Fashion Incubator program shows Phila U. grad the thrills, skills and realities of launching a career in design

Last March, Philadelphia University Fashion Design graduate Kaitlyn Doherty was just beginning the post-grad year of her dreams: she was one of four fashion majors selected for the inaugural Macy’s Philadelphia Fashion Incubator Program.

Now, since her stint in the intensive twelve-month program finished last month, Doherty has sharpened her notion (both artistically and financially) of what it will mean to make her mark on the industry.

“I want to create something new that you don’t know you like yet, [but] you see it and you think, that’s really cool…I would like to wear that,” she says of what plays in the back of her mind as she sketches and sews.

From bullies to the fashion business

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Perhaps a harrowing day in elementary school formed her mindset.

“I got my first pair of capri pants, and I was the first person in the school to get them, and everybody made fun of me,” she remembers. The other kids asked her if she was from the 1950s.

She returned home in tears, vowing never to wear capris again.

But when she arrived the next year for the first day of middle school, everybody was wearing them. “I broke mine out again,” she says. “They didn’t know they liked them ’til they saw me in them. At least that’s what I tell myself,” she laughs now.

Her year in the Incubator studio was inspiring, but it also taught her that winning people to her sartorial vision won’t be her only challenge.

Her own boss at 23

“It’s a lot harder than I think I realized,” she says of launching her own venture. “Business is the same no matter if you’re in fashion or you’re in computer software. It’s still business. You’re selling different things,” she knows now.

Financial workshops in the Incubator were a wake-up call for the young, independent designer: Taxes for the self-employed? They’re “a monster.”

And the dollars and cents breakdown of how many purses you have to sell to cover your expenses was “definitely a scary thought.”

“You look at some companies and you think, they made it overnight, and really, they’ve been working for fifteen years,” she says. “You work for years and years and years, create all these sketches and samples,” and in the end, just a few make it to the runway – or to your customers.

For Doherty, who has launched her own fashion lines under the name Kaitlyn Elizabeth, that thought is as daunting as it is exciting. Selling the accessories she’s been focusing on since completing her year at Macy’s also means being an accountant, a web developer, a graphic designer and photographer – and still having time to stitch and paint her new line of purses, on sale through her website, by hand.

Meeting Tommy Hilfiger

One of the Incubator’s helpful highlights was a chance to partner with a team of six MBA students from the Wharton School’s Small Business Development Center, who helped Doherty develop branding, marketing, and web strategies.

Doherty also enjoyed meeting with some of the top architects of today’s fashion world, including a “gracious” Fern Mallis, the creator of New York City’s Fashion Week.

Meeting Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren in New York was another thrill, as well as a 90-minute session with Tommy Hilfiger, who gave the Incubator participants a tour of his showroom, answering questions about his own success.

“It’s nice to have other people who are willing to help you,” Doherty says of the many local and national fashion luminaries who mentored the Incubator designers.

What happens in Vegas

When it came to the last weekend of the program in late February, Doherty wasn’t even there. After showing her purses to Kate Giberson, the president of a national trade organization known as the Accessories Council, Doherty got a speedy invite to a booth at the Women’s Wear Daily Magic trade show in Las Vegas, where she hopes to return in August.

Doherty entered the Incubator with the beginnings of her own clothing line, as well as a love for purses and other accessories, but since finishing the program, she has decided to narrow her focus for now.

“I want to get started with handbags and enter the market that way,” she says. “Eventually I want to do it all, but I have to start with one thing.”

Doherty says the hardest part of a creative career is a consuming desire to try everything at once. “I don’t think it’s ever going to be one thing necessarily,” she says of her evolving inspirations. “The style, the essence of it will remain the same, but my ideas change all the time.”

Doherty is currently developing her first partnership with a manufacturer, for a line of lambskin purses in pink, yellow, chartreuse or turquoise, with an eye to breaking into boutiques in Philadelphia and beyond.

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