Joseph Altuzarra and Tabitha Simmons Advise Young Designers to Repeat Themselves

It's the best way to establish your brand, even when editors are constantly clamoring for newness.
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Eliza Brooke
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It's the best way to establish your brand, even when editors are constantly clamoring for newness.
Prabal Gurung, Joseph Altuzarra, Tabitha Simmons and Dao-Yi Chow. Photo: J.Crew

Prabal Gurung, Joseph Altuzarra, Tabitha Simmons and Dao-Yi Chow. Photo: J.Crew

With its friendly vibe, warm lighting and bursts of bright color, a J.Crew store isn't a bad place to hold a party, particularly on a drizzly day — which is exactly what the retailer did earlier this week to toast the 2014 winners of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. The designers celebrated included Paul Andrew, Ryan Roche and Eva Zuckerman of Eva Fehren, all of whom produced collaborations with J.Crew in the wake of their wins.

For the occasion, J.Crew rounded up a host of past winners and runners-up — Prabal Gurung (2010), Joseph Altuzarra (2011), Tabitha Simmons (2012), Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne of Public School (2013) and Paul Andrew (again, 2014) — to share their experiences from the fashion fund and give their best advice for up-and-coming designers. Perhaps the number one takeaway? That even the most imaginative creative is going to have to give equal attention to his or her business operations.

"I think you don't realize sometimes when you're going into starting a company and building your brand how much of it is going to be the business," Altuzarra said. "I had come from Givenchy, which is pure creation... There [was] not a lot of time spent on merchandising plans or thinking about sales. So actually going into starting your own business and thinking about how you can grow something and how you can fulfill both the expectations of the retailers and still stay exciting for the runway, you sort of become this left brain/right brain person pretty quickly."

Simmons, too, realized while moving through the Fashion Fund that she needed to know her business inside and out, because the judges asked just as many probing questions about her finances and operations as they did about the design of her shoes. She's made some real changes on that front since her brand's inception, too, having started off selling beautiful but extremely expensive shoes and later learning that she needed to figure out a way to produce at a more accessible price point.

For younger designers, Simmons has the following advice, once given to her by Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana: don't be afraid to repeat yourself. While editors are always looking for what's new and fresh, designers actually need to keep producing similar designs season after season in order to establish their point of view.  

"I completely agree with that," said Altuzarra. "We, from an editorial perspective, are looking at a show or a collection like. 'Oh, I did a slit skirt, so I'm not going to do one next season.' But the more you repeat it and the more you do it, the more people will, I think, associate your brand with that thing. And that is how we built the brand."

And if you should happen to land yourself in front of the CVFF judges, Gurung has some sage advice for making the experience a little less daunting: print out the judges' headshots. Then tape them to your wall so you have to look at them every day.

"It's so nerve-wracking, and when I went there I wanted to be familiar with their faces," he explained with a laugh. "I did that every morning. Literally."

As it turns out, the Public School guys actually heeded his advice.

"We took Prabal's expertise, and we did the same thing with the judges," Chow and Osborne said. "We were kind of upset when we went in for the judging competition, for the first meeting, that they weren't sitting where we had the pictures."