Dateline: Columbus

On The Catwalk

Columbus Fashion Week displays dynamic design community
By Gail Burkhardt

High tea and a runway show kicked off the 10th annual Columbus Fashion Week, which showcased the vibrant fashion industry in Central Ohio.

The High Fashion Tea at the Westin Great Southern Columbus hotel on Oct. 13 was one of five runway shows and six total events for the week, which has grown greatly since it began in 2010. The week concluded with the Finale Runway Show featuring eight designers as well as about 1,000 spectators including buyers, designers and media from Columbus and around the country.

Fashion Week Executive Director and founder Thomas McClure is proud of how the week has flourished since he dreamed the idea in 2010, five years after moving to the area from Dallas.

“We were, at the time, the 15th largest city in the nation and I thought, ‘Why don’t we have a fashion week?’” McClure says.

McClure hit the ground running with the idea.

“That year we just took a leap of faith,” he says of the original four-day fashion week, which began with what was called the Mayor’s High Fashion Tea and ended with the Finale Runway Show with about 300 attendees.

Since 2010, Columbus Fashion Week has featured top designers from the area and a headline designer, who in recent years has come from other parts of the country. This year’s finale show was headlined by Christian Cowan, a celebrity designer who has outfitted the likes of Miley Cyrus, Paris Hilton and Lady Gaga, McClure says.

Featuring Columbus-area designers has helped to launch many fashion careers, including that of Gerardo Encinas, who showed two different collections this year. Encinas showed quinceañera dresses, celebrating his native Mexico, at the Tea, and men’s and women’s fashions at the Finale Runway Show.

“The platform after my first runway show was amazing. A lot of people knew about my collection and my designs…It opened a lot of doors for me and business,” says Encinas of his first year in Fashion Week in 2016.

Encinas now designs for Nina West, a Columbus-area drag performer who has appeared on the television show RuPaul’s Drag Race. Encinas also recently received a contract to design costumes for Opera Columbus.

“Fashion week was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says.

Central Ohio’s Fashion Industry

Launching the careers of designers and creating business in Central Ohio are goals of Fashion Week, which has provided $25,000 in scholarships to students and Columbus College of Art & Design.

“The huge win is the economic development. We are allowing these designers to start a business to generate revenue and open showrooms,” says Lubna Najjar, the board president of the Columbus Fashion Council, which runs Fashion Week.

Najjar has her own Fashion Week success story. After showing at Fashion Week in 2013, she sold her designs to 18 stores in just 18 months. More recently a large retailer bought her collection.

Six months after fashion week in 2013, Najjar opened a showroom in Columbus’ Short North neighborhood. Najjar, who has a business background, ended up giving advice to up-and-coming designers about the business of fashion. She converted that advice into IL Moda Brand Development, a consulting firm for designers. IL Moda provides free consulting to all of the Columbus-area designers in Fashion Week.

“It is really awesome to be in Columbus and help these small businesses to make mindful business decisions to grow themselves outside of designing on their kitchen table,” says Najjar.

One of those local designers is Tracy Powell, a Columbus College of Art and Design student who is in her second career. A former real estate agent, Powell was the only student to show at Fashion Week this year, and she is grateful for opportunities Fashion Week will provide for her career.

“I feel like it’s going to get my name out as a local designer,” she says. “My plans are to have my own boutique, but my dream is to do costume design for TV and movies.”

In addition to many individual designers, the Columbus area is home to the headquarters of L Brands, which owns Victoria’s Secret, Pink and Bath and Body Works, as well as Lane Bryant, DSW and Abercrombie and Fitch. In 2012, City Lab, a subsidiary of The Atlantic magazine, ranked Columbus as the city with the third most fashion designers in the country.

“We have a great fashion design community. With the industry itself, we are missing one component that really would complete the wheel, and that is manufacturing,” says Fashion Week founder McClure, noting that he thinks manufacturing will come to the region soon.

Fashion’s Future

Central Ohio also boasts developing designers. Fashionista, a fashion industry blog, named Columbus College of Art & Design as a top school for Fashion Design in its 2018 ranking. Ohio State University also has a highly respected Fashion and Retail Studies program.

Each year Fashion Week hosts a Philanthropy Meets Fashion question-and-answer session with the headline designer for CCAD students.

“It inspires our local designers and our student designers,” McClure says. “It also lets them know what the industry is about.”

The Columbus Fashion Council plans to create more social enterprise programs and grants for new designers to grow the industry in Central Ohio. Najjar, the council’s president, is enthusiastic about what the future will bring.

“What’s really exciting about Columbus is that we’ve got so much talent and what we do with that as a community is really going to build our future,” she says.