With a burgeoning startup scene and home to long-standing companies like Microsoft and Amazon, Seattle is clearly a technology innovation hub. But the region’s fashion design and apparel industry, while lesser known, actually ranks among the top across cities nationwide.
Yet as Steven Matsumoto explains, designers in the Seattle area still leave for New York or Los Angeles to earn a living in the industry — and that’s exactly why he created the Seattle Fashion Incubator (SFI).
“We have great creative talent, but no infrastructure to support it,” Matsumoto said. “There are brilliant designers who are forced to work at restaurants or move away and create jobs elsewhere. I wanted to stop that.”
There are plenty of incubators and accelerators around Seattle designed for entrepreneurs working in tech-focused fields. But none really existed for those looking to build businesses around fashion.
Matsumoto, a former Marine and CEO of Stigmare, launched the Renton, Wash.-based SFI in 2010 after researching similar organizations in places like Toronto in Chicago.
However, most of the existing “incubators” were run like a non-profit or co-operative. To truly create a support network for designers, Matsumoto decided to charge members a monthly fee based on the level of resource commitment each person needed.
He also tapped into his rolodex to create an advisory board that includes former executives of companies like Saks Fifth Avenue and other big fashion brands.
“We put together folks that understand the business of fashion to help the creatives go from starving artists on their kitchen table to being coached in becoming successful fashion brands that have longevity and create jobs in the region,” he explained.
Along with access to sewing machines, fabrics, workshops, and mentorship, SFI also helps its dozen or so members find fabrics at wholesale prices. This can be a roadblock for designers that may have a great idea, but don’t have the right contacts or can’t find a U.S.-based supplier that produces small batches.
“Unless you know someone who knows someone, you can’t find these raw materials and you’re stuck having to go to Jo-Ann Fabric,” Matsumoto said.
Aside from its own members, SFI also supports the local garment industry by hiring and teaching military veterans to be sewing machine operators.
“The apparel industry both locally, and nationally has an extreme shortage of qualified sewing machine operators as a result of the increased demand for Made in USA goods,” Matsumoto noted. “We’re working with Compass Veteran’s Center in Renton to identify candidates for our program to teach veterans the basic skills needed to become sewing machine operators for the industry.”
Starting SFI is part of a bigger vision for Matsumoto to develop a garment district in Renton, a smaller city 11 miles south of Seattle. He noted how the low cost of living, an abundance of open offices, and a central location make Renton an ideal place for the Northwest’s garment district.
Matsumoto envisions a future where SFI is spread among multiple buildings in downtown Renton, with studios, showrooms, and places for designers to build out their dreams.
“Renton could become the creative spoke of the wheel that creates jobs and creates a tax base,” he said. “This could take fashion from being entertainment and purely consumer-driven at the retail level to actually being a viable contributor to the state’s economy and job growth.”
Matsumoto has self-funded SFI since its inception. But now, he’s looking for partners who can help support the incubator’s growth and provide better tools for designers.
“We want to incorporate more technology,” Matsumoto noted. “There is technology out there to make low-minimum manufacturing more cost-effective. That is something we want to be able to incorporate hopefully sooner rather than later.”