Spotlight: Incubating Fashion

By Regina Connell.

Necessity, we know, is the mother of invention.

And it started with this necessity: how to attract the best students to a fashion program at San Francisco’s California College of the Arts?

Image courtesy of CCA

Such was the conundrum faced by Amy Williams, chair of the Fashion program at CCA. She decided to explore the question in-depth in CCA’s Leading by Design Fellows program, an innovation leadership program geared to executives and professionals.

Through ideation, research, modeling, crits, head scratching and soul searching, Amy realized that if she wanted to make it a lot easier to grow the program quickly (it was–and is–doing fine, but since when is “fine” enough?), she had to do something about The San Francisco Problem.

Why would someone come to San Francisco–a city better known for fleece not fashion–for a fashion degree? Why wouldn’t you (if you’re really good) go to Parsons in NYC, and get a step up on a glittering career?

Yes, yes, San Francisco’s does have visual charm. It’s got a reputation as a creative hot bed. It leads trends in lifestyle and industrial design.

And there are six–count ‘em SIX–fashion schools in San Francisco (FIDMCCASF StateAcademy of ArtArt InstituteCCSF.) There are even a couple of “real” clothing businesses in town (GapLevi’s which are headquartered in, they they don’t manufacture in SF) and several well respected small brands with national reach (e.g. WestonWearIsdaBetabrand, and Rickshaw Bags).

In addition, San Francisco’s a place that hot designers (Alexander Wang, Derek Lam) hail from.

Ah, that’s the problem right there, that little word: FROM.

It ain’t NYC. And San Francisco doesn’t have the celebrity juice (or the sheer numbers or manufacturing base) of LA.  Plus San Francisco (and even the larger Bay Area) isn’t exactly cheap to do business in; and the “rag” biz has an insatiable appetite for skilled, expensive craftspeople.

“Our reality is that we no longer have the providers of quality making (factories and workforce) and hence the lack of product build here,” sighed Amy.

“This hits us on all levels: for young designers, it’s the lack of internships and entry-level jobs. For seasoned designers, it means we lack a workforce for manufacturing, shipping, receiving, selling. So SF designers have to outsource to LA, NYC, and have to go “away” for services.”

Image courtesy of CCA

And San Francisco has other, more structural challenges. Think Chambers of Commerce that compete rather than collaborate (Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose).

Think a political culture that has traditionally seemed more pro-homeless than pro-business.

So how to change the image of San Francisco from a bijou backwater to a boutique -power house? “You step on top of a soapbox and yell at the top of your lungs,” says Amy with typical verve. “SF has great roots to be able to do this. But we defer to the big brothers….we focus on what we don’t have. We have to stop doing that.”

Image courtesy of CCA

Taking maximum advantage of the time for focus, the process, and the perspectives the Leading by Design program gave her, Amy got clear about what the market wants and what San Francisco could deliver.

“Think about the Netherlands and Belgium,” said Amy. “They know they can’t take on Paris or Milan, they know they have to be different, have to stand for something different. San Francisco could be the equal of those two [known for their edgy, directional, influential design]…and our brand should be about creative, inventive, sustainable design. It’s true to who we are, and it’s a positioning we can credibly own.”

She also put together a gameplan to deliver on the promise of both sustainability and fashion. Amy rolled up her sleeves and got to work.

Task 1: Walk the Talk. Amy and CCA created the innovative Fashion Sustainability Workshop Series. Created for leaders already in the industry, the goal of the hands-on, intensive series is to help professionals to really understand sustainability, amp innovation skills, and better respond to a tough, fast evolving environment. The idea: if you get leaders in industry requiring sustainability in what they’re doing, you’re going to create demand for some sustainably minded talent. A good start.

Task 2: Make it work (thanks Tim.) All these good ideas need a support system. Enter the Fashion Incubator of San Francisco, which Amy helped found (and on whose board she sits.) Its goal is to nurture young designers, give them an environment in which they can thrive, and build businesses that STAY in San Francisco…thus creating a steady demand for–and hopefully a ready supply of–all those technical skills.

Housed (as its logo says) at Macy’s Union Square, the incubator’s a space there will be turned into a studio with sewing machines (cutting tables, steamers, computers and other essentials. Each year FISF will provide six Designers in Residence where they can create new lines and showcase their collections for merchants, ranging from local boutiques to national retailers.

The program includes a curriculum taught by experts in the San Francisco fashion and economic development communities. Topics will range from business planning, brand marketing and image creation to line costing and design critiques with apparel buyers and department managers. Jury’s out on whether this will work: the Incubator just launched this fall.

But some good news: it seems that along the way, the politicos in San Francisco started listening. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee announced the launch of a FashionSF Economic Development Initiative. In a public statement, the mayor expressed his support for the burgeoning design sector. “FashionSF brings together the private sector, educational institutions and the City to work towards a singular goal – to make San Francisco the pre-eminent location for fashion designer and apparel manufacturers,” said Mayor Lee. “I am committed to ensuring that apparel and design companies of all sizes can start, stay, grow and hire right here in San Francisco, driving job creation for all San Franciscans.”

A nice start. (And of course Amy and the Fashion Incubator are part of it.) But Amy knows that this isn’t enough. To really make something happen, the SF Bay Area needs do something extraordinary: it needs to come together, on all fronts. “We could do so much more.”

Image courtesy of CCA

Like what? Like a serious Design Week, maybe, a more energized Fashion’s Night Out, like a more coordinated marketing and press outreach campaign, like retail outlets promoting SFDesign. Or it could be awards and symposia like The Arts of Fashion , an international fashion competition that (if it doesn’t necessarily highlight SF designers) puts the spotlight on San Francisco.

Or, on a smaller scale, it could use more of the joined up thinking at work at the Yellow Building in San Francisco’s Dogpatch, spearheaded by the likes of Ben and Chris Ospital of (cult store) MAC fame. In addition to featuring a MAC boutigue and food emporia (Piccino restaurant and coffee, DIG wine store) the folks at Yellow Building have partnered with a local philanthropist to host a “Makers-in-Residence” program, which will invite designers and artists from all over to live and manufacture their products on the premises. It’s all part of the story: making the making a more real, tangible thing for consumers so they feel more connected to it. Smart.

The Yellow Building, Dogpatch. Photo Credit: Winni Wintermeyer

But there have to be other ideas out there. How do you craft a mini-industry (in fashion, or anything else for that matter)? What are your ideas?














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