Written by Dhani Mau and Maura Brannigan
For a young designer, earning the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund's top prize can be a major career-booster — simply look to the trajectories of Alexander Wang, Proenza Schouler and Altuzarra as evidence. And for the selection committee, which includes Anna Wintour, Jenna Lyons, Diane von Furstenberg and CFDA President and CEO Steven Kolb, among others, this year's finalists proved exceptionally difficult to choose from. For the first time in its 12-year history, the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund will be spread equally among three winners, announced Monday night at New York City's Spring Studios. They are: Aurora James of footwear brand Brother Vellies, Rio Uribe of streetwear label Gypsy Sport and womenswear designer Jonathan Simkhai.
Rather than awarding one winner and two runners-up per tradition, each of the three winners will receive $300,000 in addition to a year of mentoring. When the 2015 nominees were first named in July, it was announced that one winner would be awarded $400,000 ($100,000 more than in years past) with two runners-up each collecting $150,000. Following Monday's announcement, Kolb told Fashionista that the decision to split the prize equally was made just hours earlier. "We decided it only this morning as we were voting... for this year only we would mix it up and acknowledge three winners." The discussion between him, Wintour and von Furstenberg on how that would work financially went something like this: "We had some money in the bank and we went from $300,000 to $400,000 anyway, so we already had that increase. Divided by three it comes to $233,000 and Diane said, 'Let's just round it up to 250,' which was easy and then Anna suggested, 'Can we make it 300?' and I said, 'Okay but everybody has to promise to help us raise more money next year,' and they said, 'We will' and that's how it happened." Tough negotiators, those three.
In addition to providing insight into how financial decisions are made by the industry's most powerful figures, he also gave us an idea of how the winners were chosen. It's all about having the right mix. "You have Jonathan, who's a traditional womenswear designer; you have Brother Vellies who is doing interesting things around social responsibility; you have Rio of Gypsy Sport with this new way of genderless dressing. Those two are very of-the-moment, combined with a traditional designer, it just felt right."
Each designer made an acceptance speech, and James of Brother Vellies, who employs artisans in Africa to produce her footwear, took the opportunity to deliver an important and heartfelt message: "We take inspiration from Africa so much and I just think as creatives we all have the opportunity to rise other people up through our own creative ability and I just urge you guys, because this is a room full of the most talented people in the world, to really involve Africa in the conversation instead of just taking inspiration from them." (One could not help but recall Valentino's spring 2016 show at this moment.) As her guest for the evening, Zendaya, told us: "She's creating fashion with a purpose."
Uribe had a similarly altruistic point of view to share, explaining that he started Gypsy Sport "to make something that was more inclusive and more accepting of people who are different sizes, different colors, different religions, races, whatever it is."
Simkhai, who certainly has the most sales out of the three winners, told us after the announcement how he would apply the funding. "I really want to focus on the digital strategy, building up e-commerce and also just continue to grow the team and make sure we get better and better every season and that fit continues to improve," he said.
Brother Vellies, Gypsy Sport and Jonathan Simkhai beat out seven other finalists, including Scott Studenberg and John Targon of Baja East, Matt Baldwin of Baldwin, Brad Schmidt and Raul Arevalo of Cadet, Chris Gelinas of CG, Becca McCharen of Chromat, David Hart and Thaddeus O’Neil.
For the past four months, Vogue and the CFDA put this year's crop of designers through a series of design, advertising and runway challenges, culminating in a final show in Los Angeles last month. It was all documented for a reality series to debut on Amazon next year.
This post was updated to include additional reporting by Dhani Mau.