Brooklyn Sewn, founded by David Gensler, is an in-house fashion atelier which utilises aspects of the slow fashion movement to play out Gensler’s desire to anti-mass produce and maintain direct control over production.
His own label, Serum Versus Venom (SVSV), is able to realise these core principles because the entire manufacturing process is done under the factory’s one roof. Gensler is able to maintain direct control over his designs from inception to fruition, providing him the opportunity to provide a truly bespoke service. In realising his own dream of creating a full circle facility he also noticed that he could serve local designers who wanted to manufacture in this way.
It turned out that demand from local designers was so great that the factory is now undergoing expansion. Local designers now also have the opportunity to reap the benefits that come with manufacturing in their home neighbourhood. Gensler’s outsider voice and devoted resistance to mass-production contributes to the fact that he works to his own rhythm not adhering to the traditional fashion calendar. He and his local designers all have the same sustainable focus; they are interested in taking the time to make well made products which consequently last longer. The factory is an example of the growing movement to produce locally, which is gaining the necessary momentum thanks to initiatives like Brooklyn Sewn. We ask David how his exciting scheme has helped develop his own label and also the local Brooklyn designers it serves.
How did the idea for Brooklyn Sewn come about?
When we launched SVSV in 2003, I was obsessed with producing all the garments and accessories in New York. The garment district has been shrinking for years and most of the best small factories started to close, forcing me to find an alternative local solution or be forced to find overseas factories (which I did not want to do). I knew we had the physical space and the resources to start, but I had no idea the local demand would be so great. So many great designers live in Brooklyn, the factory has turned into so much more than just our in-house atelier for SVSV - it is now a critical part of the indie fashion community.
How has your own label SVSV been affected by the launch of your in-house atelier Brooklyn Sewn?
Everything has changed for the better and I have no idea how we did it before. You can have an idea in the morning and a final sample by the end of the day. We have the ability to move as fast as the digital age and keep up with almost instant market demands. When you control your own production, the old calendar system is the most illogical way you could possibly approach the business of fashion. The consumer sets the pace and you better listen and figure out a way to keep up... traditional retail is so far behind the way people think, act and consume and this system ultimately produces less than ideal designs and a lot of waste. Luckily the old system has been replaced with a smaller, smarter, faster, stronger new method.
You have said that you think the fashion industry is too crowded and it would be insane to re-enter it in such a recession. However, SVSV took a hiatus and re-launched - How did you get around this concern? Was your strategy to provoke the industry so that you still had an effect and gained the publicity required to re-launch?
Not really... we employed no baiting tactics - we simply shifted the focus to a stronger, objective business modelling. Fashion is ultimately the most wide reaching, subjective form of design... attempting to win through just "design" is suicide and usually ends in nothing more than inflated (or deflated) egos. On the other hand, proper planning and innovative strategy is objective, and if you spend the time, predictable. When good planning and strategy come together with honest, passionate design, you can bet the farm that success will follow.
You have said that bespoke, made to order items are the new luxury – this may be true, but is this basic premise to fight against mass production really something new?
No, I don't think it is new at all, just logical. We started with bespoke and made to order, but we have to modify and expand this focus to reach more people and sustain the business. I think a better way to say it would be, "know thy maker." Consumers interested in consuming "luxury" should demand transparency from the brands they purchase from, which will place demands on the companies to focus on better business practices. "Luxury" is about control... the designer can never lose control of any step of the process, from concept through consumption. In this product life cycle, the manufacturing of the physical object is critical and should never be overlooked. Not all garments can be high craft works of art but no garment should be the end result of exploitative labour practices, harmful process or excessive waste.
You often collaborate with Artists; is the factory open to all types of creatives or just designers? How are the fashion and Art worlds different to work with?
The Factory is simply a factory, existing to help independent designers accelerate their visions into reality. I am open to any and all collaborations that come from these independent undercurrents. The art world is extremely similar to the fashion world in the sense that they both need more organization of emerging talent. Working with artists and fashion designers is basically the same thing... herding wonderful, well dressed cats!
The factory, as well as being SVSV’s primary production house, also serves local designers - how does this work in practise and how can a designer get on board?
Most of the new business comes from word of mouth. There really are no well branded, well known small factories in New York (this is a terrible crime). We do place certain demands on new designers - they can not just have a dream, we do have to run a business, so they need the plan and capital to make things happen.
Your impetus is to create bespoke pieces all under the one roof, and perhaps more significantly to run the business outside the traditional fashion calendar. Some high end designers such as Alaia do this very successfully, while a number of others have failed in their endeavour to go against fashion seasons. Is this an easier task with streetwear perhaps?
I am not sure, we are not streetwear by any traditional definition, but I can see that segment of the industry being perfect to adopt this in house production model on a wider scale. Our particular model is based around a very intimate understanding of who our customer is, where they are, what they want... and giving it to them as soon as they see the images. The traditional system was developed obviously to support brick and mortar retail, not the digital age. Our brand was born in the digital age and there is no reason to adhere to a failed paradigm that we had nothing to do with creating. We are constantly producing trend and marketing reports, as well as strategies and full programs for global brands, through our KDU consulting business. We are 100% confident that the "key" to success is engaging consumers at the "speed" of the digital age and over looking anything else that distracts us from this daily goal.
You are currently undergoing expansion of the factory, why do you think demand has been so encouraging?
I think people naturally want to support others in their community. New York has a rich history of design and manufacturing and the designers using Brooklyn Sewn are simply carrying on this tradition. The expansion will allow both SVSV, the existing other brands and new brands to continue to keep producing in New York. I hope that we find the right capital partner for a large scale expansion, allowing us to push the limits of our model, offering designers and brands a one stop experience that encompasses everything they might need from production to showroom, storage, photography, event space, etc.
NJAL's Tara st. James joined the factory to produce her label Study NY. Born in Montreal, she now calls Brooklyn home and explains how her passion to create sustainable clothing has been enriched by Brooklyn Sewn...
Your work involves methods such as ‘no waste’ pattern cutting and you developed an ethical sportswear brand before launching your label ‘Study NY’ – as a designer you fit in very well to the factory’s ethos for production. Are designers accepted to join the factory because they too support this model?
I don't believe there is a selection process or any specific criteria required by the factory in order to work with the sewers. It's a trial and error process like any other interview, to make sure that what's needed by the designers can be accomplished by the factory, and in exchange, whether the designer has the potential to become a long-term and hopefully profitable partner for the factory.
Can you tell us about your motivation behind your ‘Study Hall’ initiative?
I work closely with the design schools in New York. During one critique at FIT a couple of years ago I realized that the incredibly innovative and original designs that were being presented as part of a sportswear class would never materialize. I wanted to change that. I interviewed interns for the next semester knowing they would be part of the inaugural Study Hall program. The motivation behind it is to see their concepts fully materialized while teaching them how to develop and produce a collection. Over time, I hope this helps them become more thoughtful and ethical designers.
Another sustainable fashion project of yours, ‘Awamaki Lab’, is a program that fosters cross-cultural partnerships between young designers and Peru’s Awamaki indigenous weaver collective. What’s the most important thing you have learnt about ethical sourcing from this great project?
While it is beyond gratifying to work with small collectives of weavers, knitters and sewers, it is also very challenging. I source all my textiles and production ethically to varying degrees, but working with small collectives does have its benefits and difficulties. While I believe textiles from indigenous weavers can be incredibly beautiful and rich with history, it is challenging to integrate the product into a mainstream fashion world that demands consistency, fast turnaround times and lower prices. The premise behind ‘Awamaki Lab’ is to teach young designers to work directly with indigenous collectives and artisans and develop the communication skills required in order to produce a collection. It's an invaluable education.
Can you tell us about the growing movement to maintain control over production and produce locally? How has your label been able to develop since joining the factory?
Producing locally is important to me as a small designer not only on an environmental level, but also for economic and creative reasons. In the long run I believe it is more cost effective to produce locally, it also allows me to produce smaller quantities that meet my customers’ needs, while not over-producing. This is both economically and environmentally sound. From another perspective, I'm able to make small test runs of items that I want to try out on the local market before adding them to the main collection. This is something I would not be able to do overseas and I believe it has been beneficial to the creative development of the brand.