Beware the struggling city that thinks it can break into a cool industry.
Recall Roger & Me, Michael Moore’s film about the funny but sad fortunes of Flint, Mich. Moore mournfully reports on Flint’s attempt to turn the once-thriving auto manufacturing town into a tourist attraction with a quixotic redevelopment project whose jewel was AutoWorld, an indoor theme park that was to draw 1 million visitors. It closed after six months, and the only tourists Flint draws these days are those with a quirky fascination with Rust Belt decay.
How many cities have doled out tax incentives and other goodies to whichever industry is currently in vogue, or built a convention center thinking they could compete with Las Vegas or Orlando?
This is why I’m still skeptical of the current wave of Downtown boosterism—not every city can be a technology hub. The cities that already host economic clusters—Seattle and San Francisco in information technology, San Diego in biotechnology—have built-in advantages.
- Fashion Alley
- August 21, 8 p.m., free.
- Get Back Alley (behind Downtown Cocktail Room)
Even with all that in mind, when I visited Meghan Boyd at the soon-to-open Las Vegas Fashion Lab, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Las Vegas could become more of a player in the fashion industry. Consider Los Angeles: On top of the $40 billion in apparel cargo that comes into its ports, the design and manufacture of clothes and shoes generates $13 billion in economic activity in LA, including at least $6 billion in personal income, according to a 2011 report from the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation. Apparel manufacturing and textile mills in Los Angeles County employ 50,000 workers, and Southern California’s dominance is growing. In 2002, LA and Orange County accounted for 24 percent of U.S. apparel manufacturing jobs; by 2009, that figure was more than 33 percent.
And that’s before we even get to design and marketing. A single intersection in downtown LA—at Los Angeles and Ninth streets—boasts the presence of California Market Center, Cooper Design Space, Gerry Building and the New Mart. Combined, that’s 1,200 showrooms. All this serves to create a distinctive LA fashion that is a worldwide brand.
Although globalization has contributed to job losses in apparel manufacturing during the past decade, aggregate industry wages have increased. So, can Vegas become at least a satellite of this empire?
Fashion Lab is in a cool space Downtown on Las Vegas Boulevard, an old auto dealership with exposed beams and brick and 5,200 square feet. It will be a fashion “coworking” entity, meaning designers will work independently but share the space. The concept is borrowed from the tech world. Boyd is in talks with designers from New York City, LA and San Francisco. They will rent space and equipment from Fashion Lab; hopefully their interactions will lead to creative breakthroughs and collaborations. The Lab can accommodate 30 to 40 designers in various stages of production, Boyd estimates.
Fashion Lab also will host Skillshare design classes. (Skillshare is a startup that matches people seeking skills with instructors.) And there’ll be a lounge and a retail store where designers can sell their wares. This week, Fashion Lab is co-hosting Fashion Alley, a Magic-affiliated runway show and party held at Get Back Alley.
When I hear “Vegas fashion,” I, probably like you, think of Tommy Bahama and skin-tight party dresses in VIP lines of the clubs. But Boyd, a former senior buyer for Zappos, says Vegas is already something of a fashion player, even if we don’t know it. We think of Zappos as a technology company, but it’s really an apparel and customer service company, and CEO Tony Hsieh says if Las Vegas becomes more of a fashion city, benefits will accrue to the company. He and Fred Mossler, also of Zappos, are Fashion Lab investors.
Boyd cites our massive high-end fashion retail presence, trade shows such as Magic and the long history of costume design on the Strip. She sees opportunity, not just in design but also in manufacturing. The key from here on out, Boyd says, is “continuing to attract people, putting a face on it and building a community.”
Maybe it won’t happen, but I like our chances, at least compared to AutoWorld.
Devin Altschul contributed to this report.