When the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) announced its Fashion Incubator in 2009, it was with the intention to create a blue-chip support system for the next generation of American designers. For nearly a decade, the initiative handpicked fledgling labels to complete a two-year residency program, offering mentorship opportunities, business advice and perhaps most alluringly, subsidized studio space in Manhattan's Garment District.
By 2017, as its fourth and final class was on its way out, the program itself was ending, too, and in 2018, the CFDA rebooted its accelerator model into a more democratized digital platform called "The Network," open to all active CFDA members.
Today, some of the CFDA's Fashion Incubator designers have become bona fide industry leaders in their own right. Others are no longer in business at all. But for those eight years, the concept of a fashion incubator was in its golden age here in the U.S. And it wasn't just the CFDA getting in on the action: Big-name and highly-profitable fashion and beauty organizations like Sephora, Nordstrom and Kering started adopting incubator-like programs, as well. Some of those projects are still kicking — Sephora Accelerate only just announced its 2020 member brands this past June — while others are, well, not.
Then, a pandemic hit. The novel coronavirus shined an industrial flood light on the many long-standing pain points within the fashion industry. It took a global reckoning to prove, undeniably, just how broken the system is, and it's going to take a force of the same momentum to rebuild it from the ground up. Could incubators — big and small, in all corners of the country — resurface to lead the way?
"Covid-19 has quickened the success or the failure of a company," says Pano Anthos, founder and managing director of XRC Labs, an accelerator for disruptors in retail technology and consumer goods. "If they were headed toward failure anyway, they just move there faster. If they were headed toward success, they're accelerating their success. It clarifies whether this product, and its technology for that matter, has legs or not."
XRC Labs doesn't work in fashion explicitly, but it does invest in startups that could radically upgrade the ways in which the industry functions. In four years, Anthos and his partners have invested in roughly 80 companies across supply-chain logistics, manufacturing technology, consumer brands, e-commerce marketplaces and user experiences, among other sectors.
It's partnered with Billie, an Instagram-friendly razor brand that's also secured $35 million in funding to scale into the next great personal-care company. But it's also worked with Gather, the world's first software-only autonomous inventory management tool for modern warehouses.
In a health crisis that thrives in close, indoor contact, warehouses have become a hot-button issue. With Gather, which is largely powered by drones, what used to take employees two hours can be done in an automated eight minutes. It's not a catch-all substitute for human employment, but it could serve as a safeguard against future circumstances that might keep workers from physical distribution centers. Less morbidly, it also just streamlines inventory monitoring, the processes for which can often be botched.
"We're so far behind the curve," says Anthos. "We're doing something the same old way over and over again, expecting a different result. And that's the definition of insanity."
Incubators, tasked with fostering the future, have their work cut out for them, and XRC Labs's focus is just one piece of the 3,000-piece quarantine puzzle (which are chic now, by the way).
Jackie Trebilcock is the managing director of New York Fashion Tech Lab (NYFTLab), a business-development program for women-led startups. Like XRC Labs, the organization is not quite capital-"F" Fashion: It selects a cohort of fashion-focused technology companies and connects them with fashion retailers to advance the industry from within. If said retailers — which run the gamut from LVMH and Estée Lauder to Bloomingdale's and Macy's — like what they see, they'll link up with the startups directly in whatever capacity they see fit.
"I spend a lot of time talking with any and every retailer wanting nothing more than to say, 'I just want you to know that we exist,'" says Trebilcock, who previously worked in brand development at Hearst Magazines. "And, 'If you're looking for something, here's companies that we can stand behind. What they're doing could help you.'"
NYFTLab has found success in its hyper-specificity, focusing on proprietary technology that could benefit retailers and brands. But despite its narrow focus, there's much variety to the types of companies the group supports. Visual search, AR and consumer analytics are all on the table. So is fit technology, the likes of which many retailers scrambled to assemble in March when their brick-and-mortar locations began to close.
"There are several virtual-fit companies that have gone through our program, but it took a pandemic for people to use them," says Trebilcock. "For years, companies have been saying, 'Take a picture of yourself and you can see yourself in an entire product category online!' That can be hard for people, but if you have no choice, you'll do it."
As the world spins faster toward complete digitalization, technological innovations remain a key solution to fashion's fundamental inefficiencies. But warehouse drones are a Band-Aid fix on some of the industry's more systemic issues, including the racial inequity, marginalization and oppression upon which the industry was built.
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As Brother Vellies' Aurora James, who started the 15 Percent Pledge campaign to support Black-owned businesses, told The Atlantic in July: "If you systematically created your business with the intent of celebrating certain ideals, and everything has been built on that structure, then it's rotted from the root."
One way fashion can commit to removing that rot is by amplifying those voices that have long been stifled across both race and class lines, and sweepingly so.
NISM — which calls itself part incubator, part design studio — is aiming to disrupt that racial discrimination firsthand. On the incubator front, the Los Angeles-based organization partners with multiple breakout designers, all of whom are BIPOC, and allows them full creative autonomy of their own line. But what sets NISM apart from its more traditional incubator colleagues is that it also provides all production capabilities, not just resources or design space, from the physical fabric to the construction of the finished garments. NISM then launches its designers' limited-edition capsule collections via a direct-to-consumer model on its website.
"The industry is completely dominated by one voice, so in order to differentiate ourselves, we want to bring out those voices that haven't had the opportunity to be in the forefront," says NISM founder and CEO Anmol Narula. "Fashion has been really successful in exploiting minority culture, but not necessarily in supporting and amplifying that culture. And there are not enough designers who have been given the opportunity to create the culture they can here."
Over in the Midwest, Saint Louis Fashion Fund (SLFF) launched its incubator program with a splash back in 2016, and for the last four years, has hosted designers at its 7,500-square-foot workspace in the city's Garment District.
From the late 19th century through the end of World War II, Saint Louis was second only to New York in garment manufacturing. One stretch of the city's Garment District, Washington Avenue, once claimed more shoe manufacturers than any other street in the world. SLFF co-founder Susan Sherman likes to say that fashion is as important to the fabric of Saint Louis as baseball and beer. But the pandemic forced SLFF to close its physical doors, announcing in July that it would be leaving its signature downtown studio space.
"No one had sales," says Sherman. "People didn't really know how to immediately pivot to direct-to-consumer. I mean, it was just really difficult. But the pandemic really gave us time to look at our bottom line and really assess our mission going forward — how we can have the greatest impact for Saint Louis."
Right now, that looks like economic development: Between March and April, nearly 400,000 Missourians had filed for unemployment, and Sherman dreams of a world in which SLFF may be able to create a waterfall of jobs by bringing more manufacturing to Missouri. Not only does Saint Louis offer tax credits to those businesses that relocate to the Show-Me State, but it's damn affordable: You can get $3 per square foot, while in Manhattan's Garment District, renters can expect to pay a cool $82 for the same space.
"People need jobs and people do want to leave the coasts," says Sherman. "We just feel like it might be our time. I've always tried to make the point that, yes, you have the CFDA, but how can we play a bigger role? We're a part of the conversation. How can we do more? Please call on us."
SLFF has already clocked a major win: In May 2019, Saint Louis welcomed a first-of-its-kind, technology-driven knitwear factory to a 30,000-plus-square-foot warehouse space in the Grand Center Neighborhood, nabbing its business over cities like New York and Detroit.
With revolutionary developments coming out of all corners of the country, the onus remains on fashion's old guard to listen. This is already occurring in France, at least technologically: LVMH has operated an accelerator program for international startups since the spring of 2018. Like NYFTLab, La Maison des Startups LVMH works with early-stage companies creating forward-thinking progress for the luxury industry, and then applies their final products to the 75 brands beneath LVMH's umbrella. Now just think about what might happen if those services could be automatically applied to every fashion and retail brand.
"When the lockdown happened, we had to close many of our boutiques, but the group continues to work," says Laetitia Roche-Grenet, LVMH's director of open innovation. "It's a time where you need to innovate a lot more than ever. The pandemic has allowed us to be more impactful. What matters is that we use it as an opportunity."