Newburgh, N.Y. may be an unexpected spot for a fashion start-up, but nine brands are staffing up there through The Accelerator.
As a certified New York State business incubator, the program caters to manufacturing-based businesses that specialize in locally-sourced products. At the onset of the 20th century, apparel manufacturing was a leading industry in the Hudson Valley town. Looking to give a boost to its underemployed Latino community, The Accelerator was created to provide locals with $15 hourly wages and the prospect of long-range skilled jobs.
While not dedicated solely to fashion companies, The Accelerator’s apparel and accessories start-ups have attracted interest for the group’s American-made manufacturing and help-the-locals business practices. Running on a $500,000 annual budget and primarily funded by the Orange County Industrial Development Agency, the Accelerator’s fashion component has two more companies in the pipeline and room for a 12th one. Unlike incubators supported by venture capitalists or outside companies, participants in Newburgh remain independent. Laurie Villasuso, the agency’s chief operating officer and executive vice president, said, “It’s not a profit center. We do not take any interest in any company. We don’t take any shares of their profits, of their companies or of their intellectual properties. It’s really important to us that they be successful manufacturers and not that we make a profit.”
Open to anyone who is willing to work out of Newburgh, The Accelerator’s model has attracted interest from individuals and accelerators from Saratoga, Westchester County and other locations, according to The Accelerator’s managing director, Vincent Cozzolino. The program offers participants extraordinary rents as low as $200 or no rent due partially to the generosity of landlords. By reducing their overhead, the goal is that start-ups will be able to provide new hires with health-care and retirement benefits to encourage longevity. Fashion start-ups also have access to equipment they may not have been able to afford on their own such as a $150,000 laser-cutter and computer-aided design systems that are shared.
For its predominantly Spanish-speaking factory workers, accessories brand Melo plans to offer employees classes in English. In the past three years, the latter has grown from a one-person operation to 21 employees. Another participant is Doug Fleckenstein, a former Coach executive, who works at the handbags line Nyce Blu as in “nice blue.”
In researching manufacturing that would return to the U.S., he and Villasuso agreed on fashion as a possibility. They also learned how the Fashion Institute of Technology and other fashion graduates were not interested in outsourcing their designs to Asia. Cozzolino said, “They weren’t looking to sell 200,000 units of men’s shirts. They were looking to sell lines and products in smaller quantities, and that were more sustainable,” he said. With that in mind, The Accelerator welcomed higher-end fashion companies.
The Accelerator has five buildings with two in Newburgh and three more at New York Stewart International Airport in New Windsor, N.Y. The two downtown buildings were once home to the women’s outerwear factory Angie’s. “The family that owned it had to mothball it because everything was being outsourced. The grandmother wanted to do the same kind of manufacturing. They sat on the property for 10 or 15 years,” Villasuso said with the hope that a similar company would one day come along. One of the former Angie’s sites now houses Ziel, a six-month-old start-up that is growing into a 14,000-square-foot space and expects to have about 50 employees compared to the current base of 10. Having produced samples and high-end handbags in Florence, Italy for Gucci, Fendi, Prada, The Row and Mark Cross for decades, Limberti Evolution is expanding with another sample room in The Accelerator. There are plans to add an American production facility in the coming years.
After visiting New York City fashion factories, they decided those facilities were too mired in the past and they would not be invited to the start-ups, Cozzolino said. A former IBM vice president, electrical engineer and physicist, he focuses on the manufacturing, whereas Villasuso concentrates more on economic development. Only one of the 60 area people who now have jobs through the incubator had ever sewn before. “Remember quality matters, productivity matters. You can’t just send someone to your local sewing class. We ran very special training programs that were sort of boot camps for sewing. Then we put them into the companies that trained them further,” Cozzolino said.
Individuals and accelerator representatives in Saratoga and Westchester County have reached out to the incubator about adopting similar aspects. “We’ve had interest from all over. I’m part of a state organization for economic developers and we’ve given an overview of how our accelerator works and everybody is interested. But everybody is scared because fashion production seems like an unattainable industry to bring back because of the low cost associated with outsourcing and the ease of the Internet,” Villasuso said. “As we transition to more of an on-demand market, what’s becoming clear to people is that you can really produce anywhere now. You don’t have to be in one of those polar places [New York or Los Angeles] to do it.”
Many local workers have what some would consider a luxury — being able to walk to work. And the entrepreneurs they work for are being groomed for business down the road, Cozzolino said. “The reason they came to The Accelerator is because we don’t just give them real estate space. We give them technical support with engineers, scientists and business people. Every one of these companies gets that, and we stay with them to help them grow.”
At the start of the 20th century, Newburgh had more than 100 manufacturing plants, with cloth manufacturers, clothing design and production factories being among the leading industries.
Given how The Accelerator’s fashion companies are growing and people’s interest in the program, Villasuso said, “It’s becoming more of a reality throughout America you can be a fashion manufacturer. The Internet obviously helps you promote your product, but also gives you that accessibility that years ago we didn’t have. That’s what is exciting throughout the state of New York and the country.”