The capital of Texas is getting serious about growing its fashion industry.
On Tuesday, the city of Austin cut the ribbon on the Austin Community College Fashion Incubator equipped with $13.1 million worth of specialized hardware and software on long-term lease from Gerber Technology.
The incubator will accept a cohort of six to eight emerging businesses every six months and guide each group through a yearlong business boot camp, explained director Nina Means. It is housed in former retail space at the old Highland Mall, which the college bought and is transforming into a mixed-use campus.
“The city decided fashion was a focal point of a local industry that they want to support and get behind,” Means explained. “They feel we have a need to develop this business.”
In hopes of creating middle class jobs in an area increasingly polarized between highly paid tech jobs and blue-collar occupations, Austin commissioned an independent company to evaluate the industry and its potential for growth.
The 2015 white paper by TXP Inc. determined that Austin’s “artisan” fashion design and apparel manufacturing annually generate $46.6 million in revenue and have an economic impact of $86 million.
It suggested that an academic incubator could help emerging designers, who reported feeling stymied by poor resources in a city with no historical fashion industry.
Means, who previously designed for H by Halston in New York, understands the issues since she briefly operated a clothing line in Austin.
“It was very challenging to do my work here,” she said. “The incubator allows us to solve a lot of problems — to do small batch production for specialty store businesses, to get advice and networking.”
Applications for the incubator are being accepted and reviewed, and Means expects the first group to begin this summer.
“We’re looking for start-up design businesses that have demonstrated product prototype or first collection, are less than three years old and are viable for scaling,” Means explained. “We want to see a bit of business acumen and potential there as well. We’re trying to be highly selective.”
The incubator program has a comprehensive approach that covers business models, product life cycle, retail math, sales, marketing, merchandising and use of the Gerber equipment, which includes AccuMark 2-D and 3-D design software, a YuniquePLM product lifecycle management system and the automatic single-ply Z1 Cutter.
Participants will also present their goods in branded showroom spaces.
The city has put $355,000 into the 7,500-square-foot facility, including $190,000 for the buildout and $55,000 annually to lease the Gerber equipment, Means explained.
“We are leveraging a high-technology solution to deliver an affordable fashion design education in a real-to-industry environment,” Means noted.
The Highland campus already offers classes in design, patternmaking, draping and construction inside the two-story mall. It also houses a Bioscience Incubator and the ACCelerator, which has 600 computer stations spread across the vast space of a former J.C. Penney.
Redevelopment of the 88-acre site also calls for offices, residences and parks through a public-private partnership between Austin Community College and RedLeaf Properties LLC.
“It’s kind of amazing,” commented Matt Swinney, who owns Fashion X, which created and operates Austin Fashion Week. “You walk through the mall and go into each different classroom.”
Austin’s fashion community is growing, he noted.
“When we started in 2009, you could probably count the number of quality fashion designers on one hand, and now it’s too hard to count,” he said. “There are a number of labels out of here that are fairly significant.”
Among them are Kendra Scott jewelry, which is valued at $1 billion; precocious teenage fashion and furnishings designer Isabella Rose Taylor, and Understated Leather sportswear by Australian transplant Jennifer Kassell.