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Columbus Chic: A Surprising Hub of the Fashion Industry

“Columbus is special...We’ve got a great group of people who are here to help the next generation of designers.” 

By Dana Colecchia Getz on February 22, 2023

Many U.S.-based designers looking to create a name for themselves in the fashion industry may believe their only option is to move to New York or Los Angeles. However, Columbus, Ohio — known for its inclusive and supportive creative community — is home to the third largest concentration of fashion designers in the United States. This city offers a surprisingly robust fashion hub within the affordability and charm of the Midwest.

Established years ago as a perfect test market due to how closely its demographics mirrored the rest of the country, many retail companies chose to settle there. As a result, large retail outlets such as Express, Abercrombie & Fitch, DSW, and L Brands anchor the market in Columbus, making jobs in fashion obtainable. In addition, with a large community of fashion corporations and distribution centers based in the city, opportunities in the fashion industry extend beyond design and into merchandising, logistics, packaging, and store design.

This built-in industry attracts top creative minds to Columbus’ universities. The Ohio State University and Columbus College of Art and Design (CCAD) funnel young talent into the Columbus fashion world by connecting them with local retail partners. Students gain valuable experience and build relationships early in their careers. 

Organizations such as The Columbus Fashion Council and The Columbus Fashion Alliance have grown in tandem with this market to support both the industry and the designers. 

Developed over a decade ago, The Columbus Fashion Council works to build opportunities for local designers through fashion shows and scholarships. They also recently supported the growth of the new Columbus Retail Fashion District

The Columbus Fashion Alliance is a “collective of creatives” that supports designers through educational programming, design machines/materials, and funding support. Their workspace and design lab are housed in Idea Foundry — a large community makerspace. There they offer equipment and mentoring resources that make a budding career in fashion more accessible.

Terri Allen, Head of Technical and Production Services at the Columbus Fashion Alliance, highlighted what makes the Columbus fashion world unique. 

“Columbus is special,” Allen explained, “because there are many major and smaller brands based there, so they’ve attracted world-renowned talent from every angle of the fashion business to the city. We’ve got a great group of people who are here to help the next generation of designers.” 

It’s not only the large brands that are thriving. Boutique companies and independent designers are making careers for themselves in niche markets. For example, Celeste Malvar-Stewart, an instructor at CCAD, has built a successful career in sustainable couture. Through museum and gallery exhibitions, she showcases her unique techniques, such as felting.

She also works with individual clients at her studio, Malvar=Stewart, and believes her location in Columbus sets her apart. 

“People find me in German Village here,” Malvar-Stewart explained, “and they’re like, ‘I would picture you in New York or Paris or Tokyo, and you’re here…I’ve been fortunate to be able to maintain my own growth model.” 

The city has embraced the industry with annual fashion-forward events such as Highball Halloween and Fashion week. 

Highball Halloween, held in the Short North Arts District, is more than just an elaborate costume party. It is an opportunity for local designers to compete in the “Costume Couture Fashion Show.” The crowd gets to experience each designer’s whimsical, avant-garde expression of their thematic vision in this spectacular runway event.

For fashion insiders, however, the highlight of the year is Fashion Week Columbus. Since 2010, the Columbus Fashion Council has hosted the event annually. Through a full week of fashion shows and programming, this event showcases emerging designers to the Central Ohio fashion community. According to their website, since the event began in 2010, “Fashion Week Columbus provided a platform for 150+ fashion designers, 2000+ models, has awarded $40k+ in scholarships to fashion design students and produced 150+ fashion shows”.

With a homegrown ecosystem of flagship brands, education, funding and distribution infrastructure, anyone looking for a career in fashion can find incredible opportunities in Columbus. But perhaps its uniquely Midwestern approach to the field sets it apart from other fashion centers. As Malvar-Stewart explained, “I think the culture here is different than anywhere I’ve lived in the world…People here support one another; we all know one another…We collaborate. That, I find, is the culture of Columbus.”

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