In most occasions, calling any trio of creatives ‘three musketeers’ becomes banal, yet Jenné Lombardo, Keith Baptista and Mazdack Rassi can aptly be called so; having slashed their way through a rather stagnant and unsupportive fashion landscape in New York. The founders of MADE pioneered through hosting free presentations and fashion shows for young designers in Milk Studios, ever since 2009. It felt like there was a good opportunity to do something new, they say, as the industry became too calculated. “If you want different results, you have to do things differently, that’s just the fundamentals of life,” Jenne reflects. In the beginning, their radically different approach to show the work of several designers at the same time roused critical feedback from many industry figures, who argued that it was “against the rules.”

MADE soon became a breeding ground for talents like Joseph Altuzarra, Suno and Public School, many of whom were only just starting out. With their combined enterprises consisting of Milk and creative agencies The Terminal Presents and Prodject, and receiving continued sponsorship from big companies like American Express and MAC, MADE had the means to support emerging talent and grow them from the roots up.

We sat down with the trio in Rassi’s office, a square room filled with books, magazines and some posters, on the top floor of Milk Studios. It immediately struck us to see how excited they were to see one another; how they tried to see opportunities in each other’s thought processes, and find new ways to move forward– an inherent ‘New York’ mentality, which is aligned with one of the main reasons one gets selected to be part of their support scheme: “The criteria is to be awesome, that’s it!” What’s more, they don’t discard their designers at the end of the road. As Keith says: “Designers leave the program when they feel like they’re ready to take the next step, and they’re still part of the family– we still find ways to support them. We still find ways to bring them resources, we do all that because we know it’s tough.”

“The way that communications now work digitally, is that you can directly engage a customer wherever they are in the world. You can build your own image directly, as you don’t need to rely necessarily on big PR and marketing firms. You can find your own way.” – Keith Baptista

We’re here at the top floor of Milk Studios in the heart of NYC. What do you think about the differences between this city and London or Paris, for emerging designers? Is there a better place to start out?

Keith Baptista: To answer your question right away: I don’t think that there’s an overall solution for a design community in general. I think it depends on the designer and how they want their business to be structured; what they actually design and what they want of life. Unfortunately, fashion can be seductive, because people think that it’s incredibly glamorous and there’s lots of money involved, and that you’re going to be incredibly successful and live an amazing life. It’s not true. It’s just like any other industry in the sense that you have to work really hard, be realistic and very specific about your goals, but at the same time you also have to be ambitious. You really have to take risks. I don’t think there’s any obligation to be in London, New York, Paris or anywhere at this point, because you could be in Berlin, Saint Tropez, or a small town in China if it suits your business and who you want to be. I think we work in a world where it’s global enough to be able to do that.

Mazdack Rassi: I think the concept of where you want to show, versus where you want to build a business, are two different things. With regards to showing, which is ultimately selling, you have to ask yourself the question: is it wholesale or retail? What are you trying to do? A lot of designers today probably sell directly to clients because of their digital presence, and through middle-men — they can do whatever they want. Technology is changing the way that people consume. They now consume a brand instead of clothes. I think brands should be where they are relevant.

KB: I like the point you’re making that you can live in one place, sell commercially in another place and show somewhere else. It’s a financial decision, but you have the opportunity to do that nowadays. You don’t have to be showing, selling and living in Paris. There are a lot of English designers who commute to Paris to show, and lots also go to New York. There’s a balance to that.

Speaking frankly, I’ve worked with a lot of English designers over the years, and very early on in my career I consulted with the British Trade Commission to develop a program for them to promote London-based designers. At that point Alexander McQueen, Antonio Berardi, Paul Frith — an amazing array of talent — were in their early stages. One of the things that was very difficult, is that they invested most of their money in shows and their image, and didn’t invest enough in their business infrastructure to help them grow. It’s really important for designers to have a profile and to create excitement around their brand, for sure, but if you don’t have the ability to produce the clothes and sell them: you don’t have a sustainable business. You have to find that perfect balance between art and commerce, in the sense that you have to build a business that’s viable, and then you have to find your customer. The way that communications now work digitally, is that you can directly engage a customer wherever they are in the world. You can build your own image directly, as you don’t need to rely necessarily on big PR and marketing firms. You also don’t necessarily need to rely on big retailers to show your clothes. You can find your own way. It takes more time, but it’s a stronger basis.

“We weren’t part of anything, or bow down to anyone. We weren’t part of a CFDA or city initiative, we just did it the way we wanted to, because we had the resources to do it.” – Mazdack Rassi

You just mentioned building an image without PR companies. What is the importance of being highly visible in the fashion industry? Is it important for a designer to be a public persona?

Jenné Lombardo: It’s important to have visibility and exposure, so that you’ve got overall brand awareness amongst your desired customer base. However, you individually do not by any means need to become a celebrity to succeed. There are many well-known fashion houses with unknown designers behind them.

MR: When people make it in this business, they become a brand, which gives them the ability to make money in multiple different ways. They’ll have multiple sources of income, instead of just one in the beginning. The getting from A to B is the difficult part: becoming a brand and becoming a business. New York has always been a place where it’s more about commerce than creativity and art. There are some people that are just brand geniuses, and they come from a different point of view. There are others, who really come from the traditional way, and they put one foot in front of the other. Others are all about their ‘movement’, but there are no clothes. They’re just the hottest things and win all these awards, but at end of the day nobody really knows what they actually sell. So we get to see a lot of different versions. What gets us excited, are the people in the driver’s seat.

JL: I think we’re much more enthusiastic about these people as creators, versus the business. I don’t think anybody who sat here would say that they like and agree with the fashion industry in the way that it operates and functions. It’s not sustainable. It’s not the best industry to enter into, but what we love, are the people that are involved in it.

MR: Ultimately you have the designer (the maker, the creator) – and then you have an audience out there, and you want them to consume the concept and the physical goods. Then, you have all this shit in the middle, which has created barriers and loopholes and slides and parachutes — you name it, you gotta go through it. What will happen eventually is that people will be able to go from A to B without all of this stuff. You do learn a lot by experiencing the process, but it should be your choosing, instead of being forced into all of these politics that a young creator shouldn’t have to deal with. I think the next 5-10 years will only streamline this process more because of technology, retail, how people communicate with consumers and how they build communities, which ultimately can be their consumer base. Everything is changing, and it’s wonderful that young people are rebelling a bit against this. They don’t want the status quo. They want to figure out different ways, and go left when you tell them right.

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Keith Baptista, Mazdack Rassi and Jenné Lombardo on the rooftop of Milk Studios

You once mentioned that Milk Studios is not a pop-up space, but that you’re here all the time.

MR: The fact that we have our own space gives us the opportunity to break a lot of rules and do things the way we want to. For instance with the idea of doing multiple presentations at the same time: we championed those and were probably the first to do them. People thought: “What? You’re going to show five designers at the same time?” and we’d be like: “Yes, because they’re young and nobody is going to come for just one of them. But if there are five and it’s curated, everyone’s gonna come, because they trust us and they’re at least going to like one of the designers.” Together we’re stronger and better, but a lot of people were like: this is against the rules.

KB: At that time, nobody had heard of those designers. It was Joseph Altuzarra, Public School, Proenza Schouler. These guys were doing presentations and they were people who were worth to discover.

JL: It was kind of like a perfect storm, it was golden.

MR: It needed to be done. I think that our biggest strength in the beginning, and even until now, was that it was our independence. We weren’t part of anything, or bow down to anyone. We weren’t part of a CFDA or city initiative, we just did it the way we wanted to, because we had the resources to do it. That independence was really what made us into a movement, because everything else was too calculated.

You just mentioned going from A to B and there being a big amount of stuff in the middle. Do you ever feel there are too many brands showing on the fashion week schedule, who perhaps should not?

KB: But who decides who gets to show? It’s one of those things that’s complicated to answer, because everybody’s like “the schedule needs to thin out, we need to only have as many people attending to these type of shows.” The problem is that we live in a pretty inclusive industry, and you don’t ever want to say: no, that designer can’t show. Also, do we really want a governing body to decide who should be a designer and who shouldn’t?

“Everybody loves a good party. It depends on the ethos of your brand – if it’s founded on being social, celebratory, and you’re part of a unique culture, maybe you would want to amplify that through an event, but you don’t have to.” – Jenne Lombardo

How important are fashion ‘shows’ for young designers who do not really have a budget to do something big scale, with the grandeur of a Chanel production?

KB: Fashion needs to be tangible and I think it is essential for press and buyers to see a collection in person. Fabrics, the way a garment moves, and details are difficult to represent in digital content. That being said, a designer should never reach beyond their resources if it is detrimental to their core business. Presentations and shows can be small, creative and smart.

JL: To us, we don’t just work with designers when it comes to their overall physical activation. We very much believe that dollars can be spent creating unique content pieces, and with distribution partners that allow for these designers’ talents to be exposed on a much greater scale than if they were to just do a show. There are many different mediums that design talent can work with that can expose their craft beyond the traditional, and they should never feel the pressure to do a show just because peers in their industry are doing them.

KB: I think that the way that designers present their collections will continue to evolve. The timing of presentations and shows, their size, locations and methods will all vary. But I still don’t think the idea of a fashion show will ever go away.

Dries van Noten said that he believes he can reach more people with a show than with publicity. Instead of investing in advertising, he always put his money into the runway shows. In your opinion, is the fashion show still the most powerful tool for PR and for sending your message?

KB: Yes, I still feel like a well-designed and managed show or event is a powerful means of publicity. Especially in current times, with the pervasiveness of social media. A well-curated audience has the ability to reach many more targeted people than an advertising page will. And if the designer is smart about the content that they capture at an event, there are many other methods of how they can promote a collection directly – short and long form video, creative photography, designer controlled social media.

What should emerging designers who are short on both money and time concentrate on in the beginning: perfectly finished clothes or a punchy presentation that shows their vision for the brand?

MR: I would say a young designer should focus on quality of their clothes. A great show will last only a season, but it’s the actual art of their product that builds their following/tribe. It’s the clothing that will truly showcase their aesthetic.

“Our industry needs to find a more substantial and sustainable way to support new creative and design talent. It is essential that we nurture new voices in our industry.” – Keith Baptista

Is a good after party important in the fashion industry, and can it replace a show in its importance?

JL: Everybody loves a good party. It depends on the ethos of your brand – if it’s founded on being social, celebratory, and you’re part of a unique culture, maybe you would want to amplify that through an event, but you don’t have to.

MR: Exactly, quality of young designers’ product and art is always priority. A great after party should always complement the product. If the product is of quality, then naturally the party will be as well, but the party shouldn’t ever replace the actual art of a show.

JL: There are many parties that can lead to lasting legacies and impressions, but it depends on how you measure success. There are absolutely a lot of ways to express and showcase your work in a more social atmosphere, but it depends on what type of crowd you’re looking to attract.

Vanessa Friedman from the New York Times once said that “fashion, despite the fact that it likes to think it is edgy, is actually a very conservative, stuck-in-its-ways industry.” If you had all the power to reshape the whole ‘system’, what are the things you’d do?

MR: I believe a reshaping has already come into perspective with the rise of digital media. The brands that understand this change and understand how to be a part of it, will be able to outlive the inevitable progression that fashion will take. Fashion is in a way a reflection of the societal climate around us and in that must evolve along with it. Having said that, I believe that fashion will now begin to integrate itself with parallel emerging markets, such as technology, in order to keep its relevance through these evolutions.

JL: It’s absolutely true that there are a lot of opportunities for this industry to evolve. It’s part of why we created MADE and I feel that everything we do helps to participate in its evolution. There are many things that we are and will continue to work on.

KB: 1) I would want to find a way to slow down the pace of how we do everything. There is a slow food movement. Why can’t there be a slow fashion movement? 2) We need to find a way to align when we show clothing to the public to when it is available to purchase. Our old system allowed only buyers and press to preview collections and the consumer engaged brands through advertising, editorial and retail environments when the clothing was delivered to stores. Digital media has made everything more immediate. Consumers see collections as they are presented, but it does not match what is in stores. We need to find a way to realign the timing again. 3) Our industry needs to find a more substantial and sustainable way to support new creative and design talent. It is essential that we nurture new voices in our industry.

Interview by Olya Kuryshchuk / Words by Jorinde Croese

Photography by Casey Brooks for 1 Granary

MADE Fashion Week, 11-17 Feb: “Peep the schedule here

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