Thursday, March 14, 2019
Posted by: Andrea Tyler Evans
By Karen Werner and Tyler Butler
Angela Johnson is an award-winning designer known for transforming recycled T-shirts into couture, washable ball gowns. Her work is currently on display at Tempe Center for the Arts. But before she was a player in Arizona’s fashion scene, she was another young designer trying to build her brand in Los Angeles.
She faced a lot of challenges. Without the money to fund big manufacturing orders, she sold in batches of 50 or 100 and did the legwork herself. “I would go to a patternmaker; take the pattern to a grader, who makes it into different sizes; then take this template they create called a marker to a cutting service,” Johnson said. “Then I would go and pick up wholesale fabrics from different fabric vendors and deliver those to the cutter. They would cut them and I would deliver them to different sewing contractors, depending on what they specialized in.”
It was a time- and labor-intensive process, but one that allowed her company to turn a small profit.
That changed when she moved to Arizona. “I couldn’t find those manufacturing resources here,” she said. “I had to close that business because of it.”
Meanwhile, Sherri Barry was chasing her childhood dream. Barry grew up as an identical twin who hated to dress like her sister. Her grandmother had taught the girls how to sew, so they deconstructed their matching outfits to look different. Though she dreamed of becoming a designer, Barry considered it impractical and instead went into retail, where she worked 17 years to become an executive running 350 stores in 13 states.
Burned out, she decided to take time off and launch her own line. “I had a really good idea. I knew it was scalable. So I went to ASU to get my MBA so I could learn about investment structures and things I would need to know to successfully run a company,” Barry said.
She got an A+ on her business plan, won an international business plan competition and got some funding. But her diligence didn’t ensure success.
“They completely screwed up the order,” she said. “Somehow everything was sized incorrectly.” The client refused the order, the manufacturer took no responsibility, and Barry’s company was through.
It was disheartening. Even with their formidable experience, intelligence and talent, Johnson and Barry couldn’t succeed as an Arizona-based fashion line at the time.
But rather than give up their dreams, Johnson and Barry doubled down. Barry pivoted to a position as vice president of marketing and sales at Arizona Science Center. And Johnson formed LabelHorde, a directory of Arizona fashion businesses.
“We have a really big design community here,” Johnson said. “We all banded together and grew into this community of designers that needed these resources.”
F.A.B.R.I.C. and Tempe—Cut from the Same Cloth
Some time later, Johnson posted a GoFundMe campaign, hoping to purchase equipment from a Scottsdale denim designer that was going out of business. Barry immediately emailed her with an offer to help.
“When my business failed I thought the only way I’m going to be able to pick it back up is if there’s a local resource so I can spend more time watching over it,” Barry said. “I knew it could be a shared resource because everybody had the same issue.”
In what she refers to as “a bungee jump off a bridge,” Barry wrote a large check to buy the equipment. Then, Johnson and Barry needed a place to put it.
Barry had the idea of reaching out to the city of Tempe to see if they would be interested in supporting a latent fashion industry. She and Johnson met with Donna Kennedy, the economic development director for Tempe, and made their case. “It wasn’t hard because fashion industries are absolutely phenomenal for economic development,” Barry said.
Kennedy stopped them mid-pitch, picked up a ring of keys and walked them across the courtyard from City Hall to a 23,000-square-foot building that had sat vacant for years. “She opened the doors and it was like a ghost theater,” Barry said. “There were cobwebs; the lights were burned out. Bleachers and curtains and the stage and props were still here, but nobody else was.”
Kennedy looked at the women and asked if the building — the previous home of the Tempe Performing Arts Center — would possibly work. “Angela and I just about fell on the ground,” Barry said. “We were in a performing-arts theater in an arts building in downtown Tempe. You could hit us with a feather and we would have fallen over.”
Barry and Johnson knew that the massive building and central location would allow them to carry out their manufacturing vision and have a built-in revenue generator too. “How do we support manufacturing? Event space. And the building comes with events space! It is the thing that helps us pull this off,” Johnson said.
Tempe wanted to turn the three-story building into something that would benefit the community’s artistic-based businesses and entrepreneurial efforts. But nobody had been capable of renovating and opening the building while paying the expenses of running a business.
“It’s a heavy lift to be in this building,” Barry said. “We pay utilities. We fix up the building. If something goes wrong, we pay for it. Air-conditioning breaks? That’s on us.” But in exchange for the risk, she and Johnson negotiated a unique deal. They give back $276,000 a year in free classes, events and services to counterbalance what they would have paid in rent.
After two years, Johnson estimates F.A.B.R.I.C. has blown past that number and given back close to $1 million.
The F.A.B.R.I.C. of Our Lives
“We don’t think there’s a place quite like this in the United States,” Barry said. “I call it a public social enterprise. Public, because it has the support of the city.”
The reason for the support is another creation of Johnson and Barry. The two co-founded a nonprofit called the Arizona Apparel Foundation whose mission is to help emerging designers and brands with small-batch manufacturing and strategic business resources so they can grow their brand sustainably in Arizona.
And what do they offer at F.A.B.R.I.C.? An impressively deep and wide array of services and curriculum. Emerging designers can learn the basics, seasoned pros can fill their manufacturing orders, and entrepreneurs can hire experts to complete the job for them. Pattern making, sample sewing, industrial cutting and sewing, finishing techniques. Scholarship winners learn all of that and get an office on site and receive everything they need to take their product to market.
It’s a program built on the pain of the past. Neither Barry nor Johnson can forget the sting of their early years in the fashion business and want to ease the way for emerging designers. “The whole reason we exist is because we both experienced that. We thought if we can’t do it with all of the right stuff in place, then who possibly can?” Johnson said.
Inside F.A.B.R.I.C., students find apparel manufacturing, classes, consulting and design services, a sourcing library, fabric store, photo and production studio, co-working offices, a sewing studio, event and runway space, classrooms, hair and makeup rooms, industrial equipment, industry experts — basically everything they’d need to launch a fashion career.
In addition to helping the designers, F.A.B.R.I.C. is creating jobs for people with valuable skills. “I have 17 employees here,” Barry said. Between patternmakers, technical designers, a cutter, a production supervisor and sewers, the team boasts several fashion degrees and almost 300 years of production industry experience.
“People move here and they have these amazing skills. We can literally pick the best of the best. So we can offer highest-class industry standards,” Barry said.
“And it’s all under one roof, which is not the case in L.A.,” Johnson added.
Since opening, more than 330 brands have utilized the manufacturing resources at F.A.B.R.I.C., making everything from wedding gowns to dog robes to patented medical devices. “All of those people now have those resources here,” Johnson said. “They can grow and stay in Arizona. To me, that is everything.”
As Barry and Johnson continue to build an industry that hasn’t existed in the past, both women are energized and confident. “You shouldn’t have to live in L.A. or New York or Paris to succeed in the fashion business. You just need resources,” Barry said.
Johnson nods, looking at the building and ticking off the new services and classes to come.
“F.A.B.R.I.C. is the place you can come and create your fashion dreams,” she said. “What might have been an obstacle is not anymore. It’s right here in Arizona.”
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