A jump start for design start-ups

In 1849, two young immigrants borrowed money to start a manufacturing business in Brooklyn. As their company, Pfizer, became a global leader in pharmaceuticals, its modest facility grew into a 666,000ft2 factory complex. The massive brick plant became a local landmark, employing generations of Brooklynites.

Credit: Flickr user nycscout via CC by 2.0

Pfizer workers in Brooklyn

But when Pfizer moved out in 2008, the decline of urban manufacturing meant that there was little hope of a similar company taking over the building. Instead, a real estate investment firm transformed it into a multitenant commercial facility that now hosts food start-ups and small nonprofits, among others.

Variations on this story have become common in recent decades as factories and warehouses in urban areas are repurposed for other uses. But this transition isn’t a death knell for American manufacturing; in fact, governments and institutions increasingly see it as an opportunity to encourage its revival.

Credit: Flickr user nycscout via CC by 2.0

The Pfizer building in 2011

One of the Pfizer building’s current tenants offers an instructive example. The Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator (BF+DA), a hub for ethical design, has received funding from the State of New York and the Borough of Brooklyn, in addition to its parent organization, Pratt Institute. Its aim: help design entrepreneurs take root and flourish in the city.

We spoke with BF+DA managing director Deborah Alden to learn more.

When and why was the accelerator founded?

This is all built off the legacy of the Pratt Design Incubator, which Debera Johnson [director of the university’s Center for Sustainable Design Studies and Research] started back in 2002. She would see really great student projects just become portfolio pieces for graduates who would go and try to get jobs somewhere else. She wanted to create a low-risk space where they could see if these ideas could turn into businesses.

Credit: Peter Tannenbaum

Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator studio

Describe what a visitor to your space would find.

We try to provide a whole ecosystem for designers. Basically, we want you to be able to go from idea to prototype to production to market, all under one roof.

The heart of what we do is the accelerator. We have 20 to 25 companies that have studio space on-site, as well as access to a structured mentorship program around business development and reducing social and environmental impact.

In addition, we have an apparel-production lab where we have cut-and-sew facilities as well as computerized knitwear. We have a digital fabrication lab that has 3-D printing and laser cutting. This gives small companies the ability to do smaller productions and prototyping and sampling, which otherwise can be very hard for them to access.

Credit: Peter Tannenbaum

Scaling up production presents a particular challenge for small designers. BF+DA has spaces dedicated to helping its fellows overcome this hurdle.

We have researchers: we’ve based one group on technology, looking at where the industry is heading, and the other on sustainability. The sustainability lab also has a textile library. We have a tool that helps designers understand the impact of a particular garment that they’ve made, for example.

We have a big space for people to convene and have critical conversations. We have a lot of events: educational programming, film screenings, parties.

Credit: Hal Horowitz Photography

What kind of interactions have you had with the local government?

Our initial capital came from the Borough of Brooklyn and the State of New York. We received a grant from Empire State Development this past fall that made us one of 20 New York State–certified incubators. That comes with operational funding, which is really helpful.

We’re continually in conversations and helping shape policy or anything else that we can to create a more fertile environment for entrepreneurs.

Credit: BF+DA

The Sustainability Lab helps designers develop environmentally friendly manufacturing strategies.

What feedback do you hear from them? Why are the city and state interested in supporting this program specifically?

On the design side of things, fashion is one of the biggest economic drivers in New York City. On the production side, manufacturing is a major area of interest. That sector has taken a big hit; how do you raise it back up as an economic driver in the city?

And our fellows are creating jobs. In the first year about 14 or 15 companies were able to grow their revenues by over $850,000, cumulatively. The venture fellows ended up having 40 full-time employees, 25 part-time, and numerous interns during that time.

Credit: Hal Horowitz Photography

BF+DA Venture Fellow Claire Russo, who works with Chinese artisans using traditional dyeing techniques

People outside New York have also been really interested in what we’re doing. We’ve had delegations from probably 40 different countries come through in the last year and a half. Twenty or thirty other higher education institutions and people from other cities have also visited. I would imagine we’ll see a lot more of this kind of support springing up in other places.

Can you say a bit more about how you think about manufacturing? How does the notion of making things in the city manifest itself within your organization?

It’s really important to us. When it happens locally, designers can go and visit the manufacturer and understand what’s going on behind the scenes, how people are being treated. Sometimes it’s appropriate for certain things to be made overseas, but when it’s possible to develop relationships with makers, the design gets richer, the product is better, it’s more sustainable.

So many overseas apparel factories contract out. You don’t know often where your specific products are being sourced from or made. It’s a really opaque chain, and it’s often really difficult to find out. Like in Bangladesh when Rana Plaza collapsed three years ago, killing more than a thousand garment workers and injuring thousands more, some of the big brands claimed that they didn’t know that their stuff was being made there. It’s actually possible that they didn’t, but it’s also their responsibility to understand where things are being made.

Credit: BF+DA

Panel discussion at BF+DA

If you’re trying to help designers make things in today’s New York, what do you need in terms of physical space? How does the design of your space reflect this?

Well, we’re fortunate to be in the old Pfizer building, and our space is the warehouse floor. We did the build-out, making sure we have all the ventilation we need for the 3-D digital fabrication lab, 3-D printers, that sort of stuff. We have lots of windows. Our apparel-production facility gets the best view of the sunset shining right through; it’s not trapped in the Garment District in a windowless building or anything like that. Some of those things we’re really fortunate with based on our location, but that’s why we chose it.

You’ve prioritized having production facilities on-site, but you mentioned that the ability to work with nearby manufacturing facilities is also important for designers concerned about ethics and sustainability. What do you see as a proper balance between in-house and external production?

I don’t think manufacturing has to be colocated with you to be ethical and sustainable and economically viable. It could just be local. Having everything vertically integrated is a luxury that not all brands can afford.

That said, we have seen the benefits of having everything designers need literally within these walls. For example, one of our brands is a knitwear brand that decided to move into more cut-and-sew type of clothing. She had always worked with yarn, and now it was like, how do you source fabrics, how do you make patterns for cut-and-sew?

She could just walk down the hall and meet with one of our sustainability advisors and talk to her about sourcing. We know her style so can very quickly help her find sustainable textiles that fit her values but also her style and taste. Then she could work with our production lab right down the hall. Whenever a question comes up, she can just talk to Maya, our pattern maker.

Credit: BF+DA

Monthly happy hour

Those relationships have given her more confidence and saved her time and money. They give her the opportunity to experiment and take more risks — things you cannot typically do much of when you’re an emerging brand.

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