A hot fashion rivalry is underway thousands of miles from the runways of Milan and Paris. It has nothing to do with couture houses or red carpets. It does not involve a luxury brand poaching the designer du jour from a competitor. The clash arises from recent claims made by boosters for Nashville and Columbus. Each city, it seems, considers itself the fashion capital of the United States, with the very notable exceptions of New York and Los Angeles. Each city, in other words, is vying for third place.
“Columbus is ranked the No. 3 largest metro for fashion designers and is rapidly becoming known as the region to live, work and play everything fashion,” goes a line from an email sent by the publicity firm DCI on behalf of Ohio’s most populous city.
A similar email from a Nashville publicist that recently popped up in my inbox has it that the country music capital, in Middle Tennessee, “now boasts the largest per capita concentration of fashion companies outside of Los Angeles and New York City.”
After puzzling over the dueling claims, I set out to determine which city is worthy of fashion bronze. I quickly found during my travels that both places have a lot going for them. As part of my investigation, I dined at hip restaurants, pawed through the racks at luxury boutiques and met with fashion powers and prospects in both towns.
The New York fashion designer Isabel Toledo and her husband, the artist Ruben Toledo, make regular trips to Columbus, where an exhibition at the Columbus Museum of Art recently celebrated their work. “There’s huge fast-fashion mass-ness and a totally under-the-radar underground scene here,” Mr. Toledo said. “It’s a great mix.”
Over dinner at the Margot Cafe & Bar in Nashville, in the stylish company of Van Tucker, the chief executive of the Nashville Fashion Alliance, and Libby Callaway, a fashion reporter turned Nashville publicist, I learned that Minnie Pearl, the hillbilly granny on “Hee Haw,” was, in real life, a chic Diana Vreeland of the South.
But it wasn’t all gossipy expense-account dinners. I had work to do. My aim was to judge Columbus and Nashville in various categories and, whenever possible, award a winner for each. The final tally would settle the matter. There can be only one third-place finisher, after all.
For the evidence and my ruling, please read on.
Nashville “My take on Nashville fashion is there’s pre-Imogene and Willie and post Imogene and Willie,” said Ms. Callaway, who once covered the industry for The New York Post. “They changed the conversation here.” Indeed, fashion obsessives flipped for the heritage denim label founded in 2009 by Matt and Carrie Eddmenson. So did Gwyneth Paltrow, who became a fit model. The flagship store occupies a converted auto repair shop in the 12 South district, where I saw millennials gingerly handling pairs of $200 straight-leg, cardboard-stiff selvedge-denim jeans. But these days the store is mostly symbolic. In 2015, the Eddmensons moved to Los Angeles, to be closer to their manufacturers. What does it say about a local industry when the most successful brand had to leave to grow?
Columbus After the Cleveland Cavaliers won the N.B.A. finals last year, LeBron James stepped off the basketball team’s plane wearing an Ultimate Warrior T-shirt. Ryan Vesler was as ecstatic that day as the Cavs’ star forward. His retro-inspired T-shirt line, Homage, is the company behind that shirt. The brand started 10 years ago in the basement of Mr. Vesler’s parents’ house in nearby Bexley. It now has 50 employees in its main office in Columbus, six stores in Ohio and Michigan (with a seventh planned for Pittsburgh) and a licensing deal with the N.B.A. Mr. Vesler, who recently secured a $10 million investment from Express, a local brand, called Columbus a “Midwest Mecca,” adding, “I love watching the business grow and offering jobs to people from here.”
Nashville Nicole Kidman, one of numerous local celebrities, may have to do her serious shopping elsewhere. For all of its entertainment-industry wealth, there is no luxury department store within the city limit. But a bustling independent retail scene has sprung up to fill the void, including H. Audrey, Peter Nappi and Billy Reid. But for my money, the city’s saving grace is its three locations of United Apparel Liquidators, the only-in-the-South off-price retailer that sells Chanel, Prada and other luxury goods at ridiculous markdowns.
Columbus You may have heard that shopping malls are going extinct in a retail apocalypse. But that wasn’t the feeling I experienced at Polaris Fashion Place, where two levels of stores hummed with consumerist joy as if it were 1989. Perhaps that’s why brands treat Columbus as Test Market, U.S.A., trying out products there before rolling them out nationwide. After my mall visit, I stopped by Rowe Boutique, an independent shop in the trendy Short North neighborhood. The owner, Maren Roth, worked in the fashion trenches on both coasts before returning to her Ohio roots in 2007, “to bring a little of New York and L.A. to Columbus,” she said. Next month, Ms. Roth and her fiancé, Marc Desrosiers, plan to open KILN, a men’s store, nearby.
Nashville Does working at Singer Sewing Company count as a fashion job? What about in a distribution facility for Under Armour? With few large brands having their headquarters here, fashion jobs are hard to find. But one morning I toured a renovated cabinetmaking factory where Elizabeth Pape designs and manufactures her women’s basics line, Elizabeth Suzann. It was a beautiful workplace: open, tranquil, with 21 employees (all under 30), cutting and sewing. The need here isn’t for designers or publicists but industrial sewers. Across town, in East Nashville, David Perry, a transplant from Los Angeles who is an owner of the clothing boutique Two Son, has big plans. He envisions a factory, a dye house, a fabric supplier. “We’ve got lots of great restaurants, lots of great bars,” Mr. Perry said. “But the fashion scene, it’s in its infancy.”
Columbus For the job seeker, this city resembles a fashion version of “Field of Dreams.” At the Abercrombie & Fitch headquarters in nearby New Albany, Ohio, modern shedlike buildings spread across 500 meadowed acres, with stylish young employees zooming on razor scooters toward the mess hall. “There’s a youthful, campus feeling here,” said Lisa Lowman, a senior vice president of Hollister Design, one of the 2,500 or so employees who work there. Ms. Lowman moved two years ago from Los Angeles, where she worked for Lucky Brand Jeans. Her co-workers are from London, Australia, New York and, yes, Columbus. L Brands (Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Body Works, Henri Bendel) also has its own campus and a work force of more than 7,000 in the Columbus area.
Nashville Savannah Yarborough studied design at Central Saint Martins in London and worked as head men’s wear designer for Billy Reid before setting up shop here. She hand-stitches leather jackets for Wall Street bankers and musicians who can afford to pay $5,000 and up. Her Atelier Savas studio would be impossible in New York, she said: “I’d be on the eighth floor of some building in the garment district with no electricity.” The handbag designer Ceri Hoover started with no apparel background, but, she said, Nashville residents are “friendly, supportive, collaborative.” Ms. Hoover won a local grant to study leather production in Italy.
Columbus When she lived in New York, Celeste Malvar-Stewart designed out of her cramped apartment. In Columbus, she was able to buy a 19th-century building in German Village. She creates eco-conscious wool dresses, pillows and blankets, using dyes she makes herself and wool so local she knows each sheep’s name. Ms. Malvar-Stewart is part of an independent scene that includes Larissa Boiwka of Wilde Hunt Corsetry and Horacio Nieto. Like many who work for the mass brands, Mr. Nieto, a designer for A & F, moonlights on the side. Right now, “the small brands are dwarfed by the big brands,” Ms. Malvar-Stewart said. But in low-cost Columbus, she added, “I feel like I’m more of an artist than I’ve ever been in my life.”
Winner: They are both winners.
Nashville Every serious fashion town needs hip places to stay, and in recent years, boutique hotels here have become, well, a boutique industry. The first to gain acclaim was the 404 Hotel & Kitchen, with five guest rooms and an adjoining restaurant inside a reclaimed shipping container. Then there is the Germantown Inn, with its six suites in a historic 1870s house; Urban Cowboy, a branch of the bed-and-breakfast that started in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; and in the Gulch neighborhood, not far from Jack White’s Third Man Records, is the newly opened Thompson Nashville, which has 224 rooms and three restaurants, including a rooftop cafe that doubles as an Instagram backdrop.
Columbus Le Meridien Columbus, the Joseph hotel opened not long ago in the Short North district. And Columbus residents talk up their first boutique hotel the way new parents gush over their firstborn. “You’ve got to see the Joseph.” “When are you gonna see the Joseph?” O.K., O.K., we saw the Joseph. We stayed there, in fact. There is a bar in the lobby with Illy coffee and an adjoining restaurant, the Guild House, that serves an excellent snapper. But Jack White isn’t likely to walk through that door any time soon.
Nashville What’s a fashion city without a fashion week? Nashville Fashion Week has been happening for seven years, and, at the showing in April, the event featured a mix of locals, like the women’s wear designer Cavanagh Baker and the jewelry maker Judith Bright, and national brands, like Vineyard Vines and Madewell.
Columbus Fashion Week Columbus is scheduled for this October. It appears to have one runway show, a casting call for models and some mixers. But the city also holds Alternative Fashion Week in July, which in past years has included a drag-queen-and-wine pairing. That’s the spirit that once made fashion shows fun. One of the organizers is Kelli Martin, a former “Project Runway” contestant who came back to her hometown and started making “pretty-slash-ugly” punk rock clothes under the name Anti.Label. She reminded me of Iona from “Pretty in Pink.” Ms. Martin, who designs in a downtown office building behind a frosted-glass door, keeps Columbus weird.
Nashville An oft-repeated statistic around here is that 100 people move to Nashville every day, and the fashion tribe will have no trouble finding what it needs to sustain itself. Organic juice bar? Check. Artisanal coffeehouse? Check. Hot yoga studio? Check. Nightclub with D.J.s playing EDM? Check. The cost of living is still low enough to make these things affordable. But with rents and traffic rapidly increasing, will it last? David Perry, the shop owner who left California in his rearview, hopes so. “I tell people, don’t bring L.A. and New York here,” he said. “Leave it back in L.A. and New York.’”
Columbus During my stay, I hit up Pistacia Vera in German Village four times. It was as much a testament to the excellent coffee and croissants as to the limited options in a town that is not yet a go-to place for cold-pressed juices or restaurants serving ingredients grown on the roof. Where Columbus excels, though, is high-culture: an opera company that features vocalists from Juilliard, an arts center at Ohio State University and a museum that has long treated fashion as art.
Nashville When fashion people talk about the man in black, they mean Karl Lagerfeld. To Nashville people, that sobriquet conjures Johnny Cash, whose style was heavy on substance. “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,” he sang in “Man in Black.” The city has also had its share of transgressive style icons. Think of Dolly Parton in her wigs and rouge, an inspiration to drag queens and Vogue editors alike. Or Waylon Jennings, who modeled the “outlaw” look — greasy long hair, rough beard, black leather vest — years before fashion players like Oliver Zahm made sleaze cool. If today’s country stars have opted for a more toned-down look, at least the designer Manuel still has his shop in the heart of town. The tailor known as the “Rhinestone Rembrandt,” who made the famous gold lamé suit for Elvis Presley, has also duded up Gram Parsons, Keith Richards, Dwight Yoakam and Neil Young.
Columbus Charlotte Curtis, the New York Times fashion and society editor who wrote “The Rich and Other Atrocities,” was a Columbus native. The American designer known for his work in the couture tradition, Charles Kleibacker, the “Master of the Bias,” taught fashion design at Ohio State and curated shows at the Columbus Museum of Art. And Leslie Wexner, the billionaire founder of the Limited (now L Brands), “single-handedly changed how America shops,” according to Forbes. But maybe the coolest Columbus fashion icons are fictional — Veronica Sawyer and Jason Dean, the high-school students played by Winona Ryder and Christian Slater in “Heathers.” The 1989 film, set at a fictional suburban Ohio school, is a cult favorite (perhaps especially among the fashion set) for its celebration of ’80s looks and its mean-girl quotability.
I enjoyed my stay in each city so much that it is no easy task for me to name a winner. But the numbers don’t lie: Nashville edged out Columbus, 4 to 3, with a tie in the Indie Talent category.
Perhaps Columbus is Milan to Nashville’s Paris. While the more workaday Ohio city has a flourishing apparel industry, Nashville has more of what a fashion city needs, for good or ill: glamour.