Yohannan Terrell is Breathing New Life into Columbus' Fashion Industry
The marketing entrepreneur's new organization wants to increase the city’s creative pulse.
Yohannan Terrell started his marketing firm, Warhol & Wall Street, almost 10 years ago after the Akron native arrived in Columbus and attended Ohio State University. Through volunteer work on the Create Columbus Commission, he began pondering the city’s fashion industry.
“Columbus was really low on pulse,” he says. The city was third in the U.S. for the number of designers working in the region, yet there seemed to be much less of a creative vibe than in the top two fashion cities, New York and Los Angeles.
The fashion industry was the gem for the region, Terrell concluded. “If we could polish up this gem we could shine a lot more,” he adds.
A lightbulb moment occurred at ComFest when Terrell was talking to a booth operator who created college alumni products. The operator told him that he would manufacture clothing in Columbus, but the city had no infrastructure for such work.
So, in 2019, Terrell and his colleagues conducted additional research. By 2020, he was ready to launch the Columbus Fashion Alliance.
Like everyone else, though, he got caught in a pandemic swirl. Funds he expected to get to support the cause were delayed. A gathering he planned for March 19, 2020, was quickly canceled.
Terrell admits he almost gave up. “I’ve tried to kill this idea as many times as possible,” he says, laughing.
Instead, people kept encouraging him. By early 2021, he received $557,000 in grants to set up a physical facility at Franklinton’s Idea Foundry. It’s there that the organization is based, along with his marketing firm. With the funding he received, he installed top-of-the-line sewing equipment, an embroidery machine, printers and software necessary for those looking to launch fashion brands.
He’s currently immersed in phase one of his three-phase goal, he says. The first phase is connecting the fashion culture in Columbus. He’s working with leaders at L Brands, Express and DSW to connect them with startup designers, entrepreneurs and skilled craftspeople who can manufacture goods that are needed.
In many ways, the COVID-19 slowdown was a blessing in disguise. While the disruption in supply chains for imported products was a headache for corporate managers, it proved fertile ground to the entrepreneurial Terrell.
Phase two of his project, which is just beginning, is to train local residents for jobs in the industry. The Fashion Alliance is offering sewing courses and such at its Franklinton facility. Additional training is planned to focus on the technology and skills needed to make shoes, for example, or weave fabric. Already, the Columbus Fashion Alliance is offering fellowships for those ages 18–25, as well as programming to encourage high school and middle school students to enter the field.
Most of the world transitioned to online shopping during the pandemic, and products produced internationally had difficulty making it to U.S. shores. This confirmed a definitive need to make things local and do small batch production.
That’s been a dilemma that startup designers in Columbus have dealt with for many years. CCAD’s fashion program, for example, graduates many entrepreneurial-minded designers, but the city’s infrastructure to produce their work just doesn’t exist. Additionally, designers whose jobs have been cut from major retailers need options to keep them in Central Ohio, explains Terrell.
The third phase of the project is Terrell’s most ambitious. His vision has Franklinton evolving into a full-blown fashion district in years to come. “It’s really an economic development plan,” he says.
Certainly, that idea would raise the pulse of the city center. It is in Franklinton that he plans to attract four different audiences related to fashion: learners, creators, entrepreneurs and retailers.
It’s a big goal, for sure. But talk to Terrell and he’ll convince you that it’s a reachable one.
You are working on the model, “If you build it, they will come.” Are you attracting people to the courses you’re currently offering at the Idea Foundry?
Yes, we actually spent a lot of time just listening to our customers and learning about their needs and what they wanted to learn. We are still listening to them, constantly engaging our members, industry experts and even our interns to make sure we are creating programming that is useful and forward-thinking. We want to make sure we are sharing knowledge that is focused on moving the industry forward.
How have Central Ohio’s biggest retailers responded to your ideas?
So far a few of the retailers have responded very well. Some retailers have looked into moving their design offices into the Idea Foundry to be in the environment as we build this connected fashion community. We are really looking forward to more of the top retailers getting engaged this year.
Your accomplishments during the pandemic are admirable. How are you viewing this rather quiet time?
It has not been quiet at all over here. Since the pandemic, our activity has actually picked up a lot. There are many people who are no longer working for the large fashion retailers here. That has resulted in the beginning of new innovative startups being formed and many experts in the field wanting to discover their next opportunity.
Can you be any more specific about the vision that you have for Franklinton 10 years from now? What do you see happening in that space?
We see Franklinton becoming more of an arts and design district. Makers have made this neighborhood thrive for years, and we want to add to that community through fashion. We also realize that Columbus is a hub for design, from products to fashion to architecture. You see that with developments like Gravity in Franklinton, which is becoming the most unique development we’ve seen in Columbus. So, over the next five to 10 years I see this neighborhood becoming and thriving as the Franklinton arts and design district, the future home where fashion is being designed, products are being designed, creative environments are being designed. This is the type of uniqueness that could really elevate Columbus’ pulse, profile and help the rest of the world see just how much of a forward-thinking and innovative city this is.
This is the question that every entrepreneur would like to know the answer to: How and where did you receive your start-up funding?
We started down this path years ago. But we had to prove the case of the need. Once we did the proper research, supporters like [Columbus City Council President] Shannon Hardin and the city [administrators] were the first to step up and give us a chance with some early funding in 2020. Then COVID-19 hit and we had to work with what we had while responding to the pandemic. Luckily, the Franklin County [Economic] Development and Planning Department was there to support our efforts for community impact and sustainability. The city also invested more dollars, as did the Columbus Foundation, Verizon, Red Bull, UpWest and some individual donors toward the end of the year. We’ve been very blessed. People really see the opportunity we have here in Columbus.
Are you fully funded for 2021?
No, not at all. We are still a small, startup nonprofit trying to get off the ground. Most of the funds received … were spent within the year. Those funds allowed us to acquire much-needed state-of-the-art equipment and tools for teaching. Now we need support for operations and to reinvest into the fashion community here. We want to do that by hiring experts, hiring teachers, and providing programming and resources to support those looking to grow through fashion here in Columbus.
What do you want the Central Ohio community to know about you?
I want people to know that I am just a guy who likes to laugh, create moments and dream as big as I can. I grew up against the odds so—as corny as it may sound—I truly believe that with the right intention and hard work you can do anything. Perseverance has helped me do a lot of things I never thought I’d do, and I don’t plan on stopping.
What do you want Central Ohio residents to know about your love for the city?
Since moving to Columbus, I have always been involved in some type of community-building. From creating spaces for people to enjoy themselves, creating a media channel for African American voices to be heard, launching 614 Day, or creating a hub for people to realize their fashion dreams. If you know me, you know I represent for our city and our communities and, hopefully, I will be able to keep doing so.