Feature: Austin Style
A conversation about Austin’s next big industry with the director of ACC’s Fashion Incubator Nina Means and boutique owner, Alta Alexander
by Anne Bruno
Photographs by Jessica Pages
While Austin has always enjoyed a reputation for cultivating its own style, it would be a stretch to call the city home to a serious fashion industry. But according to those in the know, that’s about to change. As happened with music, film, and technology, Austin’s creative culture is charting a new path, and the fashion sphere is witnessing some game-changing moves. We sat down for a chat with two people in the midst of it all.
Alta Alexander, the founder of Altatudes, Austin’s first African-American-owned upscale boutique, displays both the energy and enthusiasm entrepreneurs are known for. Living in Austin for most of her life, Alexander, a graduate of Huston-Tillotson University, started in retail, then spent much of her early career in public relations and state government. In September 2017, she realized a life-long dream of owning her own boutique, where she curates a collection of high-end clothing and luxury goods offered with personalized service.
Nearly two years ago, Nina Means moved to Austin from New York City, and in February she was named the director of Austin Community College’s Fashion Incubator. Means, whose foray into design came a”er she had already received a master’s degree in public health, took a leap of faith and followed her heart to Italy and New York to study fashion. She went on to found her eponymous label, designing elegantly minimal women’s clothing. Means finds Austin a fresh contrast to the way the fashion business operates on the East and West coasts.
What about Austin makes it the right place to become the country’s next fashion industry hub?
ALTA ALEXANDER: Austin is unique, and it’s coming into its own in a fashion sense. Style has always been part of Austin, but not like it is now; the city’s stepping up and putting itself out there, making fashion important. We do everything in our own way here, and that’s a good thing — it’s authentic. And people gravitate to that.
NINA MEANS: I think Austin is poised to do things differently in the fashion business. Houston and Dallas have tended to follow more of a traditional mold, but in Austin, everything is done true to the city’s personality. I like the stubbornness in that; it’s nice to see how sure we are about doing things in a way that fits Austin’s culture.
Plus, there are so many designers here, more than most people realize. There’s a real opportunity to cultivate connections and community and build our own fashion eco-culture in an Austin way. New York kind of forces you into a certain mold — how many hours you work, how intense the interactions are. Here, it’s more collaborative. There’s a supportive and nurturing spirit.
How have you seen Austin’s spirit of collaboration and support manifest itself?
AA: I believe women are feeling more empowered to do our own thing, and when others see it, they surround and support you.
NM: That’s so true. I feel like when you’re where you’re supposed to be, you get enveloped in that space. In Austin, I quickly found a community that was very supportive of what I was doing.
AA: Nina is a natural connector, and I’m someone who loves bringing people together. She connected me with Black Women Design, which is a group started by Jennifer Hopkins of Jennifer Lovena Textiles. I was honored to host the group’s first meeting at Altatudes. We’re sharing the different experiences we’ve learned from, talking about benchmarks, asking each other questions.
NM: This is when you see how powerful women coming together can be.
Making connections sounds important to both of you. How did you meet each other?
We’re all chameleons. I love that about fashion.”
AA: From the beginning, I wanted my boutique to be diverse, and I wanted to be sure I had an African-American designer that spoke to my aesthetic. I was at market in Dallas and happened upon Nina by chance, working in the showroom at Fashion Industry Gallery. I asked her if she knew any African-American designers.
NM: I said, “Yes, actually, I do!” I had already moved to Austin, but having entered the business as a designer in New York, I didn’t have the sales experience, so I was working in the showroom to see that side of it firsthand. We started talking; Alta said she was in Austin, and I said I was in Austin. It was incredible how quickly things lined up and we connected. It really was meant to be.
Tell us how you see what we wear affecting the way we feel.
NM: Fashion is emotional. I believe women need to feel a certain way when they get dressed in the morning, like they own themselves and are authentic in the way they’re putting themselves out there. One of the tenets of my design brand is women empowering women, so whatever I can do to give women that feeling of confidence, like a superior fit, is my goal. A great fit can be challenging, because we all come in so many different shapes and sizes, but as a designer who’s committed to women, it’s my job to take that on.
AA: When I do styling and personal shopping, I can go into someone’s closet and pull out what works and what doesn’t with ease. But doing it for myself is the most challenging thing ever, and it’s because of those emotional connections. I’m really passionate about people understanding themselves, and then once they do, the doors are wide-open. Fashion is all about emotion. What I wear depends on how I feel that day and what’s on my schedule, but I’m always going to extend my personality through my clothing. We’re all chameleons. I love that about fashion.
In addition to curating and designing beautiful clothing, what gives you satisfaction in your work?
AA: Believe me, it’s not just the sale. Seeing the transformation when someone goes into the dressing room, puts something on, and then steps out feeling beautiful is the best part! You can see it in her face, how she walks. When something in my boutique makes a woman feel great about herself, it brings me great joy. And whatever I do has to have a deeper meaning behind it, not just for myself but also for my community. Like having Altatudes in East Austin on 12th Street and contributing to the revitalization of this historic corridor, and giving back through our first annual Hearts and Handbags event with women helping young girls embrace their own self-worth.
NM: I especially love working with women-owned businesses. For so long, women business owners were overlooked or assumed to be not as good as their male counterparts, or they’ve simply had to unduly prove themselves. I take every opportunity to support women photographers, filmmakers, and those who are developing the industry. I also serve on the board of Conscious Couture, an organization based in Dallas that combines fashion and philanthropy to support the fight against human trafficking. When I was approached to participate, I knew immediately that I wanted to get involved.
What’s your response to those who think of fashion as nice but not necessary?
There’s a real opportunity … to build our own fashion eco-culture in an Austin Way.”
AA: Whenever I hear someone say fashion is just fluff or it doesn’t lend itself to important things, I explain how every facet of STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] is a part of fashion. I believe it’s especially important for young people considering a career in fashion to understand this. As a business owner, you have to think about the whole picture — there’s a lot to balance. The fashion world has so many arms, and regardless of what part of it you’re working in, there are multiple business components you have to pay attention to.
NM: That’s absolutely true. When people say they don’t care about fashion, I’m reminded of the scene in “The Devil Wears Prada” where Miranda explains how everyone participates in fashion, they’re just not always cognizant of it. It’s a multibillion-dollar industry that requires many disciplines to take a piece of clothing from concept to the rack. We think of the artistic skills, but you have to be adept in managing costs as well. You might assume 90 percent of a designer’s day is sketching, sewing, and draping, but that may only be 15 or 20 percent, because most of what I’m doing is negotiating, cost-bidding, traveling, and sourcing materials.
How would you like to see the future of Austin’s fashion industry evolve?
NM: I want to see a complete fashion industry ecosystem here: buyers able to buy, designers ready to go to market, greater workforce development with new technology so we’re teaching people how to have viable, sustainable jobs and gainful employment. I’d like Austin to be able to scale businesses and support additional manufacturers so we can locally meet the demands of stores like Altatudes. Designers should be able to stay and work here rather than going to New York. We have the opportunity to build a fashion industry we’re proud of with sustainable features near and dear to Austin’s heart. That’s my goal with the Fashion Incubator. It can have a far-reaching impact and serve a larger community need. At the end of the day, all you want to do through your cra” is have an impact on the world for the better and make a difference. AA: That’s totally on point. I always want to make a difference in whatever I’m doing. And I’ll just add that I’d love to see more local designers who are able to stay and produce here in Austin, because I’d love to carry them! I’m curating from around the globe, but it would be wonderful to make available right here in East Austin more completely Austin-created pieces. We say “Keep Austin Weird,” but I think it’s about keeping Austin real. I’m proud of our authenticity and individuality. I want people to experience everything Austin has to offer.
AA: That’s totally on point. I always want to make a difference in whatever I’m doing. And I’ll just add that I’d love to see more local designers who are able to stay and produce here in Austin, because I’d love to carry them! I’m curating from around the globe, but it would be wonderful to make available right here in East Austin more completely Austin-created pieces. We say “Keep Austin Weird,” but I think it’s about keeping Austin real. I’m proud of our authenticity and individuality. I want people to experience everything Austin has to offer.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Read more from the Spring Style Issue | April 2018