"Fashion houses are these hoity-toity places where no one will let you in the door without an appointment," said Nya Tanaka, one of the three founders of The Wearhouse, a new fashion co-op in St. Petersburg. "We want to change that."
Established in September at the gateway of the Grand Central Arts District, the co-op aims to revolutionize the fashion scene in the Tampa Bay area by bringing artists together, keeping its doors open to anyone with aspirations to work in the industry.
The idea had been conceptualized for years. Rebekah Lazaridis, one of the co-founders and owner of the women's accessories line Eugenia Woods, dreamed of a place that would serve as a resource and convergence point for fashion designers in Tampa Bay with her friend and fellow St. Petersburg fashionista Sara Stonecipher, owner of MISRED Outfitters. They wanted to be part of an organization that brought fashion professionals together instead of fostering catfights and competition.
Fashion co-ops have been active in places like Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, but in Tampa Bay, this would be a novel enterprise. When Stonecipher introduced Lazaridis to Tanaka and Carlye Starr Midence of Starrbird Productions, which makes custom costumes and a line of pin-up-inspired women's clothing, the co-op became a reality.
The warehouse building (2235 First Ave. S) houses the production space of founders Lazaridis, Tanaka and Midence. Sewing machines, cutting tables and body forms are all there, and those who wish to join the co-op (membership fees still are being finalized) will also have access to them.
"We want to be able to share skills and knowledge, sources, machines, techniques," Midence said. "It's a place to be a professional and learn to be a professional in the fashion industry."
To assist in that learning curve, The Wearhouse offers an internship program for aspiring designers who get to work with both brands during a semester. It will offer classes in sewing, fabric sourcing and the business side of fashion starting Jan. 25. The first will be a "Pattern Party," in which people will learn how to make a pattern to replicate their favorite shirt for $75 per person. During the city's Second Saturday Art Walk, the founders will host a "Stitch and Bitch" session when people can bring their own sewing projects and be part of their sewing circle, possibly turning a hobby into a profitable side business.
"This area has so many crafters, but most of them are working out of a basement or from a small section of their bedroom," Lazaridis said. "We're giving them a chance to grow their business and meet other artisans."
The Wearhouse also plans on hosting a quarterly market featuring the work of local crafters. The concept has been growing in popularity in St. Petersburg, with other markets like Art Pool's Crafty Fest and the antique market Brocante happening in the Grand Central Arts District. The first market is scheduled for Saturday, with local and unique gifts ranging from aprons made of vintage patterns to bow ties, necklaces and pottery.
"We're filling a niche that hasn't been filled," Midence said. "We're adding to the community and we are hoping to collaborate to bring even more people to all of them."
Kristen Danvers, who makes knitted items, is one of the amateur artists benefiting from the start-up.
"I'd never sold anything that wasn't for a friend before," said Danvers, who participated in The Wearhouse's soft opening on Nov. 30, when the space was open to family and friends, and who will return to sell her pieces on Saturday. "I got to interact with customers for the first time, get an idea of what people want."
"It's just so nice to connect with other creative people," added Jason Szabo, a sculptor who will have a booth at the market. "I've gotten some really good advice from others I've met at the Wearhouse about marketing and using social media for artists. It's very inspiring."
Like Szabo, other artists have so far welcomed the trio and the co-op excitedly, with sign-ups for the market exceeding expectations.
The prospect of a new event space is creating buzz among fashion types. From the outside, the Wearhouse is anything but glamorous. But inside, the fashion-forward businesswomen have worked their magic and given the space a makeover. Antique frames, artsy posters and even a deco chandelier spruce up in the space. The founders hope that a New York Meatpacking District look will bring more fashion-centric events, which usually take place in Tampa, to St. Pete.
"The fashion scene in Tampa Bay is separated by a bridge," said Midence. "We want to create a community that everyone can enjoy and bring it together."