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6 Emerging Designers Forging Ahead in Milan

It's not easy being a young designer in Milan, but some designers are starting to get the recognition -- and show space -- they sorely need.

Milan Fashion Week is very different from the fashion weeks that precede it in New York and London. For one, the clothes aren't really accessible: It's primarily luxury brands that show, often in theaters adjoining their own offices. Fewer designers show overall, so your show schedule isn't as packed. There are also more international editors present and people drink during the day more often.

But strangest of all is how the women’s ready-to-wear fashion calendar stays pretty much the same every season. As someone with an interest in emerging designers, I am always struck by how few there are in Milan, especially compared to New York and London, where more new talent appears on the calendar every season.

One reason is that priority is given to the big houses that have been around for decades: Armani, Missoni, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada. While there is technically space for more people (shows are often two or three hours apart there), it isn’t being doled out. Similar to Paris, the Italian fashion calendar is not easy to get a space on if you aren’t established. 

Another reason is that in Milan, there is no CFDA or BFC — and few local funds in place to seek out talented people and give them the financial jumpstarts they desperately need.

However, a shift is beginning to take place, and a few new labels are managing to break out. Six-year-old label MSGM has become a street style favorite, now sold everywhere from Matches to Net-a-Porter to Nordstrom. Fausto Puglisi has become a veritable celebrity red carpet go-to in the past couple of years. But it has not been an easy road for them (both designers worked for 10+ years before garnering much attention), nor is it for the next wave of Milan’s up-and comers, some of whom I met this past week.

Athens-born Angelos Bratis showed at 10 a.m. on the first day of Milan Fashion Week, after fellow up-and-comer Stella Jean — not an ideal time slot, as many editors are still flying in from London that morning. Bratis got the spot thanks to Giorgio Armani, who, for the past three seasons, has chosen one emerging label to put on a runway show in his theater. A nod of approval from Mr. Armani is invaluable for an emerging designer in terms of exposure. Though Bratis was able to get on the calendar before Armani came calling, he described the process as "very long."

"I studied, worked, moved to Rome, went back to my own house in Athens," he said. "It's still going to be a long process, because I’ve chosen the long way, the way you really have to do everything [yourself]. I’m also a perfectionist."

Bratis was followed on the calendar by another one-to-watch, Andrea Incontri, who was recently named menswear creative director at Tod's. He launched his namesake line with handbags and menswear, and began showing womenswear in February 2013. He funds the line himself and his biggest challenge is one that plagues emerging designers everywhere: being an entrepreneur and "learning how to build a commercial structure." He says that getting onto the Milan fashion calendar is only a challenge at first. "Being independent is a great satisfaction," he adds.

Later that week, buzzy Viennese-born designer Arthur Arbesser's convention-bucking presentation was a breath of fresh air. For his fourth collection, he found an abandoned garage and collaborated with friends Luca Cipelletti, a Milanese architect, and artist Carlo Valsecchi for a fashion presentation/art installation hybrid. Guests (including top U.S. editors from Vogue and W) walked through the space to find models in small rooms browsing Cipelletti's artwork. The unconventional format and Arbesser's collaborative approach felt very New York -- and very refreshing in Milan.

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"I hate when young designers try to do the [same thing as] the old famous ones; I think there’s a real need of fresh air and research [in Milan]," said Cipelletti, who's collaborated with Arbesser for the past two seasons.

Arbesser tells us he chose this format, partly because he's "too poor" to stage a runway show, but also because he wanted to do something different, and perhaps more memorable.

Money, he says, is his biggest challenge right now, "and the bureaucratic stuff, to send out the deliveries on time. Unfortunately, I have to do all this as well. This is the biggest challenge for a creative person." These, of course, are problems that emerging designers face everywhere.

With a team of "one and a half people" total, Arbesser relies on talented friends to help him when they can. "But it needs to change. I need to get more focused now."

Fortunately, working for Armani for several years allowed him to learn the ropes of running a fashion business. A strong work ethic and passion, he says, are also critical. It was easy to tell that he possesses both in spades. "Prepare yourself to work your ass off because it is so tough," is the advice Arbesser would give to someone hoping to start a line in Milan "But it’s so rewarding as well, the fact that I did this today and you guys all came, it’s so worth it."

These three labels have also benefited from the people and institutions helping emerging designers in Milan right now -- few as those may be.

A key program is the Altaroma Who Is on Next competition in Rome, which Bratis, Incontri and Arbesser have all won at some point. Unlike the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, the program, done in collaboration with Vogue Italia, doesn't actually fund designers' lines, but acts more as a scouting project, providing winners with exposure and access to industry heavyweights.

Vogue Italia has also begun championing young brands in its pages. "They've been so nice," says Arbesser. "And Giorgio Armani has become the most recent advocate for Milan's local design scene -- he even moved his show this season to make room for more emerging designers.

That said, even the people Armani decides to host each season are already relatively established. And as we've learned, it takes a lot of time, hard work and a second job (often working for another big brand) before a designer can get to that point in Milan.

These designers have paid their dues, and compared to a city like New York where practically anyone with some money can get on the calendar, perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing.