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The state of fashion in the District

Christine Brooks-Cropper, chairwoman of D.C.'s Commission on Fashion Arts and Events, and two designers

Washington D.C. is an international crossroads of culture, power, influence and history-making. However—at least historically—D.C. has never had much of a (positive) reputation for fashion.

Between sparse shining examples like Jackie O. and Michelle Obama, Washingtonians have been easily lost in a wasteland of complexion-blanding tones and boxy suits.

However, recent strides suggest increasing fashion consciousness as well as the potential for fashion to contribute significantly to the local economy.

Washingtonians can now watch a top designer's collection come down the runway live while comparing reactions with with one friend from Pakistan and another from Portland. With rising numbers of major luxury fashion labels establishing locations in D.C., those friends may also then find their way to see some of the same designer's work together, in person, without leaving the District.  
A healthy crop of next-generation designers have already launched from Washington. Among others, Noon by Noor (a Bahraini duo who graduated from Marymount fashion school) and Cushnie Et Ochs (co-founded by Gaithersburg native Michelle Ochs) both showed at New York Fashion Week 2012. D.C.-based Nepali by TDM design is carried by luxury retailers, seen in Marie Claire and worn by celebrities.

And unlike decades past, being in D.C. means first-hand access to BCBG’s chic opulence, Michael Kors’ potent-classic lines, Kate Spade’s vibrant colors, or Neimann Marcus in all its multi-faceted glory, among others. In April, celebrated American designer Billy Reid opened up shop in Georgetown. Mike Grady, Reid’s director of sales, says, “[Washington has] more foot-traffic than any store in the company...It’s important for brand awareness with this being the shopping district in such a well-traveled city.”

Growing the economy
Christine Brooks-Cropper is the chairwoman of Washington D.C.’s Commission on Fashion Arts and Events. Brooks-Cropper organized a pilot fashion incubator with five designers in 2012 in temporary space at the Convention Center. The pilot gave Brooks-Cropper, who also helped establish a national fashion incubator coalition, a springboard to work toward establishing a permanent D.C. Fashion Incubator. “To have something so centralized would put local designers in a better position to showcase their work,” says Brooks-Cropper.

"This whole fashion initiative is about presenting the opportunities, connecting the resources and really helping people start and grow their business."
Though the timeline for the incubator to re-open is uncertain, its core classes, called Fashionably Business, are still being held. Like its counterparts in L.A., Chicago, Seattle and Philadelphia, Washington's Fashion Incubator is planned to be in Macy’s.
Currently, the group is waiting for its designs to be approved by Macy's Metro Center (Macy's corporate headquarters has already signed off on the plans). Once the incubator is built, it will include work space, equipment and training for six aspiring designers, as well as mentorship opportunities and space for those designers to sell their creations to the public.

Launching successful design labels is the focus, but Brooks-Cropper also plans to develop D.C.'s workforce in a separate incubator that will train District residents for supporting roles like sewing and pattern-making. Brooks-Cropper says, “This whole fashion initiative is about presenting the opportunities, connecting the resources and really helping people start and grow their business.” 

Developing a unique, local identity
With more than a decade of experience in this niche market, Elaine Mensah is currently in post-production on a documentary about fashion in D.C. Although D.C. has many fashion lovers, leaders, connections and consumers, Mensah's film research has found a city full of people who are still developing an awareness of their unique local identity and direction, especially in New York's shadow.

“We should not aspire to be like New York. You can take a train ride from London to Paris in two hours, but they’re two completely different cities with their own identities. I think one of the things that’s holding Washingtonians back a little bit is this notion that we’re constantly comparing who we should be against New York. We should rather focus on finding our own identity and strengths.” says Mensah.

“One would assume that Washington wouldn’t even have enough content for a website dedicated solely to fashion.” Mensah says, yet D.C. has publications like Fashion Washington and All Things Fashion D.C. “[These voices are] so specific, so niche to an industry that people don’t think exists. What that tells me is that there’s more than just an interest in this notion of fashion in D.C. Something bigger is in store.”

Read more articles by Kaitlynn Hendricks.

Kaitlynn Hendricks is a solutions-focused economist working as a business developer in Washington, DC. She enjoys timeless and (occasionally) avant-garde fashion, reading things that are just a bit too complicated to really understand, challenging the status quo, and exploring the city on her Vespa.
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