In the past, St. Louis and Kansas City were major players in the fashion industry. Their heydays as design and manufacturing hubs ended in the 1970s, but efforts are now underway to fashion a new scene in these two cities.

Models wear the latest gowns at a 1950s show at Sonnenfeld’s department store in St. Louis
Photo courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society

It’s Monday morning. 

Workers spill out of buses and streetcars, hurrying to factories in tall downtown buildings. Their footsteps and voices mingle with those of buyers, sellers, designers, models, and shipping and delivery people, all making their way along crowded streets devoted to the fashions of the day.

Soon, the grind and whir of countless sewing machines will drift from the windows—that is, until the same workers emerge at the end of the day, lining up to catch buses and streetcars and head home. 

Less than a century ago, this was a typical scene in downtown Kansas City or St. Louis. 

At age 90, Gary Swanson remembers the heyday of Kansas City’s garment district. 

Workers at the Donnelly Garment Factory in Kansas City.
Photo courtesy of the Kansas City Public Library

“It was a vibrant, dynamic part of the industry in the ’50s,” says Gary, a retired IBM executive who interviewed former company owners and their descendants for an oral history project for the Historic Garment District Museum and the Kansas City Public Library. 

And St. Louisans still tell Valerie Battle Kienzle, author of the 2021 book Ready to Wear: A History of the Footwear and Garment Industries in St. Louis, about the frenzy around the footwear and clothing manufacturing there. 

“I’ve talked to people who said that area around Washington Avenue was just buzzing with activity,” Valerie says. 

Fast forward a few decades after those post-World War II years, and only scraps remained of a state industry that once competed with the East Coast for shoe and clothing design and production. 

In recent years, historic preservationists and a new generation of activists and entrepreneurs have been bringing revival to the once bustling fashion districts of Missouri’s two largest cities. 

Trendsetting St. Louis 

Founded as a fur-trading post along the Mississippi River in 1764, St. Louis was the first city to evolve into a fashion center.

In the 19th century, steamboats and railroads powered its evolution, transporting goods to and from the growing city, Valerie learned in her research. So did the opening of the Eads Bridge, which spanned the Mississippi River between Illinois and Missouri.

By bringing millions to the River City to see what it had to offer, the 1904 World’s Fair also fueled the industry. 

For the fair, Brown Shoe Company founder George Warren Brown hired little people to model the children’s shoes, and that’s when Buster Brown Blue Ribbon shoes, which were made in St. Louis for decades, were born, Valerie says. 

Brown Shoe Company was far from the sole producer of shoes in St. Louis, though. Washington Avenue was called “Shoe Street USA,” and from the 1920s through the 1940s, there were more than 20 footwear companies in the area, Valerie says. 

In fact, footwear businesses along with the Anheuser-Busch brewery were so successful, they inspired a slogan for the often losing St. Louis Browns baseball team: “First in booze, first in shoes, and last in the American League.” 

By the 1920s though, 161 garment-related companies dominated the 15-block area around Washington Avenue. Besides shoes and clothing, Valerie says they offered everything from “buttons, feathers, lasts, shoelaces—anything you could think of.” 

Feathers? St. Louis was home to hat companies too.

St. Louis became a trendsetter for a new market after the Kline’s Department Store there commissioned Washington University design students to come up with styles to catch the eye of girls and young women. 

“Before that came about, in the early 1930s, young girls dressed pretty much like their moms and grandmas,” Valerie explains. “They were covered from head to toe.” 

Those new designs sold instantly, she says, “and that was the birth of the junior clothing segment.” 

Founded in 1938, Carlye Dress Corporation was a company devoted entirely to the junior market, according to Ready to Wear. So was Toby Lane, founded in 1939. There were others too. 

Another key to Washington Avenue’s prosperity was the strong work ethic of a new population of immigrants, Valerie discovered.

“At the time, German immigration was just crazy in St. Louis,” she says. “At one point, one-third of the population of St. Louis came from Germany.” 

By 1939, fashion generated $2.2 billion in today’s dollars, according to a short documentary by Saint Louis Fashion Fund. That 2017 film is called Light Up the Zipper, a nod to the brick zipper like pattern on Washington Avenue. (You can watch the video at SaintLouisFashionFund.org/garment-district-video.) 

Kansas City Cut from Same Cloth

Across the state, the convergence of transportation and new immigrants was also turning Kansas City into a fashion center. 

With its first centralized depot opening in 1878, then Union Station’s opening in 1914, Kansas City had long been a hub for railroads crossing the Midwest. 

“We were the second-largest transportation hub in the country for shipping—and we still are,” says Lisa Shockley, curator at the Kansas City Museum, which includes the Historic Garment District Museum. 

Dry goods for clothing manufacturing—bolts of fabric and button cards—were already shipping out when refugees began to arrive, first after World War I and again during World War II, Lisa says. Many of these refugees were Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe, and some had been tailors or clothing manufacturers in their home countries. 

“Their businesses had been destroyed because of war,” Lisa says. 

At first, they settled in New York, only to face intense competition from other skilled refugees. 

“And so they started looking around for other places where they could start their own village, their own district,” Lisa says. “There wasn’t a lot of competition here. It was less expensive to come here and start operating. This was before Chicago. LA was still farmland, orange groves. The only major garment district in the country was in New York.” 

There were plenty of customers. Mom-and-pop retail stores dotted the rural landscape. They bought from the Kansas City garment makers, and small town and rural residents bought from the small town retail stores. 

“By coming here, they had a ready-made client base,” Lisa adds. “The clothing manufactured here was primarily sold in theMidwest because it was a region that wasn’t being served.” 

Fashionbilt Garment Company, which Polish immigrant Meyer Present started in 1924, was one such company. It made women’s coats and suits, and its garments were often sold at high-end stores like Saks Fifth Avenue. Another was the women’s clothing manufacturer Fried-Siegel Company (later called Style Line Manufacturing Company), cofounded by Joseph Fried in 1930. 

“They were all entrepreneurs,” Gary Swanson says of the companies’ founders. And their companies, most family owned, did more than make the clothes: They also designed and sold them. 

By the 1950s, as many as 80 garment companies were in operation in Kansas City, Lisa says. Some companies employed as few as a dozen people. 

Then there was the Donnelly Garment Company, located about six blocks away from the main district, that she says employed more than 2,000 people at its factory. Nelly Don, as it came to be known, was founded by Nell Donnelly—later Nell Donnelly Reed—a native of Parsons, Kansas. In 1916, she enlisted friends to help her sew six dozen stylish yet machine washable housedresses. 

Nell Donnelly Reed
Photo courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society

Their appeal?

“You could clean in a Nelly Down housedress but not be embarrassed to answer the door or go to the store to get something,” Lisa says. 

Five years after Nell first sold her designs to a downtown department store, her own company had more than 200 employees. Fifteen years later, the dresses still retailed at $1.98, Lisa says. 

By the mid-1950s, Lisa says, her factory employed more than 2,000 people, and “one in every four dresses was made by the Donnelly Garment Company. This was worldwide; this wasn’t just in Kansas City or the Midwest.” 

Women not only bought many of the garments produced in Kansas City and St. Louis, they also comprised much of the labor force for the industry. Nelly Don, for example, was the largest employer of women in Kansas City, Lisa says. 

Nell recognized this, so as early as the 1920s, she offered her employees free lunches, in-house daycare, and medical care —benefits that remained in place until she retired and sold her company in 1956 and the leadership changed to men, Lisa notes. 

Yet not all employees fared as well, says Valerie. Even though the St. Louis industry was “built on the backs of women,” she says many didn’t earn enough to pay their bills. This was especially true for young unmarried women who came to the city to work. 

“Wages were so low,” she says. “Some resorted to prostitution just to survive. I found that very sad.” 

Even after the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 created a minimum wage and prohibited child labor—which had been prevalent in the factories—working conditions were often uncomfortable. As Valerie promoted her book Ready to Wear, she heard from some descendants of company owners from that time. 

She recalls one gentleman saying, “My grandpa ran a sweatshop.” He meant it literally, as the women worked in oppressive heat in buildings without air conditioning. His grandfather, he told her, encouraged workers to take salt tablets and keep drinking plenty of water from the fountains so they wouldn’t faint on those hot summer days. 

Glory Days to Empty Streets

Despite the less than glamorous aspects of the industry, folks in both cities still fondly remember their glory days.

When Gary Swanson interviewed 46 retired garment district owners from 2004 to 2011 for the Garment Industry Oral History project, Joseph Fried’s son Harvey Fried was among them. 

Harvey, the previous CEO of the Fried-Siegel Company, described the midcentury district as a “hustling, bustling neighborhood.”

As the week began, Harvey says, it was “almost like a New York street scene,” describing buyers milling about and trucks unloading fabric bolts while boxes of coats were carried off to trains and salesmen loaded samples into their cars. 

“During lunchtime, you’d see women who worked in the factories wearing their printed cotton wash dresses. It was hot, and we didn’t have air conditioning, so they wore just the cotton dresses,” Harvey says. “And amidst all that, you’d see high-fashion models, beautifully dressed, with high heels, running up and down the streets carrying their millinery bags, running to a fitting with one designer or to a photo shoot with a photographer for our fashion magazine.” 

Washington Avenue was “teeming,” says Arlen Chaleff, whose father, Sam Chaleff, founded the St. Louis company Toby Lane that made junior dresses. “It was terribly, terribly exciting.” 

Even in 1967, about 12,000 people still worked in the St. Louis industry, Ready to Wear says. 

Then changes came—to the nation and to both cities.

Historians and former industry workers cite several factors that led to the industry’s demise in Missouri. 

In 1957, the streetcar system that once helped transport workers to the Kansas City District ceased operations, Lisa says. Some owners retired and closed their businesses. Nelly Don closed in 1978. 

Unionization drove up production costs too, Lisa says. “Kansas City was a very large union town.” 

In a 2005 interview with Gary, Ann Brownfield, who had spent decades as a designer, first in St. Louis and later in Kansas City, said that companies began to lose skilled sewers as well. 

For both cities, a 1979 bilateral trade agreement with China made it much cheaper to send manufacturing overseas. 

“It became almost impossible to compete, price-wise,” Lisa says, and Valerie agrees that the industry in St. Louis began to fade because of this. 

Yet customers also contributed to the industry’s demise, Gary says, as they began to purchase garments from big-box retailers instead of mom-and-pop stores. 

In Kansas City, he says, “No more did they go to the dry goods store or the Palace [Clothing Company].” 

By the time Valerie, a Nashville, Tennessee, native, married Michael Kienzle and moved to St. Louis in 1980, Washington Avenue “was like a ghost town,” she says, not the busy district Michael’s family, once part of the International Shoe Company, recalled at their gatherings. 

“All the buildings were boarded up, abandoned,” she says.

And when Lisa moved to Kansas City in 1988, she says there were “a lot of empty buildings, a lot of broken windows, a lot of people just hanging around doing things they shouldn’t be doing.”

Once again, the scene in both cities was about the same. 

Fashioning a New Scene 

Then, in the late 1990s, Harvey Fried was working as a photographer and serving on the board of the Downtown Council of Kansas City when artists began to buy the buildings that had once housed garment businesses. 

As they cleaned out the buildings, abandoned years before by business owners, Harvey watched as old inventory and tools of the trade got tossed into the trash. 

“He noticed that they were throwing away sewing machines and fabric and everything,” Lisa says. 

So Harvey contacted Ann Brownfield, the former designer, and Lisa says, “they started dumpster diving.” 

The duo discovered payroll records from the 1920s, “cards and cards of buttons and zippers and notions,” and even company bowling league trophies, says Lisa. 

On their quest to save the history, Harvey and Ann also began contacting others who had worked in the industry, asking if they’d like to donate items for a future museum or take part in the interviews that Gary, who is Ann’s cousin, would be conducting. Ann’s charm and determination helped these efforts, Lisa says. 

“She would call anyone she knew who had worked for these companies,” she says. “Ann was one of those people you couldn’t say no to—and smart and beautiful and a force, a true force.” 

The Needle, a 16-foot-tall sculpture, honors the former garment industry at 8th and Bank Streets in Kansas City.
Photo courtesy of the Kansas City Museum

After enough artifacts had been collected, the Historic Garment District Museum opened at 801 Broadway Boulevard in 2002. Ann became its curator, giving tours of the district as well as the museum. Ann, 93, is now retired.

Harvey died in 2018. However, the recipient of the Downtown Council of Kansas City’s first Urban Hero Award Lived well beyond not only the museum’s opening but also the rejuvenation of the area where his father had once set up shop and which later became dilapidated. 

Kansas City’s garment district isn’t what it used to be, but with buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s coming back, Lisa says—this time as a neighborhood with stylish lofts.

Meanwhile, a decade ago in St. Louis, civic leaders, dreaming about ways to support fashion entrepreneurs and revitalize the city’s once-famed district, established the Saint Louis Fashion Fund, a nonprofit organization with that purpose. 

“Our mission was to bring the business of fashion back to St. Louis,” says Susan Sherman, one of the Fashion Fund’s founders. 

With an eye toward drawing emerging designers to the city for its first two-year business-mentoring program, the organization raised $2 million to ready a historic Washington Avenue building with spaces for cutting, sewing, sales, and studios. 

The first resident designers were recruited from diverse cities such as Dallas, Nashville, and New York, Susan says. They all brought business plans, and one women’s clothing designer, Reuben Reuel, who works for Domestik in Brooklyn, even brought his whole staff to the event. 

“I don’t think any of them had ever been to St. Louis before, but they came,” Susan says, noting that the Fashion Fund leaders helped the recruits find places to live downtown too. 

Fashion shows and sales, along with competitions, brought attention to the designers’ work. 

“It really was a beehive of activity,” Susan says. 

Then, after a second class of designers completed the program, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The organization pivoted to a virtual office but still advocates for 800 businesses, students, designers, and emerging and established brands. 

Now marking its 10th anniversary, Fashion Fund is dedicating a year-long celebration to spotlight 10 fashion-industry partner-events. One of these partners is The Collective Thread, which offers free sewing and design classes to refugees. This nonprofit is located in a Washington Avenue building once occupied by the Marx & Haas Jeans Clothing Company—where 2,000 workers made one million pairs of Rabbit Brand jeans in 1901, according to a National Register of Historic Places nomination form. 

Fashion Fund also collaborated with the brand Caleres to bring designer Michael Kors to Washington University’s campus in April, and it helped sponsor a Missouri Historical Society fundraiser, Threads, which had designers pair historical textiles with modern designs. 

“It’s a beginning, an emergence,” Valerie says. “Thriving, decline, and then rebirth.” 

Find other planned Fashion Fund events throughout the year at SaintLouisFashionFund.org

Featured image courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society

Article originally published in the June 2024 issue of Missouri Life.

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