BF+DA Founder Deb Johnson on Activism, Citizenship & Change

Deb Johnson is the Founder and Executive Director of the Pratt Institute/Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator. Johnson’s incredibly pioneering design hub has done double time for the past five years serving as an R&D lab and an accelerator integrating sustainability and technology into the apparel industry. It’s hardly surprising that over 32,000 people had the opportunity to walk through the doors to the Brooklyn space she created or that many called it “a pipeline to the future of fashion.”

While the BF+DA was created to be a space where emerging designers could be surrounded by valuable resources and experts in production, the space (closing June 30th), also served as an integral platform for meaningful discussions and events. From critical conversations about sustainable investing to the future of smart garments, film screenings to high school runway shows, holiday trunk shows to the Positive Impact Awards honoring industry changemakers, exhibitions like “Fashion Activism” to book signings and clothing swaps, Johnson has always been the first to jump at the idea to figure out how to make it all happen.

No fear of jumping off cliffs to try something new, Johnson also founded the Pratt Design Incubator for Sustainable Innovation in 2002 during her tenure as chair of the industrial design program. Under her leadership the Incubator helped launch 25 design-driven enterprises in four sectors: clean energy, fashion, design, and design consulting. In 2008, she created the Center for Sustainable Design Strategies at Pratt and she founded and has been leading the integration of sustainability into Pratt’s art, design and architecture programs for over 15 years. Johnson also chaired Pratt’s Industrial Design program from 1997-2005.

With the June 30th closure of the BF+DA coming up quick, we got Deb to sit still for a minute to answer some questions about what it feels like to never stop creating big things, the state of the fashion industry (really) and what’s next in the Deb Johnson portfolio of fame.

You love to build. Tell me what that feels like for the past 15 years creating platforms like the CSDS, Pratt Incubator and BF+DA? Do you ever run out of ideas or inspiration?

Not yet. Everywhere I look there seems to be opportunity and the potential to make something happen. I walk past a vacant store and I wonder what should go in it, I go to an exhibit or trade show and my mind explodes with ideas. There are so many things that are interesting. I’m not sure where this energy comes from, but I’ve learned to narrow my field to what’s really the best use of this energy. There was a moment in time when it was clear that education would be the keel, like on the bottom of a sailboat, that would stabilize my work. Then I added design and sustainability to the boat. Then entrepreneurship. Then technology and smart garments. As the BF+DA wraps-up there is an opportunity to re-prioritize. While education remains my key motivation – how do I benefit the world best while connecting to my personal values and interests? It’s a big question and it’s keeping me up at night.

You talk frequently about the importance of citizenship and activism, how do you see these two areas transforming not just the fashion industry but the world?

This is a great question. I am, as are so many others, concerned about the state of democracy in the US. We have shifted away from the original intent of having a congress that weighs and considers what’s best for the country. We have turned politics into a competition rather than a conversation. It’s the blue team against the red team. My team scores points – good. Your team scores points – bad. When did it stop being about working together to build something important? That’s why positive activism is so important to me and the conversation about citizenship will be a primary focus of my work. Ach! But the minute I say that I find smart products waving its hand. But that’s where my teaching and research will focus. You’ll have to stay tuned to find out who I let get back on the boat.

BF+DA Founder, Executive Director with First Lady Michelle Obama at a 2014 wearable tech event at the White House

In a perfect world the fashion industry would...

…get serious about changing. Generally, brands want good press and better profits. If you’re not doing something to address your impacts, you’re leaving yourself open for criticism. The brands have to do something, but it’s grudgingly. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when sustainability, or better yet, circularity stops being so glossy. Hopefully there will be enough cultural traction to keep it going.

On the other side, I wish consumers would get serious about taking responsibility for what they buy. This brings me back to citizenship – I wish we were better at balancing the whole system alongside advocating for our individual beliefs.

What’s next for you after the BF+DA? 

Teaching, consulting, building a studio upstate, supporting activism through events, speaking about the future. I have a lot to think about, the BF+DA has changed me and I need to spend some time reflecting about the experience and these changes. I’m very close to picking up a project I started two years ago that I didn’t have the bandwidth to move forward. It’s called “The Flag Project” and it’s about bringing communities of people together to reflect and share stories about citizenship before the 2020 election. Not as an anti-Trump initiative but as a democracy initiative. It goes beyond the election. We need to get our priorities straight. We need to come together as a people to make democracy great again.