Cover Feature

When the Student Becomes the Teacher

Maria Barazza, Nic Hyl, and Jean-Didier Wen Y Pessinaba. Photo Credit: Jill Lotenberg

After learning how to sew from her mother, which then turned into a 40-plus-year-long career as a designer, Maria Barraza turns to mentoring at the Brooklyn Fashion Incubator for her next chapter.

As the saying often goes, “If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.” And when it comes to the fashion industry, this couldn’t be truer—designers small and large often head to New York City to make it big. As one of the world’s top fashion capitals, New York provides designers with a multitude of resources that prove to be much more scarce throughout the rest of the U.S.: some of the top fashion schools in the country, access to dozens of fabric manufacturers and a multitude of distributors, and a large network of retailers, finance sources, and top executives across all sectors of the industry.

For some, the path to success comes like second nature. But for most, New York is a very big pond, which can be hard to navigate. Learning the ins and outs of marketing your brand to retailers, finding the right manufacturer, and gaining brand exposure in an increasingly global and highly competitive market are only the tip of the iceberg. And often, these things require a trial and error process, which takes time—something not everyone has.

That’s why small designers are turning to Maria Barraza and the Brooklyn Fashion Incubator (BFI) for help. BFI is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that mentors promising young fashion businesses poised to grow and succeed in the United States fashion industry. BFI helps them focus on their strengths and that of their brand, so as to assure a higher likelihood of success for these businesses.

At BFI, designers enter a 12-month residency, during which they work with Barraza to achieve individual growth and expand their overall business development. Barraza acts as a guide to those who participate in the incubator, providing insights into business decisions, aiding with design processes, and providing connections to her wide net of contacts within the fashion industry, nationally and internationally.

Barraza’s expertise comes from a lifelong love affair with fashion. Barraza’s first foray into the fashion world was at the age of three, when her mother, a designer herself in the 1940’s, took her to a fabric store to choose what fabric she wanted for a coat her mother was making for her. “My first merchandising decision!” Barraza exclaims.

While her mother instilled in her an appreciation for unique quality fabrics and clothing that makes women feel sophisticated and put together, Barraza’s experience and success within the industry can be credited to no one but herself.

Barraza started her career working as a merchandise manager at Macy’s and Gimbel’s, then going on to work at various manufacturers, including the Swedish Fashion Group, where she worked with Gil Truedsen, one of Ralph Lauren’s first designers, Oxford Industries, and C’est Petite, a special size division Barraza launched for INTERCO.

But perhaps Barraza’s real mark of success came in 1988, when she launched her own full-service private label company, Barraza Associates, Ltd. After analyzing the needs of a changing retail marketplace, Barraza seized the opportunity to fill the void, forming a company that has served some of the nation’s top chain specialty stores and catalogues, including Nordstrom, SAKS, J. Peterman, Spiegel, Soft Surroundings, GUMP’s, and many others. Today, Barraza still designs for BARRAZA, her own upscale boutique in Stonington, CT. Her boutique also carries selected BFI participants’ products.

In fact, it was one of Barraza’s colleagues, a top executive at Macy’s, who arranged to have her BARRAZA New York line of coats carried at Macy’s and presented her with the opportunity to launch BFI. In 2013, Macy’s announced it would be opening another incubator in Brooklyn (the company houses other Incubators in Chicago, San Francisco, and Philadelphia) and Barraza was approached to take a look at the plan for BFI, and asked if she wanted to join the incubator’s Board of Advisors. Instead, she decided to run it alongside her husband, Rafael Romero, BFI’s partnership director.

Each year BFI accepts five designers into their residency, while also accepting several candidates to participate remotely. In order to be accepted into the incubator, participants must apply online and are analyzed to see if they fit a certain criteria.

“We look to see if their plan is feasible, if their brand fills a niche, and if there is opportunity for them in the market,” explains Barraza.

At $275 per month for those working in residence and $175 per month for remote participants, working with the BFI proves to be a much more nominal cost than having your own studio or renting out a space. And the knowledge and connections residents gain from participating in BFI are invaluable.

For brands that are accepted into the incubator, most often the biggest hurdle is in making proper business decisions. Because of this, all BFI participants are required to attend and complete a core series of workshops and seminars focused on fashion business planning development, production, prioritizing and planning, managing finances, growth projection, social media/tech, and online presence.

“Design schools don’t focus on business,” says Nic Hyl, the founder of Nager by Nic Hyl, a swimwear line that embraces women’s natural curves, and a participant in the incubator.

“Since working with Maria, I have grown so much, which has trickled down into my brand. I have learned about networking, sales, and marketing, and Maria has been able to help me if I’m having any issues with production or manufacturing.”

Not only that, but Barraza has helped Nager by Nic Hyl enter into the wholesale market and get Hyl’s swimsuits into stores, as well as connect her with the producers of Fashion Week Brooklyn, where she showed her latest collection this past October.

“We have a partnership with Rick Davy, the founder of Fashion Week Brooklyn,” notes Barraza. “We work closely with him to provide our participants with great brand exposure.”

Hyl’s company isn’t the only one that’s hit some milestones at BFI this year. Wen Didier Pessinaba’s company, AfriKaccents, which sells sustainable hand-woven fabrics and luxury bags produced by village women cooperatives in Burkina Faso, received its first wholesale order this past fall. And, as all his bags come from Africa, his company has a special partnership with UPS, a corporate supporter and sponsor of BFI, to fulfill orders.

This success has allowed Pessinaba’s story to come full circle. “I actually used to be a student at Berkeley College, and while I was there I interned at BFI,” says Pessinaba. “They have helped me with literally everything—the design of the bag, participating in pop-up shopping events, learning about and lining up financing for orders, helping me with networking, etc.”

Michael J. Smith, president of Berkeley College, where BFI is housed, recognizes the value of BFI’s work, noting, “The Brooklyn Fashion Incubator at Berkeley College provides a valuable platform for students to apply theoretical learning to real-world experience. Our students majoring in business and fashion have the opportunity to experience entrepreneurship in the fashion industry that is made in Brooklyn. Through BFI,  Berkeley students are contributing to the rich diversity of the made-in-Brooklyn movement. Colleges and universities in Brooklyn are integral to developing Brooklyn’s culture of entrepreneurship.”

Other current brands participating in the incubator include Blooming Diva, a makeup line that creates paraben and cruelty-free lipsticks and blushes; BASYL, a sustainable brand that produces turbans and headbands in bold prints and colors, and Eleonora Ferragatta Collections, a womenswear and home décor line in which the designer’s paintings are screen printed onto each piece.

To grow the impact of The Brooklyn Fashion Incubator, Inc., Barraza has reached out to New York City’s Economic Development Corporation, and was asked to testify at a New York City Council Subcommittee on zoning and franchises, which addressed the needs of the garment business. At this meeting, Barraza was pleased to hear James Patchett, president of The New York City Development Corporation (NYCEDC), state, “Today, Sunset Park, Brooklyn represents the second largest cluster of garment manufacturing firms outside of the Garment District, with over 100 companies.”

Brooklyn’s Sunset Park encompasses Bush Terminal, The Army Terminal, and Industry City. Barraza plans to have BFI move to, and grow its mission at Bush Terminal in Sunset Park so that BFI can impact a larger number of fashion businesses per year, to add to the New York City economy.

Since its inception in 2016, BFI has expanded to give its participants more resources and provide them with experiences to showcase their businesses. One of BFI’s latest efforts as it plans for the growth of its mission is establishing a more international presence. Barraza has held meetings with Korean, Canadian, Italian, and Turkish Trade commissions to cement relationships that will result in additional overseas sales channels opening for BFI participants, as well as to nurture relationships for sourcing and manufacturing—while at the same time securing a more global support for BFI’s mission.

For more information on BFI or to apply, visit


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