Columbus ranks third in its number of resident fashion designers, trailing only New York and LA

Columbus ranks third in its number of resident fashion designers, trailing only New York and LA

Suzanne Cotton was browsing in a Soho clothing boutique during a trip to New York City last winter when an employee there walked up to admire Cotton's gloves. Later, at another shop during the same trip, another worker in the country's fashion capital approached Cotton to compliment her eyeglasses. In both instances, she told her Big Apple acquaintances that her fashionable accessories had been purchased at boutiques in Columbus. "Oh, I keep hearing about Columbus," the second retailer remarked.

Cotton couldn't help but feel a little glow of pride. As chair of the fashion design program at the Columbus College of Art and Design, she's helped seed the fashion industry with young, hungry, creative designers. In year's past, the best and the brightest of her students would scatter after graduation, destined for places like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or other traditional fashion hubs. But lately things have been changing. Those fashion design students aren't all leaving anymore. And, says Cotton, "If they do leave, they tend to come back."

While no one was looking, it seems, Columbus became one of the nation's fashion capitals.

In January, New York-based fashion media company Fashion Times proclaimed it so, in a story headlined, "Columbus, Ohio emerges as a major fashion hub," citing a study by EMSI, a labor market research company, that revealed Central Ohio employs more fashion designers than any U.S. metro area outside of New York City and Los Angeles.

"When thinking of fashionable cities in the U.S., Columbus, Ohio probably doesn't come to mind-but it should," the story began.

It's no surprise to the folks at Columbus 2020, the economic development organization for the 11-county Columbus metropolitan region. "It surprises people around the world," says Kenny McDonald, the agency's president and chief economic officer. "I think probably it's even unknown to our own market."

But Columbus and its heartland ambience have a lot going for it to help fuel the fashion industry, and its companion retail industry. It's a great test market. It boasts a younger population-including 140,000 college students-that helps foster a newfound entrepreneurial spirit. Boutique owner Connie Leal has watched the city's fashion industry change and grow since helping pioneer that shift. "When I opened Leal [in Upper Arlington] in 1993, there was no boutique shopping in Columbus," she says. "You had Eastland, Westland and Northland [malls]. City Center was just getting started. Just places like the Limited and Macy's."

Cotton concurs. A New Jersey native who went to fashion school and worked in New York before moving to Columbus in 1993 to design sweaters for Westerville-based BellePointe, she's excited about the changes she's seen. "One thing I really love about Columbus is there are a lot of small boutiques," she says. "It's great how many cool shops there are now," in neighborhoods like Grandview, the Short North and Clintonville.

Adds Leal, "They may not have to have a one-of-a-kind design. But instead of it being one of a million, maybe it's one of 10. These shoppers are more sophisticated, more aware, which is a very cool thing."

Of course, it takes more than the emergence of trendy neighborhoods populated with small boutiques for a city to become one of the nation's biggest fashion industry employers. Much of that credit goes to Les Wexner and the fashion empire he built, and kept, in his hometown.

Wexner opened his first clothing store, dubbed The Limited, in 1963 at Kingsdale Shopping Center in Upper Arlington, not long after graduating from Ohio State. That single retail fashion concept for trendy modern-woman style nurtured a business strategy to develop and acquire more specialty brands for a strong shopping mall presence, ultimately growing the company portfolio to include such fashion fixtures as Express, Limited Too, Victoria's Secret, Lane Bryant, Lerner, Henri Bendel and Abercrombie & Fitch, as well as personal care megachain Bath & Body Works and its companion home decor specialist, White Barn Candle Company.

And though Wexner eventually rebranded, sold or spun off many of those retailer establishments, several of those that left his charge, like Abercrombie & Fitch, Justice (formerly Limited Too) and Lane Bryant, not only chose to remain in Central Ohio, but opted to expand operations here.

While building The Limited brand, Wexner recruited top talent to relocate to Columbus-often from the East and West coasts-to run his fashion companies. Many of them stayed. Why? Simply put, says Wexner's longtime friend and head of The New Albany Co. Jack Kessler, "They liked it here."

One of those is Mike Rayden, who was recruited by Wexner in 1996 to leave California as CEO of PacSun for Columbus as CEO of the Limited Too brand. He retired about a year ago, but decided to stay in Central Ohio. "Columbus is a great hotbed of creativity," Rayden says. "I think it's owed to Les and The Limited's success overall, and his fostering of creativity."

As Wexner grew his fashion empire, Rayden says design teams became an integral part of the operations, charged with implementing their own designs and not just knockoffs of current trends, which led to the recruitment of world-class design teams for all the company's brands. In turn, that constant need for fashion designers created demand here for industry jobs, which produced more competitive pay, he says.

Wexner's impact on Central Ohio fashion also extends to another project-Easton. When Wexner first proposed the Easton concept, essentially recreating the small-town, walkable shopping experience, "Everybody thought he was crazy," Rayden recalls. "They told him people would never go for an outdoor shopping mall."

Not only were they wrong, Easton's popularity and regional draw has attracted high-end retailers to Columbus with much fanfare, and broadened the area's fashion sensibility. "You have Louis Vuitton, Tiffany, Nordstrom, Michael Kors. It's all in there," Rayden points out.

The Columbus-based Schottenstein family followed a similar route, helping to seed Central Ohio's fashion industry with its affiliate SB Capital Group, which includes national fashion brands DSW, American Eagle Outfitters and Aerie. And though American Eagle is headquartered in Pittsburgh, DSW calls Columbus its corporate home and has major distribution operations here. Schottenstein home fashion companies American Signature Furniture and Value City Furniture are also Columbus-based.

But fashion doesn't exist in a vacuum, and Central Ohio has subsequently seen a rapid rise in industry offshoots locating here to support the fashion industry. Columbus 2020's McDonald calls them "enablers"-companies that provide related "core competencies" that feed the success of the local fashion world, such as logistics, distribution and fulfillment services, supply chain management, market research and store concept testing. According to Columbus 2020, more than 8,300 people work for apparel companies headquartered here. "It's a big part of our economic base," says McDonald.

The top-down growth of Columbus' fashion industry ultimately nurtured design schools such as CCAD's and Ohio State's, and many of those imported designers were recruited to teach. "We have a lot of faculty with real design experience," says CCAD's Cotton. "We bring a lot of people in from the industry."

That breeder program has sparked fashion in other areas, helping give rise to the city's burgeoning boutique scene. "Not everybody is out to get a corporate job," Cotton says. "There are a lot of people who want to do independent things. We allow students to really figure out what they want to do in their careers, to find their aesthetic design."

The school is gaining more national recognition, due in part to media exposure of its annual Senior Fashion Show that presents graduating students' projects developed with their design and industry technology skills.

Sisters Danielle and Ashleigh Jones are Westerville natives and recent CCAD fashion design graduates who now work for Tween Brands. Danielle, the elder sister, earned a graphic design degree and worked in that field until Ashleigh encouraged her to tour CCAD after she began attending the college. Afterward, Danielle knew she wanted to join her sister. "I actually really liked the technical and construction side of things when I started in fashion," she says.

They both point to CCAD's quality instruction, resources and internship and networking opportunities as key to helping launch their careers. Among other things, they participated in Columbus Fashion Week, with a 2014 runway show of their collection of men's and women's resort wear. And both landed at Justice, offering fashion merchandise and accessories for girls ages 7 to 14.

Beyond their corporate design work, the Jones sisters' have their own small business, Nickel & Ash Home Co., and plan to launch a home goods line later this spring featuring specialized print and pattern designs on pillows and other home decor.

They exemplify the entrepreneurial spirit that seems to be all around Columbus these days. From designer boutiques to trendy T-shirt lines like Homage to unique offerings in home décor, "It's a vibrant, exciting city," says Rayden, rattling off a few of the things that made him stay in Columbus after retiring. "The expansion of the Columbus Museum of Art, wonderful exhibitions at galleries, Gallery Hop in the Short North, good restaurants, events like the lecture series in New Albany."

"It's especially unlike the big markets," says Columbus 2020's McDonald. "We can legitimately say this is unlike every other market in the U.S. We're Middle America. We're so representative here."

Cotton concurs. "Chances are if Columbus will like it, the rest of the country most likely will like it."