Inside Pratt's New Sprawling Fashion & Design Accelerator

It's equipped with everything from computerized knitting machines to 3-D printers, all at the disposal of 30 design startups.
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Dhani Mau
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It's equipped with everything from computerized knitting machines to 3-D printers, all at the disposal of 30 design startups.
A designer at work at the BF+DA. Photo: Nina Frazier Hansen

A designer at work at the BF+DA. Photo: Nina Frazier Hansen

There's an important new resource for fashion designers in New York and it's about 7.5 miles away from the Garment District.

Tuesday marks the official opening of the Pratt Institute's Brooklyn Fashion and Design Accelerator in a rather uncharted part of South Williamsburg in Brooklyn. The 21,000 square foot space inhabits what was once a pharmaceutical research facility in the Pfizer building. It's industrial, open, airy, and has great views of Brooklyn. But more important than the space itself is the resources it will provide to a total of 30 design startups, some of which had already moved in when we toured the space last week.

In addition to work space, a showroom and a conference room, the accelerator provides "venture fellows," as they're called with business development mentoring and sustainability mentoring, as well as some manufacturing capabilities, which sets it apart from other incubators. There's computerized knitting, digital fabrication, a sample development studio and other small-run manufacturing capabilities. On the high-tech front, there is also a a 3-D fabrication lab with 3-D printers and laser-cutting services. All of the manufacturing will be done with sustainability in mind. 

Debera Johnson. Photo: Nina Frazier Hansen

Debera Johnson. Photo: Nina Frazier Hansen

For Debera Johnson, executive director of the BF+DA, the idea began when she was chair of Pratt’s Industrial Design program. "It occurred to me that we needed this space for students to expand their ideas and to possibly become viable businesses." In 2002, she founded the Pratt Design Incubator for Sustainable Innovation, which grew from supporting one fledgling business to 10-12. Ultimately, she realized that still wasn't enough. A designer came to her with a tricky but not uncommon scenario: "'Barneys just ordered 35 units from me; I can’t find a place to manufacture them because it’s not a big run, but I can’t afford to make them myself because I’m running my business.' That’s where the whole idea of aligning manufacturing and production next to an incubator or accelerator...it would kind of tie those two things together and create a place where people can go from made by me to made by others," Johnson explained. "The goal really was to bridge that gap and take companies that are selling $30,000 a year and turn them into companies that are $500,000 a year and doing it all ethically and responsibly." 

The BF+DA received funding from the state, the city and seed funding from Pratt and plans to be profitable in three years. "We’ll pay Pratt back, but we’ll keep the money from the city and the state," said Johnson with a laugh. The facility also plans to use the money to provide designers with bridge loans. 

Unsurprisingly, the accelerator's leadership team is very selective about who gets in. Deborah Alden, managing director, says there are five main criteria: Design innovation ("Are they bringing something that’s unique to market?"), their mission, a commitment to reducing social and environmental impact, growth potential, and culture fit. "It’s important for us to create a community of people that have a similar value set to create a really generous, giving community," Alden says.

"We have to be careful how we curate the companies coming in so they don’t feel highly competitive, but they feel highly supported and interested," added Johnson.

A small market at the entrance of the facility where you can purchase items made by the fellows. Photo: Nina Frazier Hansen

A small market at the entrance of the facility where you can purchase items made by the fellows. Photo: Nina Frazier Hansen

The designers we spoke to, many of whom has been part of Johnson's sustainability incubator, all mentioned that one of the best things about being in the accelerator is the opportunity to interact with the other designers.

"I feel really supported and the community is really great because I’ve been feeling so isolated working in my home, in my space and it's just nice feeling supported on several levels," enthused women's ready-to-wear designer Suzanne Rae.

"Being in a group of people who are also starting their own business, that’s incredibly helpful," explained Alder New York's David J. Krause. "We’re over here stressing about something and they’re like, 'We did this three months ago.'"

The fellows run the gamut from Alder and Rae, who are both pretty established with multiple retail doors; to Samantha Black who was away filming "Project Runway: All Stars" at the time; to Phelan, a knitwear brand that's still in the development phase; to Wool & Prince, a menswear brand founded by a Wharton alum that's raised about half a million dollars on Kickstarter.

Another factor that differentiates the BF+DA from other design incubators and accelerators is that the facilities are also available to "community members," like other Pratt students and alum, who aren't necessarily a part of the program. In fact, Johnson wants to continue to grow that community and add another 6,000 square foot space for designers to go after they outgrow the accelerator. (There's a three-year maximum for designers to stay there, and each business gets reviewed every year.)

But perhaps the most exciting thing about the BF+DA is not just that it gives young designers the business mentoring they need (and did not receive in school), but its dedication to the future of design manufacturing, with its commitment to sustainability, research and new technologies like 3-D printing and computerized knitting, all of which represent the future of how clothes are going to be made. 

Click through the below gallery to see more from inside the space and check out the website for more info.