FIT’s PETE Prize for Entrepreneurs Goes to Haley Schwartz, Founder of Vertige – WWD

The winner of FIT’s first PETE Prize for Entrepreneurs is 22-year-old Haley Schwartz, whose company Vertige plans to make fashion-forward adaptive wear for people with different health problems and disabilities.

The award was revealed Thursday night at an event at FIT.

The PETE Prize is administered by the FIT DTech Lab as a jury-selected merit award competition that recognizes excellence in developing fresh, insightful and creative ideas that demonstrate design-oriented and innovative thinking.

Schwartz will take home a grand prize of $30,000 and the opportunity to participate in the Entrepreneur’s Incubator Program for one year, where she receives office space at FIT’s new Center for Innovation at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, as well as marketing, legal, financial, creative and operational guidance on how to build and launch an innovative company.

Some 40 teams applied and applicants had to be enrolled at FIT as full-time or part-time students.

The prize is inspired by Peter G. Scotese, chairman emeritus of the FIT Board of Trustees and a pioneering entrepreneur. Initial funding is provide by Edwin Goodman, former chair of the FIT Board of Trustees and a partner of Activate Venture Partners, an investment firm with a mission to develop a new generation of venture capitalists whose aspirations are to leave a lasting impact on industry.

Dr. Joyce F. Brown, president of FIT, said, “Words cannot express what Pete Scotese has meant to FIT. “The PETE Prize – which is really meant to connote passion, empathy, tenacity, and enthusiasm – captures the spirt and driving force of the self-made man who never loses sight of his driving principles. He has been recognized with countless honors in his industry and an honorary doctorate in 2004 from FIT. He helped develop our Innovation Fund and not only seeded it, but has continued to help build support from other benefactors over the past five years. Haley’s work will certainly lift up Pete’s legacy.”

“My hope is that what we’ve started here will have a life of its own and continue and be of great help to the students and also contribute to the entrepreneurial community that is New York,” said Goodman.

In an interview Friday, Schwartz said the adaptable clothing that exists today mostly accommodates people in wheelchairs and people with mobility issues and has features like magnetic snaps.

“But there’s nothing to accommodate people with other kinds of health conditions. For my first launch, I’m targeting people who need to wear heart monitors and colostomy bags,” she said.

Initially, she plans to design pants, shorts, a dress and shirt for women, and pants, shorts and a polo and button-down shirt for men. One feature she’s developing is interior waterproof and charcoal-lined pockets. The waterproof interior will protect the heart monitor since it can’t get wet. She said colostomy bags tend to leak a lot and it causes a smell, which the charcoal element could absorb.

“I did a lot of research. I used to have to wear heart monitors, and I still do,” said Schwartz. “I have four family members who needed to have a colostomy bags for a long time,” she said.

Rather than just designing a bigger shirt, there will be small openings (that look like a welt pocket) above the pocket, which will allow the cords to come out of the clothes and sit in the pocket, making for less bulk and allowing the cords to lay better so they aren’t as noticeable. Schwartz is also developing a cord keeper on the inside of the shirts that will be looped, or channels that the cords can go through that will prevent them from being tangled, she said.

While she didn’t find out exactly why she won above the other finalists, Schwartz said she got feedback along the way that her personal story was something that was interesting to the judges. When she was four years old, Schwartz was diagnosed with ventricular tachycardia (a type of abnormal heart rhythm), and had to wear heart monitors growing up all the time.

“I couldn’t find clothes that worked with it and I was embarrassed and didn’t want to go to school or do anything,” she said. “And then in high school, I fainted a lot and I started putting outfits together just as a way to make it more enjoyable because it was really stressful. Fashion is what I loved and I just wanted to make it a better experience. I realized that people started taking me way more seriously, my teachers were more understanding and when I went to the doctor’s office, I just got treated with a lot more respect.

“That’s how I realized that fashion played a huge role in the way that people treat you and how you feel about yourself. Those experiences really shaped my love for fashion,” she said.

Schwartz said she chose the name, “Vertige,” for the company because she struggles with constant vertigo, and Vertige is vertigo in French. “I just like the way it sounded,” she said.

With the prize money, Schwartz said she will get the clothing samples into production because she wants to get them tested and worn by as many people with disabilities and health problems as possible and wants to get feedback before placing orders. Once she has that, Schwartz said she will begin ordering inventory and working with the manufacturers. Having worked out of her tiny apartment, she’s excited to have office space.

“I came to FIT for opportunities and connections like this, and this was such a valuable experience even more than any class has been.…Meeting the people who taught at the workshops was so inspiring. I learned so much and am so grateful that my mom said I need to sign up for this. I feel like this has changed the course of my life completely,” said Schwartz, who is taking business classes at FIT and has her AAS in Fashion Design from the school. She plans to start manufacturing soon, and hopes to be up and running by May. The business will initially start as e-commerce, and she also wants to do pop-up shops.

Judges for the award included Cathleen Sheehan, chair and professor, FIT Fashion Design MFA program; FIT alumnus Keith Kirkland, cofounder of Wear Works; Sara Griffin, a communications, creative and business strategist working in design, art and architecture; Kristine Pizzelanti, vice president of marketing, store experience and global licensing at Gap Inc., and Amber Allen, founder and chief executive officer of Double A Labs, an enterprise Metaverse platform.

“We had criteria to look at for the prize, and they were all so strong,” said Sheehan. “The acronym (Passionate, Empathetic, Tenacious, Enthusiastic), was a major factor in evaluating the teams, and Haley went above and beyond in these areas. We were also told to look for things that were reflective of FIT’s vision to lead the creative industries with socially conscious solutions that have a positive impact on the world, and there is no doubt that Haley is doing that. Personally, I found that her own story and experience not only transformed how she felt about herself, it also impacted how people interacted with her. She felt like teachers and friends treated her differently, proving the transformative power of fashion. The world needs her product.”

The two other finalists were Rendly, headed by Catherine Gabriel and Marc A. Santiago Ruiz, whose mission is to create an online global platform that houses trade-certified, 3D furniture files for designers to use in their renderings, and Seed to Rack, whose founder Giovanna Cruz Haddad has partnered with Donald H. White, Ph.D., who has a patent to the process that makes biodegradable nanocellulose composites, which allow for a significant reduction in the amount of petrochemicals used in textiles. The company also wants to incorporate 3D printing technology that will help reduce total material waste up to an additional 35 percent.

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