June 20, 2014 6:33 pm

Big breaks and heartbreaks

I am not the only young designer who now looks at the industry in a more sober light

A couple weeks ago I was awarded the inaugural LVMH Young Designer Prize in Paris, which presents itself in the form of a one year mentorship from the bigwigs at LVMH and 300,000 euros.

The prize came in at the perfect time. The pressures of showing twice a year at London Fashion Week, sampling and producing up to 4 collections a year (PRE collections & runway) in addition to numerous consultancies on the side to help make ends meet, was starting to wear me thin. With skeletal staff (one full-time member) and a small studio in east london, I felt something had to give, and soon. After a 5 month elimination process that saw over 1200 applicants from every continent; I was stunned, relieved and ecstatic to win.

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The prize was cleverly designed; the majority of the jury was composed of 8 creative directors from LVMH’s own houses such as Raf Simons (Dior) Phoebe Philo (Celine) and Riccardo Tisci (Givenchy). As I know too well designers are emotional people who usually work on instinct. From a personal angle, meeting the designers and presenting to them had somehow levelled the playing field and gave the prize experience a human touch.

Whilst meeting the judges I couldn’t help but stop and admire their cool composure. Amid the frenzy of nerves and stream of film/camera crews circling around the LVMH showroom, each judge had their own thoughtful and graceful approach. The experience gave me a light but very positive insight on today’s breed of super designers and thinking back at the designers who have influenced me in my earlier career, I can’t help but notice the shift in perception.

John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan where a few who truly motivated my interest in fashion and helped me understand the space around the clothes; the value of expressing a personal world through fashion. My design heroes who led me out of my native Montreal to London’s Central Saint Martins.

I received a place on the college’s MA Fashion course under the late Louise Wilson OBE who was at once petrifying, hilarious and fascinating. My time with Louise helped me understand that there was a method to her madness; a technique. She pushed her students to near breaking point, forcing us to analyse ourselves and our work. She showed us first hand what it was to work with difficult people in a highly competitive setting whilst helping us find our own core values as motivated, sensitive and creative individuals.

I found myself in a final fitting in front of Louise and her good friend, industry heavy weight Sarah Mower MBE. Louise had always kept a cool persona around me in the past, but we were a week away from presenting the graduate show at LFW with a trouser that was not sitting right; I could feel it coming. Just when I thought I was about to be snapped in half, Sarah’s phone rang with terrifying news; the death of Alexander McQueen.

It had sent a shiver down my spine and the news spread through the Soho campus like wild fire. It had been an unbelievably sad “saved by the bell” moment I will never forget.

A number of events in following years including John Galliano’s turbulent departure from Dior and the recent news of our tutor Louise’ heartbreaking death has truly changed my perception of the industry and the meaning of success in fashion. I feel the devastating turn of events for several of Britain’s design superstars resonates in today’s young fashion hopefuls.

It’s clear to see that I am not the only young designer who now looks at the industry and the notion of design success in a different, perhaps more sober light. More than ever, young creatives in London are approaching their work in a pragmatic manner. Business viability is no longer an afterthought but a key building block in the ground work of a designer’s career. Profit margins, sell through reports and securing early deliveries to stockists (who want the winter collections dropped in June) are now routine to young designers.

Being an independent designer with limited resources, it’s easy to understand the strain that comes from being on what feels like the breakpoint between art and commerce. With the speed of the industry accelerating and the immediacy of social media attention, it’s become too easy to crash and burn or rise to the fashion media top with a hollow success.

It feels necessary now more than ever to seek out the support of structures such as the LVMH Young Designer Prize. Commercial success is never over night. It takes time, support and nurturing for young businesses to grow healthily. Young London designers in particular are fortunate to have much needed support available to them through various platforms such as the Centre for Fashion Enterprise, the British Fashion Council’s NEWGEN sponsorship scheme, and the Vogue Fashion Fund, to name a few. The value of this support will only increase with time, especially in light of the sharp rise in tuition fees. Absorbent student loans will no doubt stagger the ambitions of many fashion graduates to come.

I see my recent LVMH prize win not as a cash bonus but a bit of a reality check. It’s warmly welcomed if not much needed opportunity for me to invest in my own business with some of the best guidance in the world.

It seems fashion may be having a renaissance, where understanding the fragility of creative people in such a high pressure industry is vital to success. Having met some of the strongest designers in the industry through the prize, it’s inspiring and reassuring to see such an impressive assembly of successful creatives. Phoebe Philo who can direct a french fashion house via London whilst raising a young family, or Raf Simons who manages his own brand successfully whilst restoring the house of Christian Dior. To me these are just a couple of the inspiring people who have managed to find a balance at the big breaking point.

Thomas Tait is the first winner of the LVMH Young Designer Prize

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