By Hannah J. Phillips
Photograph by Minta Maria Smail
Director, ACC Fashion Incubator
Nina Means doesn’t need to break the mold. She makes her own. In her mind, if the world’s prescribed pattern doesn’t fit— whether in fashion or business—it’s time for a new design. Leaving a career in public health, Means carved her own path into fashion at brands like Rebecca Taylor and H by Halston before launching her own line. Now, as director of Austin Community College’s Fashion Incubator, she is working to weave the future of fashion with the future of Austin. Both, she says, depend on sustainability and technology.
“We are in this unique space,” she says, “where we have the opportunity to leverage a variety of perfect-storm moments: On the one hand, we have global fashion brands looking to relocate or build directly in Texas. And with the city’s commitment to sustainability and zero waste, Austin is forcing businesses to grow in a genuinely green way.”
That intersection is exactly where the Fashion Incubator plans to shine, helping young brands break those barriers from the very beginning. Working with six to eight fashion startups in 2020, the program’s mission is to teach the next generation of designers how to grow their business sustainably, integrating technology that will drive down costs and boost scalability.
The idea first started around 2015, when the City of Austin approached Austin Community College about creating a fashion hub to rival resources in New York and Los Angeles. Around that time, Means moved to Austin from New York City with her husband. Passionate about sharing her experience as a designer for large New York brands, Means taught as an adjunct professor at the Art Institute of Austin while working to launch the capsule collection of her eponymous brand.
When a local buyer told her about the director position at the new Fashion Incubator, she loved the idea of combining the academic and business aspects of her fashion career with the community development from her previous role in public health. And witnessing first hand the lack of resources and connections while designing her own brand from Central Texas, she also knew exactly what the program might be missing.
“There are way too many talented people in Austin—patternmakers, seamstresses, stitchers—but until now, everyone has always been in their own bubble,” Means says. “I wanted the incubator to bring everyone together so that everyone can get the resources they need.”
The city pledged half a million dollars over six years for the program, partnering with Gerber Technology for a $13.1 million digital solutions package that saves designers time, money and materials. By creating three-dimensional avatars that can be customized for any size, the end-to-end technology allows designers to test and tweak garments without creating costly samples—even sharing previews with potential buyers instead of attending trade shows.
On the workforce side, the incubator encourages connections with local industries in a referral space that benefits both sides of the industry. For those looking to monetize sewing or stitching skills, for example, the incubator can provide technology training and ESL courses to integrate and grow local industries.
In Austin, those connections extend far outside the fashion world, creating opportunities for partnership with local bioscience companies and innovation centers. As such, Means believes the city is uniquely positioned to leverage technology and build unique business models in a crowded marketplace.
“I see us pushing the needle with research and development as we roll out the rest of our programming and learn more about what can be done in our industry,” Means says. “I hope that more people will see us as a lab for testing, sharing the infinite excitement that comes with taking on a project like this.”