What’s the future of Philadelphia fashion?

The business of fashion is in the midst of serious change: We are spending less money and time shopping for our clothing, and when we actually do shop, we’re buying pieces that meet our needs, not the designer’s fantasies.

That’s best illustrated in the evolution of the eight-year-old Philadelphia Fashion Incubator at Macy’s. Elissa Bloom, the incubator’s executive director, has been at the helm of the nonprofit since its inaugural class of designers-in-residence in 2012. Under Bloom’s tutelage, the incubator has graduated 35 emerging designers, a handful of whom have launched promising businesses in Philadelphia.  

They include Milan Harris, owner and founder of the Milano di Rouge, whose brand of slinky sportswear has been spotted on Cardi B and who also runs a specialty store on Spring Garden Street. Mary Alice Duff, owner of East Falls’ boutique Alice Alexander, is another former designer-in-residence whose fashion-for-all-women approach has gained national and international sales. And Renee Hill, a graduate of the 2018 cohort, is still in the running for Bravo’s Project Runway $250,000 purse.
Bloom welcomed the latest class of six designers in early spring. Most of this year’s incubator class, who range in age from 32 to 68, are embarking on their second careers.
We thought it was time to chat with Bloom about her tenure at the incubator, her travels around the globe as the city’s leading fashion ambassador, and how she’s helped turn Philadelphia into one of the 21st-century leaders in fashion entrepreneurship.
Talk a little about the difference between the incubator of 2012 and now.
In the past, we were much more focused on building collections. Now, we are more focused on one-piece attractions. What is the designer’s reason for being in the market? No one really needs another dress or bag, especially with consumer spending and how it’s shifted toward travel, electronics, experiences, and mindfulness. So designers need to be more strategic: Why did I launch this company? What’s the purpose of this item that I want to bring to the market? Who is the end consumer? … [Our program] isn’t just for recent graduates anymore. We suggest that applicants have their businesses running for between six months to three years. They have to have sales, product, a website, a logo. Many of them have done a business survey with an analysis of their strengths and weaknesses. We help them with production, scaling, pricing, branding, and positioning.
So the focus isn’t trying to get celebrities to wear their clothing anymore?
No. We are hyper-focused on the end consumer whoever she or he is. We really teach them [designers] to understand their needs and what they want … People are so much more aware of what they are putting on their bodies. They want a connection and they want the story behind the brand. They want something different and they want fashion to solve problems for them, not create them.
How has this entrepreneurial push translated to the incubator of today?
The designers are designing from their own personal experience. For example, Nancy Connor launched her collection Smart Adaptive Clothing after witnessing her father’s battle with Alzheimer’s. Victoria Kageni-Woodard — she was working in the construction industry in Kenya without any fashion background and she saw a need to expand the African woman’s experience by making more pieces from traditional Ankara fabric. Her company is called Gusa by Victoria. Allison Pearce has a company called Pearce that’s gender-fluid, and Julia Turner-Lowe, she’s in her late 60s, and she’s created her own plus-size clothing brand called JTL Designs.
How have you been able to take the Philadelphia experience global?
As the executive director of the incubator, I’ve been to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, where I’ve taught business boot camps and workshops in the business of fashion. In 2016, I went to Israel, and in 2017, I was the keynote speaker for a fashion tech conference in Moscow. I just returned from Italy with the U.S. Embassy, where I gave a series of presentations on marketing strategies and shared examples of our incubator designers’ business models and how they have been successful in the U.S. market.
What do you think is the future of fashion in Philadelphia, across the country and abroad?
I think it’s about collaboration. We are all trying to build more tribes to create a sense of belonging, and that’s about more than everyone wearing the same flat. Now it’s about individual style. How can you tap into your consumer? Our relationships with the consumer aren’t just transactional anymore. We are about developing relationships.
Article originally published by Elizabeth Wellington, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Photo credit: Jeff Fusco