Off the Runway

2 minute read
Feifei Sun

A glamorous model clumps down the runway. Photographers snap. Fashion editors applaud. And for a moment, it seems as if all eyes in the couture world are on … Knoxville, Tenn.?

Such is the burgeoning business of smaller-town fashion weeks. For decades, the world’s clothing trends stemmed from seasonal spectacles in just four cities: New York, London, Milan and Paris. But in recent years, Dallas, Istanbul, Knoxville and others have launched alternatives to hype local models and retailers–and secure a fraction of the $865 million that New York Fashion Week generates for the Big Apple each year, according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “Yes, fashion buyers will still go to New York or Europe,” admits Brian Hill, director of Phoenix Fashion Week. “But we want them to stock their stores with our designers too.”

It’s a lofty goal. Although couture is more accessible than ever (see Lanvin’s much adored collaboration with H&M), fashion-world snobbery persists. In Knoxville, for example, even the local models “don’t take us seriously,” says Jaime Hemsley, who spearheaded the city’s inaugural fashion week. Meanwhile, Midwest Fashion Week, which begins in Indianapolis on Oct. 17, has yet to turn a substantial profit. “Most of our supporters are blue collar workers,” explains Berny Martin, the program’s CEO. “We still have to teach them about these local designers, the whole business of fashion.”

There is at least one success story, though. After Silvia Bours showed her designs at last year’s Phoenix Fashion Week, her prom-style dresses were picked up by Zappos. The rest, for now, consider the experience reward enough. “I knew our community fashion week wouldn’t be like New York’s,” Hemsley says. “But put loud music, pretty people and cocktails in a room, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at