A decade ago, the Philly fashion scene was still just an emerging dream for a few skilled, but hard to come by designers. Now with the help of one dynamic program—the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator—the fashion world in the City of Brotherly Love has grown exponentially, and it’s not stopping anytime soon.
“It was really a creative, collaborative effort between the corporate, civic and academic communities all coming together with one main mission: To support emerging designers in Philadelphia and to help them to grow, scale and build their fashion brands and companies in the region,” says Elissa Bloom, Executive Director of the Incubator.
Bloom has been with the nonprofit from the start, and she has a lot of experience that makes her qualified to grow such an exponential market: She was an entrepreneur in the industry with her own line of accessories and was a founding member of the Philly Fashion & Garment Industry Task Force that launched last year, and is currently on the Education Committee as well for Support Philly Fashion. “We’re always looking for the synergies to promote and connect with other like-minded organizations in the Philly region. So, it’s a very dynamic program.”
The Incubator has Macy’s as a corporate sponsor (the Center City location also allots 800 square feet of space in the store for the program and its designers), the Center City District and City of Philadelphia as their civic partners and Drexel University as their academic partner. Overall, the one-year program gives designers the opportunity to learn the business of fashion and build a community of networking opportunities to help further dreams along.
“We’re always looking for opportunities to showcase and feature our designers in various fashion shows such as Philly Fashion Week and we’ve done multiple collaborations,” continues Bloom.
Those collaborations include pathways beyond the city as well in New York Fashion Week and London Fashion Week, as well as partnerships with local organizations such the Methodist Hospital Foundation for their annual fashion show, the Alzheimer’s Association, Career Wardrobe (now known as The Wardrobe) and Koresh Dance Company every year through their annual gala where designers create a piece for their dancers. The PFI also works with Baker Retailing Center through Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania regularly.
Over the years, the events that the PFI has put on span from trunk shows to fashion shows to learning events open to the public. Ultimately, they are trying to harness a supportive community for all Philadelphians and designers in the city with starry-eyed dreams. After 10 years of service and surviving a pandemic, they are now ready to celebrate.
“We are so proud that we are in our 10th year and that we are seeing the continuous fashion sector of Philadelphia just boom—it’s been so exciting,” continues Bloom. “When we started 10 years ago, there were silos of a few designers here and there, but now, there’s just so much talent here especially with the ecosystems of having the fashion schools between Drexel, Moore and Jefferson and a lot of women and minorities that they serve that are looking to reinvent themselves and start that next chapter of their careers. That has been very exciting.”
You don’t need to have vast experience in fashion to make it through the program either. Bloom notes that a lot of members of the Incubator come with no formal fashion background. In fact, most are actually on their second or third career path and ages span from as young as 22 to as old as 65. Designers simply must have 6 months to 3+ years experience with their brand, they have to have a product, sales, brand identity and a website to be qualified.
“We’re really there to help them get to next level of sustainability and growing what they’ve already created,” says Bloom. “From their selling to their marketing, to just providing them with really great resources. It’s been really exciting to see just the growth of the fashion sector here in Philadelphia and seeing that we’re making an impact in these designers trajectory of their business life.”
Out of the 50 that have graduated, about 70% are still running today, and the Incubator has had two multi-million dollar companies that have come out of the program. In this current residency, they have Nicole Muhammed, who has a PHD in psychology and started a modest wear brand focused on timeless, classic pieces for women who want to have more coverage. Juno Jones is another brand from former lawyer Emily Soloby who created a line of women’s work boots inspired by a trucking company she owns with her husband. She didn’t see many options for women who have to work in hazardous spaces or are on their feet, so she decided to change that.
“A big change that we’ve seen is with the designers having a very niche focus in the market with their products and what their offerings are,” explains Bloom.
Other notable designers from the past include Nancy Connor, who was in the program in 2019. Connor’s smart, adaptive brand features a line of shirts that have velcro on the pocket and on the cusp for people that have various dressing challenges. Her father who suffers from Alzheimers was the inspiration and it’s truly grown. She’s currently selling at Zappos, and on other huge platforms.
“I think entrepreneurship is important and fashion is an easy sector to enter, but it’s not easy to build and sustain a fashion brand, it’s very challenging,” says Bloom. “It’s not like you’re going to have success in a year—it’s not a sprint, it’s like a marathon. So, we’re just really happy that we are able to support our designers and our alumni with various business resources and to really have a positive impact on their businesses and to be able to support them on their entrepreneurial journey. Seeing the designers that come through, and they don’t have the formal background, but they have this passion and they have a vision for what they want to bring to the market…I think the incubator has really been an incredible program for them to be able to get the knowledge and get connected to industry leaders. I always say it’s a three years fast forward—if they were doing this on their own it would take them another three years to do this. What they get with us is invaluable.”
The Incubator is kicking off their 10 year celebration with a gallery exhibition with InLiquid from Aug. 2 to Sept. 10 for 5 weeks at the Inliquid Arts Gallery this summer. They’ve invited all of their alumni and their current designers to participate and showcase. They’re going to have an exhibit, but they also have a retail space and are planning various programs that will be taking place during that 5 week period which will include an opening party, closing event and a lot of virtual aspects that will follow Philly fashion week at the end of September.
The organization also has a weekly program open to the public to really share their knowledge and to have people to connect and network. Fashion Thursdays is a weekly public series from 11 a.m. to noon that Bloom launched last May. In total, they’ve had over 60 speakers all on the business of fashion and they have even been able to open up the floor with their sister incubators in San Fransisco and Chicago. Later on, the PFI hopes to connect with the incubator in Toronto for more collaborations in the future. Because of COVID, this year the designers from 2020 were offered the chance to stay on, but for 2022, applications will be open in September of 2021. Bloom also says they are always looking for donations and volunteers as well for the program.
“From my perspective, we are providing them with incredible education and incredible resources, but it’s really about the community. I’m so proud that we’ve been able to form this active community with our designers and alumni that when they graduate, they can always tap into it. There’s always someone in our network that can help them.”
To learn more information about the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator, visit philadelphiafashionincubator.com