Take an established industry, throw in some outsiders with big ideas and you can expect some tension, says Sarah Krasley, as she looks back on the first few months of her new project, X Swimwear
I’m in a windowless office on West 39th Street in Manhattan. There’s an ancient Dell computer sitting on a desk covered in binders. Around me, crumpled swatches of mesh fabric spill out of filing cabinet drawers. I’m talking with my mesh guy – the gentleman who will supply me with the interior fabric for the swimsuit line I just started.
Him: “You ready? Gotta pen? Write this down.
Me: “Excuse me?”
Him: “Not Just Lace. They’re on Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn. They’ll do what you need – OK?”
Me: “Do you have an email address?”
Him: “No. Just go see them, OK? G’bye.”
Our conversation is over. In a few minutes, I’ll go and see the zipper people. If I’m lucky, I’ll score a couple of bra cups for some experiments. I’ll check in on some prototypes I’m having made just a few streets over and then take the train back to my accelerator in Brooklyn. Six months ago, my life looked nothing like this.
Back then, I worked in software. I could sit at my desk all day and barely had to talk on the phone at all to get things done. I worked with companies in heavy machinery and automotive and was exposed to new technologies everyday – stuff that made cars lighter, seats more comfortable and even could predict with startling accuracy whether a glove compartment would rattle or, alternatively, click shut with the most pleasant sound you ever heard, even before test cars rolled off the assembly line.
The apparel industry does not operate this way. Most designs begin as 2D sketches that are translated into physical samples and paper patterns. Professional fit models try on the samples and report back on how the garment feels.
Seasoned patternmakers and technical designers are the simulation engines (so to speak) that know how shaving off an eighth of an inch here or changing the slope of a dart there can change a drape from dreadful to symphonic.
Half the people I speak to about 3D design software don’t know what I am talking about. A quarter of the people who do know what it can do are worried about what it will mean for their job security.
“I think you’ll have to come in and we can talk about it. I don’t really understand what you are trying to do. OK. Bye.”
I’m a few blocks over now and the woman who runs the factory I am working with puts down the phone and shakes her head. I’ve brought her a crate of clementine oranges for the Lunar New Year.
“Everybody has big ideas,” she says, shaking her head with a sort of bemused exasperation.
There are a lot of people like me, it seems, who come to her shop with big ideas. And when people from outside the apparel industry try to operate in a system that has run the same way for centuries, there’s an inevitable tension.
In my accelerator, the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator, I am surrounded by people like me, coming from different industries, who are starting apparel companies.
My neighbours to the left, Kirrin Finch, are shirtmakers who believe that, for female customers, the design and fit of traditional button-down shirts leaves a lot to be desired. They came to apparel from the healthcare and education sectors.
The sweater company that shares a wall with me, Boerum, was started by an attorney who wanted to prove that great design can co-exist with responsible production.
And me? I’m a design and manufacturing person, working to improve the experience that most women have when it comes to trying on bathing suits.
It’s a few weeks later and I’m back with my mesh guy, ready to pick up my mesh.
Him: “Hey, here she is! The Unreasonable Woman. I got your mesh, it’s all packed up here for you. Pick it up.”
Me: “How much does it weigh?”
Him: “Thirty pounds. We talked about it down in the warehouse and we all think you can schlep it on the subway. Just don’t skewer someone as you walk down the street.”
He has a question for me, he says. He wants to know how I got the money to start my swimwear line, X Swimwear. I did a Kickstarter, I tell him.
Him: “A Kickstarter – what’s that?”
Me: “It’s a website where you make a little movie and tell people your big idea and if they believe in you they give you a little bit of money to go do it.”
Him: “They just give you money?”
Me: “Well, they get thank you gifts sometimes.”
Him: “Like what?”
Me: “Like this tote bag.”
Him: “Huh. Do you think I could use Kickstarter to sell durable interlocking fabric?”
Me: “I’ll give that some thought and get back to you.”
Sarah Krasley is the founder and principal of product, service and workplace policy design firm, Unreasonable Women. Her swimwear project is called X Swimwear. She is also an Adjunct Professor at New York University’s ITP Program and a freelance writer for several publications. Learn more about her at sarahkrasley.com
Entering an established industry with big ideas can cause tension, says Sarah Krasley