Reinventing fashion with a Silicon Valley twist

Just eight miles away from New York City's Garment District, the newest member of Manufacture New York is setting up shop.

Richie Kim said he is getting a second chance at turning a profit with the company he founded, Noah Kim Fashion Studios.

"My entire career, all I have focused on is the craft. Now for the first time, I think I can make some money," Kim said.

Before Manufacture New York, Kim said he was facing rising rents in the Garment District, and the prospect of giving up on his dream for good. That's where Bob Bland, founder and CEO of Manufacture New York entered the picture.

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With the help of a $3.5 million grant from New York City, Manufacture New York is taking a page from the Silicon Valley playbook and supporting fellow fashion designers who are starting their own businesses and creating jobs. The goal is to establish a foundation for keeping fashion industry design and manufacturing jobs in New York.

"The vision of the space is kind of like a 21st century Garment District, within a building, where it's really everything that you could possibly need from concept to the shipping out the door of the fashion product. What we really see is a everything from incubator and accelerator space, to fashion tech R&D labs, to a wholly produced media center onsite for photo and video shoots," said Bland.

With 160,000 square feet of space at the Liberty View Industrial Plaza in Brooklyn, Manufacture New York has plans to become the home of as many as 30 manufacturers, 75 designers and 25 fashion technology companies, in addition to being open to the public for classes, tours and events.

The mission-based, for-profit company aims to be both a profitable model for the businesses they help incubate, while creating a transparent, sustainable supply chain in fashion through the member businesses willing to produce their product locally in New York.

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"We have the opportunity to reclaim the middle class for New York City and one of the only ways to feasibly do it with the current workforce that we have is through creating middle class manufacturing jobs and providing a diverse range of training that combines craftsmanship and technology together, and that's what we're going to do here at Manufacturer New York," said Bland.

Together with the grant from New York City's Economic Development Corporation, the group plans to create nearly 300 jobs this year and train 1,000 people a year thereafter in their workforce training center in cooperation with the federal government.

Forming a community

Designers like Mimi Prober and Celine Semaan Vernon are already experiencing the benefits of the Manufacture New York business model.

"Manufacture New York has introduced me to amazing designers, amazing makers, press, and people, and it's just been a great collaboration. There's no way I could afford a space on my own in Manhattan, so Manufacture New York has really provided that platform and ability to showcase my pieces in a professional setting," said Prober, owner of Mimi New York, which specializes in making one-of-a-kind, handmade pieces out of antique textiles.

Celine Semaan Vernon, owner of Slow Factory, said in addition to using the Brooklyn space as a showroom and for storage of her products, she looks forward to future collaborations with other designers who want to utilize her expertise in printing imagery on fine silk and other organic materials.

"Being surrounded by makers, experts, seamstresses, and designers is just going to grow our potential and also the potential in creating new garments, new styles, different designs. That's why I'm so excited to be a part of Manufacture New York, for specifically the community," said Vernon.

Merging fashion and technology

In addition to the real estate and partnership revenue streams Manufacture New York's business model is based on, the company is focusing a large portion of their efforts into merging fashion and technology and to a field known as "fiber science."

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"I'm not looking at the future [of] wearables as gadgets, I'm looking at it as full integration—so invisibility—so you're not going to know that you're wearing wearable technology," said Amanda Parkes, Manufacture New York's chief of Technology and Research.

What she's talking about is the possibility of embedding circuitry or batteries within textiles that could enable you to change the color of your shirt with the touch of your smartphone or wear clothing that could regulate your body temperature.

Manufacture New York said they are already working with several major tech companies that can't yet be named, but the goal is to have the fashion and tech industries collaborate on products that can be brought to market profitably.

Fashion designer sketching in studio
iStock | Getty Images Plus

Designer Cri Gabriele of Heart and Noble already sees the potential for her line of 3D jewelry and accessories.

"You can be sitting in the café drawing on a napkin or making a 3D mold with Fimo [clay], or whatever it is you feel easiest to mold an object with, and you can take that to the tech department, and essentially in the afternoon, if the process is straightforward, you could have a rendering and actually maybe a 3D-printed model or prototype of what you had been imagining that morning," said Gabriele.

Perhaps the most anticipated innovation coming out of Manufacture New York this fall, though, is what Parks calls the "Tesla" high heel. Parks is also the Fashion Scientist for Thesis Couture, which is working with an astronaut from Elon Musk's SpaceX venture, an orthopedic surgeon and an Oculus engineer, among others, to come up with a comfortable high heel.

"Thesis Couture is kind of taking the Tesla model, which is really redesigning the shoe inside out, and applying it to high heels. It's going to look like a really high-end couture shoe—and that's the whole point, that you're not going to know," said Parkes.

If it's successful, you can bet that hundreds of thousands of women will be willing to pay top dollar for that.