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November 20, 2017
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A hybrid fashion incubator, Manufacture New York. "Source: manufactureny.org."

Upon seeing the word 'incubator', I was immediately reminded of the countless hours spent in white-clad laboratories during my Biology studies. The primary purpose of the incubator in these environments is to provide optimal conditions to grow and maintain cell cultures. Albeit a different context, business incubators work in a similar way.

The concept of the business incubator first came about in 1959, when real estate developer Joseph Mancuso created the Batavia Industrial Center in response to the closing of Massey-Ferguson tractor factory in Batavia, New York - the city's largest industry at the time. Mancuso bought the building and rented out the space to different businesses, which he would ultimately nurture by providing business advice and helping raise capital.

Inside Manufacture New York space. Photography by Alex Sarabia.
Manufacture New York space in the
Garment District. Photography by Alex Sarabia.

Similarly, a fashion incubator's primary purpose is to help launch and sustain an emerging designer's business by providing the tools and resources needed. These incubators can come in many forms. For example, the CFDA {FASHION INCUBATOR} program provides designers with low-cost design studio space, networking opportunities, business advice and mentoring. In other cases, the incubator can be elaborate and include the manufacturing facilities and equipment needed to actually produce designs, such as those offered by the Chicago Fashion Incubator.

In New York alone, there are several incubators, including the Pratt Institute's Brooklyn Fashion and Design Accelerator, LaGuardia Community College's NY Designs, and most notably, Manufacture New York, which when completed, will be the biggest fashion incubator in New York.

Seeing the word 'incubator' in a different context and industry from the environment that I was used to, proved particularly interesting in learning about the conditions that are considered by the fashion industry as being optimal or necessary for the growth and success of a designer. Incubators offer a working space, along with providing all the components necessary to run a business in-house - from the supply chain and manufacturing aspect to the sales and marketing end.

Fashion incubators are not a particularly new concept. The very first fashion incubator was conceived in 1986 in Toronto, at a time when the fashion industry was the city's second-largest industrial employer. With substantial government support (due to the importance of the fashion industry to the city's economy), it proved to be a success. Laurie Belzak, an economic development officer with the City of Toronto, told The New York Times in September 2012: "Research shows that the T.F.I. [Toronto Fashion Incubator] has created 15,000 new Canadian jobs [since it first began]."

Now, many cities around the world are trying to emulate the success of the Toronto Fashion Incubator in order revitalise their respective waning fashion industries.

As stated on the TFI website, the Fashion Industry Liaison Committee (FILC), a volunteer industry organisation supported by the City of Toronto's Economic Development Division, "proposed that a fashion incubator could stimulate business growth and ensure vitality in the industry." Now, many cities around the world are trying to emulate the success of the Toronto Fashion Incubator in order revitalise their respective waning fashion industries.

New York City is one such city working towards improving their fashion industry. This may be surprising, given that New York is viewed globally as one of the premier fashion capitals of the world. However, there has been a surge of outsourcing abroad in recent years, which has contributed to this decline.

According to the American Apparel and Footwear Association, in 1960, 95% of all clothing sold in the U.S. was manufactured in the country. In 2011, that number has dropped to only 3%. 

Manufacturing locally has been an important aspect of the New York fashion industry throughout history. The Garment Center, also known as the Garment District, is a city-protected area within Midtown Manhattan that was designed to retain apparel factories and manufacturing jobs. It was once a place where designers produced their lines by working closely with Garment Center factories, whose owners helped mentor and nurture their business. 

Yet with this decrease in American clothing manufacturing, emerging designers trying to set up their own fashion labels have found themselves struggling. Today, they have to deal with the problems created by the lack of resources available to produce locally, as well as on small production runs. Outsourcing to foreign manufacturers isn't cost-effective or practical for an emerging designer, since they require large minimum order requirements.

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Americans are certainly interested in buying 'Made in America' products though. As reported last month by Stephanie Clifford for The New York Times, Americans "want to buy American, even if it hits them harder in the pocketbook." As such, there are currently various initiatives in place to revitalise both the Garment Center and the existing New York City factories in order to meet the domestic manufacturing demand. This includes organisations such as Save the Garment Center and the Fashion Manufacturing Initiative, launched by Council of Fashion Designers of America in partnership with Andrew Rosen, founder of Theory and the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

CEO and founder of Manufacture New York, Bob Bland. Source: crainsnewyork.com.
CEO and founder of Manufacture New York,
Bob Bland. Source: crainsnewyork.com. 

Bob Bland, the CEO and Founder of the Manufacture New York fashion incubator, realised through first-hand practical experience with her clothing line Brooklyn Royalty, that the deteriorating fashion manufacturing infrastructure in New York needed to be revamped completely. Bland told The Genteel: "Manufacturing in New York had gone from difficult to nearly impossible. We have seen incredibly successful lines that deserve to exist, that are innovative and inspiring, going out of business."

Bland first started pitching the idea for Manufacture New York incubator in 2012, with the aim of supporting the emerging and independent designers of this generation, as well as to provide a strong foundation for designers of the next. Recognising the need to connect the dots between all aspects of starting a fashion business - from conceptualising and producing a collection to sales and marketing - Bland decided to create a fashion incubator that contained everything a designer needs for their project.

The flagship Brooklyn location for Manufacture New York, which is scheduled to open in 2014, will include 40,000 square feet of space dedicated to Manufacture New York members, plus an additional 120,000 square feet for 28 manufacturers from different areas of design. Designers who fit the criteria (which are currently being determined by Bland and her team) will pay a monthly fee of $275 for access to an industrial sewing room, computer labs with design programs such as Adobe Suite readily available, conference rooms, a photo studio and a showcase factory.

Additionally, there will be a technology annex that will have the latest equipment in design development (such as 3D printers) and facilities for those who are passionate about fashion and technology to innovate their ideas.

Manufacturing in New York had gone from difficult to nearly impossible. We have seen incredibly successful lines that deserve to exist, that are innovative and inspiring, going out of business.

Through grassroots and crowd-funding efforts, Bland was able to raise USD $40,000 through an Indiegogo.com campaign and another USD $20,000 from fiscal sponsor Fractured Atlas, in order to fully realise Manufacture New York. Additional funding for the incubator is currently coming in a steady flow from the city and the state, with potential for national contributions in the near future, as the demand for domestic manufacturing begins to rise.

For Bland, building a dream team with serious credentials behind her was also essential in getting Manufacture New York off the ground. "Every single person on my team has diverse and wide-ranging talents that don't really overlap with each other. Everyone on the team is essential and we can all be doing something amazing in our own right (and we were), so bringing us all together on a team - that's the magic. That's what the industry needs," explained Bland.

Currently, the Manufacture New York team has been testing out their business model through the Garment Center Pilot Program in Manhattan, a mock-up version of the actual Brooklyn flagship, to work out all the kinks that could potentially arise in the Brooklyn facility. The pilot program currently houses 20 designers (15 fashion designers and 5 jewellery designers) in a bid to show that the model works, but also as a means of studying work-flow patterns, test usage of facilities and gain a better understanding of what the emerging and independent designer needs.

"We are all about fairness, transparency and inclusivity. These are the major tenants of Manufacture New York. What needs to happen in the industry, really, is that everyone needs to have a chance. If you're hard-working, dedicated and educated in fashion, experienced in the industry, passionate about a line that has a demonstrated customer and has some sales, you should be able to make a living making a line here in New York City. That is the premise of Manufacture New York."

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