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FABRIC: Made in Arizona

The Show highlights the creative builders, makers and designers that are sharing their talents with Arizonans in the  Made in Arizona series.

LAUREN GILGER: And now let's meet an Arizona entrepreneur as part of our series made in Arizona. Today, I introduce you to Angela Johnson. She's a fashion designer and entrepreneur who runs FABRIC, a co-working space, manufacturing hub and one-stop shop for local designers in downtown Tempe.

ANGELA JOHNSON: Right here is where we do all of the manufacturing. We manufacture sewn products for about 400 emerging fashion brands. And, I'd say, 90 percent of them are from Arizona. So right now, there's a bunch of different products that are being made. I think over here is actually a sewn product for like a baby sling. I think over here, this is an athleisure line, so leggings and sweatsuits and things. They're doing the cutting, and they're cutting out like multiple layers for a product, another sewn product here. So you can actually hear the cutting.

GILGER: Creating the space was, for Johnson and her business partner, Sherri Barry, a product born out of necessity.

JOHNSON: I was a designer in Los Angeles, and I was able to make small quantities because I worked as a production manager for other brands. And so I understood how to manage production and go from separate place to make patterns, to another place to to size them, and to another place to cut them, and another place to sew them, and literally ran around downtown L.A. to make it happen and to do small quantities and grew a business into the point it was actually profitable and it was selling internationally. And it was, I was living the dream. And then, I moved back here because I'm from Arizona, and I came back here for family reasons. And when I moved back here, I had to close that brand, after all of that. I made it work, and now I had to close it down, because none of those resources existed here. And so, I just wanted to create the resources. And about 18 years ago is when I moved back here, and it took me this long to pull this together because it's literally creating an industry under one roof.

GILGER: So create that industry they did. It started with a directory of fashion industry types in the Valley. She thought, if you could connect them to each other, they could help each other grow. And the idea slowly grew from there, until she and Barry found themselves with a 26,000 square-foot City of Tempe building, and a problem to solve.

JOHNSON: What's unique about this space is that we can make everything and that we can do it in no minimums. And that's why this place is so important, because when a brand starts, they usually are faced with very high minimums, like in the thousands. At factories, they won't even touch their stuff unless they can meet their minimums. And so we want to help the brand get started small, and get a little toe in the water, make, you know, 20 if they want to, or 50, or a couple hundred of something so they can test the market. And that's really not found anywhere. And the reason is because it's not the best moneymaking idea for a business to offer. In fact, you don't find no minimum manufacturing cause it loses money. And so we know we're going to lose money doing that. So we actually offset the loss of the manufacturing with the event space rental. And also, we have offices here, where designers can have a space, a studio, and they can work out of this building. And that money is going to offset the loss of the manufacturing and pay all the bills to be in the building. And that we have people that do branding and marketing and photography and videography. And we have a fabric store. And we have a modeling agency. And literally everything that you would need to run a business is under one roof. And so, that's the model.

GILGER: The definition of a one-stop shop here. Tell us the story of going to the City of Tempe and saying, "hey, do you have any interest in funding this?" and then walking into this building for the first time?

JOHNSON: Oh, wow, so they had done a national call and really couldn't find anybody to take on this building because it is unusual. It's broken up into a lot of different spaces that used to be theater. So, I don't think anybody could figure out what to do with the building. And it hadn't been renovated in a very long time. And it had a 17-page list of safety issues that came along with it that you would have to be willing to take on if you were going to take on this space. And so, we said we'll take it on. And we invested the money to actually fix up the space and renovate it. We did a lot to make it ready for people to operate businesses out of here. We made an arrangement with the city where we have, our nonprofit is the recipient of the in-kind donation of this building from the City of Tempe. And, in exchange, the nonprofit actually has to give back in programs and services to the community and to the designers and brands. And, in these three years, it's, since we've been here, we've been able to practically double what the expectations were. So we've given back $1.5 million in programs and services.

GILGER: I mean, that's quite a, it's quite a task to take on. It must have been a leap of faith. Give us a sense of how scary that was. I mean, creating something out a scratch, right? This didn't exist. Did you know that there was this sort of untapped fashion world and desire for that here that just no one had tapped into?

JOHNSON: I did know that because I was experiencing it. And, 15 years prior to opening this building, I had tried to create the resource to solve that problem because I knew I needed the resources. Plus, I knew a lot of other people that needed the resources. In that 15 years, this community that I had pulled together, we all did a lot of fashion shows and things like that. But, if anybody got an order, nobody could fill it. So I knew that all these people needed these resources. And I watched hundreds of people try to attempt to go manufacture in Los Angeles and fail, because when you're doing small batch manufacturing, you have to be a part of the process. You have to be physically picking up things and taking it to the next part of the process. And you can't do that if you don't live in the city where it's being made. So, now that you can sell direct to consumer online, you know, you could sell from anywhere, you need to be able to make your product from anywhere. And so I knew that this was coming two decades ago and have spent that 15 years building up the need for it. And the minute we opened the doors, it was like opening the floodgates. It's just, the biggest issue, I would say, is expectations of consumers are that clothing should cost $20. You know, we all go shopping at the mall and think, "oh, this is too expensive" and "that is too expensive." If you knew what went into making clothing, you would be surprised that it is as affordable as it is. And in fact, the only way that it's so affordable is if you can make things, you know, overseas where there's no regulations and where there's slave labor and where it's very unsustainable. And so, when somebody manufactures small quantities, I mean, they have to charge more, because, if you're making it domestically, you have minimum wage and regulations and things that you have to follow. So the clothing is going to be more expensive no matter what. And that's something that, you know, the public has to understand. And these designers have to educate their consumer and they have to reach the right person that gets it. It's like the farm-to-table of restaurants, you know, of fashion! That's what we're doing here. And so, if you're willing to spend more money on your hamburger because you care about the cow, you should be willing to spend more money on your clothing because you care about the people that are making it. Really, for this to work, we have to have some more support for the nonprofit. We have to have government and, you know, education and all kinds of people involved in making this and supporting this so that these brands can grow and grow organically and they can start small and get a toe in the water and build and build until they become a bigger brand that is established here in Arizona. And then they can make large enough quantities where they can bring the prices down.

GILGER: So, I mean, for those who are not plugged into the fashion scene in Arizona, maybe vaguely know that there's a Phoenix Fashion Week every year, right? What kinds of designers exist here?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Actually, when people ask me, what kind of fashion do you have in Arizona? There isn't an answer. It's not what you would think. It's not cowboy shirts, you know what I mean? It's everything. And so, at this factory, we have made everything and every type of brand has come through here. If you have an idea for a niche sewn product, then you can come here and we can make it for you. And that's what we've done. And so, people with really good ideas, they want to solve a problem. They come here and they do that. And there are people who are growing out of this facility because we have helped them do that. And so, now they are so big that we can't help them anymore because we want to keep helping the little guy get started.

GILGER: And just to end with, I mean, you're also a fashion designer in your own right. You're known for these ball gowns that are made out of recycled, reused T-shirts. Give us a sense of your own passion for designing, why you love it and why you want to help others grow in it.

JOHNSON : Well, I think creatives just like to create and I'm a creative. And so, I created those ball gowns because I had to close down my business. And, in order to be able to continue being creative, I had to come up with something unique that didn't require manufacturing. And that's what I came up with: making these one-of-a-kind pieces out of recycled T-shirts. It takes about 25 shirts to make one of these ball gowns. And I, it's, even though it's the same silhouette every time, it's a different garment every time because it's different T-shirts. And that keeps me creative. And so, I just know what it's like for somebody to want to create something and not have the resources to do it. And that's what I get to do everyday, is help somebody who has the same passion and want to make something and they just don't have the ability to do it. And that's what we do here.

GILGER: Angela, thank you so much for having me out.

JOHNSON: Oh, thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to share.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.