Community: Local entrepreneurs aim to 'Elevate' Columbus fashion scene

Erica Thompson
Organizers of the Heart of it All Fashion show

From Saturday, Oct. 7, through Saturday, Oct. 14, the city will show off its stylish side during Fashion Week Columbus, a series of fashion and runway shows, mixers, Q&As and other experiences.

But as fashion entrepreneurs Nadiyah Harper and AC can attest, the preparation for the week is far-less glamorous.

“Right now, we are pretty much self-funded,” said Harper, who, along with AC, founded nonprofit organization Heart of it All Fashion, which will host its “Elevate” event on Wednesday, Oct. 11, at Strongwater Food and Spirits. Given its modest budget, the official Heart of it All headquarters is in Harper and AC's home, where the couple is raising its nearly 2-year-old daughter, Lou C Legend. The studio is in the small basement, which was packed full of in-progress decorations for “Elevate” whenAlive visited for a late-September interview.

“It's cool, though, to have [Heart of it All] in our home right now because it's organic,” AC said. “We take the time to pick and choose who's coming in our home. … It's really personal to us.”

Rather than just focus on their own creations, Harper and AC host productions to provide a platform for designers and models. “We're dedicated to the education, promotion, development and support of aspiring fashion talent and established fashion talent,” Harper said.

Heart of it All was born in 2015 when Harper and AC were still fashion students at Ohio State University. “Nadiyah was getting ready to graduate, so we were just trying to go out with a bang,” AC said. They decided to produce a fashion show, and posted a call on social media for students to help out. They were surprised when about 40 people showed up to the first meeting.

“Once we started seeing … how many people we could touch, how many people we could influence [and] how many people we could affect, that's when we knew that we were going to go the nonprofit route,” AC said.

That first year, they produced four events — a streetwear fashion show, a couture fashion show, a vendor fair and an art exhibition — in one weekend. Two sold-out fashion shows followed the next year. They also secured sponsorship from Doc Martens before the company closed its High Street location.

Additionally, they trained over 250 models through free clinics and sent 10 students to gain work experience at Fashion Week Brooklyn and New York Fashion Week.

Although Columbus has become a fashion hub in its own right — according to arecentresearch studyby labor market research company EMSI, the city employs the most fashion designers outside of New York City and Los Angeles — it can be a challenge for young people to start their own ventures, Harper said.

“Columbus is in the top for fashion mainly because of our corporate resources,” she continued, citing the presence of L Brands, the parent company for Victoria's Secret, Henri Bendel and others. “We have a lot of student designers who are graduating and … because we don't necessarily have the resources for them to function as independent designers, a lot of them are going the corporate route.”

Heart of it All aims to empower graduates who don't want to take that path, Harper said.

The organization is also unique in that it is owned and staffed by people of color. “You don't really see too many of us [in the industry],” AC said. “It is definitely beneficial just to be able to give these opportunities to people that look like us.”

But Heart of it All is not exclusive to one market, or unwilling to work with other fashion organizations in the city. That's why it partnered with Fashion Week Columbus, also a nonprofit, to offer the “Elevate” event.

“They are definitely looking to bring in more of a younger crowd and just some different faces into these events,” Harper said.

“Elevate” will showcase the work of select designers — including a collection by Heart of it All — and visual artists, and also feature about 30 models and multiple DJs.

“We're saying goodbye to traditional runway seating and really captivating the audience and submerging them in immersive scenery,” said Bobby Couch, who provides marketing and concept direction for Heart of it All. He likened the experience to an art gallery.

“So each brand is like its own exhibit and the audience is going to revisit multiple exhibits during the course of their journey through the fashion event,” he said.

“We've always been about the experience,” AC said. “We want people to truly come away inspired by the art we're doing, the way we're presenting the garments [and] the way that we're presenting the models. … We really take pride in our productions.”

In addition to raising funds and gaining more sponsorships, Heart of it All's future goals include doing more community outreach — staff members are already volunteering at a local group home — and continuing to prove its value in the city.

“When you think of fashion here in Columbus, how a fashion show should run, how a fashion show should look [and] who should be involved, we want to be those frontrunners,” AC said.

Strongwater Food and Spirits

7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 11

401 W. Town St., Franklinton