It’s like Project Runway, minus the competition and the made-for-TV catfights: The Philadelphia Fashion Incubator takes local designers under its wing, arms them with a mentor who knows the business inside and out, sends them on a packed schedule full of workshops, critiques, trips and events, and hooks them up with connections to some of the biggest names in fashion. Names like Tory Burch, Tommy Hilfiger, Nicole Miller.
“It’s really a great opportunity for the designers to share,” says the Incubator’s executive director, Elissa Bloom, who formerly taught fashion entrepreneurship at Drexel University and Moore College of Art and Design. “They all have very different design aesthetics, but they all have the same business challenges and the same issues to come into this program with—where they can learn and teach one another, but also share resources.”
Working in conjunction with the city’s top fashion schools, the Incubator—a nonprofit collaboration between Macy’s, the city and the Center City District—offers spots annually to five up-and-comers: one alum apiece from Moore, Drexel and Philadelphia University, plus two additional “wild card” designers.
Last year—the program’s first—the wild cards were a pair of ingeniously self-taught designers/sisters, Latifat Obajinmi and Moriamo Johnson. They’ve done fantastically since then: Each of the collections their Aso Damisi line produced focuses on a different set of bold, African-inspired prints, featuring timeless, ever-flattering cuts like one-shoulder dresses, pencil skirts and structured jackets that can easily be translated from day to night. Not only has Aso Damisi been showcased at Miami Fashion Week, the brand has also been picked up by seven high-end boutiques across the nation—soon to be eight—including Joan Shepp, who served as the design duo’s mentor during their Incubator time, and US*U.S in Philadelphia.
Award-winning designer Autumn Kietponglert, too, has hit the ground running since her year with the Incubator ended last March. Inspired by the gothic aesthetic, with captivating, avant-garde neck and shoulder pieces composed entirely out of zippers, her Autumnlin Atelier couture line juxtaposes historically-inspired silhouettes with fashion-forward, exotic textures—including chicken leather from Thailand, which has a similar appearance to snake—and ethereal shapes that appear to take on dream-like qualities.
“I’m known for working with all black,” she says, “but if you look at my work, I will do all cream or all white—but it still has a goth vibe to it. When I did the Incubator, everything was silvery gray. I like to do unexpected things. That’s what I’m comfortable with.”
Looking at the Incubator’s 2013 class of designers, it’s apparent that “different design aesthetics” is, if anything, an understatement. There’s no comparing Leah Delfiner of Pretty Pretty Rebel’s bright ruffled dresses, decked out with custom drawn, leopard print, skulls and lightning bolts, to Annina King of Granaté Pret’s open-stitched, body-conscious wool skirts, complete with intricate silk abstract tree motifs.
Meanwhile, Devin Pauley, this year’s wedding gown designer—paired up with mentor Alana Tosti, the director at Philadelphia Wedding magazine—dresses her brides-to-be in lace-accented dresses and delicate cream hues, giving them a feminine, vintage feel.
Throw into the mix Trisha Williams of Trish Will, whose work deploys the colors of the flag of Barbados, and Senpal + Kohai partners Melissa Choi and Pia Panaligan, inspired by ‘50s-style textile artist Lucienne Day, and it’s clear that these designers are not going for the same markets.
Still, they’re working toward similar goals, and the Incubator’s early successes are pointing the way. Kietponglert’s zipperware designs, in addition to Kaleidoscope Boutique in Old City, have made their way into L.A.’s Church Boutique, known for star-studded clientele including Rihanna, Gwen Stefani and Lenny Kravitz, while New York City boutiques Trash and Vaudeville carry her ready-to-wear label Heartless Revival. Kietponglert was tickled to see TV tattoo artist Megan Massacre, from TLC’s NY Ink, wearing a pair of her trademark cross earrings on a recent episode.
At the beginning of September, the Incubator will once again open up the application process to another year’s worth of prospective talent. Bloom says Macy’s is looking forward to a long future history of successful local grads: “This is really a true community effort for them. They would like to see the next 10 to 20 years of Ralph Lauren or Tory Burch come out of one of their Incubator programs.”