The next generation of sustainable clothing has arrived in the South Bronx and it has a new ingredient: vegetables.
A large industrial space on the site of the former Bridges Juvenile Detention Center on Spofford Avenue in Hunts Point will be transformed by Spring 2023 into a factory for the Bronx’s first plant-based clothing company.
David Lee, founder of KD Knit, the parent company of KD New York, said the factory will produce high-performance knitwear and experiment with other products. There will also be clothing made from company’s trademarked ‘Vegetable Cashmere,’ a plant-based blend of fibers intended to look and feel like real cashmere.
The newly minted 15,100-square-foot factory will join other businesses in The Peninsula, a multi-use development that will offer affordable housing, a health and wellness center, a new grocery store and retail space on the location of the former youth detention center.
Lee estimates that KD Knit’s new factory will generate around $7 million a year in marketable clothing, in addition to licensing and collaboration fees.
A vegetarian or vegan for most of his life, Lee always mused about what it would be like to create a plant-based clothing line.
“I had been pushing in the plant direction for a number of years, and I wanted that to be the main focus of the business,” he said.
Okara, a byproduct of tofu and soy milk production, is one of the primary materials needed to produce Vegetable Cashmere. The material is machine washable and costs less than animal cashmere, according to KD New York’s website.
The yarn is spun in China and then transferred to the U.S. for clothing production at Lee’s factory in New Jersey. Lee eventually hopes to onshore operations as much as possible and manufacture products at the new Bronx location.
Lee said he is not aware of anyone in the Bronx or the U.S. doing the same type of sustainable clothing production in activewear or dance. There are other plant-based clothing lines coming into various market segments, he said, but “KD is in a class of its own.”
Another important focus for Lee beyond sustainability is a business model that includes shared ownership and voting rights across all stakeholders, including employees and community members.
“They should be a part of the rewards and success if they are part of the whole process,” he said.
The first year, Lee plans to bring on 12 to 20 workers that will serve as knitting technicians, assembly and finishing workers, knit developers, and fabric designers. Hiring will be city-wide and training will be an integral part of the onboarding process, he said.
Lee and KD Knit are not newcomers to the Bronx. A former dancer in the Oakland Ballet Company, Lee and his former partner got their start in the 1980s producing knitwear for dancers. They moved to New York and opened KD Knit’s first factory in the Bronx in 1987. Lee closed the Bronx factory in 2019 before the pandemic hit, and moved operations to a smaller factory in Elizabeth, New Jersey. All the while, he and his partner managed a brick and mortar KD New York store in NoHo, which had a 25-year run.
He decided to return to the Bronx knowing he would have proximity to a pre-established network and greater access to creative talent, workers and the media, he said.
When it came time for Lee to select a new facility, 1215 Spofford Ave. seemed like a fitting location, given its proximity to the Hunts Point Terminal Market. Lee reasoned that the food distributor, one of the largest in the world, likely had a large amount of plant waste that could be harnessed to make yarn for KD Knit’s clothing.
“I thought, you know, why can’t Hunts Point be the leader in upcycling plant waste into fibers?” he said. “It’s right here.”
Lee is in preliminary talks with the market to explore how both businesses can potentially collaborate in the future.
In addition to ‘Vegetable Cashmere,’ KD Knit also offers ‘Rubberknit,’ a knitted yoga mat made from pure rubber yarns. Lee said he is open to experimenting with other plant-based fibers besides okara, and is inclined to move in the protein direction.
He also would like to grow the business beyond dance and athleisure wear by collaborating with other designers on more industrial products and home furnishings like pillows and upholstery. He’s already experimented with creating throws and blankets through a partnership with The Citizenry, a homegoods store located in Soho.
Henry Obispo, an environmentalist and the founder of ReBORN FARMS, an urban farms operation in the South Bronx, feels that KD Knit’s focus on circularity and conscious consumption is a positive direction for the neighborhood he grew up visiting as a kid.
“I think those are the models that we need in the South Bronx,” said the Mott Haven resident.
To finance its growth into the new space, which it is dubbing an “innovation hub,” KD Knit has launched a crowdfunding campaign, which will allow for lowstake investments from members of the community. So far, they’ve raised approximately $50,000 of the $1 million goal. Lee expects to raise $3.5 million total.
THE POINT Community Development Corporation, a longtime staple of Hunts Point, is a community partner for The Peninsula, where the KD Knit factory will be based. Carey Clark, THE POINT’s visual arts director, said that while she was initially skeptical of the welcoming of such a huge company into a development focused on meta local businesses, KD Knit’s mission aligns well with THE POINT’s values.
“I’m very much for keeping manufacturing in the city,” she added. “The fact that they’re maintaining this idea of things being built and made here is really exciting.”
Michael Partis, the executive director of the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative commended Lee for turning Spofford into an economic opportunity for the Bronx. He said that building worker equity and leadership – like Lee seeks to do – are necessary steps to eradicate poverty and build shared wealth in Hunts Point.
“This is not a place of poverty and deficits and all those things,” Partis said. “[David] bringing that work of ownership and upscaling is really important.”