September 9, 2011 9:53 pm

Eyes on the prizes

There are more fashion funds available than ever, but how useful are they to young designers?

The cancellation of New York fashion week might have been the most immediate response to the destruction of the Twin Towers, but it also had longer-term implications for the fashion industry. After the shows’ disappearance for a season threatened the futures of a wave of new designers, the industry looked at ways to support vulnerable talent.

“The market was severely affected by the September 11 attacks: designers had lost their show venues and everything was at a standstill,” says Steven Kolb, the chief executive of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), US fashion’s governing body. As a result, Kolb, along with the editor-in-chief of American Vogue, Anna Wintour, decided something needed to be done, and in 2003 the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, an award for globally expanding designers with at least two years’ domestic business experience, was born.

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“We raised an initial endowment of $10m so that we could support the designers at the forefront of creating a real American global brand,” says Kolb. With a top prize of $300,000 for the winner and $100,000 for each of two runner-ups, not to mention prominent features on the 10 finalists themselves in Vogue as well as a mentorship scheme, the fund purported to give US fashion a leg up for the future.

So has it worked? Funding schemes have been an integral part of the fashion industry as far back as 1953, when Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent competed for the International Wool Secretariat fashion prize. However, since the turn of the millennium, a new breed of bigger, bolder sponsorship schemes has emerged. The Vogue Fashion Fund has, according to Kolb, spawned “a similar prize in the UK with the British Fashion Council and British Vogue, and one in Italy with Italian Vogue. We’re also currently working with Chinese Vogue to develop a programme that supports Chinese designers, and helps past CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund designers to understand and explore business opportunities in China.”

In Britain, the Fashion Council’s New Generation (NewGen) programme, a “talent identification scheme”, was launched in 1993 in order to support young designers showing at London fashion week. It involves “many partners and different levels of funds,” according to Caroline Rush, the BFC’s chief executive. “Some support starts as early as college level, which leads to industry work placements, and others are for designers who have achieved success with retailers and press.” And these are just the tip of the funding iceberg, which also includes the International Talent Support scheme (this year sponsored by Swarovski Elements and involving €10,000 and the offer of a six-month internship at Swarovski headquarters); the Dorchester Collection fashion prize, launched last year and offering the winner a free show at a Dorchester hotel of choice; and the Swiss Textiles Award: €100,000, of which €10,000 must be spent on Swiss textiles.

“Fashion funds have helped a whole generation of designers in New York and London start their own businesses, rather than working for someone else,” says Imran Amed, a business consultant and the founder of the Business of Fashion blog. “Traditionally, these designers would have had to find investors and give away a stake in their business in exchange for a cash injection. On the other hand, these funds and prizes may have unintentionally created a dependency and sense of entitlement among young designers, who have been artificially supported by ‘free’ money. The true test is when they must fend for themselves.”

For every success story, such as Mary Katrantzou (who won the 2010 Swiss Textile Award, was a finalist for the Dorchester Collection fashion prize, a recipient of NewGen for five seasons and a contender for the 2011 BFC/Vogue Fashion Fund and who sold her autumn/winter 2011 collection to 110 retailers), there is a House of Jazz, the NewGen-sponsored label founded by Pablo Flack and Hazel Robinson, that went out of business three years after opening.

“We have so many designers that come to us with big dreams of wanting to show at Paris fashion week and to have celebrities wear their clothes,” admits Barbara Franchin, director and supervisor of Eve, a talent scouting agency. “They see Project Runway and they think that a fashion prize can make them a household name. Then they try to live up to the big brands they admire and they just can’t keep up.”

Not surprisingly, the prize committees disagree, saying they are aware of potential pitfalls and actively seek to avoid them. “In the early 2000s, we had witnessed previous generations of young designers crash and burn and it was giving London a bad name commercially,” says journalist Sarah Mower, an ambassador for emerging talent for the BFC. “NewGen discourages designers from running before they can walk – but then, we also realised we need to help teach them how to walk.

“Once NewGen designers have been selected they are only allowed to show on a scale that is appropriate to their stage of business, which might mean a presentation, not a catwalk show – or they are simply offered a rail to sell off in one of our exhibition showrooms,” Mower continues. “We aim not to mollycoddle the designers, but to see them out the door as competent, independent small-business people.”

Interestingly, according to Prabal Gurung, the Nepalese designer who was selected as the winner of the 2010 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, in the end what made a real difference for him and his business was the advice. “The relationships that are built are invaluable,” he says. “It’s actually much more important than the money.”

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CFDA /Vogue Fashion Fund

Prize: One winner receives $300,000 and a business mentor, and two runners-up receive $100,000

Criteria: Advanced. Applicants must be in business domestically for at least two years and have been featured in international press

Established in 2003 by American vogue editor Anna Wintour and the Council of Fashion Designers of America

Success story: Proenza Schouler – Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez’s hip New York brand now has a $10m backing and a global lusting for their accessories line and dresses

Cautionary tale: Habitual – the label’s design duo Michael and Nicole Colovos enjoyed a five-year run until they decided to close the flailing business to design for Helmut Lang

NewGen

Prize: Variable – designers may be given a rail at a Paris showroom or full catwalk sponsorship

Established in 1993 by the British Fashion Council

Criteria: Beginners. While the criteria varies for different levels of sponsorship, all designers must be based in the UK, have an industry-based reference and be in at least two stockists

Success story: Alexander McQueen – founder of Gucci Group-owned luxury fashion house. Designer of the Year at British Fashion Awards three times. Personal estate valued at £16m

Cautionary tale: House of Jazz – quirky celebrity-endorsed label, founded by Pablo Flack and Hazel Robinson, went out of business in 2004 within three years of launching

International Talent Support

Established in 2001 by Barbra Franchini

Prizes: Variable – Swarovski Elements offers a jewellery design award at €10,000 and an internship at their Austrian headquarters. Diesel offers €25,000, which the winner has complete control over. Other prizes include a photography prize sponsored by Disaronno and an internship at Maison Martin Margiela

Criteria: Amateur. No criteria for applicants. Majority of finalists are fashion design students or recent graduates – they have their trip to Trieste, Italy, paid entirely for them

Success story / cautionary tale: While most designers have not succeeded in launching their own luxury fashion labels, a large amount have gone on to work for large fashion houses. However, as most finalists are fashion design students, that is almost inevitable

Dorchester Collection Fashion Prize

Prize: $40,000 and the opportunity to put on a catwalk show at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée during Paris fashion week

Established in 2010 by Bronwyn Cosgrave, with a starry judging panel including Daphne Guinness and Manolo Blahnik

Criteria: Moderate. Applicants must have a track record of commercial success and critical distinction

Success story: Thomas Tait, the first winner, has gone on to consult on the uniforms of 45 Park Lane, as well as being exclusively stocked at Browns, where he is a blockbuster sellout

ANDAM Prize (National Association for the Development of the Fashion Arts)

Prize: €200,000

Established in 1989 by Nathalie Dufour and the French ministry of culture

Criteria: Beginner. Applicants must be under the age of 40 and must either work in France or have plans to project their business in France

Success story: Viktor & Rolf, Martin Margiela, Gareth Pugh, Jeremy Scott, Giles Deacon – the names speak for themselves

Cautionary tale: Viviane Cazeneuve – while the 1996 winner managed to stay afloat for eight years, she finally closed business in 2003 and is now a consultant for Liberty of London

Swiss Textile Award

Prize: €100,000, no mentorship and €10,000 must be spent on Swiss textiles

Established in 1999 by the Swiss Textile Federation in Zurich

Criteria: Advanced. Applicants must be in business for at least two years and have shown their collections as part of the official schedules of fashion weeks in either London, Paris, Milan or New York. The designers must also have existing stockists and have been featured in prominent fashion press

Success story: Raf Simons has successfully launched his own label as well as becoming creative director of Italian fashion house Jil Sander, to much critical acclaim

Cautionary tale: Daniel Herman, who won the award in 2000, closed his ready-to-wear business after four years. He now mostly sells erotic latex lingerie and underwear under his own name

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