We asked Kathleen Fasanella, a notable leader in the local fashion industry 5 questions in order to get to know her better. We are so excited to share her story with the design community! If you would like to learn more about her blog Fashion-Incubator or about her Manufacturing Boot Camps, please click on the links.
What is your background?
Non-traditional, I think. My circumstances were more challenging than usual (disadvantaged) so I was never able to finish school. I did study apparel engineering for 3 semesters (El Centro College in Dallas TX) and then later went on to study economics (economic development) at the University of Texas -Austin. I am also disabled, diagnosed with Autism but am functional enough to have become successful by my own measure.
My first job was in sanitation, shoveling rotting corn out of in-plant sewers for Frito-Lay, third shift. When I started college, I worked as a Spanish language translator in the federal court system (Dallas, immigration court) and waited tables. Then I was hired and fired as a fit model for PBJ, and on the same day, was rehired as a pattern maker. There I found my calling. Did that awhile until I decided I wanted to do more to improve the human condition so I decided to go back to college to focus on economic development to improve people’s lives. Not everyone can fight for human rights and good drinking water. People also need meaningful jobs and better opportunities.
I thought I’d become an economist and even worked as an economic demographer for a while but a quirk of fate led me back into the apparel industry and I continued to work as a pattern maker. Speaking of, “Pattern Maker” is an archaic job description for an unusual hybrid of 3 types of engineering; product design engineering, material engineering and industrial engineering. It is a critical function without which nothing could be manufactured but is relatively invisible to consumers. It is highly technical, requiring absolute precision and a thick skin, but the pay is good -better than that of fashion designers. But I digress. I started my own business providing support services to designers in 1995.
In 1996, I wrote a book that later became the “blue book” of our industry. The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing is a guidebook to starting a clothing business (I wrote this from Fort Stanton NM). By 2005, I’d moved to Las Cruces and started a blog (Fashion-Incubator.com) that became the go-to site for practitioners in the trade.
Who benefits from Fashion Incubator, who are the types of people/businesses you are working with?
It benefits practitioners who no longer have opportunities to learn while working in factories. It also benefits designers who wish to start or improve their businesses. In my practice, I work with a lot of designers, not just of fashion, but of sewn products. The majority of what we call the “fashion industry” or “clothing industry” is actually sewn products. 55% in fact. This includes everything from dog beds to medical and military devices, and to baby slings. It is a very broad category.
What is the vision behind Fashion Incubator and the Manufacturing Boot Camps and what is your role?
The key to Fashion-Incubator is to understand that there can be no repatriation of sustainable and fair trade manufacturing without knowledge. Since we have so few factories left, there is no place for entrepreneurs to learn about how to go about it. So that’s what we do.
The manufacturing boot camp is a dream, 25 years in the making. I came to New Mexico in 1990 as a battered woman and lived in the shelter. After transitioning to a halfway house, one step from homelessness, I could not find a winter coat for my son that I could afford. I ended up buying an adult coat at the thrift store and took it apart to make a child’s size coat. It was from that experience that I knew of the need. The idea fermented for years until I had the financial and practical means to do something about it.
The manufacturing boot camps satisfy both goals -training and public service. The BCs are a dynamic, immersive educational opportunity to experience what happens on the factory floor. In four days, we bring together 30 people from across the world into our factory, to cut and sew products that are then donated to needy New Mexicans. Last fall, we cut and sewed 125 heavy, lined winter coats for children. This Spring, we’ll cut and sew 240 dresses for seniors. The training is free but attendees pay a portion of the fabric costs.
My role is production manager, pattern maker, lead trainer and organizer of the event. It must be said that this event would not be possible without my husband’s support. He is our Project Manager (he is an electrical engineer and program manager at a solar cell plant). Often, this means he holds me accountable for getting the things done that I say need to be done. My husband (who co-owns the factory itself) and I, underwrite the expenses of hosting the event.
What does it mean to you to be a designer and creative person living in New Mexico?
I’m not sure what this means. In the apparel industry, living in New Mexico means being on the periphery and not being taken seriously -tragically- mostly by New Mexicans themselves. In the trade, Fashion-Incubator is highly respected, as am I and my business but many New Mexicans, not being in the trade itself, often think that local providers are not any good because we’re not located in NY or LA. They do not understand that people from LA and NY (and Canada, Australia, Europe, South America, Asia etc) come here for training [smile]. I love New Mexico, it has given me so many things -a new chance in life, hope, opportunity… I try to return the favor by creating more opportunities for us here but there is little local support. 99% of my customers and 95% of boot camp participants, come from out of state. Understand me well; my business is doing well with out of state customers but my thought when I started, was to make New Mexico known as a respected if not small, provider of fashion and sewn products designers. We used to be that. We had sewing plants all over the state. We still have the people here with skills. We just need to get them together and organized. I turn down work every day because I don’t have the means to do it here or to farm it out in state. All the work we can’t place, goes to Texas (mostly) or California. The work I’ve been able to attract to New Mexico, should stay in New Mexico. Our families need those jobs.
What is your design inspiration?
Keeping in mind that my role is to actualize the work of others, I’m best motivated by complex and difficult projects. Tee shirts and yoga pants are great (and staples of my wardrobe) but I prefer to make more complex and difficult items. If somebody shows me something and says it is too expensive or difficult to manufacture -that’s like waving a red cape at me. I’ll find a way to get it done well and cost effectively.