September 7, 2020

How The ‘Kendra Scott Effect’ Boosted Austin Fashion

Joe Lanane
Kendra Scott

The business of fashion in Austin has reached new heights due to homegrown brands like Kendra Scott and Yeti.  

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.”

Howler Brothers
Inside the Howler Brothers’ store on South Congress. Credit: Howler Brothers

Standing Out In Austin

Aside from Austin Fashion Week, the best chance for local fashion brands to shine comes during South by Southwest or Austin City Limits Music Festival (ACL). 

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.

Tecovas began as an online-only, direct-to-consumer brand. Their first retail store is on South Congress in Austin.

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.

Criquet Shirts
The Criquet Clubhouse is located off South 1st Street in Austin.

See Our List Of Notable Austin Fashion Brands, Icons And Industry Resources:

  • [restrict]Kendra Scott: Iconic brand known for using natural gemstones to create custom, affordable jewelry. Founded in 2002.
  • Outdoor Voices: Athleisure attire from high-profile company that moved to Austin from New York. Founded in 2013.
  • Esby Apparel: U.S.-made apparel for women with menswear mentality. Founded in 2014.
  • Tecovas: Online boot company that opened its first retail store in Austin last year. Founded in 2015.
  • Criquet Shirts: On a search for the perfect collared shirt, the two founders created their own. Founded in 2010.
  • Howler Brothers: Outdoor-focused apparel brand. Founded in 2010.
  • Fort Lonesome: Custom-designed Western wear and chain-stitch embroidery studio. Founded in 2012.
  • Brittany Allen: Contemporary, ready-to-wear women’s high fashion. Founded in 2013.
  • Cassandra Collections: Distinct hand-designed jeweler. Founded in 2012.
  • Kelly Wynne Designer Handbags: Started online-only, opened brick-and-mortar at The Domain, now back to only wholesale and direct-to-consumer sales. Founded in 2012.
  • Nina Berenato Jewelry: After starting in refurbished Airstream, the brand now features a flagship store in Domain Northside. Founded in 2010.
  • The National Bureau of Product Research: NASA-inspired streetwear that is  affectionately dubbed “nerdwear.” Founded in 2015. More info.
  • The Garden Room: An Austin fashion boutique credited for influencing the city’s style. Founded in 1979.
  • League of Rebels: Downtown 2nd Street retail shop offering private label classic menswear that is tailored and custom-manufactured. Founded in 2009.
  • ACC Fashion Incubator: Helps students and fashion design startups gain industry experience and education in a real-world setting. Founded in 2019.
  • Stitch Texas: Apparel manufacturing operation in South Austin known for helping local designers avoid outsourcing sampling and small-scale production. Founded in 2014.
  • Austin Fashion Initiative: Collaborative community designers with other fashion industry professionals throughout the supply chain and product development lifecycle. Founded in 2018.
  • Open Arms Studio: Cut-and-sew production studio run by 15 refugee women as part of nonprofit Multicultural Refugee Coalition. Taken over in 2014. [/restrict]

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