On Saturday, The New Yorker Festival presented Fashion Forward, a panel that included Maria Cornejo, Phillip Lim, Naeem Khan and David Neville and Marcus Wainwright from Rag & Bone. As you may have heard, Maria Cornejo expressed her not so high opinion of Carla Bruni-Sarkozy at said panel. We were there, and surrounding that brief and hilarious moment, was a very thoughtful and open discussion about the business of fashion.
The New Yorker labeled these designers “The New Guard.” They have all established measurable success and are probably on their way to becoming household names. Cornejo and Khan have designed dresses for the first lady. Phillip, David and Marcus have won CFDA awards. All of them have impressively withstood the shaky economy and none of them were born in the U.S.
The similarities pretty much end there. The contrasts between each designer were more interesting to see unfold throughout the discussion, starting with each designer’s background and how it influenced–or didn’t influence–their career. David and Marcus’ traditional British upbringing, for example, has had a strong influence on Rag & Bone’s aesthetic and tailoring. But so has traditional American workwear–they learned patternmaking and started making jeans in Kentucky before moving to New York.
Naeem Khan was born in India to parents who manufactured saris for dignitaries and socialites. He designed fabrics for Halston, who influenced Khan’s tendency towards simple cuts with luxurious fabrics. He now makes luxury evening wear for celebrities and first ladies.
Maria Cornejo is a mom, was born in Chile, and also lived in London for 12 years. She, Neville and Wainwright agreed that they wouldn’t have found success without moving from Europe to the States. She explained that London is not very encouraging and Europeans can be quite blasé about emerging talent, whereas New York is a “very open city” that likes to see people succeed. However, she is not enamored with everything American. “The only thing I found a drawback here is the obsession with youth,” she said.
Phillip Lim said that his seamstress mother did not really have an influence on his career. He essentially dismissed the idea that his background had to be relevant. “It’s not where we come from, but where we’re going,” he feels.
Also fascinating was each designer’s commentary on whom they design clothes for. None of them like the question, “If you could dress anyone, who would it be?” The inspiration for Naeem Khan’s Spring ’11 collection was a hard-partying trip to Miami where he saw an abundance of young, sexy, girls about town and thought, “That’s who I want to wear my clothes.” But then he realized none of those girls could afford his clothes.
The Rag & Bone boys, quite simply, just wanted to make clothes that, “girls think guys look cute in and guys think girls look cute in.” David said of one look that took the stage, “If she was walking towards me on the street, I’d be like damn.” Cornejo makes what she calls “urban camouflage” for women that (unlike Bruni) actually do things and need clothes that they don’t have to constantly be aware of. She basically designs for herself. “I’m always trying to design the ultimate dress I would wear because I don’t like dresses.”
Another hot topic was the economy and the tough business side of fashion, which each designer de-glamorized for us. Phillip Lim lamented not even having time to “get inspired,” dismissing the idea that designers have six whole months to design a collection. For him, it’s more like 45 days each for two men’s and five women’s collections per year.
Lim also talked about balancing art and commerce. “The worst thing is when you put your heart and soul into something and see it on a sale rack,” he said. Khan, who makes $20,000 dresses, may have had the most difficult time negotiating this problem. He adapted this season by attempting to make glamorous separates so that shoppers can buy, say, a $2,000 top or skirt instead. The Rag & Bone boys feel their advantage lies in authenticity and fabric quality and sounded the least frustrated about money, perhaps due in part to investment by Theory CEO Andrew Rosen (which was not mentioned). They explained that they’re “frugal” in the way they open stores and concluded that if they were given a large some of money, they wouldn’t really know what to do with it because they’re happy with the way they are.
They suggested that Rag & Bone and the other designers on stage have succeeded because they all make great-looking clothes that have a little something extra behind them, from a super wearable jacket with the perfect fit to a dress that, while pricey, took trained artisans 300 hours to hand-bead. Clearly, despite differing backgrounds, experience levels and customer bases, they’re all doing something right and aspiring designers and business owners alike should take note.