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Why This Fashion Incubator Is Betting on Microfactory Tech

When Angela Johnson and Sherri Barry launched a nonprofit fashion incubator in 2016 outside of Phoenix, they knew they had to have cutting-edge technology to help emerging designers cobble together their creations quickly and inexpensively.

So they invested in Gerber software for computer-generated apparel production because they believed this was the future of fashion production.

In 2019, Barry visited Gerber Technology’s Innovation Center and Microfactory in New York City, which prompted the fashion incubator founders to update their software and invest in more technology to offer the first steps to on-demand manufacturing.

Most recently, that software was updated when the fashion incubator, called FABRIC, or the Fashion and Business Resource Innovation Center, won Gerber’s Ideation competition, which awarded them a complete and updated version of the technology company’s system.

“When we opened our place, we knew we needed technology to help the apparel entrepreneur with the most efficient method of production,” said Johnson, who partnered with Barry to open the incubator in Tempe, Ariz.  “It is really hard to help a bunch of startups and brands, then get them through the steps and have access to minimum-batch production. It is a difficult business model.  You don’t find that anywhere.”

Now the incubator’s microfactory can take unique ideas generated by budding and aspiring designers and help them produce small batches of clothing at a reduced cost. It starts with the incubator’s software system, which takes them up to the pattern making stage. Fabric printing and cutting is done elsewhere.

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“From their early beginnings, they realized that one of the best ways they could help their designers be competitive in the industry as a whole was to integrate Gerber technology,” noted Ketty Pillet, vice president of marketing, Americas, for Gerber, a Connecticut-based company purchased last year by Lectra, a French venture that specializes in CAD software and CAM cutting-room systems.

Gerber’s technology allows creative fashion pioneers to start with a surface design and have Gerber AccuMark develop a 2D digital pattern that can be visualized in 3D without creating a physical sample. Over at The Fashioneer, a nearby apparel factory owned by Barry, students can pass that data on to a Kornit Presto digital printer to print fabric and then cut it using a Gerber Z1 cutting machine. From there, the pieces can be sewn at The Fashioneer, a separate factory, or on the fashion incubator’s 20 sewing machines.

Computer-generated marker
Creating a marker with Gerber technology

FABRIC is located far from the fashion hubs of New York and Los Angeles, but fashion incubators near and far—from San Francisco and Philadelphia to Toronto and Australia—are tapping into it to get designs translated into products. They can do that because the software is available online and can be shared anywhere around the world.

Since its inception, the fashion incubator has helped 800 apparel entrepreneurs get started and has awarded 250 partial and 40 full scholarships. As of last year, FABRIC awards 250 scholarships a year to its apparel entrepreneur members, providing them with a roadmap that shares $70,000 in resources and education.

Putting fashion technology into PPE

At the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, the fashion incubator put its theories into practice. Barry and Johnson received a number of requests to make personal protective equipment gowns that often had to be imported from overseas factories.  In record time, they converted their event center inside the fashion incubator to a sewing factory where 100 workers made 700,000 PPE reusable medical gowns that could be washed as many as 100 times.

The PPE factory was recognized by President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, who visited in November 2020 while on the campaign trail. Now that the need for PPE equipment is not as acute, the PPE manufacturing area has been turned back to an event center.

The fashion incubator is housed inside what used to be the Tempe Performing Arts Center. The city, which hadn’t used the building in five years, put out a call for someone to rent it. But its 26,000 square feet of space, cut up in boxy spaces, made it a hard sell. Also, the fire marshal had drawn up a 17-page list of safety issues to be remedied. Arizona State University turned down an offer to occupy it.

So Johnson and Barry worked to have the city turn over the center to them rent free. But it still cost them $195,000, much of it paid by Barry’s 401k pension, to rehab the center before they moved in.

In return for free rent, every year they have to give back a certain amount of money in the form of scholarships, discounted programs and services. To date, their giveback to the city totals more than $6.8 million.

“When we first got the center, it was an old theater space that had asbestos flooring we had to rip out. And that caused a whole construction project where we had to redo it and repaint it. All the equipment in the theater was so antiquated, we couldn’t even get new light bulbs,” Johnson said.

The performing arts center converted into a fashion incubator now has a video/photo studio for fashion shoots and marketing, co-working offices, hair salon, make-up room, classrooms, sewing factory, cutting room, design studio, sourcing library and a 10,000-square-foot event space that is rented out to help pay the bills.

FABRIC, a fashion incubator near Phoenix, turned to Gerber Technology to teach emerging designers about low-batch garment production.
Outside FABRIC, a fashion incubator in Tempe, Ariz. Courtesy

Johnson and Barry know how hard it is to break into the fashion industry. Johnson, a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, worked for years in the Los Angeles fashion scene. In the early 1990s she owned the fashion label Monkeywench, a board-sports inspired collection done in collaboration with “Days of Our Lives” actress Christie Clark.

Johnson moved back to Arizona to take care of her grandfather after her grandmother passed away and found it was difficult to keep a fashion label going when so many resources were so far away.

In 2006, Barry started her own apparel company, Design Intoxication, and launched lines under the labels Team Couture and Company Couture. The struggles of manufacturing in California ignited her passion for creating a reliable local resource for emerging designers.

Not far from the fashion incubator, Barry’s  state-of-the-art apparel factory The Fashioneer, with its Kornit Presto digital printer and Gerber Z1 cutter, has 60 workers who manufacture her brand, Adea, as well as other fashion lines. She makes her facilities available to FABRIC’s emerging designers.

For Johnson and Barry, the fashion incubator has really been a labor of love for the two who took their expertise learned in Los Angeles and transferred it to the Phoenix area. “This has all been about our passion to help emerging designers get into this industry because it’s so expensive,” Barry said. “I faced it when I started out. I love fashion and the way we make clothes, but how we do it is stuck in the 19th century.”