EASING THE GROWING PAINS

Byline: Katherine Bowers

LOS ANGELES — Frances Harder, who founded the non-profit Fashion Business Incubator here in 1999, believes that between a great design sensibility and a successful business lies an immense gulf of practical knowledge.
This is why pragmatism is a large part of the point in Harder’s new textbook, “Fa$hion for Profit,” a no-frills discussion of how to get a fashion business off the ground.
The text furthers Harder’s efforts with the FBI, which helps fledgling talents apply for their manufacturer’s license, negotiate the complexities of California labor laws and generally scrounge up enough capital and materials to produce a line.
Harder founded the group with Sandy Bleifer, who is no longer involved with FBI. The New Mart donates space to the group.
So far, Harder has cultivated a membership of roughly 200, who exchange the $100 annual fee for classes, networking events and a chance to participate in fashion shows that the FBI produces. Participants range from recent college graduates, to civil engineers fond of sketching on doodle pads.
Bruce Johnston, a public relations executive who is starting a bridge sportswear line with a designer partner, attended the FBI’s six-week starter course, plus the additional 12-week “apparel boot camp.” Johnston said the courses have been invaluable for networking and for a reality check about the rigors of starting a business.
“Everyone would like to find the big backer in the sky, but that’s not realistic,” he said. “These courses are so you’re ready when the backer comes along. If you don’t have your act together, no one will want to invest.”
Perhaps Harder’s biggest success is Sky David Park, a five-year old contemporary sportswear line that Harder sees as a paradigm for the effect well-placed advice can have.
“When I began working with [designer David Park in 1996], he was in the red about half a million dollars because he was doing [business] the jobber way — buying all the fabric up front, so the inventory was enormous,” she said, adding that Sky is now a $5 million dollar operation with retail distribution at Nordstrom.
While she is doling out costing and contracting advice to newcomers, Harder herself is embroiled in the time-consuming, back-breaking process of starting a business. Last summer, she left her teaching post at the Otis College of Art and Design in order to devote her attention to the FBI and her book, which is getting steady sales in bookstores of local design colleges.
“This is it: full-time, non-paying job,” Harder joked, referring to the long days. “I had this revelation last summer, and I turned to my husband on a Sunday morning and said ‘I’m not going back to Otis.”‘
FBI is looking for a $200,000 annual operating budget, according to Joel Stonefield, who retired from the apparel accounting firm he founded and now does the group’s books.
So far, the organization has raised $30,000 from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power — which is all for developing electricity-consuming businesses — and a $15,000 operations donation from Bank of America. Harder is now putting the finishing touches on a fundraiser, slated for March 31, at the Los Angeles Athletic club.
Like many of her proteges, Harder has discovered a new endeavor — in this case, pulling off a soiree for 500 — isn’t as easy as it looks. “At this point,” she said, “we’re hoping to recover our $20,000 in costs.”