Will Houston ever be a fashion center? Here are some ideas to make it happen
Everyone thinks of Houston as the energy capital of the world, but when it comes to more creative businesses like film and fashion, we're on hardly anyone's radar screen.
Just the other day, when a representative for an Italian fabric manufacturer called on David Hamilton, co-owner of Houston's Hamilton Shirts, the first thing he asked Hamilton about was the '80s TV show, Dallas.
Old stereotypes die hard, it seems.
Such a low-profile stature is really a shame because the Bayou City has an abundance of fashion entrepreneurs who have been phenomenally successful by staying close to home:
- Janet Gurwitch propelled Laura Mercier to top status in the high-end cosmetics industry from a warehouse in Stafford.
- For four generations, the Hamilton family has made high-quality men's shirts for high-end stores like Barneys New York from a Richmond Avenue storefront.
- Elaine Turner has built a thriving accessories business from a Rice Village location.
- PaperCity style editor Laurann Claridge has found a niche in creating Claridge + King, a women's line of shirtwear with men's detailing.
- Former Carolina Herrera executive Greg Fourticq recently returned home to bankroll a children's clothing line, Moo Boo.
- And Project Runway winner Chloe Dao has created a popular clothing line from her Lot 8 boutique.
Who knew there was so much fashion talent in Houston?
I was fortunate to sit on a panel with these entrepreneurs (except for Dao, who was called away on short notice for a QVC appearance) and fashion icon Lynn Wyatt at a seminar designed to boost the idea of Houston as a fashion center. (Wyatt brought down the house when someone asked her about her fashion style and she responded, "Class with a little bit of dash, but never trash.")
George Marshall Worthington, past president of the MBA Council of Houston, organized the seminar because he believes in order to thrive and continue to grow, Houston has got to attract the "creative class" of young entrepreneurs who will make things happen in areas that the city is not traditionally known for.
"Obviously, this city has some significant industries — energy, aerospace, biotechnology — but it also has an extraordinary amount of creative assets," Worthington said. "Fashion is about glamour, but it's also a very serious business."
Big D's fashion rule
While Dallas is generally recognized as the center of fashion in the southwest United States, the panel believes the Bayou City can and should be the focal point of such activity. Houston is a major center of entrepreneurship and most fashion designers are, first and foremost, entrepreneurs. But they need a boost from venture capitalists and city officials to reach critical mass. Worthington favors an investment fund to support promising filmmakers and designers who work in Houston.
"Right now most venture capitalists concentrate on Houston's most recognized industries. There needs to be a new mechanism to bring investors with these entrepreneurs," Worthington said. "It should be on the economic agenda."
Neal Hamil, who recently relocated to Houston after a stellar career as a top executive at two of New York's major modeling agencies, believes that Houston has all the components to be a fashion center.
"You can fly non-stop to Houston from practically anywhere in the world and the cost of doing business and the cost of living is so reasonable here that Houston is the bargain of bargains," Hamil said. "There's an enormous workforce available and there is no shortage of visionary and creative talent and finance/investment resources.
"Houston has the existing buildings to house factories and warehouses, and shipping and distribution is a snap with the airports and the Houston Ship Channel. It's all here."
But it will take someone with a vision and a gambling spirit to make it happen. Hamil recently attended a memorial service for Dallas modeling agency titan Kim Dawson, where developer Trammel Crow's daughter talked about how Dawson and Crow mapped out plans for a regional apparel marketplace with little more than faith that "if we build it, they will come."
The Dallas Apparel Mart became a major factor in that city's rise to becoming a fashion center.
"Houston has many Trammel Crow's and fashion-savvy people to make this kind of thing happen. We should, as with film and TV production, create some very competitive tax and business incentives and go out and sell this young, fabulous, exciting city of ours to the world as the next place to create, manufacture and market fashion," Hamil said.
Fashion foot forward
One encouraging sign that more locals are taking fashion seriously: The first-ever Houston Fashion Week is planned for October, with a salute to fashion agency icon Eileen Ford and other special activities that, if done right, will draw national attention. Officials have landed a major sponsor, Audi, for the three-day event at the Wortham Theater Center and other Houston locations.
Another obvious way to build a fashion community: Highlight the Houston Community College Fashion and Design Program — it's a great incubator of young fashion talent.
And wouldn't be nice if someone revived the Costume Institute at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston or other museum?
It was once a thriving part of the MFAH, with a lavish annual gala where the "Silver Slipper" award was bestowed upon such fashion luminaries as Karl Lagerfeld, Judith Leiber and Geoffrey Beene. (Lagerfeld made headlines in 1987 when he cancelled his appearance because his flight was rescheduled and he would have had to change clothes in an airport to get to the event on time. “I very much like the people in Houston, but I will not change in the pee-pee room of the Atlanta airport,” he said.)
Designer Arend Basil, who recently relocated his couture clothing line, Arend, from New York to Houston, believes the city could start by doing something as simple as placing promotional banners touting Houston's design prowess on poles in major shopping areas, like Highland Village, Uptown Park, River Oaks Shopping Center and the Galleria.
Hamilton, who manufactures all of his shirts locally, believes that Houston should concentrate on the manufacturing aspect of the fashion business.
"What Houston does well is make things. We put a man on the moon and built the Astrodome. If Houston has a future in fashion, it will likely be in manufacturing," he said. But politicians must be willing to tackle immigration issues first, he believes.
While most designers who want to make it big eventually need a showroom in New York because that's where most sales are made, they can easily work out of Houston, says designer Cesar Galindo, who is spearheading the first Houston Fashion Week. The Houston native moved to New York two decades ago to hone his craft as a fashion designer, but he doesn't rule out a permanent return to the Bayou City in the near future.
"When it comes down to dollars and cents, Houston is a very powerful place," Galindo said. "Women buy clothes here."
Houston can be a good base, Turner agreed. She started her accessory line in Houston, expanded to Dallas, and now has a showroom in New York.
"Texas is bigger than many countries," Turner told the audience. "It's a wonderful place to start."