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How BF+DA Mentors Tomorrow’s Designers

Debera Johnson, executive director for Pratt’s Center for Sustainable Design Studies, first came up with the idea for a design accelerator when a young Pratt alumna, an accessories designer, told her, “I can’t afford success.”

This designer had just received a great order from Barney’s, a dream for an emerging label, but the department store had requested just 40 units. The designer couldn’t finance such a small run while she was still responsible for running her own business.

She was stuck in a position in which many small-scale designers now find themselves: the product is great, the demand is present, but they cannot afford the production costs.

Fast fashion companies have upped speed, profit and growth, quickly edging out smaller companies. Looking to create a space for young designers, Johnson began the Pratt Design Incubator in 2002. That organization has since helped launch over 35 new companies and created over 50 jobs in the sectors of clean energy, fashion design, product design, social entrepreneurship and green consulting services.

In November 2014, Johnson expanded Pratt’s resources for young designers, debuting the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator in the old Pfizer Building in Williamsburg. The BF+DA is a space that works with designers throughout New York, to produce runs of 1-50 units. There is also a fellowship program for promising recent graduates of NYC-based fashion programs. The fellows are given their own studio space and offered mentorship from the organization’s entrepreneurs and sustainability lab. In their approximately three-year tenure, the fellows learn about launching their brands and growing responsibly.

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Part of the BF+DA’s mentorship strategy for their designers includes teaching them about sustainability and technology. These skills are elemental to being a successful and ethical small designer. There are two Entrepreneurs-in-Residence who work with the fellows on sustainability and lead quarterly discussions. The designers’ projects are adjusted depending on the size of the company: they could be working on something as large as ethical sourcing or just improving the sustainability of their packaging.

In terms of technological resources, the Production Lab offers a 3-D printer, laser cutter and a complete garment knitting machine. Johnson noted that there is an increasing intersection between technology and sustainability in apparel because technology helps us understand where our clothes are coming from. “Technology and sustainability are the 21st Century,” she said.

The accelerator’s first two graduates, Wool & Prince and Alder New York, left the accelerator in May as success stories. Alder New York designers David Krause and Nina Zilka have a line of all-natural apothecary goods sold across the country and internationally. Wool & Prince designer Mac Bishop designs men’s wool shirts, which Johnson called, “a beautiful product, beautifully crafted.” Using superfine wool, he creates a wrinkle-resistant, odor-resistant shirt that is more durable than cotton and requires less washing.

As the New York manufacturing landscape has started to change, business has moved out of the Garment District, and some of the focus has shifted to Brooklyn. Johnson commented on the great entrepreneurial spirit of the borough. “It’s not about money, it’s about great ideas,” she said, pointing to the success of independent, technology-driven companies like MakerBot and Etsy.

Johnson is looking to interact with the community and get young people involved as the digital revolution plays out. She predicts that as manufacturing becomes more based in 3-D technology, there will be more job opportunities locally.