A model wears clothing by the fashion line y Lola Élan. The model is seated on a bench in front of a wall covered in flowered wallpaper with a brown background.
Pieces from Lola Élan, designed by Lola Osire and styled by Sal Yvat. Credit: Ryan Barhaug

“The CFI played a pivotal role in my transition from aspiring designer to working designer,” says Anna Brown, a Chicago Fashion Incubator alum. “Some of my most meaningful professional relationships were formed through the CFI, and my time there provided me with fundamental industry knowledge that I still rely on.”

Brown is one of the many successful fashion designers trained by CFI, a nonprofit arts organization. Other talented alumni include Agnes Hamerlik, Shelby Steiner, and Rakan Shams Aldeen, who, like other CFI graduates, went on to become a Project Runway contestant. Executive director Anna Hovet Dias, 36, (a CFI alum herself) says that the nonprofit has trained and supported more than 50 designers through its designer-in-residence program, which started in 2008 and keeps going strong. Current designers-in-residence include Nigerian-born Lola Osire from Lola Élan, a contemporary womenswear line featuring African wax prints, and Romance Anastasa from Queendom by Romance, an inclusive lingerie brand founded in Bronzeville.  

According to Hovet Dias, the goal of the Chicago Fashion Incubator is to support fashion designers with mentorship, education, and physical studio space to help them launch and grow their apparel brands. There, they learn how to build a brand around their fashion product through manufacturing, marketing, sales, and business skills. Designers-in-residence commit to a six-month residency, which can be extended for up to three years. Virtual, hybrid, and in-person programs are currently offered with varying time commitments. Hovet Dias says applications are always open for the CFI, with onboarding happening every quarter. To apply, designers must have an established fashion business for at least one year, with proof of sales and a clear brand vision (fashion design students or wholesalers are not eligible). Designers-in-residence pay a monthly programming fee, which helps support the organization. CFI is also sponsored by Macy’s, individual donations, and the Driehaus Design Initiative. The latter is responsible for the Driehaus Entrepreneurial Center, a resource center accessible to the CFI’s designers-in-residence and alumni, functioning as a gathering place, and a space for workshops and talks with special guests related to the fashion industry. Those talks are occasionally open to the general public, and help the CFI connect with the local community—along with fashion shows and shopping events.

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