Alumni Stories

A Friendship, Years in the Making

Brogna and Brzozowski at In Home, his Sag Harbor boutique.

At FIT, mentorship doesn’t stop at graduation

It’s not just the high-level industry experience and connections that make FIT faculty special, it’s also their commitment to educating, nurturing, and mentoring students. Often the relationships shaped in the classroom flourish after students become alumni and need help in their careers. Such has been the case with David Brogna, retired assistant professor of Home Products Development, and Leeann Brzozowski, who graduated from the program in 2002.

Brzozowski adores Brogna: “He’s one of the most influential people in my life to date.” And Brogna feels connected to Brzozowski (and many other former students) in an almost parental way. “It’s not so much that I’m always in touch with them, it’s that they’re always there,” he says. “Leeann doesn’t know how many times I talk about her and her products.”

Brogna taught at FIT for 30 years and wrote the core curriculum for the Home Products Development program. Early in his career, he worked as a merchant for Macy’s and A&S; for the past 24 years, he and his partner have owned In Home, a housewares and furniture boutique in the upscale Hamptons village of Sag Harbor. In 2005, he received the Paradigm Award for lifetime achievement from the Home Fashion Products Association. He retired from FIT in 2018 but keeps in touch with most of his former students.

In Brzozowski’s second year at FIT, she’d been accepted into the Interior Design bachelor’s program when Brogna’s introductory class in Home Products Development lured her away. After she graduated, he guided her toward showroom sales, because she enjoyed customer interaction and the “limitless” commission-based income (she is currently a national sales director for the furniture company Chai Ming Studios). She kept up a phone and text-message correspondence with Brogna; every time she needed to make a career decision, including a few risky leaps, she consulted him first. “Our alumni need a sounding board,” he says. “They need to know that there’s someone covering them. I wouldn’t let them make the wrong move.”

The Sol Mat rolls up for easy transport.

That correspondence accelerated when Brzozowski launched her own product. Born and raised on the Jersey Shore, she has always loved lying out on the beach but could rarely get comfortable. On her stomach, she resorted to digging holes in the sand to make room for her chest; on her back, she’d roll up another towel to elevate her head. “You’re at a place of leisure, where you’re supposed to be relaxed,” Brzozowski says. “This was crazy.”

She decided to do something about it. In 2015, she began developing the Sol Mat, a thick foam mat with two ergonomic advantages: a concealed chest contour that allows for “breathing room” and a built-in pillow. (A men’s version includes the pillow but not the contour.) “It’s an upgrade to the beach towel,” she says. “It’s lighter than a yoga mat. And you can remove the cover and throw it in the laundry.”

Brzozowski perfected the design and found a way to manufacture it in the U.S. with marine-grade foam and fade-resistant Sunbrella fabric. But launching a new product is a giant challenge for a solo entrepreneur, and she turned to her mentor for help.

Brogna guided her through the patenting process, helped her identify her target market, and advised her on creating brand extensions, such as a Sol Mat for kids and one for dogs. His nephew did her graphic design. And Brogna recommended that she host pop-up shops to hear customer feedback firsthand. In 2018, he invited Brzozowski to set up a Memorial Day pop-up inside In Home. “Everyone who walked in was fascinated by the product,” he says.

Brzozowski also held an event on Shelter Island and one at the SoHo outpost of The Laundress, an eco-friendly cleaning products company. “These pop-ups have been huge for research,” Brzozowski says. “It’s fuel—it gets you motivated.”

Thanks to a connection from Brogna, Brzozowski is in talks with Wayfair to sell the product through the mass online retailer. First, though, she is exploring options to produce it at a lower price point. The average retail price is currently $250.

“It’s like I’m back at school,” Brzozowski says. “It’s like I’m doing my senior project on another scale.”

“But this time it’s not for a grade,” Brogna responds, “it’s everything.”

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Alumni Stories

Material Concerns

Lauren Birrittella in hot pink blazer
Lauren Birrittella

Shopping with Lauren Birrittella, Home Products Development ’07, is a hands-on experience. She can’t help knocking on a piece of furniture to see if it sounds like wood, or running an expensive sweater through her fingers to see whether it’s fine cashmere or some kind of blend. When she visits people’s houses, she admits, it takes every ounce of self-control not to touch everything. Fortunately, Birrittella is paid to do just that. A color, materials, and finishes (CMF) specialist at Glen Raven, Birrittella is the gatekeeper of the 10,000 different kinds of materials supplied by the North Carolina–based fabric manufacturer, best known for its Sunbrella shade textiles. She runs the Glen Raven Materials Explorer, a free online database featuring 200 representative materials—from SPF-enhanced cloths and water-resistant fibers to antimicrobial finishes and industrial metal fasteners—that architects, furniture makers, automotive designers, and more consider incorporating into their creations. “We have so many different products, and we sell into so many different industries,” she says. “Sephora, Harvard Bioscience … and I have to know about all the new materials and innovations happening.”

Glen Raven’s Concept Gallery.
Glen Raven’s Concept Gallery.

Birrittella’s obsession began at FIT, when her senior trend project had her visiting Material ConneXion, the world’s biggest materials library and consultancy. “I thought it was the coolest place in the world,” Birrittella recalls. She got an internship and eventually was hired as an archivist maintaining a library of more than 7,000 materials. While there, she collaborated with her design hero Betsey Johnson on a weather-resistant mannequin for an outdoor installation called Sidewalk Catwalk. In 2011, Glen Raven wanted to launch a similar “Materials Explorer” library—to showcase its own textiles, as well as the metals, plastics, and other materials it carries from other manufacturers—and asked Birrittella to spearhead the project. “There was no library at all before,” she says, “so I had to work with all the market managers and designers and the people who make the fabrics to pick an assortment of 200 samples that represent those 10,000 different products. “It was initially a short-term contract to make the library, but I loved Glen Raven and Burlington so much that nine years later, I’m still here.” In addition to the online archive—which she updates continuously— Birrittella keeps Glen Raven’s six brick-and-mortar Concept Galleries stocked, organizing exhibitions on topics such as 3D printing for designers and R&D teams seeking ideas and inspiration. But she says that her work isn’t just for designers. “The way we interact with our world is affected by the quality or even just the feel of different materials,” she says. “Like, everyone is addicted to their phone, but if it felt really gross like sandpaper, would you keep pulling it out of your pocket? Probably not. It really affects everything. That’s exactly what my role is about—to show the importance of materials.”

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