It’s no secret that the pet industry is booming. In fact, Americans are estimated to spend more than $60 billion on pet products this year, according to the American Pet Products Association. That’s a lot of chew toys!
Taking advantage of the ever-growing market is Manhattan’s renowned Fashion Institute of Technology, which has been offering a pet product design and marketing program for the past 12 years. Founded by Deborah David and Janet Brav, the pair of tenured professors both had dogs and saw the opportunity for incorporating a four-legged fashion discipline into the curriculum. After nine years at the helm, David and Brav retired, and Dana Humphrey — a pet PR professional who moved to New York to start her own consumer products and services public relations firm — became program facilitator last November. “I was referred to [David and Brav] as a guest speaker in their intro to pet product branding class,” Humphrey says of her first involvement with the program.
As the only pet-specific higher education offering in the world, the FIT program attracts students as far flung as Japan, Korea, Mexico, South America, Chicago, and Washington D.C. It was originally conceived as a two-year certificate program to teach attendees how to launch their own pet businesses or how to continue or begin work as a more qualified professional for any number of pet-focused companies. Most recently, FIT has begun offering a three-week intensive where students learn skills — from pattern-making, illustration, and logo design to branding, merchandising, and marketing — within a more compressed schedule.
“Every day, they’re in class from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. They’re exhausted!” Humphrey says of the most recent batch of three-week intensive students. “Many of them are married with families, and they’ve put everything on hold to come here. It shows that they’re serious about being professionals in the business.”
One of the very first graduates of the original certificate program, professional pet stylist Ada Nieves has worked with networks such as Animal Planet, MTV, and ABC as an on-site clothing and accessories specialist for tiny, furry talent. When she enrolled in the FIT program, she was already making some of her own pet fashions. Getting the certificate, however, showed just how dedicated she was. “It helped open doors to be hired as pet stylist, fashion designer, and expert in the field,” Nieves says. “Having the certificate from an institution with the quality and name that FIT has is impressive and demands respect!”
Nieves believes the program helped her better organize her thoughts and projects while pushing her to think outside of the box and expand her creativity. What’s more, it allowed her to be considered a true professional and not “just a hobby seamstress for pets.”
Humphrey has found that many of the program attendees have also previously worked in fashion, typically own a dog themselves, and are hoping to leave their current day jobs to start their own companies of doggie apparel, treats, calendars, beds, even walking and grooming businesses.
A recent graduate, Viviana Rivera Marrero, came all the way from Puerto Rico to attend the program. Despite living in such a warm climate, her first Chihuahua shivered all the time — probably because he weighed only two pounds. “I have to get this poor guy a little T-shirt!” Marrero remembers thinking to herself. But she couldn’t find anything in his size, especially not for male dogs in a pink-sparkle-dominated world of pooch fashion. So she started importing goods from overseas and then designing her own pet clothes.
She had taken sewing classes and other similar courses, but nothing specifically related to pets. As the owner of Toy Doggie, Marrero had already manufactured mass quantities of her products for stores like Walmart. “I was looking to find out if there were better or more efficient ways to do it,” she says.
Without any formal training, Marrero used to make drawings in Photoshop. But when she learned how to create a “tech pack” at FIT, she soon realized exactly how she should be communicating the technical information of her designs in terms of fabric, hardware, and trimming for the factory. “That was an eye opener!” Marrero remarks. She’s also found the social media and networking instruction to be a good refresher.
Today, she makes an entire line of products out of high-quality jersey and stretch fabric for optimal comfort and breathability. The dogwear is specifically designed with short-haired pups in mind but also works to keep long-haired breeds clean and covered. Marrero describes her styles as “casual chic” and meant to be worn both indoors and outdoors.
With success stories like Nieves and Marrero, it’s easy to see how a program like FIT would be a natural stepping stone for anyone interested in pet products. And given that trends are constantly changing, there will probably always be a fresh group of entrepreneurs and design minds bringing new ideas to market.
Humphrey adds that pet apparel is moving from being simply “cute” to being highly functional. “It’s all about unique fabrics — light and breathable, cooling, or warming,” she says. She’s also seeing an influx of non-chemical fabrics that repel bugs, fleas, and ticks, as well as natural and organic products.
FIT continues to offer pet product design and marketing courses on an individual basis, and will host its next three-week intensive course in the winter. For more information, visit fitnyc.edu.
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About the author: Whitney C. Harris is a New York-based freelance writer for websites including StrollerTraffic, Birchbox and WhattoExpect.com. A former book and magazine editor, she enjoys running (with Finley), watching movies (also with Finley), and cooking meatless meals (usually with Finley watching close by).