Ten Years of Nurturing Fashion Start-ups

In late 2018, Nicole Muhammad launched Sew Elevated, a modest fashion brand for women who seek more coverage for personal or religious reasons.

“It can be isolating running a brand like this,” Muhammad told WWD. “I don’t have staff but I have a set of contractors, patternmakers, sample makers, different factories that I work with. There aren’t a lot like me coming from this kind of approach. I’m focused on women in their 30s to 60s. That age group is neglected. There is a whole huge portion of the population that wants to be fashionable but may not want to dress too provocatively.”

Muhammad, a clinical psychologist by training, now creates what she characterized as contemporary but modest two-piece sets, outerwear, tunics, dresses and accessories, with lots of color and luxe fabrics.

To better connect to the fashion and business communities to take Sew Elevated to new heights, Muhammad is a designer-in-residence at the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator program, a nonprofit 501c 3, operating an 800-square-foot renovated studio space inside Macy’s Center City in Philadelphia.

To celebrate its 10th anniversary, the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator is staging a shoppable, interactive retrospective of 23 designers-in-residence, past and present, titled “Illume”  at the Crane Arts Building in Philadelphia through Sept. 10.

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The fashion incubator has also marked its milestone year by launching a weekly online series called “Fashion Thursdays” featuring prominent fashion figures and business leaders, and “Fashpreneurs,” an online educational subscription model with more than 50 hours of business-focused content for fashion entrepreneurs with 60-minute interviews with industry insiders.

“The incubator has been very instrumental in terms of expanding my approach to the business both mentally and strategically because it focuses on the business side of fashion,” said Muhammad. “One of the huge benefits is the opportunity to engage with alumni of the program, other founders and industry leaders and professionals in sales, marketing, branding and finance. Those things are important to me. The incubator has a studio for designing, with sewing machines, and we can do photo shoots. We can do all kinds of things there. During the pandemic we have met at least weekly over Zoom, sometimes two to three times a week. I’ve had multiple mentors, in logistics and business systems, marketing and sales, helping me in terms of the branding piece, expanding how I engage and attract customers based on my social media, emailing, blogging and exploring the next stage of getting products in boutiques and wholesaling.”

Nicole Muhammad, right, displays one of her colorful, contemporary and modest styles. 

“We’re like an MBA for fashion designers,” said Elissa Bloom, executive director of the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator. “We are a dynamic, one-year residency that’s all about the business of fashion.”

The program starts each year in March and accommodates five or six fashion entrepreneurs from the Philadelphia area. “In order to be eligible you have to be in business from six months to three years,” Bloom explained. “These designers have already built a foundation. They must have product, sales, a website, and some understanding of who their customer is. In many ways we function like an accelerator. Many of our designers-in-residence need help with manufacturing or production, with branding or their sales strategies. A lot of them need help with their pricing and their digital marketing.”

Participants are charged a $300 monthly fee, though the incubator is mostly supported by the Center City District (a business improvement district), the city of Philadelphia, QVC, the Ballard Spahr law firm and Macy’s Inc.

Those in the program can use the Macy’s space seven days a week and attend workshops and discussions with business leaders, designers and educators. They’ve heard from Barbara Kahn, the Patty and Jay H. Baker professor of marketing at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania; Gary Wassner, chief executive officer of fashion factoring company Hilldun Corp. and chairman of Interluxe Holdings, and Lee Sporn, a former in-house lawyer for Michael Kors, among others. Earl Boyd, from Entrepreneur Works, meets with the designers-in-residence in a consulting capacity.

“When we first launched we were focused on recent graduates that were starting businesses,” Bloom said. “But the demographics have changed from mostly Millennials to now a lot of women and minority-owned business entrepreneurs on their second or third careers. A lot of people have been reevaluating their priorities, what their passion really is. They’re pivoting.

“The other big change is that before, the brands all wanted to do women’s apparel. Now each of these brands has very specific targeted sectors, like modest wear, or safety boots. The candidates we are attracting are different. A former architect in Manhattan, Mamita Raddy, now has a business upcycling saris. Nancy Conner, who previously did business development in the dental industry, is now creating smart adaptive clothing, including men’s and women’s shirts with Velcro,” for those with conditions making it hard to dress. “A lot of the designers that go through our program are focused on underserved markets and providing quality stylish product.”

According to Bloom, 50 individuals have graduated from the program, and 70 percent of them are still in business, including two that generate multimillion-dollar volumes. She added that the incubator graduates running companies provide Philadelphia-area photographers, models, stylists, manufacturers, graphic designers, printers and others with business. “The incubator is really an economic development initiative for the city of Philadelphia,” Bloom said.

Elissa Bloom, executive director, Philadelphia Fashion Incubator. 

“When I first applied to the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator in 2017, I was in very early stages of developing apparel. I didn’t have my collection fully worked out,” said Amy Voloshin, cofounder with her husband of PrintFresh, a size-inclusive sustainable sleepwear brand, and a graduate of the program. “I was really looking for support — a peer group to learn and experience things with, to get more connected to the Philadelphia fashion scene.”

She said she attended weekly group meetings with guest speakers addressing technical design, production and other subjects and was able to participate in Philadelphia Fashion Week. She also had designer Danny Noble as a mentor.

“It was so awesome to have him as a mentor, having somebody that had been through it, and who could provide a strong sense of design and business and advice on all the things I had to stumble through,” said Voloshin, who designs nightgowns, embroidered robes and long pajama sets, priced $98 to $158. “He really made it clear to me that the brand just has to have a strong point of view, that you have to be able to see it from across the room and know it’s all yours, because there are so many people out there competing.…The pure learning aspects and the mentorship were incredibly helpful.”

Amy Voloshin of PrintFresh. 

Other current incubator designers-in-residence are Elle Tobin, creator of the Danielle Tobin eco-conscious, artisanal apparel and accessories brand; Deborah Ann Mack of the eponymous brand of women’s outerwear; Namita Penugonda Reddy, founder of the Samsara Sari women’s brand that upcycles vintage saris, and Emily Soloby, who creates safety boots under the label Juno Jones.

Soloby said she joined the incubator to take Juno Jones “from an idea to a powerful reality. It’s about so much more than shoes. It’s stylish safety boots for women in jobs like engineering, architecture, construction and all kinds of hazardous industries.”

Soloby, who happens to operate a truck driving school with training on heavy equipment that she and her husband bought from an uncle, launched Juno Jones via Kickstarter in 2020. Her first safety boot style appeared last March and additional styles are coming up for fall. “Our first design was crowdsourced so we found out what women were looking for. We sent out surveys and sketches.”

The Philadelphia Fashion Incubator has brought her “a sense of community” and a sense that there’s a team behind her, supporting her. “You can get instant feedback on all kinds of things from business to contracts to marketing. The second thing is the networking. It’s unbelievable to be able to speak to the kind of professionals they provide.”

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