NEW YORK - Six months ago, former Philadelphian Bob Bland opened a fashion incubator in New York City's Garment District where emerging designers could hash out ideas, compare notes on notions, and learn how to build profitable brands.
Now, Manufacture New York is aiming by year's end to open its $3.5 million, 160,000-square-foot Brooklyn Manufacturing Center.
There, designers will be able to do what Philadelphia-based artists can only wish for: produce the exact number of pieces they need (with only reasonable minimums to meet) and have access to skilled workers who know both old-school cut-and-sew techniques as well as newfangled laser-cutting and screen-printing technology.
The dream space will be one floor of Liberty View Industrial Plaza, a 1.2-million-square-foot renovated warehouse building in Brooklyn's Sunset Park.
"This is going to create over 280 jobs," said Bland, the founder of indie brand Brooklyn Royalty, and, although you might be fooled by her first name, a woman. Her designer dossier also includes jobs at Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, and Banana Republic. "We are going to integrate every part of the fashion supply chain: textiles, specialty finishes, patterns, grading, cutting, even digital printing."
Bland, 31, lived in Philadelphia from 2009 to 2011. The grim post-recession economic landscape, coupled with few options for local manufacturing, sent her packing back to New York.
On a Tuesday afternoon during New York Fashion Week, Bland is flanked by Manufacture New York's chief strategy officer, Rob Sánchez, and its CFO, Nelis Parts, a Wharton grad. They are taking a quick break from Launch NYC, the pop-up runway, showroom, and retail space where emerging designers are presenting their New York Fashion Week collections. Because most young designers can't afford to produce shows at Lincoln Center, Bland struck a deal with photo and electronics company Adorama to sponsor the conversion of a building on West 17th Street.
Bland hopes Manufacture New York becomes a model for other cities, including Philadelphia.
Elizabeth Wellington: How is Manufacture New York different from other fashion incubators?
Bob Bland: Our friends at the [Council of Fashion Designers of America] incubator are doing incredible work with designers who are more established. We look at tech incubators and tech accelerators as our model. We are connecting the complete supply chain and providing business development, product development, resources and training, shared industrial workspace, state-of-the-art computer labs, conference rooms, and front-desk services.
Q: And the manufacturing facility?
A: Absolutely. We are going to get 28 to 30 manufacturers. And it will be anchored by a 30,000-square foot incubator space.
Q: What will happen to your incubator space in the Garment District?
A: We are going to keep the Garment Center pilot program on 36th Street as a showroom. We are committed to the Garment District. . . . But there are a lot of designers that need high-quality, affordable space that is cheaper.
Q: How did this become your dream?
A: I became really passionate about it from seven years of killing myself trying to make Brooklyn Royalty [Stateside] and never seeing any changes. Nothing ever got better! So I just woke up, and I was like, 'You know what? I've got to stop complaining and I've got to do it.' I put my Brooklyn Royalty line on hold. . . . I really think a project like this has to be started by a designer.
Q: How did you get the start-up money?
A: We raised $40,000 on [crowdfunding website] Indiegogo.com in March 2013, and we raised $20,000 from our fiscal sponsor Fractured Atlas. All totaled, after fees [to Indiegogo], we had about $50,000, and we used that to build out the incubator. (The $3.5 million Brooklyn build-out will come from a combination of grants from New York City and financing from Salmar Properties, the real estate company behind Liberty View Industrial Plaza.)
Q: Is there a manufacturing crisis? Why does this seem like something people are just noticing?
A: It's been hard for a really long time. People started noticing in 2012, and 2013 was the tipping point, not only for emerging designers, but the whole made-in-the-USA movement. . . .
[We were coming out of a] time if you were not a celebrity, or didn't have a trust fund, then you shouldn't even bother starting a line. We lost an entire generation of talented designers. It's really wasteful to educate kids in the best design schools in the country and then not teach them the business-development practices they need to start their own line.
Q: Can you compare Philadelphia to New York when it comes to manufacturing?
A: Philadelphia is incredibly vibrant when it comes to the talent, creativity, and when it comes to taking risks. But when it comes to manufacturing, Philly is in a bad place right now. . . .
[When I was there], I definitely tried. I had my denim produced at Sarah Van Aken's facility. [Van Aken had to shutter her Kensington sewing facility in December after she ran out of money spending resources on training sewers.] I tried all of the options in Philly. . . . But the New York story is not the Philly story. What we want to do is turn the New York story into the story for Philadelphia, or Boston, or Chicago.
Q: What would it take for you to open a Philadelphia facility?
A: We've gotten a lot of feedback from Philadelphia designers. What would we need? Tax credits are helpful, but not enough. We would need state or city funds to help with capital improvements and economic development. What I would prefer is to get money for capital improvements on a preexisting building. What we really want to do is work with cities that are invested in manufacturing growth.