Austin Business Journal: ACC gets fashionable with new incubator in support of nascent industry
By Patricia Rogers – Research Director, Austin Business Journal
Feb 17, 2018
Austin Community College wants to put the Texas capital on the same footing as fashion hubs such as Los Angeles and New York while preparing students for jobs in that industry, with a little help from the city of Austin and a cutting-edge equipment and technology supplier.
ACC is in the process of opening a fashion incubator and plans to add associate degree options geared toward careers in the industry. It could be a milestone for the industry in Austin, linking various segments of the garment and style sector in one place.
Nina Means, the program director, started work Feb. 5 at ACC's Highland campus. Since moving to Austin from the Northeast, Means has been serving as an adjunct professor for The Art Institute of Austin. She also designs her own clothing brand called Nina Means, which can be found locally at shops The Garden Room and Altatudes.
Means earned an international fashion degree from FIT in New York, has studied in Florence, Italy and has designed for brands such as H by Halston and American Eagle Outfitters. She was named 2017 Rising Star of the Year for Fashion Design by the San Antonio chapter of Fashion Group International.
ACC's fashion incubator has inked a deal with Gerber Technology to provide $13 million of state-of-the-art garment manufacturing equipment, software, training and support.
Gerber has a long history working with educators but this is the first time the company has ventured into a school partnership that also includes an incubator, said Molly Beth Malcolm, executive vice president of campus operations and public affairs at ACC.
Elizabeth King, a Gerber vice president, said it is unique for a school to have such an extensive line of digital solutions addressing the complete design-to-consumer cycle as an incubator.
Students will be able to learn the equipment and get certified in its use. Startups in the incubator program will be able to use the equipment for small-run production, which has been a missing link for fledgling designers in the region.
This novel relationship with Gerber was initiated by Sam Alexander, an Austinite with a 30-year career in the fashion industry and owner of C2C Fashion and Technology LLC, a company that integrates technology into fashion. He helped facilitate the introductions between Gerber Technology, ACC and the city.
The city has agreed to help ACC with equipment buildout and three-year lease fees, worth about $300,000 over the period, said Sylnovia Holt Rabb, Austin's acting economic development deputy director. The department will also have three people on staff within the incubator to assist participants.
Currently ACC offers certificates under the continuing education banner in the areas of fashion design, fashion technical designer and fashion entrepreneur/business ownership. With Means on board, Mike Midgley, vice president of instruction at ACC, said the community college network is in position to finish laying the foundation. Incubator space is under construction and the more in-depth training curriculum and accreditation process for an associate degree is being shaped. An official launch date has not been decided.
This is not the community college network's first incubator. The program is modeled on other successful endeavors, such asthe ACC Bioscience Incubator.
An impact study conducted by the city in 2015 found that Austin's fashion industry is fragmented and largely composed of designers, many of whom are sole-proprietors. The report mentioned the Austin fashion and apparel sector supported 880 workers with annual direct compensation of $19.3 million in 2013. Total economic activity generated $86 million and 1,326 jobs. What is missing is connectivity among sectors — between designers and garment makers, such as, sewers, cutters and button producers. Designers need business training and a low-cost way to produce small collections.
The report points out that existing fashion incubators work with more established designers who want to scale up. None cater to startup designers without a track record the way ACC’s program will.
The incubator could also increase collaboration between fashion companies and those in science, technology or health care, such as companies making wearable technology. In addition, having a range of skilled personnel to operate equipment is expected to attract apparel manufacturing to Austin, which will in turn foster internship opportunities for ACC’s students, Midgley said.
Alexander said fashion and technology are interwoven and that interdependence will continue.
“If you don’t have STEM skills, you won’t be able to work. We are giving them a tool kit. A student’s imagination is unlimited with what they can do with it," he said.
Although under no illusions that local manufacturing can compete with high-volume production overseas, ACC and fashion leaders believe is there is a growing market for artisanal, custom products, which plays into Austin's fashion industry demographics.
The city’s report points to the growth of Austin Fashion Week as an example. Its founder, Matt Swinney, said the impetus for his event was to connect Austin’s boutique business offering limited custom creations directly to consumers.
“If the apparel manufacturing focus is on customizable, small-batch manufacturing at a reasonable price point, then Austin certainly makes sense," Swinney said. "With an emphasis on designers who sell direct to consumer, the sky could be the limit.”