Paris. Milan. New York. Dayton? Chances are Dayton isn’t on many lists of the top fashion cities. But Caressa Brown, a fashion industry veteran and founder of the Dayton Emerging Fashion Incubator (DE-FI), is out to change that.

DE-FI has a vision to create a vibrant and economically successful fashion market in the Miami Valley. It plans to do this by developing a support system for local up-and-coming fashion talent and creating opportunities for their exposure.

“There is a huge fashion community here in Dayton. Unfortunately, almost everyone has to leave the area in order to make a living doing what they love,” Brown says.

The non-profit DE-FI was founded in February and is modeled after a similar operation in Chicago. A launch party is slated for July 13 at SunWatch Indian Village. At the launch party, DE-FI will announce the models and designers selected to be in the Incubator.

“Our launch party will be a sneak peek into all of the wonderful things that DE-FI has planned in Dayton,” Brown says.

The benefits to a community with a fashion incubator like DE-FI reaches beyond the assistance to designers and models. “The fashion industry is a $900 billion dollar industry,” Brown says. “Hugo Boss is manufactured outside of Cleveland, adding $150 million dollars to the area economy each year. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could attract garment manufacturers and design houses?”

Midwest Fashion Week CEO Berny Martin says that having an incubator in Dayton will drive awareness of the unique needs of those who are working – or who want to work – in the field. “And it can help with some of the challenges that face those in the fashion industry.”

 DE-FI also hopes to gain the attention and support of buyers from nearby fashion powerhouses like Macy’s (Cincinnati) and Limited Brands (Columbus). Brown says there are strong incubators that Macy’s supports in Chicago, San Francisco and Philadelphia.

Fresh Faces

A main focus of DE-FI’s program is to help models become established. Brown wants to educate new models on how to effectively work within the industry and avoid scams.

“This can be a very cutthroat and predatory industry,” Brown says. “Unfortunately, some models are too eager and do not pay attention to contract details. I’ve seen first-hand the impact that can have on a model’s career. It can be devastating.”

In addition to having access to a supportive mentorship program, DE-FI models are given networking opportunities through chaperoned agency visits to major cities. DE-FI also sends models’ photos to top agencies.

“What we are doing is raising the bar a bit and changing how modeling in a small fashion market is approached,” Brown says.

Casting calls were held last spring to select models for the Incubator. Those chosen will walk the runway at the launch party.

For designers, DE-FI provides a support system to help grow their brands and navigate industry entry barriers. Challenges facing designers include gaining exposure to buyers, understanding how to mass manufacture goods and financing their business.

 “Designers need a good support system to assist them,” Brown says. "Designing isn’t cheap. Registration fees for various Fashion Weeks around the country can range from $250 up to thousands of dollars just to show your product for three minutes on a runway.”

 DE-FI will select six emerging designers to be a part of the Incubator’s six-month-long Designer Boot Camp. These designers will be supported with mentors, seamstresses and a work space to create and produce collections. They will premier their designs at a DE-FI event next winter.

Tracy McElfresh, the owner of Sew Dayton in the Oregon District, says her shop is partnering with DE-FI to train designers on how to be better seamstresses and assist them with their designs.

In another DE-FI partnership, Joli Boutique owner Debbie Teeters will give Incubator designers an opportunity to sell their wares in her shop. She will select designs from the collections that are shown at DE-FI’s winter event.

“It is exciting to support local emerging fashion designers. Having traveled the United States and Europe scouting and providing the latest fashion to those in the Dayton area, it is now wonderful to be able to showcase and support our local talent,” Teeters says.

National Attention

Designers will also be selected for Midwest Fashion Week Spring shows based on their showing at DE-FI’s winter event. Midwest Fashion Week is held in Indianapolis and has been recognized by Time magazine as one of the most influential fashion weeks in the country. DE-FI designers selected to show at Midwest Fashion Week will gain the attention of major industry players.

DE-FI has a full calendar this year and beyond. This summer, it will debut a fashion magazine called DE-FI. Brown says it will have a “high fashion feel with a little hometown appeal.”

By 2014, Brown wants DE-FI to be a part of the City of Dayton’s Activated Spaces program and have a downtown storefront location selling only handmade items from area designers. DE-FI is also planning a “Fashion for the Cure” event on behalf of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

“The sky’s the limit. We are positioning ourselves to acquire the right people, skills and knowledge to be a major player in the fashion industry," Brown says.

“It’s our ultimate goal to have the backing of a Macy’s or Limited Brands. We are taking our time to make sure this is done right.”

DE-FI’s operational budget is funded largely by Brown herself. The organization is seeking sponsors. Information can be found on DE-FI’s website at daytonemergingfashionincubator.com.