Austin Community College fashion incubator aims to bridge skills gap in growing industry

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Kristopher Stevens is the co-owner of a small business in Austin with about 17 employees called Stitch Texas. The company’s role is to help its clients take a creative idea on paper for clothing design and turn that sketch into a real product that can be sold to customers.

“We’re not doing much designing. It’s my clients that are designing. It’s their idea, their vision. We’re here to help them realize it,” Stevens said. “We’re doing all the dirty, sweaty stuff; they’re the ones with the vision and ideas.”

For Stevens, who is also an instructor at Austin Community College in the fashion program, one challenge in his business is finding employees with the technical skills to run pieces of complex equipment that cut fabric and make clothing. Even though he said students can find jobs paying $25-$40 an hour after they learn the requisite skills, he said it is still difficult to find people prepared to do the “dirty, sweaty stuff” that can turn a fashion idea into reality.

ACC’s new fashion incubator hopes to help business owners like Stevens find employees while simultaneously arming students with skills to quickly enter a growing industry. ACC unveiled the new space on its Highland campus April 30.

The incubator provides a space for students in the community college’s associate degree program in fashion marketing and the forthcoming associate degree program in fashion design, which will be offered beginning in the fall semester. It also provides access to technology for fashion startups and entrepreneurs.

ACC’s degree programs are intended to prepare students with both the business and technical skills to enter an industry that contributed 1,300 jobs and $86 million to the city, according to a 2014 report by TXP Inc. prepared for the city of Austin.

Incubator Director Nina Means said the skills to master the Gerber Technologies cutting machine will make students ready for work right away.

“I think that’s really where everyone gets the biggest win in the shortest timeline,” Means said.

The city of Austin provided $355,000 as part of an agreement with ACC to help fund the incubator, and according to ACC board documents, Gerber Technologies donated the technology valued at $13 million. ACC is responsible for providing the space and sewing machines and funding the renovations at the Highland campus.

Mayor Steve Adler said the city approached ACC about five years ago with the proposal in order to upskill an industry and provide more jobs to Austin residents who do not have a four-year degree.

“One of our challenges in this city is finding middle-skilled jobs,” Adler said. “We have lots of jobs for people making $125,000 or $150,000 a year. Where we’re really challenged is finding jobs that are paying [$50,000 to $80,000] and then training the people who live here to take those jobs.”

ACC President Richard Rhodes said he believes the incubator will launch Austin into an industry leader nationwide.

“What happens here is actually going to change the fashion industry in Central Texas and in the central part of the United States. When you think about fashion, oftentimes you think about New York City. You think about San Francisco. Now you’re going to think about Austin, Texas,” Rhodes said.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the Gerber Technologies cutting machine was valued at $13 million. The story has been updated to reflect that the total value of equipment Gerber Technologies donated is valued at $13 million.

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Jack Flagler
Jack is the editor for Community Impact's Central Austin edition. He graduated in 2011 from Boston University and worked as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Maine, Massachusetts and North Carolina before moving to Austin in January of 2018.
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