The massive warehouse lined with sewing machines is quiet on Friday mornings, just a few of its workstations occupied. In front of them flows a blue river of denim, stitched and waiting to be threaded through spaces in the brick walls outside in a massive-scale sewing project.
A sleek sign-in computer at the front reveals who goes in and out. There’s a “fashion designer,” a “film stylist,” a “watch designer,” a “podcaster” and someone identified as “simply innovative.”
The warehouse, known as the Fashion and Business Resource Innovation Center, or FABRIC, in Tempe, Arizona, has an industrial feel and look, the type of place where people come in ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work.
But its lobby is another story. Plush white chairs flanked by silver mannequins and crimson red roses invite guests to take a load off. Silver wall-mounted hangers and a series of fashion sketches serve at the entry to express what the building is all about: a fashion incubator under one roof, in a state not typically known for fashion.
The massive brown building, nestled between College and Mill avenues and not far from Arizona State University, the largest public university in the United States, didn’t look so good when Angela Johnson and Sherri Barry scoped it out last fall.
Barry, an aspiring designer and retail expert, faced challenges in starting up her own line, and realized she wasn’t alone in her desire for better access to production resources and a physical space to come together and share them.
Johnson, a designer most known for her namesake line of T-shirt ballgowns, had developed LabelHorde, an online directory for local fashion figures, from accessory designers to models and screen printers, to share resources and skills. Consulting the directory became a sort of obligatory first step for anyone who wanted to start a fashion-related business in Arizona, but it soon became apparent to Johnson that the online interaction alone wasn’t getting the job done. The directory needed to come to life.
“It became more and more of a need,” Johnson says. “We needed a physical space to share resources.”
So the search began.
In fall of 2016, Donna Kennedy, the economic development director for the city of Tempe, jangled her keys to get the doors open for Johnson and Barry so they could check out the space for what would become the next big development in the local fashion community: a place for those in the business to come together, to share resources, to bring their ideas to life, to let fashion flourish in the flesh.
But the former Tempe Performing Arts Center was covered in dirt, cobwebs and grime from being empty for several years. The walls were painted in dingy colors. The only windows in the space were covered by black curtains, darkening everything inside. There were bleachers in the middle of the main space, an obtrusive obstacle that sheltered costumes, props and all sorts of odds and ends. They were like ghosts of the theater’s past, fragments of its history, the objects that used to bring performances alive now lying dormant in a decaying warehouse.
“Would this work?” Kennedy asked. Johnson and Barry knew the answer was yes.
Broken links in the chain
Although home to three fashion weeks (Scottsdale, Phoenix and Tucson) and an innumerable amount of small fashion and beauty brands, Arizona’s fashion history is marked by a lack of resources and an unclear line of command, which made entry into the industry difficult, if not impossible.
Barry, FABRIC co-founder and the founder of Arizona Fashion Source, knows this better than anyone.
Her office sits in the corner of the building, large windows looking out onto Tempe streets outside. Barry knows the area will be booming with activity later, maroon and gold spirit sweeping the streets as Sun Devils prepare for a football game the next day.
The office is bold. A graphic black and white rug rests beneath Barry’s feet, and pops of color burst throughout the small workspace. Barry’s daughter, Anna, recently transferred from the University of Arizona to ASU. Anna has an interest in interior design and flexed her decorating chops by taking creative control of the office and its aesthetic.
Barry describes herself as the business-minded part of the operation, but her fashion roots go way back.
After a 17-year background in retail and the procurement of an MBA at ASU’s W.P. Carey school, Barry decided to pursue her long-time dream of being a fashion designer.
“I had always wanted to be a fashion designer,” Barry says. “When I graduated from business school in Wisconsin, being a fashion designer would be very much like being an actress. It was a dreamer job.”
But the line she started fell apart when she had to take things to California at the manufacturing stage. The factory got the order wrong, and the customer who had invested in the order ended up empty-handed.
“It was really the first thing I ever failed at in my whole entire life,” Barry says. “But they say that’s where you learn the most, and I think I did.”
Barry had seen firsthand what happens when a link in the design chain breaks, and she started thinking about the benefits of a line coming together in one place, from sketching to patternmaking to producing.
“What happened in California, because there wasn’t any one place where all those people were together for the benefit of the designer, it was highly likely that a link was gonna drop out of the chain,” Barry says. “Just about every designer I’ve met in the Valley has experienced that same thing.”
And it’s not a problem many start-up designers can afford to face, with the costs of starting a line already a financial strain.
“What I found is I met this incredible group of really talented designers who had amazing ideas and amazing products but were struggling because they had no resources to be able to take those ideas to production,” Barry says.
Barry knew Johnson through her familiarity with the online directory LabelHorde and Johnson’s work as the director of Fashion Group International of Arizona at the time. They both knew something was missing from the local fashion scene, and they each had skills that would be useful in tackling it.
Together, Johnson and Barry made the perfect duo.
“She had the finances and business knowledge, while I had the community, industry knowledge,” Johnson says of their complementary business relationship.
According to Barry, the partnership is the driving factor that makes it all work, her business skills and Johnson’s design savvy coalescing.
“It’s this combination of creativity and capacity that share like minds and hearts that have really made this work,” Barry says. “Without the partnership, this doesn’t exist.”
Today, FABRIC houses classrooms, workshops, offices and a runway space. Designers pay $450 or $550 a month for an office, depending on the space. Long hallways and endless doors open to colorful offices like shoeboxes, each room a peek inside the brain of its primary user. Some mannequins stand guard in flowing white wedding gowns, others in sequined bikinis or floral sarongs.
According to Barry, FABRIC currently has four interns and has had three others since its opening in October 2016. They even hired one as a technical designer.
Barry says young talent is crucial to the fashion scene, so ASU’s new fashion degree program offers great potential for the local industry.
“Our goal is to keep the talent here,” Barry says. “We want them to be able to have the resources to develop here. We feel very strongly that Phoenix is in a great position to be the next fashion industry city.”
An eye for detail
It comes as no surprise that the woman who is perhaps one of the biggest fashion figures in Arizona is detail-oriented. This is why an off-center painting outside her office is driving her bonkers.
Dennita Sewell is the curator of fashion at the Phoenix Art Museum. She is also a professor of practice at ASU and heading up the new fashion degree program at the university.
“He hung that too far to the left,” Sewell says. “It needs to be centered over the bookshelves… We’ll change that.”
Beneath the off-kilter painting stand bulky bookshelves, with bold art deco fonts gracing the spines and titles reminding us that fashion is ingrained into history. “Four Hundred Years of Fashion.” “20,000 Years of Fashion.” “A Century of Bags.” “A Spectacle of Spectacles.”
The ASU program, which Sewell said was born out of student demand, currently has 102 students pursuing majors and 30 pursuing minors. The program offers a Bachelor of Arts in fashion from the School of Art, but as such a new program, the outcomes remain to be seen, including whether or not students will stay to grow the fashion industry in Arizona further or migrate to more established fashion capitals, like Los Angeles or New York.
“I think that this program only helps elevate the options and the opportunities for both of those,” Sewell says. “Anytime there’s more activity and more structured activity, it will foster growth of that industry.”
According to Sewell, cities have a vested interest in encouraging a booming fashion industry, from the pervasiveness of fashion in everyday life to its economic impact.
“It’s a multi-trillion dollar international industry that impacts everything, from social behaviors to politics to policy to economics to creative work and people’s lives,” Sewell says. “What I would like people to do and fashion majors to do when they come here is to just embrace learning about how broad the industry is and really explore where your interests lie. There are jobs that are obvious that people know about, like buyer and designer, but there’s a lot more jobs.”
Imaginations running as far as they can go
According to Barry, FABRIC has helped provide more than 185 brands with at least one service in the last year.
Sam Hamati of Hamati Designs is a local designer who uses the space at FABRIC to help other designers bring their visions to life, when he’s not working on his own designs, that is.
“I just put on some music and zone out and then just make clothes,” Hamati said when he’s helping with another line.
Bringing his own ideas to life is a bit more immersive. “I dress up, literally I start putting on fabric, wrapping it this way and that way, draping it on mannequins, so that’s my creative process,” Hamati said.
Hamati has created a Seven Deadly Sins collection (a candy-coated and saran-wrapped ensemble for gluttony, for example), a dress made out of white paper cootie-catchers (the classic elementary-school favorite), and a collection based on Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, complete with hand-melted sequins and polyester lining.
Hamati grew up in Arizona and started entering costume design contests as a teen. When his mom bought him a sewing machine, he felt obligated to be in it for the long haul.
“She spent $200 on it, and when you’re 12, 13, you’re like, holy shit mom, that’s a lot of money, now I have to stick with this hobby?” Hamati says. “Now I wholly enjoy the process.”
Hamati’s design reputation in the local industry makes him a valuable resource at FABRIC. He helps produce fashion shows, creates fabric patterns, and assists when designers come in needing a “one-off” dress rather than a whole collection. But he still likes to help them push the boundaries.
“When people need one of something or they need advice or a concept, that’s when I get pulled into it,” Hamati says. “The more theatrical, the better because that’s pretty much all I do right now. Except my next collection is ready-to-wear, so we’ll see how that goes. I’m really scared.”
Hamati says the fashion industry in Arizona is tiny, but growing. “This place is all about supporting each other,” he says.
One of the ways FABRIC strives to do that is the Zero Waste Project, an approach to fashion that utilizes every piece of fabric available to reduce sending endless scraps to the landfill.
“It also gives us a springboard for local designers who don’t get much exposure otherwise, because sometimes doing fashion shows is expensive,” Hamati says. “So the idea is they come in, and we give them patterns and we give them scraps to use, and then they just let their imagination run wildly as far as they can go.”