Near the top of an unassuming, slightly dilapidated building located in Brooklyn’s South Williamsburg neighborhood and reachable by an equally rickety elevator, a group of the city’s sharpest fashion minds are working to identify new applications for smart fabrics and electronic textiles.
The seventh floor of the former headquarters of Pfizer pharmaceuticals is now home to the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator, an organization created by the Pratt Institute that helps emerging designers break into the smart textile business, an industry expected to be valued at $38 billion in the next five years. At its core, BF+DA was founded to foster collaboration between students, designers and engineers to identify forms of sustainable and ethical production using the help of technology. Now, the program is looking to expand, on the heels of a $500,000 grant from Brooklyn Borough president Eric L. Adams.
BF+DA was one of six groups selected to receive grant money in 2018 from the borough’s discretionary fund this week. (Former borough president Marty Markowitz was instrumental in helping to get the organization off the ground with a $630,000 grant to furnish and properly equip the space, which is largely a series of studios.) The federal government has also supported BF+DA, gifting the group a $486,000 grant in November 2016.
Debera Johnson, founder of BF+DA, said the continued support from the local and federal governments is indicative of the importance of her group’s work in helping to grow the economy and create jobs, a major concern for their constituencies.
“We stand for the 21st century. What we’re looking at is really connecting the dots for the key drivers — sustainability, technology entrepreneurship and advanced manufacturing — that are really critical to moving our economy forward,” she said.
Smart fabrics have become a growing area of interest at the federal level in recent years. In April 2016, the government helped fund the development of Advanced Functional Fabrics of America, an industry group comprised of startups, major retailers, designers and academics intended to help the U.S. be competitive in the smart fabric industry. (Beyond clout and profitability, part of the draw is these fabrics can be beneficial to outfitting groups like the military and other armed forces.)
For BF+DA, Johnson said the funding will primarily be used to purchase more advanced equipment to advance its existing work in areas like digital pattern making and ultrasonic seaming. It will also help build out research initiatives BF+DA is implementing to overcome oversights in the smart fabric industry, like neglecting manufacturing and scalability logistics.
“You can hack together an idea and make it work, but it doesn’t mean it’s manufacturable,” she said. “We’re really focused on how you give people solutions they can use that actually go into production.”
Ultimately the goal is to avoid the “valley of death,” and help to bridge the disconnect between generating ideas and bringing them to fruition, she said.
“There’s a lot of research and ideas, and a lot of people interested in commercialization, but getting from one to the other is quite difficult because there aren’t a lot of resources to make that happen. We’re trying to fill that gap.”