Inside D.C. entertainment

Can D.C.'s fashion incubator elevate the local style scene?

December 29, 2011 - 06:00 AM
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“D.C. has long been in a style recession.”
– Elle.com

We get it. D.C. style stinks. Except that it doesn’t, because to make such a statement about an entire city’s sense of style is preposterous. (“Washington has no style”? Compared to whom? And using what measure?) As long as a few women in suits and sneakers roam the Metro, D.C. will always have "bad style."

The woman-in-white-sneakers trope particularly riles up Christine Brooks-Cropper, the president of the Greater Washington Fashion Chamber of Commerce.

“Did you ever think she wants to be comfortable and is going to put heels on in the office?” she fumes.

Brooks-Cropper has been fighting the D.C.-has-no-style mentality, which she says is responsible for holding back D.C.’s flourishing fashion scene, since returning to the District in 2007. Her latest endeavor in the fight to legitimize local design: launching the D.C. Fashion Incubator, a studio space and mentoring program that will start in 2012.

Modeled after programs in Chicago and Toronto, the incubator will provide space, equipment, some materials, technical and business training, and guidance to a handful of local fashion designers. For a modest, below-market-rate fee ($250 a month, which will go mostly toward equipment upkeep and providing a stipend to class instructors), designers will have round-the-clock access to the space at 760 N St. NW, a cheerful white room lined with sewing machines and shelves of fabric. Next door is an office space that the incubator residents can use for business meetings. Brooks-Cropper is angling to get a space around the corner to use as a pop-up boutique, and she dreams of a 5,000-square-foot plant for manufacturing and retail in Southeast D.C. The project will be funded through grants, donations, sponsors, and public funds.

Launching such a broad project in the middle of a lousy economy might seem counter-intuitive, but Brooks-Cropper believes the weak job economy has made it easier for her to sell fashion to city officials. “I try to focus on job creation,” she says. “That’s really my main point”—persuading the public that a thriving local fashion industry adds jobs to a community, not a few frivolous fashion shows. “People are starting to get back to vocational skills," she says. "A lot of my attorney friends don’t have jobs.”

A call for applications to the incubator yielded an untold number of entries in December, and Brooks-Cropper says the quality of the designers has been “amazing.” Local designers at all stages of their careers were welcome to apply, including those with or without formal fashion education.

“Even the formally trained, they might need more of the business training,” she says, whereas the self-taught designers could benefit from pattern-making classes. Apparel and accessory designers were welcome to submit work to the committee, an independent panel that included a designer, a banker, a buyer, a writer, and a creative strategist. The winning 4-5 designers have yet to be announced.

Several local designers agree that the fashion incubator is a brilliant idea—they just wish they had heard about it earlier. Besides D.C.’s our-fashion-stinks complex, the local industry is challenged by a lack of networking and support, something the incubator could help cultivate for at least a few fortunate designers.

Zarmina Said, the Afghani-born designer and owner of boutique Pua Naturally, says she’s become acquainted with other boutique owners in her 21 years in D.C. but not with other designers.

“To my knowledge, it’s not like New York, or even Baltimore,” she says. “We don’t have people like us.” Said participated in D.C. Fashion Week and is interested in the work of the Greater Washington Fashion Chamber of Commerce, but right now she has no network. “I’m not trying to be just a single,” she explains. “I’d like to have people like me around me.”

Designer Stella Bonds also feels like a lone reed in D.C. “First of all, there’s not a lot of designers who want to work together,” she says. “That is typical.” (Brooks-Cropper agrees that the local fashion scene is not as collaborative as it could be.)

Kas Flanagan, who sells his collection at House of Kas at National Harbor, is more blunt. “There is no support here in the fashion community whatsoever,” he says. He worries the incubator will flame out without mentoring from established local designers.

“I think it is a good thing,” he says. “I just want to make sure that once it’s been done, it’s not a one-time thing and then the hype goes away. That’s something that happens in this area a lot.” He cites D.C. Fashion Week (which former TBD staffer Lisa Rowan pilloried last year) and Baltimore Fashion Week as disappointments for the region.

“Those are things that could have been great avenues for designers, but they’re not done right,” explains Flanagan, who worked for more than 20 years in fashion in New York, Europe, and Asia before setting up shop at National Harbor in 2010. “I think the producers are working very hard, and they mean well. But they’re not doing it right and it’s hurting the designers.” (D.C. Fashion Week organizer Ean Williams could not be reached for comment.)

Flanagan apologizes for sounding frustrated. “I love what I do,” he says. “I love it to a magnitude. I’m from Harlem, but I live here now. I’m really just trying to change the mentality of people here.”

Brooks-Cropper echoes his desire to change people's minds about what fashion could be in D.C. Should the incubator produce successful designers, it could go a long way to affecting attitudes. But right now it's a half-realized project, still looking for corporate sponsorship for that plant in Southeast.

“I expected it overnight,” she admits. “But it’s been one foot over another. We had to sit for a while and then crawl.”

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