"You have to have chutzpah, you have to be brave and go for it," Zac Posen told the audience as the keynote speaker at Fashionista's first ever conference, "How To Make It in Fashion." "I said, 'They see me as some kind of little prince character, so let's be that.' It created this myth."
Posen helped create this "myth" from a young age: For his first day of high school at St. Ann's in Brooklyn, he dressed up as Charlie Chaplin. He took on internships with Nicole Miller and Tocca when he was just 14, and it was that "chutzpah" that landed Posen an internship at the Met at 16. (While waiting to interview for the position, he took a spin in Diana Vreeland's old chair while singing "Think Pink"--more myth fodder.)
Posen's success came quickly after he started attending London's Central Saint Martins. Never mind that the work was cutthroat (Posen said you had to take your work home with you or it would be "cut up") and that he had some failing marks (everyone at Saint Martins fails classes, Posen said). He ended up making friends with all the right people (it-girls like Poppy de Villeneuve and his old St. Ann's classmate Paz de la Huerta) and making dresses for them. A photo of Posen (dressed, in his own words, like an "emo nymph") with a friend, de la Huerta, wearing his designs, caught the eye of a writer at the New York Times. The piece that followed was headlined, "A Star is Born." From there, myth became legend and Henri Bendel came courting.
It was once again time to turn on that Posen chutzpah. "There was an idea that there was a brand there when there was not," Posen said. "So when Bendels came, I asked if I could sketch a collection and if they could finance that." He sketched, Bendels made it happen, and from there everything changed.
"KCD took me on pro-bono, and then it became very systematic," the designer confessed. "My friends were out, and there were professionals in, and it was very overwhelming."
And as many a designer has learned, the fashion world isn't always the friendliest place. Posen has experienced his share of disappointments, going so far as to decamp to Paris for a few seasons. But he's never allowed those detours and setbacks to get him down. "You have to be so resilient in fashion," Posen told the crowd.
"Nobody is going to feel bad for you, they're just not. You've gotta pick yourself up and go. I still remember my first kill-piece by Cathy Horyn."
Posen is referring to a debatably condescending 2004 profile by Cathy Horyn which, among other choice backhanded insults, calls the designer "a little bit adorable and a little bit awful." (She would do the same again in a 2006 runway review, saying Posen "may have finally earned his right to sit at the big people’s table." Yikes.)
"Maybe she thought it was good," he said of the piece, written in 2004 when Posen was just 20, "but it wasn't valuing what I valued, which was my work and my craft."
Posen was also being courted by luxury brands overseas at the time. "I had sung and danced for all the powers that be at all the luxury companies and been offered a lot of wild brands...[I was] flown to Milan to meet with Donatella Versace, had been in France and was taken to a lot of different brands," he confessed.
"You take it seriously at that point but when I think back on it, it's so absurd how young I was to be in that situation," he continued. "I'm very relieved that path didn't happen for me at that age, because those are machines."
So Posen learned to be content to live in his own world of luxury, creating glamorous gowns using couture techniques out of his very own atelier based in NYC. "Every season was a reinvention and it was so extreme," he told the crowd. "I was like, 'Slow down, fast fashion is already out there.' Sportswear, fast fashion, and the like, that's already there--we'll provide the ideas."
He had a lot of advice to offer the crowd--"Collaboration is king," "Team is trust," and "Repetition is reputation," among the more quotable--but it was Posen's last piece of advice that summed up the designer best.
"If you're going to be in fashion, please bring joy to the world and bring joy to the women you design for," he said emphatically, "because that's a very powerful thing you can do."
Thanks to all our sponsors and gift bag donors for making Fashionista’s first conference happen. JewelMint, Maybelline, TRESemme, Skinn Cosmetics, Evologie, Iokai, Essie, School of Style, Zico and BluePrint–we couldn’t have done it without you!