what does it take to win a fashion prize in 2019?
Designers and editors offer their advice.
2019 Prize Finalists including Kenneth Ize, Bethany Williams, Phipps, Koche, Hed Mayner and Bode.
A fashion prize is not just a fairytale ending. The myriad contests and competitions that offer cash prizes and mentorship to young designers are now firmly part of the industry’s infrastructure, a vital platform for young (or even just new) designers to win enough money and mentorship to get a head start and a foot in the door.
While previously these kinds of funding schemes have been seen as a ‘Happy Ever After’ courtesy of a fabulous fairy godmother, today they can be just as much of a cautionary tale. After all, for every success story -- from Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent kickstarting their careers as winners of the Woolmark Prize in 1954, or Grace Wales Bonner and Marine Serre winning the LVMH Prize -- there are young, brilliant designers who have fallen to the wayside after struggling to sustain the pressure that comes with an industry accolade.
Don’t let that put you off though. Today, there are countless awards, prizes and schemes -- some of which are sponsored by megabrands, others long-term incubators -- that can be a lifeline for a young label. Sometimes it isn’t even about winning. Virgil Abloh, for instance, was merely a finalist in the 2015 LVMH Prize and four years later, he’s now the artistic director of menswear at the conglomerate’s flagship house.
So what is it exactly that the judges are looking for and what is the criteria for a successful applicant? The truth is that they aren’t expecting you to want to become the next Chanel, Dior or Gucci. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having big ambitions, but the reality is that the industry is in a state of flux and the world is looking to a new generation for solutions and alternative ways of making clothes and doing business. One only has to look to the finalists of this year’s LVMH Prize to see that the rules are changing. London-based Bethany Williams works with female inmates and rehabilitation centres on producing locally-sourced upcycled clothes and woven materials. New York label Phipps works with natural-dyed organic cottons and nylons recycled from discarded plastics to create neatly-tailored wardrobe staples. Lagosian designer Kenneth Ize works with traditional African craft techniques and weaving communities to create vibrant gender-fluid tailoring. Each of the designers who’ve made the final is reconfiguring ways in which they work with sustainable materials, alternative manufacturing models and the traditional wholesale infrastructure. As a result, their work stands out.
One of the biggest shifts is that fashion prizes are no longer just about a Western-centric perspective either. In Doha, the inaugural Fashion Trust Arabia Prize offered the opportunity for designers from across the Middle East -- as wide as Egypt, Lebanon, Kuwait, Dubai, Tunisia, Jordan and Morocco -- to put forward a proposition that speaks to an often-underrepresented culture and evolving global customer. The scheme gives cash and mentorship to independent MENA (Middle East and North African) talent working in couture, ready-to-wear, jewellery, shoes, and bags -- the same kind of support that is available in similar contests in London, Paris and New York.
The judges were a starry roll call of designers (Pierpaolo Piccioli, Haider Ackermann, Erdem, Alexander Wang, Olivier Rousteing), editors (Sarah Mower, Sara Maino, Laura Brown) and businesspeople (Moncler’s Remo Ruffini, Natalie Massenet, MatchesFashion co-founder Ruth Chapman, the BFC’s Tania Fares). “I think that people should be encouraged to do this because you learn so much when you apply, and even when you are rejected,” says Diane von Furstenberg, one of the Fashion Trust Arabia judges. “You learn so much when you compare yourself to others and we live in a changing world right now so the criteria are changing. It’s about having something to say and standing for something.”
Of all the designers, many of whom were reinterpreting their heritage through local craft in their hometowns, one who made a lasting impression on each of the judges was Roni Helou, a 26-year-old Lebanese designer whose androgynous, deconstructed garments are entirely vegan (no silk, no leather, no skins) and made entirely from deadstock materials he sources in the Middle East. Based in Beirut, his approach is informed by the Lebanese garbage crisis, which began in 2015 and has resulted in massive landfills populating the country and the dumping and widespread dumping and burning of waste on the streets.
“Fashion should stand for human rights, animal rights and for the environment itself,” he said. Helou credits his start to Creative Space Beirut, a progressive fashion design institution offering free arts education. He started his label upon graduating and gives back by teaching and donating 30 percent of his proceeds to the school. “The biggest challenge with being a designer from the Arab region is the lack of support, it means that designers have to really do it on their own. I am very hands-on with everything I do and it has helped me understand every aspect of my community.”
For many young graduates straight out of college, negotiating the relationships with manufacturers, publicists, sales agents and distributors can be a difficult task -- especially as it’s not something that is usually a part of the fashion design curriculum. It can also lead to overwhelming overheads, which affect pricing and make it difficult to position one’s label in a competitive marketplace.
“There is this thing -- and I remember it as a graduate myself -- where you get so high on everything that has come together in your mind in that last year of college,” warns Sarah Mower, who has devoted her career to promoting and nurturing emerging talent and was also a judge at Fashion Trust Arabia. “It is so easy for designers to trip on that emotional high of wanting to do something on their own. Often there are retailers who come around and ask for things, and actually, you’ve probably done one graduate collection with your own hands from an idea and they're expecting you to produce in quantities. Your vanity can undo you.”
Instead, it’s about building a community of like-minded people and gaining experience before going out on your own. That said, it is rare that successful designers operate from ivory towers. “I would almost swear that the ones that count are the ones who can say their mum is an accountant, and their boyfriend is a set designer and their sister is bloody good at negotiating with people,” Mower adds, offering Richard Quinn as an example. When Quinn won the H&M Design Award in 2017, he used the cash prize to build his own screen-printing studio, driving around the country in his dad’s truck and buying up second-hand machinery. What’s more, as well as establishing it for production of his own namesake label, he’s opened it up to other designers in London.
That kind of emphasis on practicality and business prowess is increasingly vital. It is no longer enough to just have immense creativity and design in an increasingly ruthless and corporate fashion system. “A fast-changing world as today, requires a business strategy and a proper vision in order to constantly adapt to changes at the speed of the digital,” says Remo Ruffini, chief executive of Moncler and another judge at Fashion Trust Arabia. “I always suggest to upcoming designers to strengthen their own DNA with an interesting and personal point of view with products including new materials and new manufacturing techniques, aimed at surprising the judges with something unexpected.”
Before winning the first ever LVMH Prize, Thomas Tait struggled with the battle of putting on a show in September and only being able to pay for materials in August, when most Italian factories are closed, which meant he only had a few days to create an entire ready-to-wear collection. “To some people, €300,000 might seem like an enormous amount of money, to some people it could seem like something that could go overnight,” Tait told me in 2015, less than a year after winning the prize and months before he would close his label.
“There’s a lot of people who have this false idea that you’ll be fine -- just keep it up for a few years and somebody’s going to hand you a creative director’s position,” he added. “That might not happen. The sensationalism of fashion creates this false sense of comfort where people think that you can really get yourself into a huge financial mess and then some kind of magic trick is going to clear out all the debt and you’ll become a big star.”
Let that be a lesson. “You have to understand how the fashion system is fracturing and crumbling and dreaming of being the next Gianni Versace might not be so relevant now,” Sarah says. Indeed, an established generation are questioning new ways of doing business -- and a new guard can offer answers. More than that, they’re looking for someone who can sustainably grow an independent business that contributes something meaningful to the conversation, even if that means keeping production on a local scale and building a core group of engaged customers and private clients. Remember: slow and steady always wins the race -- or at least the fashion prize.