Popular athleisurewear brand Outdoor Voices moved to Austin in 2017. Add in local labels like Tecovas, Howler Brothers, and Criquet Shirts and it’s enough to wonder if Austin has become a fashion hub.
Experts wouldn’t go that far.
“I would argue that ‘industry’ is a loose term here,” said Matt Swinney, head of Austin Fashion Week. “We don’t have the verticals seen even in Houston and Dallas.”
That said, Swinney says there is a “Kendra Scott Effect.”
“The reality is, it would’ve been way easier for her to move somewhere else,” said Swinney, a fifth-generation Austinite. “Now there’s a ton of lifestyle brands here, and I think a lot of that is because of Kendra.”
Standing Out In Austin
Howler Brothers, which has more than 500 retail partners, curates custom collections for ACL.
“Those direct sales help us make a lot of lifetime fans and repeat customers,” said Chase Heard, who co-founded the company in 2010. “And it helps us paint the Howler Brothers full picture, which you don’t always get from selling wholesale.”
The company’s flagship storefront in the Clarksville neighborhood is closed until further notice due to COVID. A second storefront in South Congress was set to open days before Austin shut down in March.
“We busted our ass to get it open before South by Southwest, so it was a huge letdown,” Heard said.
For up-and-coming fashion designers, SXSW and ACL can help gain positive reviews, “but kind of like being an Uber driver, a 5-star rating is not going to pay the bills,” said Brittany Allen, who finished top six in the latest season of Project Runway.
Allen relocated her women’s high-fashion brand to Austin in 2015. She said the city still needs more support for rising designers.
“When we actually do the things we talk about as Austinites and support local artists over big-name corporations,” she said, “that’s when the local artists will thrive to no end.”
So instead of shopping at Kendra Scott, Allen suggests buying from local jewelers like Cassandra Collections.
Texas-born Cassandra King is optimistic that Austin can hatch successful fashion concepts.
“I don’t think being in a smaller city has any amount of constraints in the fashion industry,” King said. “We can make a name for ourselves here and go anywhere.”
Much of that attention is garnered online, where Cassandra Collections has more sales in the past six months than the previous two years by converting its social audience.
“I swore I would never be that person on Instagram talking on the camera by myself, and now I do it almost every day,” King said.
Digital word-of-mouth also helped Howler Brothers establish its brand.
“It allows your customers to understand what your brand is all about in a way you don’t always get from a shirt hanging on a rack,” Heard said.
Reaching Fashion Hub Status
Despite Austin’s momentum, the city still lacks the skilled workers and textile equipment necessary to compete in apparel manufacturing, according to a city-commissioned industry report, which helped spark the 2019 debut of the Austin Community College (ACC) Fashion Incubator.
The incubator, coupled with ACC associate’s degree programs in fashion design and marketing, is an attempt to train Austin’s workforce for fashion jobs.
“There has to be someone skilled enough for all these relocating (fashion) businesses to hire,” said Nina Means, director of the ACC Fashion Incubator.
Means started her own clothing label upon moving to Austin from New York City, and she sold her work at local specialty stores when one of her buyers mentioned ACC.
“I realized it is much more innovative than anything I had seen a community college take on,” Means said. “We get to take on really interesting projects that move the community forward.”
The incubator is among several resources available to aspiring Austin fashion entrepreneurs. Open Arms Studio is an East Austin manufacturing studio that employs 15 refugees and helps fund nonprofit Multicultural Refugee Coalition. There is also Stitch Texas, which has apparel technicians, and Alice James Global, a fashion consulting agency.
But the city needs more resources for fashion brands to avoid outsourcing.
“There isn’t a lot of industry here yet,” Allen said. “I like being part of that growth and seeing that every year, but (Austin) still has a lot of room before people look at it as a ‘fashion hub.’”
Heard agrees with Allen.
“We don’t feel like Austin is hurting by not having a bigger fashion scene, but we’re positioned a little differently than folks in the capital-F fashion industry,” Heard said.