The fashion incubator FABRIC, located in Tempe, is working to sustainably provide space and resources for apparel designers making niche sewn products while also giving back to the community. Angela Johnson co-founded FABRIC with Sherri Barry.
Johnson, an Arizona native, got her start in Los Angeles working in design and production for X-Large Manufacturing, a line owned by Mike Diamond of the Beastie Boys and X Girl, a line owned by Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth. During the mid-1990s, she co-owned Monkeywench, a board sports collection with Christie Clark, an actress on the show “Days of Our Lives.” It was featured in Seventeen Magazine and was worn by several celebrities such as Tori Spelling in the T.V. show 90210, Pamela Anderson, Tommy Lee, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Christina Applegate.
FABRIC provides space and resources for small domestic brands to create their clothing at a below-market rate. They have office spaces, a photography studio, and a recording studio available to rent. Before the pandemic hit, they held fashion shows and events almost every weekend. They provide classes and a free library of compiled knowledge on local sourcing for materials such as fabric.
“It’s a unique model. We call it a public, social, cooperative, enterprise. We have for-profits who do sewing, education, and consulting,” Johnson said. “We have a non-profit that gives back free resources. We have the City of Tempe who donates to the building and a community of people that come to make this happen.”
While Johnson and Barry do pay maintenance fees and utilities, instead of paying rent, they made an agreement with the City of Tempe to give back to the community through programs and services in discounted and free resources. In four years of being in the space, they have reported over 2 million dollars in giving back to the community.
“We’ve actually exceeded what is required for us to stay here and that is all that we have documented,” Johnson said.
When the pandemic hit, FABRIC saw an opportunity to help the community when the lack of medical garments typically worn by medical practitioners became scarce.
On their website, FABRIC explained their process of beginning the project, “with the fundamentals in place to deliver, FABRIC assembled a team, hired an FDA consultant, sourced and secured reusable medical-grade materials, acquired additional equipment and staff, implemented lean manufacturing practices, and worked with doctors on design features.”
They were then able to create a safe, effective, FDA-approved, reusable, level two, and three isolation gowns with custom specifications for each hospital organization. FABRIC not only helped first responders by creating 400,000 isolation gowns in 2020 alone but also made them reusable. They diverted over 40 million gowns from landfills in 2020. This is just one example of how FABRIC has aided their community in need through fashion while also maintaining sustainability.
Part of the reason the fashion industry accounts for over 10% of greenhouse gas emissions and is one of the leading pollutants in the world is because of the way the business model is set up.
Factories will create patterns, do the technical design, the fittings, manage the production, and quality control a product for designers. However, since those components are difficult to bill designers for, they try their best to convince them to create large quantities of clothing by setting high minimums.
“Fashion comes out of our social systems, it is structured within our economic systems and it’s always been that way. I think that sustainable fashion is possible but it requires many more constraints than we have historically had,” said Laura Tanzer, a local sustainable fashion designer. “The current system of crazy fashion, over the top fashion shows, trade fashion shows for five or six collections a year, and fast fashion is not sustainable. They are all relatively recent, within the last 40-50 years so we can change that really quickly. We just need to ban together.”
In order to avoid wasting clothing as larger brands do like H&M and SHEIN, Johnson visited several specialty stores to get her designs made in smaller quantities for a low price.
“By piecing it out in different places I avoided those tough minimums in L.A. I would go to a pattern maker and then I would take the pattern to the grader to size it. Next, I would take the marker, a template you use for cutting, and my wholesale fabrics and deliver those to a cutting service. Finally, I would deliver those to different sewing factories,” Johnson said.
She used different sewing factories because they specialized in separate types of clothing.
During the early 2000’s Johnson moved back to Arizona and was disappointed to find that it was nearly impossible to manufacture clothes on a smaller local scale. Without the specialty stores that Los Angeles provided that allowed her to get patterns made, grading done, cutting, and sewing, continuing designing was not an option for Johnson.
By collectively aiding designers in creating clothing under one roof instead of several specialty stores and factories, they are able to maintain a sustainable fashion production cycle. All scraps are collected and used in creating a collection that is auctioned off at the end of every year.
Additionally, they are using cutting edge technology to prevent waste while the design process is occurring. For example, typically designers hand-make patterns, create a sample, and then adjust and repeat the process until a design fits and lies the way they imagine. At FABRIC, they have a computer program that provides designers with the ability to do this all technologically and save the wasted material they use when manufacturing samples.
Johnson and Barry look forward to the future of FABRIC. They have already begun a video series that allows even those outside of Arizona to learn how to create locally sourced and sustainable fashion brands. The two fashionistas hope to continue to use technology and sustainability to evolve the fashion industry as a whole.