The 2016/2017 International Woolmark Prize awards ceremony, held at the cavernous Palais de Tokyo in Paris' 16th arrondissement this past January, only lasted about 20 minutes. Strobes flashed, music blared and models emerged wearing a handful of looks crafted from wool by each of the 12 nominated designers — menswear and womenswear regional winners from the U.S., Europe, Asia, the British Isles, Australia and New Zealand, as well as India and throughout the Middle East. The panel of judges, which included Victoria Beckham, Hood by Air founder Shayne Oliver and singer Lou Doillon, handed the womenswear prize to Gabriela Hearst and the men's award to Ben Cottrell and Matthew Dainty of British label Cottweiler. Houselights on.
Perhaps to combat the notion that a ceremony designed to be the coming out party for the next generation of verified fashion talent felt a bit anticlimactic, guests were reminded that Hearst, Cottrell and Dainty would now find themselves on a list of previous Woolmark Prize recipients that includes Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent, notable names Woolmark tosses out frequently. They were also AUS$100,000 (about $75,000) richer.
"It will technically change the life of the designer who's won it," Doillon said of the Woolmark Prize in a promotional video captured at the event. "And that's extremely gratifying as a jury."
Winning a major fashion award, like the Woolmark Prize, the LVMH Prize, the Andam Fashion Award or any of the assorted accolades doled out by the CFDA each year, is extremely gratifying for the young winners, as well. It would be hard to imagine any designer taking on the time commitment of competing for a prize — not to mention the financial obligations some require — without wanting to emerge victorious. But the "technically" in Doillon's quote may be key; although many participants characterize the process as a net positive experience, the way in which winning a fashion award changes an emerging, inexperienced designer's life or business in any measurable capacity hinges on the same question that plagues designers who don't have any trophies under their belts: How can you flip limited resources and fleeting opportunities into long-term growth and viability?
The Woolmark Prize has a number of big names among their champions beyond Lagerfeld and Saint Laurent. Since the prize was relaunched in 2012, regional winners have included Joseph Altuzarra and Tanya Taylor, both of whom also participated in the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund competition; Altuzarra won that in 2011. Others, like Sibling and Sise, have since shut down their businesses.
The LVMH Young Fashion Designer Prize, launched in 2013 and arguably the most prestigious of its kind, awards €300,000 ($337,000) and a year of mentoring to designers under 40 who have produced at least two collections. Previous LVMH winners include Grace Wales Bonner, Marques'Almeida and Thomas Tait. They, too, have been a bit of a mixed bag. Wales Bonner is the toast of London Fashion Week: Men's, has been compared to Comme des Garcons' Rei Kawakubo and is sold at retailers like SSENSE, Matches, and Selfridges; Tait appears to be on an indefinite hiatus.
Many of these prizes aim to support promising, but unproven talent, often lacking in funding and industry contacts. The promise of solving both of those issues is part of the allure. While mentoring, as a concept, is always a bit of a gamble, winners may be more surprised at how short a distance prize money can stretch.
After winning the U.S. regional Woolmark Prize in 2015, Marcia Patmos of M.Patmos took home top honors at the international competition, as well, with a wool-based capsule collection she created at her own expense. "The Woolmark Prize was a great experience," Patmos says. "It was a good exercise in storytelling."
At the time, the prize money converted to roughly AUS$76,366, according to a Woolmark press release. The prize also guaranteed that prestigious retail partners like Saks Fifth Avenue, 10 Corso Como and Harvey Nichols would stock the winning collection. The Woolmark Company, an Australian-based wool authority that administers a quality assurance certification, required Patmos' samples to undergo testing to ensure they met those quality standards before they could be produced and delivered to the partner stores.
"You basically had to destroy a whole sample run, which is pretty expensive, in order to get it qualified for all the testing," Patmos says. "And it added an entire month to our production. That was not great." The stores also wanted to receive the collection at the same time they would be receiving the rest of their fall assortment, giving Patmos less time than she would normally have to produce the clothes, based on the traditional fashion calendar. "It was already running late, and then adding an extra month for all that testing — it was stressful," Patmos says.
"Our experience with previous winners is that the prize money has largely been spent in promoting their collection, rather than being used to create it," Stuart McCullough, managing director of the Woolmark Company, says. However, a company rep notes that regional prize money can also be used to cover sampling costs for the international final, and that guaranteed retail partners pay the winning designer to stock the winning collection, theoretically enabling them to recoup lost funds. Although Woolmark covers the cost of travel and accommodations to international finals for all participants and hosts a showroom where all finalists can present their lines to retailers, there is no guarantee that anyone will earn back their investment. Some participants claim the regional money is not sufficient to cover sample costs.
McCullough says they will be upping the prize money beginning this year. "Going forward, the global winners will now each receive AUS$200,000 [$150,000], helping these designers remain competitive," he explains. Either way, he believes the guaranteed retail partners are more valuable than prize money. "The most powerful benefit of International Woolmark Prize can be the opportunity to establish a global retail network of the most sought after stockists literally overnight," he says.
Patmos agrees. "For stores that already buy you, it's something new they can tell their customers about," she says, adding that she is sure she landed some new stockists, although she couldn't recall which offhand. "Stores that maybe were looking at you before — maybe it validates your line."
Bruce Pask, men's fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, confirms that retail buyers take notice of prize winners, even if their employers aren't directly involved in the awards. "I certainly think that honors earned from prestigious competitions like those of the CFDA Awards, the LVMH prize and the Andam Fashion Award bring a great amount of recognition and brand awareness, especially to designers that are just out of school or may be embarking upon their careers and building their new businesses," he wrote via email.
After winning the Woolmark U.S. regional competition, Laurence Chandler and Joshua Cooper of New York's Rochambeau competed for the international title (that ultimately went to Cottweiler), while simultaneously participating in the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund competition. Though they didn't take home top honors at CVFF either, Chandler says that the industry-wide networking both platforms provide is immensely beneficial. "These awards enable you a level of access, but it's up to you as a business and as a designer what you do with that," he says. "Before the awards, those lines of dialogue weren't there." He says he is in regular contact with Vogue staffers he met at various CVFF events.
Outside of coverage in Vogue, Chandler and Patmos acknowledge press exposure as a secondary benefit. Patmos says she still fields press inquiries based on her participation in the CFDA/Lexus Eco-Fashion Challenge in 2012 and reports her social media followers spiked by several thousand after her Woolmark win. "It was great for my Instagram," she adds.
Unlike other prizes, the CVFF consists of a series of challenges underwritten by corporate sponsors. Chandler says competing in two programs at once was grueling and time-consuming. "In March, coming out of all these things, I was like, 'Oh my God, I haven't even been answering and opening mail,'" he remembers.
In retrospect, once they recovered and, presumably, slept, Chandler and Cooper say the experience strengthened their team. "When suddenly you have Anna Wintour asking you to develop your first dress in under 72 hours, the nature of what a deadline means dramatically changes," he says. "Our team got energized and excited and learned how to work faster. Now, when I'm going into developing a few simultaneous capsule collections, as well as our new spring [line], we've never been more on schedule, more ahead of where we've ever been in the past."
It's notable that Rochambeau even has a team to begin with. The label was founded in 2007, giving them more experience than younger nominees and affording them the perspective to know which opportunities associated with these awards don't come along very often and are worth pursuing. "Season one, year one, it wouldn't have been right," Chandler says.
Christian Wijnants, the Belgian womenswear designer, makes a compelling case for shifting awards attention to established, independent brands altogether. His eponymous collection had been in business for roughly 10 years when he won the Woolmark Prize. He used the prize money to bring in an office administrator to help his already-churning day-to-day operation run more smoothly, hiring the PR mega-agency KCD to handle press around his return to Paris Fashion Week a few weeks later. He credits the prize with giving him a reason to talk to press and retailers like Barneys and Harvey Nichols again. The money was used effectively to boost his business, rather than establish it from the ground up.
"I don't think I would be where I am now without the award," he says. "The most difficult period [for a brand] is between five and 10 years, when the brand has already established a certain level, and you have to maintain, and grow and grow. When you have a couple of employees, when you already have structure, then it's really hard. Brands between eight and 10, 12 years — those brands are the ones that have the most problems, and this type of award can be really helpful."
Are young designer awards wasted on the youth? There are too many names in the winners' columns of these competitions that have gone from nascent to noteworthy to come to that conclusion. But, rather than awarding money and press solely to emerging talent alone, perhaps, as retail strategy and fashion weeks are undergoing massive overhauls, the mindset behind fashion prizes is worth re-examining, as well.
"It's really important that these types of competitions exist," Wijnant says. "It really can help out some younger brands, but also established brands. It's really something very positive."