EXCLUSIVE: Fashion Incubator San Francisco Is Reimagining Itself

Fashion Incubator San Francisco is weighing changes to its vision and mission, sources told WWD.

Whatever comes next could see its designers-in-residence program morph into something else or be phased out in its current form.

While the nonprofit looks inward for some self-reflection, its registration in the State of California’s Registry of Charitable Trusts is set to expire in mid-May.

This comes on the heels of other changes over the last year and a half — including a leadership transition from founding chair Betsy Nelson, who hails from Macy’s, to current president and board chair Jeanine Barnett Silberblatt, a former Williams-Sonoma executive; the quiet stepping back of Macy’s as a key FiSF backer; the dissolution of its studio space inside Bloomingdale’s San Francisco department store, and the lack of a designers-in-residence program in 2023.

When reached for comment, Silberblatt bucked the notion that FiSF or its incubator are at risk of dissolving.

FiSF Fashion Incubator San Francisco Bloomingdale's

FiSF signage leading into display area and showroom at Bloomingdale’s in San Francisco in 2019.

Adriana Lee

Instead, she told WWD, FiSF is “entering an exciting new chapter of the organization,” one in which the nonprofit is actively creating its path forward.

Although its renewal filings didn’t appear in the state’s public database as of press time, Silberblatt said that all of the taxes and documentation to continue the operation have been completed. As for designers-in-residence, the organization is still reevaluating the program. The board chair bristled at the notion that it could shutter. Instead, she said the program “is on hiatus,” while the group takes stock of its next chapter.

According to Silberblatt, FiSF is in the process of evolving. Founded as a nonprofit in 2011 to support local fashion talent, the organization noticed that, over time, its designers were increasingly coming from international artisan communities, and they wanted to send support back home. As designer-led brands, they developed business models that enable their artisans to control their work environment and finances.

They were able to carry on traditional craftsmanship and honor their cultural practices, she said, because of technology. All of that fed into an awakening for FiSF, which had been focusing on regional businesses with local manufacturing and nearby clientele, as it realized that today even tiny businesses act can act globally.

In that light, the group asked itself why it needed physical studio space in an age of remote work.

FiSF Fashion Incubator San Francisco Bloomingdale's

A look at the FiSF’s previous studio space.

Adriana Lee

“We know that the program will not come back in this identical form,” conceded Silberblatt. “Our old model of working with designers — we worked with them for a year or year-and-a-half in person in our studio, which was very ‘Project Runway.’ We had cutting boards, like cutting tables, and that no longer meets the needs of entrepreneurs of the future.”

This realization appeared to coincide with Macy’s decision to step back, perhaps to focus on its own Macy’s Workshop accelerator program. The retailer helped the nonprofit move out of its studio space at the San Francisco’s Bloomingdale’s on Market Street in October and is no longer directly involved with the organization.

Bloomingdale's at the Westfield Mall in San Francisco

Bloomingdale’s at the Westfield Mall in San Francisco.

Adriana Lee

If FiSF needed to take stock of its mission, perhaps there was no better time. Last week, the nonprofit started to move into its new future with a Human Rights Foundation partnership aimed at introducing the two communities.

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