Austin Fashion Initiative Brings Creative Professionals Together to Amplify Local Fashion Industry
The networking community connects fashion designers with Austin entrepreneurs
Words and photos by Holly Cowart
Jennifer Millspaugh has always loved fashion, but it was never just about what you put on your body. Dressing up meant special occasions tied to beloved memories and the ability to not only showcase your personality, but your community. It wasn’t until she began looking at fashion academically that it would become a part of her career.
It started with research — hours upon hours spent in the library combing through articles. She noticed that while there was plenty to find on high-end designers with well-established international success, there really wasn’t accessible information on entrepreneurship and what it meant to create a fashion brand from scratch. Then, while earning her PhD in London, the industry model began to change. Emerging and independent brands weren’t relying on top retailers to make big bucks like their predecessors; they were selling direct-to-consumer.
“The number one thing that made people successful — it wasn’t money,” she explains. “It was their network. It was the relationships that they formed.” Millspaugh began to wonder how she could use these insights to help grow and invest in businesses within this space.
When she returned to Austin in 2017, she experienced the power of networking first-hand.
“I saw that Candice Digby, who I took one class with in college, had launched Austin Design Week. So I reconnected with her and said ‘I have this idea, what do you think?’” Where she could have been turned away, Millspaugh’s plan was met with immediate enthusiasm and before she knew it, Candice was introducing her to various contacts and helping her prepare to host her very first meet-up.
Thus, Austin Fashion Initiative was born. The consulting and networking organization has since brought together countless creatives, and works directly with companies to develop scalable e-commerce strategies, strengthen branding and rethink the longevity of business models so they’re set up for success. Before COVID-19, AFI relied heavily on collaborations and events, eventually hosting up to one per month. Although the in-person component has been momentarily put on pause, Millspaugh still continually finds ways to help local entrepreneurs who are ready to take their idea to the next level, or at least connects them with someone who can.
“And that seed of a relationship can turn into a business, a collaboration, a new opportunity.” As for Austin’s sense of style and place within the industry as a whole? Millspaugh shares, “I’m really excited about Austin and its potential for fashion. We have people in the industry moving here from all over the world. And they’re moving here for the lifestyle, so that says a lot.”
“And I like mixing things that are very elegant and high-end and also very casual and easy to live in,” she continues. “If you look at our arts scene, we’re home to an opera, a symphony, a ballet. We have this elevation of fine art, and yet at the same time it’s casual and accessible and welcoming. There’s a kindness to it. I feel like if you can bottle all of those things up into a fashion aesthetic, that’s how I look at Austin.”
For many, there are still gaps in understanding how to turn their passion for style into a self-sustaining business. But Millspaugh sees this as an opportunity to invest in her community’s potential and future innovation. The benefits that come from simply connecting with like-minded individuals and developing relationships can be life-changing. Even now, after ten years out of touch, she finds herself taking weekly walks with Candice and chatting about business, design and life.
“You’re just paying it forward. That’s what AFI is,” she says. “It’s this mechanism to be able to make a connection and create this continuous momentum. And if I can play one small part in helping the city that I love, it just makes me so happy.”