‘Grow, grow, grow’ seems to be the motto of the LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers. A €300.000 cash prize and a year of industry mentorship: that’s definitely a recipe for improvement. Earlier this week, 26 shortlisted designers gathered in the LVMH showroom on the Avenue Montaigne to present their collections to 45 international experts over the duration of 2 days.
These experts came from every aspect of the industry; think of stylists, editors, journalists, photographers, consultants at the highest level — whose job it was to make a shortlist of eight designers that will proceed to be judged by the jury, which is made up of J.W. Anderson, Nicholas Ghesquière, Marc Jacobs, Karl Lagerfeld, Humberto Leon, Carol Lim, Phoebe Philo, Raf Simons and Riccardo Tisci.
Launched last year, the LVMH prize is indicative of Paris finally catching up with the international support schemes to sustain emerging talent. France is not necessarily a country one would associate with supporting young fashion designers, but LVMH has realised that they should take the helm and nurture the leading creative directors of the future.
Sarah Andelman, founder and creative director of Colette, champions this newfound enlightenment. “It used to be a lot of young designers from London and New York, so I hope there will be more coming from Paris, because it really means a lot,” she said.
What does she think the introduction of this prize says about the industry? “I think we have very good schools; fashion is everywhere in Paris. Of course, with great schools like St Martins, Parisian schools disappear from the map a little bit, but I feel some new stars are forming.”
Some of these new stars already have sponsors or business partners; others don’t. In the selection of designers, there are those who have graduated only a few months ago, like Ximon Lee and Andrea Jiapei Li from Parsons, and there are those who have already showed their collections on the runway for several seasons, such as Craig Green, Marques’Almeida and Nasir Mazhar. There are those, like Arthur Arbesser, who have worked for other companies for several years before starting their own brand, gaining invaluable experience of how the industry works. These are all valid models, which work for each individual designer, and thus, why it is so hard to find overarching advice for imminent graduates and new labels who want to set up their own label.
The LVMH showrooms were made of a simple structure: a carousel of few boxes that were left to each nominee to create a window to their world. Some covered the three white walls with brightly coloured posters, others with sculptural representation of garments, mood boards and furniture. The atmosphere was relaxed and seemingly empty, allowing for the starry jury to dip in and out discreetly. The designers were chilled and happy to have all these industry experts see their collections and acknowledge their names. Of course, there is this chance to win a massive price, which only adds to the pressure of presentation and articulation of their work, but the scope of recognition they’ve already received by being included in the line-up is fruitful in itself.
The amount of champagne for the event’s reception — during which Delphine Arnault walked around, introducing designers to several members of the jury and judging panel — had been tripled after last year’s reception and yet all bottles were empty at the end of the night – an indication of the fuel needed to quantify the experience of meeting Karl Lagerfeld and pretty much every important fashion professional in the space of two hours. Lagerfeld apparently told the same joke to every designer, remarking that everybody’s got ‘two arms and two legs’; making a pun on that it’s an obvious choice to design both menswear and womenswear.
Designing for both sexes is one of the things that Craig Green has told us he wants to focus on: expanding his brand into womenswear. “We need to build the menswear business and make sure that’s steady and strong, but at the same time we’re going to venture into womenswear. Slowly. Cautiously,” Craig said. “Hopefully in two years time, we’ll have a menswear and womenswear line. It’s not going to be a direct translation, like women’s sizes. I think it will be its own entity. Women buy our menswear anyway, so there’s not really much point showing it marketed to them. That would just seem mad!”
Something a lot of designers seem to want to focus on when they win the prize, is expanding their digital marketing. Marques’Almeida said they would put the potential prize money towards growing their team and their website. “We have the online store, which is hopefully going to be something that is quite focal when doing business. We need some push on that side,” Marta Marques said. London-based French designer Faustine Steinmetz is likeminded: “We’ll be investing it more in our e-shop. We want to have the means to create this really special e-shop where we keep each piece from each collection – so people can kind of collect it.” Faustine also mentioned her desire to create special content, ‘like editorials for the e-shop.’
Design collective Vetements taps into this as well, and gives a different point of view on digital presence. Demna Gvasalia, who heads up the collective, spoke about opening up to their audience with the means of technology, in order to directly interact with the copy/DIY-culture that designers often lament. “The 501 jeans were supposed to be the best fit for all but was really the worst fit for all,” he joked. “We decided to give it a new fit by cutting it up. Especially in South Korea — and we’ve seen this a lot on Instagram also — people are cutting up their jeans. They don’t really have a pattern, though, so next season we are going to put a digital pattern on the website that people would be able to download. We aren’t really going to produce them anymore, so we’ll just do the right thing.”
The consensus appeared to be that a digital platform is not just about an e-shop and an online lookbook – it must be tailored to the finer details of brand identity.”Have you been to my website?” asked Virgil Abloh of Off-White, who has also been credited with lending a sophisticated visual voice to Kanye West. “I always have opinionated music there; it has taken me a while to build up. At first you want to be seen as chic, but then you have to evaluate yourself and think ‘Okay, for this brand to be taken seriously, you have to build your confidence’, in order to get your clothes in the right places. I’m starting to play with the signifiers of what being a good designer means. It’s part of the whole communication. You can get to a point where you have a point of view and no one hears you.”
One thing we have learnt, is that for most designers, the big struggle is to keep up with the pace of fashion, and the increasing global demand from retailers and consumers for more collections, more access and bigger shows. Even labels that have been growing steadily face these pressures. Production, for example, gets to a stage where a larger team is needed, or where money needs to come into play to order the right amount of materials needed and get the final garments to stores in time. This is why prizes like LVMH’s are so incredibly valuable.
Several shortlisted labels have already been part of sponsorship schemes, but now need the means of a big prize like this one to grow sustainably, without the pressure of having to sell out in order to pay studio rent.
Thomas Tait, last year’s winner, recently admitted to Colin McDowell that he would have had to close his business if he did not get the €300.000 injection of money into his label. So many young designers are on the show schedule for a season or two — and are there for the simple fact that their work appeals to an audience and is considered valuable — but disappear because there is no long-term funding or support that does not compromise their ownership or creative direction.
The industry has exponentially grown in a short period of time, and is so dominated by large powerful companies, that it is very difficult for young brands to compete with those who are leading the market. Even to keep up with fashion’s pace is a challenge, as it often requires designers to constantly create and produce new collections. Fashion needs to be fuelled by new names, and the youth are those who will bring about change. This is why awards like the LVMH prize — that offer both substantial financial support and mentorship — are essential, as it gives them a chance to steadily build their companies, while receiving a good deal of press attention at the same time.
‘Stand up and support’ can be a sign of our times, and a movement within the fashion industry’s history, and it feels that LVMH has done an exceptional job at tapping into this, setting an excellent example that we can only hope will spread like wildfire amongst their industry peers.