks Fifth Avenue—that has helped me have confidence in my own abilities.”
As Whitfield suggests, Southern students prove themselves capable of working in mainstream fashion every day. But even when employment has been secured, some find that the world of fast fashion is not what they had pictured.
When Athens designer Brittani Bumb graduated from SCAD in 2013, she moved to New York City to accept an internship with designer Katherine Feiner. After almost a year of internship-hopping and working at a shoe store in SoHo, Bumb accepted a job working for a large fast fashion company. It didn’t last.
“I just didn’t appreciate the atmosphere,” says Bumb. “It was a lot of menial, seemingly pointless tasks for very low pay, and employees both in New York and in Cambodia (where the clothes were actually made) were constantly being berated by higher-ups.”
So around Thanksgiving of 2014, Bumb moved back to Atlanta. She modeled a little bit for money—a form of employment she had dabbled in while still a student at SCAD. She never gave up working on her own designs, however, and in April of 2015 registered her business name, Untitled Thoughts. In January 2016 she moved to Athens. And in October of this year, she showed her line’s first full collection in the size-inclusive fashion show La Vie en Rose.
Bumb is part of a larger trend in fashion: the small-town fashion entrepreneur. Increasingly, fashion lines and boutiques are popping up in places not traditionally associated with fashion.
“It takes a town in which there is already a culture of art,” says SCAD instructor of fashion marketing and management Kevin Knaus in a telephone interview. “In Savannah, due in part to SCAD, there is enough support for artistic endeavors in general that students and locals are able to find support for their crafts. And from what I know about Athens and its music culture, it seems that there is a similar environment there. Artists tend to support each other.”
There is also an environmental component to small-town fashion, Knaus suggests. The fashion industry is the world’s second most polluting industry—second only to the oil industry. As environmental concerns become of increasing prominence, consumers are seeking out options they know to be sustainably made. And these options, for the time being, may not be through the mainstream lines found at the department store.
“I would say fashion is something like 10 years behind food,” says Bumb. “People have really begun to think about food and how it’s produced and how it affects them—we see this in everything from organics and local foods to the slow food movement. But people really haven’t started to think about fashion in the same way.”
Making this trend more widespread (and not just a feature of already artistic towns like Athens) will require major changes in how the general population purchases clothing. Local Athens designers and stylists often advocate for the re-use or re-design of vintage clothing to reduce one’s “clothing footprint.”
“Vintage stuff is made better, period,” says local Athens designer Becky Brooks. “People were willing to spend more for a piece of clothing that would last through a few seasons, and that is why you can still find vintage items in good shape. In the 90s there was a big shift that moved a lot of clothing production overseas. Companies wanted to raise their profits by getting cheaper production labor. Clothing now is made to be disposable.
“People also spend differently now,” she continues. “Clothing budgets haven’t changed a lot [relative to our overall incomes], but people are just buying larger quantities of cheap things, rather than a few classic, well-made items.”
These are challenges facing Brooks, Bumb, and all other current and would-be fashion entrepreneurs in the South. How can small-scale designers bring about large-scale change in how people think about buying clothing?
“It takes a lot of time, skill, dedication, and training to design and make clothes, or make jewelry, or do photography, or any of those skills,” says Bumb. “But I hear all the time phrases like ‘It’s too expensive,’ or ‘that’s a rip-off’… I get requests to make dresses for as little as $30, which wouldn’t cover the cost of most fabrics, let alone my time and experience. My time is just as valuable as your time at your traditional job; you can’t just tell me ‘oh, but you enjoy doing it’ and only want to pay me for materials. I can’t pay the rent with materials.”
Problems of manufacturing and distribution are also daunting. Bumb and Brooks are both still making all of their clothing by hand to sell in local stores like Community (or on commission), but what if they wanted to expand production one day? How would they do it?
Rachel Ehlinger knows these challenges firsthand. In 2015, the University of Georgia student founded a philanthropic clothing line called Ekkos Apparel, which sells shirts, shorts, and accessories to raise money to send Ghanaian children to secondary school.
“We were working with a company called Rework and Repair that was based in Crawfordville,” says Ehlinger in a telephone interview. “They handled our sewing. But they’ve now closed. One of their former sewers is still helping us, but that’s not a long-term solution. I like that our production is currently local, but I don’t know if, down the road, I could keep it local and still grow.”
Ehlinger’s story summarizes the uncertainty that weaves through artists’ excitement about their projects. Is local, Southern fashion economically sustainable?
The “Made in America” movement has certainly gained traction in recent years, as have moves towards environmental sustainability in fields like agriculture. But the progress is slow, and may not come fast enough for small businesses to survive.
“It’s possible that it’s a fad,” says Knaus. “I certainly hope not, but yes, it’s possible. What makes me hopeful, though, is that it seems to be growing. I see students doing sustainable or ‘recycled’ fashion shows; I see articles about independent designers. It’s not impossible that this could be part of a larger change.”