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St. Louis: The Fashion City That’s Making A Comeback

November 18, 2017

(Photo Courtesy of Joan Berkman, Photo Credits to Jay Fram)

There’s a big picture hanging in the office of Fran Zamler’s father of a man with piles and piles of pants stacked behind him. The man in the picture is Ben Gelber, Zamler’s great grandfather, who owned a general store called Ben Gelber and Sons, in downtown St. Louis.

Gelber came over from Austria in the early 1900s and while he had no experience in anything fashion based, he knew there was a demand for men’s clothing.

Photo Courtesy of Fran Zamler

Zamler, a producer on the “Light Up the Zipper” documentary and a former model for many St. Louis based fashion companies, said her father, Marvin Gelber, told her a story about how Ben would take his horse and buggy to an army barrack every week where they would buy the clothes off of the enlisted soldiers for 50 cents and have his wife clean and wash the clothes to sell. At the time, they didn’t have have enough money to buy clothing from the manufacturers, so it was the start of a thrift shop.

Zamler’s grandfather, Louis Gelber, took the business to another level with an entrepreneurial mindset, realizing that the store needed to carry other items businessmen would need, such as topcoats, shoes, and hats.

Zamler’s father didn’t want to go into the men’s clothing store business, he wanted to further his education, so he went to night school instead.

In the late ’60s or ’70s Zamler’s grandfather had to close his store due to competition.

“It was really hard for him. Really difficult. They also were redeveloping the area where he was and he went through really, a big depression because of it, because that’s really all he knew,” Zamler said. “So that was the hard part, watching him go from a vibrant business man to not quite knowing what he was going to do after that part of his life. But he was a survivor and he started going and developing real estate after that.”

The Gelber family story is only one of many that creates the fabric of St. Louis’s fashion history. A city that was once second to New York City in the manufacturing and fashion industry that fizzled out after World War II, is being rebirthed thanks to the influence of today’s modern fashion designers and creatives.

Samuella Sanders also knows what St. Louis’s fashion history was like, because she lived through it.

As a former Fashion Display Coordinator for Stix, Baer and Fuller for 24 years, Sanders’ role included producing presentations for a display staff on the interiors and window displays, working with buyers to schedule fashion projections, selecting merchandise, and physically setting up the departments’ displays.

There were 26 windows in the store, which took up a full block on Washington Avenue, according to Sanders, some of which the window displays were changed every two weeks. The windows displayed many designers of the era, such as Bill Blass and Halston, and windows were dedicated to entire themes, such as menswear, bridal, colleges, and more.

Stix, Baer and Fuller had seven floors of merchandise and a lower level store as well. There were departments for shoes, bridal wear, china and crystal, fine jewelry (with a diamond room), gifts, collectors stamps, furs, toys, and more, Sanders added.

Stix, Baer and Fuller also served as a place for more than just typical retail shopping, as there was a bakery and candy department as well as a candy factory on one of the floors where women would make chocolates.

Stix, Baer and Fuller’s expansive department variety represented many of the industries that boomed in St. Louis, like lingerie, shoes, millinery, and more. St. Louis even earned the nickname, ‘Shoe Street, U.S.A.’ according to Zamler.

Photo Courtesy of Fran Zamler

One of the biggest booms that rocked the fashion industry, but originated in St. Louis, was the junior dress boom.

The father of one of Zamler’s friends started a junior dress line called Toby Lane, which was one of many companies that created apparel for young women that would become popular across America.

Toby Lane had four floors of a factory on Washington Avenue, dedicated just to making dresses for the junior customer, according to Zamler.

There was a big collaboration with Washington University around this time, where young college girls would design dresses and work with the manufacturers directly, Zamler added.

While the garment district in St. Louis seemed to be booming, great changes would soon be underway.

“When I worked for Bridal Originals, which is a bridal manufacturing company, I watched it go from so many floors to one floor and then almost nothing and then they moved their factory to Collinsville, Illinois, because Washington Avenue had just, just really deteriorated,” Zamler said.  “So it was sad. It was very sad. And it was fun working there in those days. It really was a lot of fun.”

After World War II, the garment district slowly began to decline, due to many industry changes.

Some of the contributing factors to the garment district’s downfall, according to Zamler, were the financial demand on factories from unions,  foreign imports making it difficult to complete with prices, and computers taking jobs away from individuals.

“It was tough,” Zamler said. “It was really tough on the businessmen that had made their lives on thriving in an incredible business.”

Photo Courtesy of Fran Zamler

Though the decline of the garment district didn’t personally affect Sanders’ job at Stix, Baer and Fuller, since the store continued, she said she thinks what caused the decline of the garment district and in other cities too, was over expansion to the suburbs, and that the children of store owners didn’t want to stay in the family business.

“It was a whole different ball game,” Sanders added.

The window displays even changed over time, according to Sanders, especially in today’s world.

“If you’re talking about windows, Nieman’s (Nieman Marcus) has a couple of windows on the front of the building, but they don’t have a lot of space, maybe two or three mannequins,” Sanders added. “We used to spend thousands of dollars [and had] three and four floors of props and a warehouse out in the county.”

Though the garment district of St. Louis no longer bustles with packed city streets and buses downtown like it used to, one major movement is working to bring it back to those good old days, but with a modern twist.

“‘We all met in the basement of a restaurant in May of 2014 and said, ‘let’s all give it a go,'” said Susan Sherman, the chairman of the board for the Saint Louis Fashion Fund.

Fashion Week was produced in St. Louis for about a dozen years, according to Sherman, and in 2013 or 2014, the publisher of Alive Magazine asked if they would be interested in starting a nonprofit to elevate their efforts of supporting emerging designers and fashion education and outreach around Fashion Week.

Though, according to Sherman, a small board was put together for that purpose and a nonprofit was created, it quickly became something much bigger.

They then decided to launch a fashion incubator for young designers after seeing how successful it was in other cities and in revitalizing their communities. In a study done with Washington University’s Olin Business School, Sherman said they found there was an appetite for it and that the city’s residents were really excited. So a campaign was launched to open a fashion incubator.

“Fashion is the story that many people in the city, believe it or not, didn’t even know really existed. I mean, they’d heard of Brown Shoe Company, for instance, and you know, a couple of other companies here, but there are many people that didn’t really know that St. Louis was once an epicenter of fashion,” Sherman said.

Some of the challenges in getting the fashion fund started, according to Sherman, was raising money and getting the community business leaders and city agencies to understand that fashion is big business.

Photo Courtesy of Joan Berkman and Arcturus

In it’s heyday in 1939, fashion was a $147 million business in downtown St Louis, which in today’s money, would be $2.2 billion, adjusted for inflation, according to the “Light up the Zipper” documentary.

Phase two, according to Sherman, is working with the city to develop a garment district and bring a production facility here of trained sewers and pattern and production experts.

Sherman said that she hopes to bring back new designers for the two year incubator program and keep them in St. Louis in order to grow jobs, create economic development, and work toward long term growth in creating the next generation of young designers.

Emily Brady Koplar is the founder and designer of Wai Ming and one of the six inaugural designers who were chosen to participate in the first incubator class.

Koplar said she applied to the incubator because she knew the caliber of talent that the fashion fund members work with, they would have access to fashion based mentors and industry contacts, and the ability to work alongside other designers in a shared space.

Koplar lived in New York for a time, but decided to move back to Saint Louis since her family was there. The move had many benefits, Koplar added, as overhead costs are lower, the community is supportive, and she can keep in contact with the factories producing her garments.

Another resource the incubator designers have at their disposal is the fashion industry’s greats as professional connections.

In June, the Saint Louis Fashion Fund hosted André Leon Talley, Vogue Magazine’s former Editor-at-Large, for a variety of local events, including an evening dinner, a visit to the incubator to talk with the designers about their work, and a talk at the St. Louis Art Museum.

Talley is only one of the many industry professionals that the fashion fund brings in to immerse their designers in knowledge of the industry.

No matter the professional’s expertise, the experience is great, according to Koplar, because it allows designers to think about the industry’s changes and how it affects their business.

“They’re [The Saint Louis Fashion Fund] really bringing through people who have a voice in the industry and have a lot of experience and they all seem to be impressed and surprised by what’s happening here,” Koplar said. “So the more people that they can bring in to see what’s happening, the more they’ll go back to, whether it’s Dallas or New York or L.A., to spread the word, I think the better it is.”

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