Retrofitting Industrial Brooklyn
Pfizer, the giant global pharmaceutical company founded in Brooklyn in 1849, was a huge presence for many generations of scientists and factory workers. It was at the forefront of innovation in medicines and was the source of good jobs across the boroughs and the city. However, in 2008 it closed the (more or less) original manufacturing and research and development (R+D) site. Bad news for South Williamsburg.
Developers stepped in to keep the facility available for light manufacturing. It's a massive industrial building repurposed for, among other things, a yeshiva, a food training program, food startups, and Pratt's newest spinoff the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator.
Pratt administrators realized that when their students graduated, the ideas they had developed during their schooling walked out the door with them.
Can they extend their reach with capturing the next stage of development and share in any successes they nurtured?
Can they at least keep designers in NYC despite dizzying rents and the maddening difficulties of manufacturing locally?
With an emphasis on technology and sustainable processes and materials, the BF+ DA was opened for its first entrepreneurs in 2014 with seed money from the Institute, the borough, the city, and state.
The lab pipes are still in place (and labeled) but the spaces have been reconfigured for small apparel companies. There is also an in-house cut and sew factory, advanced knitting sampling and manufacturing, and a resource library of sustainable fabrics for the apparel designers.
Support for Venture Fellows, who must apply for mentorship, includes advisement on finance, branding, sales, marketing, and sustainable strategies. Sunny studios come with common access to tools and targeted networking and educational events. If a company is approved, the studios can be rented for up to three years.
One of the research areas of the BF+DA is embedded technology and textiles. Last summer an intensive design charette yielded what they called "Tek-Tiles."
Are they reinventing the wheel? Are these knits, embedded with sensors that respond to heat or touch, like apps that are substitutes for simple human interaction? Is this a new chapter to the Pfizer legacy—see what you invent and then find a use for it? In any case, the BF+DA is addressing the issue of "the rent is too damn high," giving at least a few fashion startups time and room to grow.
Elizabeth Frenchman, NYC