Pittsburgh’s first Fashion Summit charts a path for growth

Mayor William Peduto offers opening remarks at Pittsburgh Fashion Summit (photo: L.E. McCullough)

TO THE AUDIENCE of 150 or so assembled in the Union Trust Building auditorium for the Feb. 24 Pittsburgh Fashion Summit, Mayor William Peduto’s opening remarks served as a commendation and a challenge.

“Thank you for being here today for the first step of what will be a long journey,” said the Mayor. “Thank you for your commitment to be in Pittsburgh and helping Pittsburgh be a center of fashion and design.”

That, in a tailor’s thimble, was the prime directive underlying the summit organized by Downtown Community Development Corporation — starting a serious and meaningful conversation within Pittsburgh’s fashion community to discover ways that community can rise and thrive, sooner rather than later.

“Our annual Pittsburgh Fashion Week has shown the city has a strong and diverse fashion community,” said John Valentine, executive director of Downtown CDC. “Our misson now is to educate people in Pittsburgh about what fashion exists here and encourage them to support it.”

Networking break (photo: L.E. McCullough)

The event drew a colorful cross-section of Pittsburgh fashion businesses, from retailers Rothschild Trading Company, Larrimor’s, 306 Forbes Boutique, Get Dressed Formals and online retailer Designer Finds on a Dime to an intriguing array of individual entrepreneurs.

There was hair and makeup artist Valerie Christofel (Valerie the Makeup Artist), whose My Little Late Night Makeover Show on Youtube highlights beauty tips and local salons.

There was jewelry designer/metalsmith Sarah Jane Sindler (King Reld Jewelry), whose avant-garde approach to custom jewelry, grillz and wearable accessories have appeared at numerous gallery exhibits around town.

There were clothing designers Eva Dixon (I Do Designs by Eva), Brian David (Brian David Designs), Cary D. Heard (CDH Label Clothing) and Teresa Reynolds (Fit and Fine Today), a veteran hair and makeup artist whose clients have included Cheryl Ladd, Jason Priestly, Robin Givens, Gregory Hines and Paul and Linda McCartney.

There was the reigning Mrs. Pittsburgh, Rachel Rakovan, an ecology teacher who uses her fashion and pageant appearances to promote environmentalism and renewable energy.

There were singer/songwriter/actress/model Natalie Shugars (N’at Around Town) and media producer Chris Klein (Pittsburgh Beautiful), teaming up to create a summit podcast.

There was finance. V.J. Cox III, Relationship Banker at Huntington National Bank, explored opportunities for investors to aid local businesses in an emerging economic sector.

There were marketing specialists from Goodwill of Southwestern Pennsylvania (Brenda Vasilescu and Joanne De Luca) exploring new avenues for fusing sustainability, thrift and fashion.

There were media — Social Butterfly Magazine publisher Faith Bennett, with daughter Savannah and photographer Anya Mlecko, currently cover Pittsburgh fashion; WQED-TV executives Darryl Ford-Williams (Vice President of Content) and senior producer Minette Seate considered how their company might use its multimedia resources to provide additional exposure.

There were the arts — staff members from Pittsburgh Opera spreading word about their current production The Last American Hammer and the gala Mar. 9 Roses & Thorns fashion show.

You could meet aspiring designer Nadia, fashion business teacher Hope, just-signed agency model Sierra, department store associate Benjamin — each looking for new and exciting ways to be involved in an industry they believe has so much promise for Pittsburgh.

And you could meet the Future of Pittsburgh Fashion — students from Nazareth Prep, Penn-Trafford High School, Mount Lebanon High School, West Viginia University and Slippery Rock State University hoping to get a closer look at career options.

“Fashion is an important part of today’s cultural literacy,” said Maurice Wigley, Director of Inclusion and Equity at Emsworth’s Nazareth Prep. “We brought our 10th-graders to learn what skills the fashion business will require from them.”

“The Business of Modeling” workshop with Eva Dixon and Brian David (photo: L.E. McCullough)

Those skills were illuminated in the afternoon workshops, starting with “The Future of Brick and Mortar” moderated by Larrimor’s co-owner Tom Michael with panelists Lisa Slesinger (Larrimor’s), Mat Thorne (Rothschild Trading Company) and JoJo Sanchez (306 Forbes). Management, sales, marketing and customer relations were discussed, with several notable takeaways — online presence is vital, but in-store retail is also making a comeback … take risks but don’t build “too big a hamster wheel for yourself.”

Rachel Rakovan, Eva Dixon and Brian David presented “The Business of Modeling” and provided crucial nuts-and-bolts info, from head shots to runway stance and stride. “How to Live a Fashionably Sustainable Life” featured Christen Malone, AKA The Thrifty Yinzer, and Raphaela Esposito, owner of Designer Finds on a Dime, offering background on fashion’s manufacturing process and how global supply chain management impacts local sustainability.

The standing-room-only audience for photographer Dominque Murray’s “Using Social Media to Build a Brand” evidenced the indispensable need every modern business has for mastering the intricacies of the social media platforms their customers (or potential customers) are using to make purchase decisions.

And then it all came down to Money.

Image consultant and J.Hilburn stylist Sonia McKoy moderated the day’s final workshop that packed in a solid hour of information on startup funding and workforce development for specialized sectors like fashion. East End Cooperative Ministry’s CEO Carole Bailey described her organization’s commercial sewing classes that provide economic uplift for individuals and fulfill a core skill category in the local maker sphere; David Conway of Partner4Work outlined the apprenticeship training and other educational programs his company develops to connect job seekers with the Pittsburgh businesses who need them.

Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh’s Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurship Tom Link detailed the URA’s small business loan programs; Adam Kenney, Director of Bridgeway Capital’s Craft Business Accelerator and a former artisan glassmaker, shared insights into consultation and planning services available in accounting, marketing, sales, strategic planning and human resources.

Finally, it was time for happy hour networking and more sumptuous cuisine courtesy of The Fluted Mushroom Catering.

The general crowd-sensus on Pittsburgh Fashion Summit? A very good start, while revealing the distance yet to go toward fully integrating this creative community into the city’s innovation economy.

For Downtown CDC, said John Valentine, the path forward will embrace six initiatives:

  • Bring Pittsburgh-based designers and boutiques together with the goal that boutiques will carry designer lines
  • Offer discounts and a VIP ticket program to fashion shows and related events
  • Create an interactive directory for designers, models, salons and other creatives
  • Collaborate with educational institutions for business and other classes
  • Establish a mentorship program for new designers
  • Spotlight an up-and-coming designer each month in the Pittsburgh Fashion Alert, a digital e-newsletter published by Downtown CDC

“The foundation for success is here,” asserted Valentine. “Pittsburgh Fashion Alliance was just started in partnership with the Mayor’s Office, and it has over 500 members so far. This fall’s Pittsburgh Fashion Week is expanding, and we want the dialogue about new ideas and new collaborations to continue through the year.”

Dominique Murray’s workshop on Social Media (photo: L.E. McCullough)

The many spokes of the fashion wheel revolve around the hub of Original Design. How do Pittsburgh designers get their creations made, placed, publicized and sold not just locally but nationally and internationally?

Is a special Pittsburgh Fashion Incubator space needed? A declaration by the city or Cultural Trust of a special Pittsburgh Fashion District? A part of the city’s existing entertainment tax revenue designated for short-term allotment toward fashion business marketing efforts?

“Our goal is to be able to build a base here,” emphasized Mayor Peduto at the summit outset, “so that if somebody wants to create and be able to have a successful entrepreneurial business, they have all the same support we give to the tech community. That we give to manufacturers. We can help the creative minds of Pittsburgh to remain in Pittsburgh and build an industry around them.”

Ultimately, it’s about the city’s fashion businesses securing the investment they need to compete with competitors elsewhere, while simultaneously establishing a perception of the Pittsburgh fashion “brand” (whatever that may turn out to be) as a marketable commodity — even as the mainstream fashion industry itself undergoes almost continuous change and disruption (Advanced AI, affordable 3D technology, aberrant consumer behavior, whatever’s happening in China).

Just enough change and disruption that could possibly give Pittsburgh’s fashion community the opening it needs to get the world to pull up a chair and sit down for a fitting. # # #

Rothschild Trading Co.’s photo booth was a popular stopping point (photo: L.E. McCullough)