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New York fashion czar comes home to St. Louis

Author: Sienna Haynes
by Sienna Haynes
Posted: Jan 06, 2016

St. Louis Fashion Fund scored a well-connected executive director to kick off its ambitious St. Louis Fashion Incubator program.

The New York Economic Development Corporation’s Eric Johnson, vice president for fashion and arts, takes on his new role Feb. 1 to lead the two-year-old nonprofit’s efforts $2 million initial fundraising goal, build-out its headquarters on Washington Avenue, recruit emerging fashion designers, lobby for a fashion-focused economic development initiative with city government and promote the incubator’s fashion education and community outreach plans in conjunction with Washington University. Oh, and craft a program of national renown.

But first, he says he’ll buy a car. It will be his first.

Though he’s a native of St. Louis, Johnson is a Princeton University graduate who has lived in big cities with better access to public transportation.

Johnson, 35, will have a salary of $175,000 as executive director of the initiative and expectations are high. He was semi-seriously referred to as "fashion czar" of New York.

"I did not feel like a czar," he said speaking from his New York office and already referring to the job he held for eight years in the past tense. "But it was a really unique role, not a real city agency but a nonprofit and interfacing with the private industry on behalf of city government … developing cool projects and thinking about how we can be of use and what kind of programs will have economic impact. So it’s difficult to encapsulate in just a title."

Moving back to his hometown to be near his parents was a big factor in his decision to leave a position overseeing dozens of New York City’s successful fashion initiatives using more than $20 million in funding, including the launch of the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s internationally respected fashion incubator and public-private partnerships to help rebuild New York’s lost manufacturing industry.

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St. Louis Fashion Fund has raised more than $700,000 in pledges toward its $2 million goal, which accounts for three years of operating expenses. The fund plans to start revamping its headquarters, incubator and public education space at 1533 Washington Avenue by June. The group will secure a slate of six designers to support, coach and groom for possible international success by early 2017.

Johnson’s selection comes after a more than six month’s search facilitated by a prominent New York-based headhunting firm. Susan Sherman, the fund’s chair of the board, said that Johnson’s unique combination of talents makes him ideal for the incubator.

"Not only does he know the ins and outs of working with city government. He knows the fashion industry and even better, he knows St. Louis," Sherman said.

One of his top priorities will be looking ahead, Sherman said. The incubator is phase one, but phase two is bringing manufacturing opportunities back to the state. And the fund's favorite buzzword is creating a "fashion ecosystem."

"We need to figure out what makes sense for our city. What we can do here that isn’t being done elsewhere," Sherman said. "We can’t be the east coast or west coast but we can be St. Louis and do something that we do best."

She said they just need to figure out what that is.

In the press releasing announcing Johnson's appointment, Mayor Francis G. Slay said "Eric’s connections to the fashion industry will be invaluable as we begin to build back a fashion ecosystem in Downtown St. Louis. His work with Saint Louis Fashion Fund will help our City continue to grow as an innovation hub, as we attract and retain creators and companies we never saw before."

Steven Kolb, the chief executive director of CFDA, agreed. Speaking from his office in New York, he said that Johnson was a great choice to establish the program although he’ll be missed in New York.

He said that operating cost and competition can make New York an inhospitable place for fledgling designers, so it makes sense that regional communities are creating aggressive programs to establish hubs outside of the metropolis.

"The next Marc Jacobs might be in St. Louis," Kolb said. Then he noted that Johnson’s unusual background outside of fashion is also a plus.

Johnson graduated from Princeton in 2002 with a bachelor of arts in ecology and evolutionary biology.

"My story is one that many people face coming out of college," he said. "All my siblings are doctors and my dad is a doctor and out of school I was on the pre-med track. I thought that’s what I’d do... but health care was not something I had the passion to do."

He had a few health care consulting and research positions before his tenure with the New York City government’s nonprofit.

Kolb said, "I didn’t come from a pure fashion or fashion loving background either and there are advantages. You aren’t seduced by the glitz and glamour. You know that fashion is not all (or even mostly) glitz and glamour. It’s a lot of hard work.

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Author: Sienna Haynes

Sienna Haynes

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