Tomorrow, the soon-to-be graduates of Brooklyn Public Library’s BKLYN Fashion Academy will debut their original collections in a Zoom fashion show, free and fully accessible to the public.
This year’s designers – a mix of fashion school graduates, designers with their own small clothing lines, and beginners with basic sewing skills – have gone through a course of rigorous training over the last year. Co-founded by Lynnsie Augustin, Project Manager for BPL’s Office of Strategic Planning, in 2017, Fashion Academy is an initiative organized through the Business & Career Center, and for the past three years has served as a launchpad for upcoming designers whose foray into a financially successful fashion career has been stalled not by a lack of talent, but by a lack of the professional resources and training they need to build a profitable business.
“It’s a very competitive and difficult field to penetrate,” said Winnie Siclait, co-founder and manager of the Academy as well as a BPL staffer. “There’s lots of information that you normally wouldn’t need for a regular business.”
One area designers receive training in, and one that self-taught designers often struggle with, she said, is creating something called a ‘tech pack’ – a set of detailed instructions used to translate designs so that they can be reproduced at scale by a manufacturer. Everyone accepted to the Academy can create original designs, Siclait explained. To succeed professionally, however, they need to have certain skills that many designers never get the opportunity to learn — a pain point that Augustin herself has experienced, Siclait said.
“[Augustin] is one of those designers who, unfortunately, life happened to, and couldn’t really just continue on with design because it didn’t bring enough money,” Siclait said. “There were skills that she didn’t have, and so life took her in a different direction.”
Like Augustin, the designers that get selected to participate are serious about their fashion careers.
“All of our designers – this isn’t a hobby to them,” Siclait said. “Creating one garment takes so much time – so much effort. And very few people have that luxury of time.”
One of this year’s designers, Dominus “Domi” Sowell, had never even heard the term ‘tech pack’ before he entered the Academy.
“We were all so confused, like what the hell was this? This was beyond what any of us – very few of us have seen it, no one’s really made one or heard of it,” Sowell told Bklyner over the phone.
Sowell, a New York native who got his start in theater production, applied to the Academy at the suggestion of a friend. He developed a nascent interest in fashion as a teenager but was unsure how to pursue it professionally.
“When I was in high school, I was really fond of fashion, but I didn’t know — what are the means?” he said. “Because it’s this much larger business.”
Sowell also struggled to find contacts and resources within the industry – another major hurdle for designers trying to build a business.
“As someone who actually wants to get into this business, I don’t know who to call,” he said. “I just know these higher productions that I work for, but I can’t afford that. I don’t know who to call for stylists.”
Another participant this year, Amanda Holt, is a skilled designer as well as a graduate of the fashion program at the Illinois Institute of Art. Holt, who has worked in both retail and interior design merchandising for over ten years, has nursed the hope for a career in fashion since she was young. Like Sowell, though, she needed help getting to the next level.
“I can bring a concept to life – from pattern making, sketching, all of the things in between, because I learned that in school,” said Holt.
The academy has brought Holt further to that goal, she told Bklyner; in addition to learning advanced sewing techniques, designers are also paired with industry-specific business mentors, who counsel them in areas such as getting their designs into retail stores.
Other designers this year include single mother and owner of sustainable fashion line, Romina Fernandez, as well as Venezuelan immigrant and full-time au pair Stefany Lavayen, who completed her collection while taking care of her employer’s small children.
“[The designers] really, really worked hard,” said Siclait. “This is why the show matters so much, especially this year; they really didn’t have to – they really wanted to. And we had to be able to support them in this way, and I think we did them a lot of service.”
In the years before the pandemic, Siclait said, all work and classes took place in person at the library’s central branch. Designers would gather for group classes, followed by ‘open lab’ time, where they’d have the space to work on their own designs. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, though, designers this year have had to do all of their work in isolation. While the Academy’s staff – a mix of library staff members and fashion industry professionals – worked hard to translate the original in-person experience of the Academy to Zoom, Siclait said, there are some things they couldn’t replicate.
“It’s been challenging to say the least, because it’s very technical and physical,” she said. “The entire program requires you touching and feeling, and that’s something that was taken away immediately [by COVID-19].”
While this year’s program kicked off in January 2020, the Academy was forced to take a hiatus when the library shut down in mid-March, Siclait said — extending the program’s usual 16-week run to over a year.
In spite of these setbacks, said Siclait, the program succeeded — due in large part to people like Benjamin Mach. Mach, a fashion designer and the Creative Director of Mood U fashion school in Manhattan, has worked with the Academy from its inception. When Siclait and Augustine called him up in the hopes of restarting the program, he enthusiastically agreed.
“I don’t know how he did it,” said Siclait. “I don’t know how you explain draping when you can’t touch it and show it.”
The Academy has helped kick off the careers of people like Berchell Egerton, who got to present one of his looks at the 2019 Grammys.
Sowell and Holt are both looking towards the final show – themed after Carnevale — with a combination of excitement and nerves, they said. “I have all this shpilkes,” said Sowell, using a Yiddish term for nerves.
“One of my signatures is floral prints, because I’m a spring baby and I love flowers,” Sowell said. “And I think in this last collection it’s kind of alluding to things peeking through snow, this coming of a new beginning, and you know, a new dawn.”
The fashion show starts at 7 pm tomorrow evening, and is free to attend, though attendees are required to pre-register through eventbrite. This year’s show is sponsored by Brooklyn Style Foundation, FABSCRAP, Fashion Week Brooklyn, and Mood Fabrics.