One champagne-drenched evening during Paris Fashion Week, 21 young designers were placed in little white boxes and asked to present their big ideas to an international fashion crowd. They were asked to prove their talent, skills, and most importantly, their potential for growth. A jury, your usual gang of prominent LVMH players (including Jonathan Anderson, Phoebe Philo and the ever-present Karl Lagerfeld) and their expert panel (consisting of 45 of the most feared critics, influential buyers, art directors and a sole Instagram model) would talk to each of them and decide who would go home with one of the most prestigious fashion awards.

Let’s look more deeply into the LVMH prize for young fashion designers. The luxury goods conglomerate doesn’t understate when they say they are looking for young brands. Competition guidelines state that the participants can’t be over 40, but some of the designers only launched their label last year. Antonin Tron for example, founder of Atlein, presented his first catwalk collection (and third ever) during Paris Fashion Week. Same goes for Cecilie Bahnsen, RCA-graduate and previous Erdem-employee. Based in Denmark, she showed her first catwalk collection in January: “I chose to show at Copenhagen, which is a risk because it’s smaller, but they found me there. It’s amazing that they managed to pick up designers around the world and that the scouts see you everywhere,” she said.

The prize was founded to support young design in Paris and add a touch of avant-garde to the capital of couture. But with seven of the nominated labels based in London, three in New-York and three in Tokyo, only two reside in the French fashion city. Other designers travelled all the way from Spain, Seoul, Taiwan or New-Zealand, giving the award an undeniable worldly image.

Daniel Fletcher posing with the Kaiser

Next to young and international, this year’s selection is extremely diverse. Charles Jeffrey, whose East-London club nights fuel spontaneous and colourful collections, couldn’t be more different from the Syrian-born artist-doctor Nabil El-Nayal. The London-based designer is pairing his fashion label with a PhD in Elizabethan dress and uses in-depth archival research into historic construction techniques as a starting point for his collections. And the conceptual, process-led dresses of Katherine Mavridis, made out of a single thread, are hard to compare to the deconstructed menswear seen at Martine Rose. What LVMH looks for above all, is a strong and clearly defined vision. No trends, but consistent identities that can slowly be developed.

A few designers found inspiration in their resistance against recent political changes. Daniel Fletcher, for example, felt the need to bring a more formal collection for AW17, wanting to be taken seriously as a young person. “We’re in such a politically turbulent time, and in the past few months our views were completely overlooked,” the Central Saint Martins-graduate explained. “As a result there’s more tailoring in the collection – if I have to wear a suit to be taken seriously by these politicians, I’ll do it in my own way: turned inside out and with lining all over the outside.”

Maria Kazakova, founder of New York-based Jahnkoy, is attracted to fashion for its power to connect. Through her sustainably-produced designs, Maria hopes to “unite people that have similar values and want to contribute to the world.” Richard Malone as well, aims to produce as responsibly as possible and his entire collection of geometric weaves is produced in U.K. mills, the label of which can be found on each garment.

Kaiser Karl tuning into the story behind Katherine Mavridis’ collection

Whether they just presented their first collection, or have been doing business for a few seasons, every single nominee is in need of financial stability. The award, a €300.000 grant and a year-long mentorship in business development, seems to respond directly to the young designers’ most pressing needs. “I’ve grown so much, but on a financial level it’s actually difficult to match that growth,” explained Daniel Fletcher. “I don’t get paid by the stores until 30 days after I’ve delivered, but I have to pay the factories before I pick it up, so cash flow is a huge issue.” With twelve retail points, Daniel is one of the more advanced designers out of all nominees, proving that growth doesn’t necessarily equal stability. Increasing sales also means increased production costs, which isn’t something every designer can handle.

Financial issues can be killing, as they feed directly into the creative side as well. Daniel Fletcher explained he would use the award to hire a bigger team: “I’m doing so much of it myself, designing, running the business, production… I’ve even sewn some pieces of this collection myself. If I was able to have a strong support team, it would allow me to focus on the creative side of things.” Charles Jeffrey explained: “The award would give me the opportunity to research amazing factories, and sample amazing clothes and be around amazing fabrics. It’s about having freedom.” Simply put, less time worrying about production options and line-sheets means more time spent on research and design.

Based in London, both Charles and Daniel face the additional challenge of rising rent, transport and productions costs. Richard Malone agreed: “With expenses going up in London, a lot of people from my background can’t afford to start their own label. It has even become totally unattainable.”

Karl Lagerfeld endorsing Charles Jeffrey

However, even for the nominees who don’t end up winning the cash prize, the award is a career boost. First of all, a nomination leads to industry recognition and brand awareness. “The press features have already increased the brand awareness,” said Cecilie Bahnsen. “As a small brand it’s always about working with a minimum, and the press coverage is reaching buyers which has made our retail list grow.”

New-York based designer Kozaburo Akasaka, known for his intricate design and Japanese techniques, mentioned the importance of personal connections: “My clothing involves a lot of detail, feeling and texture, so I’m always wondering how I can tell my story through social media. It’s hard to find the opportunity for people to actually see my garments. With this award, I can explain my work to the whole industry in person.”

Next to financial security, finding their brand’s identity – and how to communicate it – is crucial to these young designers. Antonin Tron didn’t hold back when asked about financial struggles: “When you set up a brand, every day will be difficult. Everything, everything. It’s the truth.” However, at the award evening, he most appreciated the opportunity to speak about his work: “It’s good to talk about my brand to other people, as it makes you really focus and think of what your brand is all about, the specifics.” Young designers tend to work from an isolated space. Meeting this mass of journalists, buyers and jury members can be overwhelming, but it is key in communicating your image, and it can even help define it.

Lagerfeld exploring historicity with Nabil El-Nayal

However, even if you do meet your fashion heroes in person, translating your work isn’t always easy. The nominees usually have about five minutes to pitch their work to a writer, buyer or panellist. Having a clear – and easily transmittable – brand identity is crucial, as is finding the right way to present your work. “It is challenging that we only have one rack to show our entire body of work,” said Molly Goddard, the London-based designer known for her candy-coloured tulle dresses. “I’m still searching for the best way to present my identity as a designer.”

Being nominated also gives the opportunity to talk to industry insiders and learn from their valuable insights. “I think in general LVMH is a great platform for meeting people and receiving amazing feedback, so that’s already been a great help,” said Maria Kazakova.

Again, it all comes down to business. The young designers aren’t just in need of cold cash, even advice on how to take care of the financial side is welcomed with open arms. Australian-born, Brooklyn-based designer Katherine Mavridis admitted that, at this point in her career, the biggest challenge is “learning to build a business – thinking about what will sell, how you work your price points out, and so on.”

A common struggle, as few of these artists are trained business owners: “because I’m a natural creative, the other side of the brain doesn’t function as well as that side,” Katherine added with a big apologetic smile. Should art education offer courses and teach students how to turn their creative talents into business potential? Not necessarily, as it could restrain the creative side: “I think it’s better not to think about business while you’re being creative, otherwise you’ll close yourself off for opportunities,” Katherine concluded.

 Karl not pulling a Trump-Merkel: how to shake hands, featuring Molly Goddard

Money, attention, advice – everything the young designers could wish for is right within reach. But expanding too fast can be just as damaging to a brand as standing still. An overdose of coverage can make press to lose interest, and a big sum of money can cause friendly producers to suddenly start asking full price.

Martine Rose, the London-based menswear designer, always aimed to “start small and build slowly.” For her, winning the award could risk that rhythm. Her decision to participate wasn’t made lightly: “I think the fear of success can be as crippling as the fear of failure,” she told us. “You can run away from it – I definitely have a tendency to pull back – but now is the right time. I feel ready, as a designer and a brand, to really build my brand that way and be more visible perhaps.”

We’ll have to wait until mid-July to find out the final winner, but these young designers already had the experience of a lifetime. Let’s just hope the industry gives them the time to walk before they have to run.

Words Aya Noël Karl Lagerfeld pictures Courtesy of the world wide web