Tempe, Arizona

Co-founder Angela Johnson’s fashion incubator is helping to build an apparel manufacturing hub in the heart of Arizona one no-minimum production order at a time.

As a fashion school graduate in Los Angeles in the 1990s, Johnson experienced the obstacles new designers face first-hand in an industry that is set up for big apparel brand success — if they take their manufacturing overseas and purchase large quantities.

“It’s just not really set up for a small brand that wants to make small quantities domestically,” Johnson continues. “Most people think they can walk into a factory with an idea and the factory can produce it. But that’s not really how it works. Usually, they have to meet minimums. And most factories have minimum [orders] of 500 to 5,000 pieces because that’s the only way the factory makes money.”

Without the capital to invest in a large order, Johnson spent her time organizing multiple contractors to complete different parts of the development and manufacturing process for her fledgling apparel brand. “I basically had to run around Los Angeles, going to pattern makers, cutters, grading and marking companies, sewing factories, and fabric sourcing. I was able to get around the minimums that way.”

Her hard work paid off, and her brand grew. “It was even selling internationally and starting to be profitable,” Johnson recalls, “But then I moved from Los Angeles to Arizona and had to shut it down. The resources didn’t exist here. They only existed in LA or New York.”

Then she met her FABRIC co-founder, Sherri Berry. “She had a similar experience,” Johnson says. “And the idea came to me that we needed to open a space that could actually make small batches, with no minimums, and teach people how to be their own production manager so they wouldn’t have to hire one.”

Johnson and Berry approached the City of Tempe with their idea in 2016. The city just so happened to have a former performing arts theater sitting vacant — the perfect 26,000-square-foot space for the launch of a non-profit fashion incubator.

“It had an event space,” Johnson says. “And I thought it would make sense to have an event space because we could rent it out and generate income from event rentals. That could offset the loss from the no-minimum manufacturing. And it would come in handy to have an event space in a fashion incubator because we could also do fashion events there.”

The building also housed offices that FABRIC could rent to designers as studios, a photo and recording studio, and a hair salon and makeup studio. “I mean, it was just built perfectly,” Johnson adds.

FABRIC made an agreement with the City of Tempe, trading rent-free use of the building for a commitment to give free and discounted programs and services to the community. As of January 2022, FABRIC has given back a grand total of $6.8 million.

“A lot of our services are below market rates,” Johnson says of the à la carte pattern making, grading, marking, sourcing, cutting, sewing, branding, and marketing services FABRIC offers. “We also offer all kinds of free opportunities and resources for designers.” These include a free directory, free classifieds, and free events designers can participate in and the community can attend. “Most importantly, we have a scholarship program where we offer full and partial scholarships to our most important resource, which is called Roadmap,” Johnson adds.

Roadmap is a digital platform and virtual step-by-step guide that teaches new apparel entrepreneurs everything they need to know about the design and manufacturing process as well as branding, marketing, sales, and scaling their business.

“It has about $70,000 worth of resources in there and saves new designers from having to hire a production manager, a quality control manager, a branding coach, or a marketing expert. It basically gives them all the information those experts would be giving them, but they can go through it virtually and on their own time. We scholarship 200 people into that every year.”

Challenges: Because FABRIC generates income through event space rental to support its scholarships and no-minimum manufacturing services, keeping the lights on through the pandemic hasn’t been easy. In 2020, Johnson and Berry temporarily converted the event space in their building into a PPE factory producing reusable medical gowns.

“We kept the doors open and helped solve the PPE shortage for the U.S.,” Johnson says. “We actually ended up making 800,000 of the gowns. That kept 80 million disposable gowns from going into landfills.”

Opportunities: While manufacturing PPE, the team at FABRIC learned more about lean- and high-volume manufacturing. “It was very different than the small batches that we were doing before,” Johnson explains. “So, we took that opportunity to open another factory down the street from our incubator.”

Known as Arizona Fashion Source, the second factory employs the latest fashion technology to help brands that have outgrown FABRIC’s no-minimum service advance to large-volume manufacturing.

“Sherri personally invested in a Kornit Presto,” Johnson says, “which is a sustainable printer that can print on almost any fabric. We’ve printed on faux leather. We’ve printed on cactus leather. We’ve printed on chiffon, spandex, and denim. We even tried printing on velvet, and it works. It’s much better than a sublimation printer, which only prints on polyester.”

Berry also invested in a Gerber Z1 automatic cutting machine. “The camera in the Z1 can see the pattern pieces printed on the fabric by the Kornit Presto and cut them out really swiftly, saving time and making the process more affordable as well,” Johnson says.

Through the partnership with Arizona Fashion Source, FABRIC is able to offer its designers the opportunity to experience on-demand, high-tech, customized print, cut, sew, and pack services.

Photos courtesy FABRIC

“We are pretty much the first to get into this on-demand space using this technology to lay the groundwork for the future of fashion,” Johnson continues. “I think this could be something that larger brands can take advantage of here, too. And that could put Arizona on the fashion map as a new and innovative fashion industry for this century.”

Needs: Jonson says FABRIC needs financial support so it can continue serving the local fashion community. “I think that could be done with a sponsorship or a partnership with a larger corporation that wants to align with us,” she adds. “And who wouldn’t want to align with what we’re doing here? It’s all about entrepreneurism. It’s all about reshoring manufacturing. It’s all about sustainability and technology. And those are all important social issues right now.”