Sovereignty Company’s new Fashion CEOs Accelerator Program aims to do the work it feels the fashion industry hasn’t.
And that’s creating a space for entrepreneurs of color to have the funding, business mentorship and support to build sustainable businesses centered around circularity.
“We know the talent is there as it relates to BIPOC fashion designers who want to be circular, want to be sustainable, want their businesses to drive change across the ESG [environmental, social and corporate governance] spectrum, but we also knew that there were a number of gaps and challenges and barriers that don’t allow them to get there,” said Neil Montgomery, founder and chief executive officer of Sovereignty Company, a circular social enterprise and nonprofit. “So we have now selected five BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] founders which we’re just super, super proud of.”
The Los Angeles-based Sovereignty Company wants to equip fashion entrepreneurs of color to “collectively solve climate change and inclusion challenges” and it’s doing so in three key areas: the Fashion CEOs Accelerator; its recently launched sustainable fashion brand So.Ty (which will donate 4 percent of its profits to the aforementioned accelerator), and its Vision 33 impact funding plan, which will invest in and further support the sustainable brands and tech companies being nurtured as part of the accelerator.
Launching Tuesday, the Fashion CEOs Accelerator has already gotten support from Wells Fargo, which will renew a grant for $500,000, bringing its total give to date to $1 million.
“They are currently one of our top funders but we’re going to grow that funding pool very swiftly,” Montgomery said.
Narrowing down from 40 applicants across the L.A. community (the location was part of the application requirement since the organization is building its support team of mentors and businesses in the local community), the chosen five will begin their pathway to greater sustainability and scale where needed.
Mixed Up Clothing, a childrenswear brand founded by Sonia Smith Kang, is one of the leaders selected for the accelerator.
“Our aim is to disrupt children’s fashion by bringing in fabrics sourced from around the world to highlight diverse cultures,” Kang said. Apart from selling on its own website, the brand is available at Macy’s, where an alphabet graphic T-shirt features “A” for arroz con pollo and “D” for dim sum.
“We want to teach others about the cultures we share the world with. Our designs highlight cultural styling, fabric and trims so you can expect to see kimono-style wrap dresses, fabrics like batiks and other culturally iconic symbols like Day of the Dead sugar skulls, and trims like frog closures.”
Proclaim, an inclusive nude lingerie line, is using the eco angle to set itself apart from others offering inclusive shade intimates.
“Proclaim differentiates itself from competitors by making wardrobe staples that are not only made in inclusive nude shades, but also made sustainably and ethically as well,” founder Shobha Philips said. “From Day One our mission has been to design for women of all skin tones and do it in a way that uplifts communities of color through sustainable and ethical production practices. We use only sustainable fabrics and make all of our pieces in L.A., where we pay fair wages.”
Harbison Studio, a luxury fashion brand founded by Charles Harbison, is using clothing to address class, gender and race equality.
“I love my Blackness, my queerness and have pride in my working-class upbringing and I fold all of that into every item I create, for the enjoyment of all of my customers, whether they hold those identities or not,” Harbison said. “Centering women of color, namely Black women, as muses can serve as a great cultural equalizer.”
House of Aama, founded by mother-daughter duo Rebecca Henry and Akua Shabaka, is a culturally inspired luxury lifestyle brand (its pieces are already available for purchase at Moda Operandi) melding storytelling with fashion, with silhouettes and patterns that nod to “nostalgic references.”
The brand, according to Henry and Shabaka, is “exploring the folkways of the Black experience by designing timeless garments with nostalgic references informed by historical research, archival analysis and storytelling. We aim to evoke dialogue, social commentary and conversations around heritage and remembrance, and to shed light on nuanced histories.…House of Aama believes it is critical…to advocate for the Black voice in American fashion.”
The fifth in this year’s cohort, Ellerali, is on a mission to “recreate the created” by making upcycling “cool, sustainable and profitable,” according to founder Rachel Litiatco.
“Ellerali is built on a minimal waste foundation,” Litiatco said. “Every piece recreated is secondhand or made out of remnant fabric. Our handmade pieces are unique, fashion-forward and bold…Upcycling never looked so fly.”
Each founder will receive $50,000 in cash to support the business and will fold into an eight-month accelerator experience.
“At a high level, the eight months will be focused across six, what we’re calling core standards. So we’ll be taking our folks on a journey around business essentials, conscious business leadership, circular fashion business, sustainable fashion, ESG and social entrepreneurship, and market transformation,” Montgomery said. “It’s a beautiful experience.”
“Mentor Mondays” will bring in industry leaders to impart their wisdom in roundtables and even one-on-ones with the cohort — and the mentors will be racially representative.
“I want all of our mentors to come from the BIPOC community,” said Trish Langman, partner and leader of ed tech and systemic change in textiles and fashion for nonprofit Hecho por Nosotros, which counts consultative status in the U.N. Langman is also supporting content and programming for the Fashion CEOs Accelerator. “It’s just important to have their voices and for people to see that there’s people out there that support them in the community.”
Learning “sanctuaries” will be part of the experience, including designer innovation labs as well as virtual programming. Field excursions will allow the cohort to visit retailers and manufacturers “within the do-good green supply chain within L.A.,” according to Montgomery.
The aim, he added, is to allow the rising founders to “really forge those relationships with the value chain, really begin to start to close the loop and address the silos and to really, honestly, put underrepresented founders in a position to succeed with the circular fashion economy.”
The eight-month accelerator program will wrap with a showcase on Earth Day 2023 that Montgomery says “won’t be runway [and] it won’t be as bored as a trade show,” but it will allow the founders an opportunity to promote their businesses and products and talk with a jury of experts across VC, influencers, retail leaders and editors to really focus “on the conversion of it all,” the evolution from business to successful business, which is the program’s entire aim.
As Montgomery noted, the accelerator coordinators will “see this cohort off into a powerful journey and look forward to the next 10 years of bringing in a cohort of 10 each year up to 2030 as we align with the SDGs and all of the goals around that.” (It’s five founders to start since this is a pilot year for the program).
All of this, he added, is associated with Sovereignty’s Vision 33, a $33 million strategic fundraising plan to invest nondiluted capital into these brands, provide experience through the Fashion CEOs Accelerator and also address the infrastructure gap. The funding, according to Montgomery, will be raised by a collective of corporate, foundation, government and “high-wealth donors.”
“We’ll be raising dollars to open the first-of-its-kind center for sustainable fashion innovation right here in L.A. and that will be the home to the accelerator. It will be this WeWork, NeueHouse and Soho House kind of coming together, where we’ll have a place to gather, a place to cocreate and then also slow manufacture.
“We’ll be really kind of taking a page out of the slow factory initiative in New York and bringing that to Los Angeles and making those investments very focused on the BIPOC community,” Montgomery said.
For Langman, this is something that hasn’t yet existed in the fashion industry.
“One of the things that’s missing in accelerators is just that they tell you the business part but if you’re trying to be a purpose-driven business, they don’t tell you how you can do that. This is something that I love about the accelerator and it’s speaking to the BIPOC community but it’s also speaking to how you can transform your business and we’re giving you the tools to do that — not just the mentorship but really sitting down with you and looking at your business and looking at the incremental changes you can make. Because it’s a lot easier for a micro [small- to midsized business] to do that than it is a bigger business. There’s less greenwashing in smaller businesses because it’s easier to be more transparent.
“I have not seen this in the industry,” she continued. “I have not seen an accelerator that speaks to circularity, that speaks to sustainability and that speaks to the BIPOC community. It’s just something that’s not there.”