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VOL. 38 | NO. 13 | Friday, March 28, 2014

Banker Van Tucker finds niche promoting Nashville designers

By Jennifer Justus

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Van Tucker has built a 35-plus-year career in banking, beginning as a teller and rising to co-founding Avenue Bank. But she finds her passion in empowering Nashville’s creative talent.

She led the first national entertainment industry team at Bank of America, for example, but most recently her focus has turned from music and entertainment to fashion.

“I really love that the city and our community has embraced that ‘creativity’ isn’t a bad word, and we all need to jump in where we can and help,” she says.

“We all need to be more in touch with our passion. There are many places in our world where we’ve disconnected from passion,” Tucker adds.

“That’s why I’m building a business around helping creative people build better businesses, because I think we need more people who are connected with their passion.”

As Nashville heads into its own Fashion Week, Tucker answers a few questions for Nashville Ledger on Nashville’s emerging fashion industry and on a local fashion survey that will be presented at the industry panel at 11:30 a.m. on April 5.

Q: How did you get into this type work?

A: “The bottom line is I learned while I was getting my MBA at Vanderbilt that I had a unique appreciation for creativity and creative business – especially for a banker. I studied manufacturing. I studied health care, all these different industries, and I realized that really what I was drawn to are more creative businesses like the music business.

“So when I graduated from Vanderbilt, I was given the opportunity to start and lead a national entertainment industry team for Bank of America, which was amazing … I love helping creative people build businesses. I’ve set my intention around doing just that.

“And so last year I went to Nashville Fashion Week. I’ve always loved fashion. So, I said I want to learn about the fashion industry. I went to the industry panels and to make a long story short, I met Amanda Valentine, who had just come off of her big international taping of Project Runway. I’m a fan of the show, so I knew who she was.

“She kind of made the comment from the audience [during] the industry panel that she wanted to build a business around her designs but she needed help. At the break, our mutual friend Abby White introduced us. I’ve spent the last year really learning the fashion business and helping Amanda build her business.

“Since that time there have been others come forward and say, ‘help me.’ I’ve taken the last year and treated the fashion business like a student. Libby (Callaway, creative consultant and former New York Post fashion editor) has been a wonderful mentor helping me understand their revenue models and risks, production and manufacturing.

“It’s like any industry. There are business fundamentals that I know like the back of my hand to help create a business, but with any industry to create a business there are nuances that are really important.

“So I learned, and in the process of doing that, Abby White wrote an article (for the Nashville Scene) last year on ‘does Nashville have what it takes?’

“That’s what really inspired our little group to take some time and focus and put together the survey.’’

Q: What does the fashion survey address?

A: “Abby’s article basically said there’s no lack of creative talent here. That’s for sure. But that’s not enough. We need an incubator program that provides not just business expertise but mentorships and experienced people who can lead you through some of those pitfalls.

“There needed to be some access to solid business planning initiatives. I have these beautiful designs or this great idea to be a fashion photographer, but how do I build a business around that?

“Small-scale production resources – that’s a really big one that Abby pointed out. Most designers are not of a scale that a production facility can take them on or source it out overseas.

“Advocacy and exposure was another one. There was no cohesion. Everyone’s doing his or her own thing. And her final point was access to capital. Any growing industry needs to have access to capital.

“I read the article and went, ‘Wait. We know how to do this. We’ve done this with the health care council, with the technology council, with the Music City council for the music industry. We’ve done it for the entrepreneur center.’ But we also realized that while we had all this anecdotal information, we didn’t have the data.

“Remember, I’m a banker. I knew in order to attract investors, and I use that term a little loosely, but in order to get people to buy in, we needed data to say here’s what the industry looks like. Here’s what the industry perceives their needs are. Here’s how they perceive those needs to be met.

“So, I recruited a student, Lisa Marston, who has been amazing. She’s a 2015 MBA candidate at Vanderbilt. She had a background in fashion and analytics. She took this on as a project to help put the survey together, formulate the results, run analysis of the results and do some secondary research.

“She worked with our committee, which was Libby, David Perry, Sophie Simmons, Casey Summar and me.

“Then we pretty quickly realized that Nashville Fashion Week really has the most prominent brand relative to a cohesive group. We approached Mike Smith and Connie Richardson and Marcia Masulla and their executive committee to say, ‘hey this is where we’re going, this is what we hope to accomplish.

“It seems very consistent with your mission, and we’d like for you guys to help us send this out to get responses (to their list of designers, photographers, stylists, manufacturers, sourcing, sewing, pattern makers, bloggers, media, etc).’’

“We got the results back and the truth is they confirmed everything in Abby’s article – they gave us data to back up her anecdotal information. Over half the survey respondents said networking on either a local, national or global level was one of their biggest needs. Over half said that even though they had a degree of some kind, they received very little training in running a business.

“The resources, a small manufacturing directory, for example, would change people’s lives here. Knowing who they could call and what their options are. And the second piece is really the education and business pieces.

“So the incubator concept, while it covers some business fundamentals, also needs to include mentorships from successful brands. The CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) has the gold standard of incubator programs for designers. There are lots of others.

“Matter of fact just about every city that’s a, quote, fashion city or a culturally significant city has an incubator program such as Denver, Toronto, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Austin. So why doesn’t Nashville have one? You’ve got to have people who have been successful and scaled their business to come in and help those interested in learning.

Q: Where do the findings go from here?

A: “Casey Summar is going to present the survey findings at the industry panel day. That’s going to be followed by a panel discussion with the people who were on our joint committee about some of the findings and what some of the recommendations are for moving this forward.

“Ultimately we want to take the survey information and secondary research and convince people to help us make this happen. We’re still discussing what that form is. Maybe it’s a fashion council like the health care council, technology council, Music City council or maybe it’s something different.

Q: What else are you excited about relative to Fashion Week?

A: “First of all fashion week is in its fourth year, and I’m simply amazed at what all they’ve accomplished. This year we have Fern Mallis, who invented New York Fashion Week. She’s coming to speak at our gala. She has her own consulting company now. Her background in fashion is ‘wow.’

“Then we have Johanna Stout who manages the CFDA incubator program, and she’s coming to speak at a Q&A with Libby. In my opinion, Johanna runs the gold standard of incubator programs.

“Several of the graduates are recognizable international brands (such as Billy Reid, Public School). She’s producing winners at that program. So we have these two amazing fashion industry experts in Nashville.

Q: How would you describe our fashion scene to someone who didn’t know anything about it?

A: “Richard Florida wrote an article in The Atlantic (Cities), I think it’s Sept of 2012, ranking top 20 Metros for fashion designers in the U.S. He took all this data, and he ranked the top 20 cities for the fashion industry according to a lot of that data about salary, hourly wage, number of fashion industry professionals and so on. Nashville ranked fourth behind, New York, L.A. and Columbus, Ohio. Columbus has some really big brand headquarters like the Limited Brands…

“I think we have a huge pool of talent, and I think the talent we have here is doing relatively well. But I think this cohesion and education and advocacy initiative, it will just be like putting gas on a fire. They all want it so bad. And we know how to do this. We’ve done it before.’’

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