Imagine for a moment that you are an up-and-coming fashion designer, and someone has given you the chance not only to have your designs featured in a retail store, but also to run part of the store. This is the opportunity four young New York City designers found in Forward, a retail incubator for start-up fashion designers.
Funded by the Lower East Side Business Improvement District (BID), Forward was created as a place where young entrepreneurs could combine their passion for fashion and clothing with the business side of retail. Forward's first four participants, chosen from among 60 applicants, each paid $4,200 to be part of the six-month program, which organizers dubbed "The Real World of Fashion."
Angela Kettler had already been designing a line of clothing from her home when she learned about Forward. And while she had a good feel for fashion and design, learning about the business side presented a challenge. "Doing business [at Forward] gave me better [knowledge] of financials and pricing," she says.
Getting in sync with the other three participants presented some logistical challenges, according to Kettler, 24. Coordinating four different schedules and ensuring everyone did their part in keeping the store looking good and running smoothly were just a few of the hurdles. After all, there weren't any employees to help with the workload. But, says Kettler, "There's a lot that working with [the others] had to offer-their skills, contacts and business information."
That's a sentiment echoed by Forward participant Franklin Rowe, founder of Franklin Rowe International. "It's great to work in an artistic environment where everybody is doing the same thing but has different interpretations," he says. "You have to leave [your] egos at the door and realize we're all after the same thing."
Rowe, who had a little more experience in the fashion industry, heard about Forward through a friend at BID. He'd always wanted to own a retail establishment-but up until then, he'd largely been designing custom pieces for clients.
Sharing a storefront with other hip designers brought in all sorts of clientele-including famous faces like actor Robert DeNiro and Sex and the City costume designer Patricia Fields. The Forward program itself also garnered a lot of publicity for the store, including an article in The New York Times that generated serious foot traffic and calls from customers worldwide.
From that, says Rowe, "I learned what people actually want
and spend money on-what women buy and what the average consumer
wants in terms of price, fit and fabrics." Rowe plans to use
this newfound knowledge as he continues to build his
The store was originally slated to open at the end of 2001, but Forward delayed its launch until January 2002 due to the terrorist attacks and troubled economic times. Still, the participants have learned a lot since then-and they all point to a noticeable increase in sales since opening the store. Jennifer Dwin, 26-year-old founder of Dwin Design Group Inc., is a graduate of the Pratt Institute of Art & Design in New York City (as is Kettler). In her last days at Pratt, someone at her senior show mentioned Forward. Of launching her company after getting out of school, Dwin says, "It was perfect timing."
And the fact that Forward hooked her and the other participants up with some entrepreneurship courses has certainly helped. "Working in the store has been a huge learning process," she explains. "Coming right out of school, I really had no clue in the beginning."
Cooperating with other designers benefited her as well-especially her collaboration with Siri Wilson, who had already designed the Sirius line of clothing before joining the Forward program. The two created a line of home accents to sell at the store. Wilson, 29, didn't have a fashion design background when she started her business; she had gone to film school and then worked as a graphic designer. "I was taking [fashion] classes at night and I started thinking 'I could do this as a real business.'" In addition, Wilson wholesales to other stores.
Luckily for the participants, Forward provides various avenues that let them continue to participate. At press time, Rowe planned to stay for another six months to grow his business, while Kettler had agreed to rent showroom space from the program. Forward also keeps an alumni rack in the store where former participants can sell their designs. "It's not like you're here for six months, then it's 'OK, bye!'" says Kettler. "[BID] is working with us to figure out our next steps."
BID is currently seeking a new group of designers to take part in the program. Think you have what it takes? Log on to www.lowereastsideny.com for more information.