Each January, the Arts and Education Council (A&E) presents the St. Louis Arts Awards, an inspiring evening honoring the artists, educators, philanthropists, corporate citizens and arts organizations whose outstanding contributions to our cultural community make St. Louis such a vibrant place to live, learn, work and play. Since 1992, the St. Louis Arts Awards has celebrated more than 170 honorees and raised more than $7.2 million to benefit A&E's annual campaign, which supports nearly 100 arts organizations in the bi-state region. This year's sold-out St. Louis Arts Awards will honor seven extraordinary individuals and organizations, including Saint Louis Fashion Fund (an A&E grantee) as Arts Startup of the Year.

Less than a century ago, St. Louis was second only to New York in the fashion industry. The Washington Avenue garment district was a hub of creative and industrial activity. Times shifted and the local economy changed, but in 2014, a group of St. Louisans recognized an opportunity to use fashion as a way of bringing that vibrancy back to the historic garment district downtown.

What started as a “what if” conversation in the basement of Winslow’s Home quickly evolved into one of “why not” and the Saint Louis Fashion Fund (SLFF) was formed.

“We wanted to answer the question of how to bring back an industry in a new and innovative way,” remembered SLFF board chair Susan Sherman. “Others had talked about it, but nobody was doing anything about it.”

A whirlwind couple of years of fundraising and civic and community partnerships later, SLFF officially welcomed its inaugural class of six designers from around the country in the Saint Louis Fashion Incubator, the organization’s signature project located in the heart of the historic garment district.

Through the two-year residency program, the designers are not only building their brands through mentorship opporutnities with some of the biggest names in the industry world-wide, but they are discovering that St. Louis is a prime spot to establish their roots personally and professionally. Indeed, three of the six designers have already committed to staying in St. Louis beyond the official end of the program to continue to grow their companies.

And that’s just phase one. Phase two will turn an eye on the district as a whole, for SLFF is about more than fashion, but about bringing business and creatives back to St. Louis through entrepreneurship-driven, community-building and educational initiatives.

“This incubator is going to catalyze the district,” said Sherman.

Looking at their track record and already-established strategic partnerships with Downtown St. Louis, Inc., among others, there is every reason to believe it could do just that.

“You get the right people around the table,” Sherman said, “and anything can happen.”

To make a tribute gift honoring Saint Louis Fashion Fund, click here. For more information about the 2018 St. Louis Arts Awards, click here.

The Arts Startup of the Year Award is sponsored by PNC.