Fashion Incubators Pop Up in the Midwest

April 22, 2011

by Micki Maynard and Erica Hunter

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(Photo by changinggearsRMB via Flickr)

There’s a shop on Michigan Avenue in Chicago that has exclusive designs and it’s only open until Saturday. But you might not have heard of any of the designers. That’s because they’re getting their start through a fashion incubator. These programs are popping up across the Midwest, with various degrees of success.

WBEZ’s Erica Hunter, an expert on the Chicago fashion scene, provided Changing Gears with a look at fashion incubators.

In most cases, a fashion incubator is a non-profit organization that offers workspace, resources, mentoring and sometimes a curriculum for aspiring designers.

One Midwest city that’s having much success is Chicago. For the past three years, Chicago’s fashion scene has been bustling with trunk and fashion shows displaying clothes by local designers and much of this buzz is because of the success of Chicago’s fashion incubator which began in 2008.

"Our programming has been so successful because of the support of the community to be totally honest," said Lara Miller, director of Chicago’s Fashion Incubator.

"Chicago as a fashion industry is under the radar manufacturing hub. People don’t realize how much manufacturing is actually here. But there’s quite a lot of that available to young designers," she said.

Donaldo Smith is one of those young designers who just finished his year as a designer in residence at Chicago’s incubator. In addition to helping him gain visibility, he said the incubator helped him learn the business side of the fashion industry to help build his contemporary men’s line, Killian Gui.

"I had done a couple garments in the past, but I didn’t have a full brand. I know the incubator really helped me to turn it from a hobby into a business," Smith said.

Stephanie Kuhr also recently finished her year at the incubator. She was a little unsure about costing structure for Dottie’s Delights, her line of vintage lingerie and foundation wear for women.

Kuhr said the incubator helped her create a budget and stay within it.

"It’s probably what makes or breaks a new designer because it’s a big question, it’s a huge deal to make sure that you’re paying yourself enough and covering all of your cost indirect and direct," she said.

Because fashion is a global industry, designers don’t necessarily have to be in places like New York, Paris or Milan to be successful. Because of this, Miller said people in different cities around the Midwest and elsewhere have reached out to her for advice and guidance about starting an incubator in their cities.

But Chicago isn’t the only place with these incubators. Around 2005, Detroit made an attempt at a fashion incubator, but by 2007 it was closed.

Sarah Lapinski who was a contributing designer to the Detroit incubator said the right infrastructure wasn’t in place for designers to continue to grow. Aside from location, there was one other major hurdle for Detroit’s incubator: "People don’t really shop in Detroit. It just doesn’t really happen," Lapinski said.

But there is hope in other Midwest cities, like Cleveland. Valerie Mayen who was a contestant on Season 8 of Project Runway is the founder of Buzz and Growl, an incubator like program in Cleveland slated to open this summer. The main goal of Buzz and Growl is to provide designers with space and professional equipment.

Mayen said people associate fashion with runways and overseas production, but for Cleveland that’s not a realistic venture. “We’re hoping that we can to help designers to grow to start their own small businesses that are legitimately providing their full time income.” said Mayen.

Who knows, maybe some day one of those designers will dress Chicago’s most famous contribution to fashion, First Lady Michelle Obama.

Correction: Valerie Mayen was a contestant on Season 8 of Project Runway rather than Season 10 as previously stated.