CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund: Starter for Ten
The original story appeared in Vogue in 2007. VPL/Victoria Bartlett was one of the top 10 finalists for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2007.
Norman Jean Roy
by Robert Sullivan
PART I: THE COMPETITION
It would be impossible to summarize all of the emotions the ten finalists for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award go through, because they go through many emotions, including but not limited to excitement, fear, anxiety, concern for the safety of their fashion-designer status, and relief, as in serious relief. The cash prize is big—$200,000 for the winner and $50,000 each for the two runners-up—but perhaps the bigger payout is the mentorships by seasoned designers and executives. Mentors don’t necessarily need to tell victors how to drape a silk or whether to go A-line or Empire, but they will tell them how to approach fashion design as a business in the twenty-first century. As far as the Fashion Fund is concerned, the arrangement has worked out quite well—2004 winners Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough of Proenza Schouler were advised by then-chief executive Rose Marie Bravo of Burberry and can now claim the Valentino Fashion Group as an investor. In 2005, runner-up Derek Lam was guided by Gucci’s former president, Domenico De Sole, before being appointed designer for Tod’s while continuing to work on his own label. And last year, winner Doo-Ri Chung was taken under the wing of Mickey Drexler, CEO and chairman of J.Crew. This potent combination of up-and-coming talent and venerable business experience is one way the fund hopes to keep the industry vibrant.
The road to award winner is not an easy one. After being chosen from a list of more than 100 applicants, the finalists begin a five-month process that requires completing five projects. First they propose a business plan to be evaluated by the judges and the Fashion Fund’s business-advisory committee. They must make a presentation, timed by a big black clock that buzzes when fifteen minutes are up, before a long table of ten judges. They must stage a fashion show—perhaps their first, as was the case for five finalists this year—sponsored by Lexus at the Concours d’Elegance auto show in Pebble Beach, California. They must create a garment to complement a particular cosmetic color from L’Oréal. And each designer must submit to a scheduled studio visit. Throughout it all, they endure being prodded and poked (mostly figuratively speaking) while maintaining a face of fashion—i.e., cool.
As this report on the inner workings of the process goes to press, the winner is not yet known. Not even the judges, who vote by secret ballot, will know until November 15. What is known is that most of the aforementioned emotions—especially the anxiety, the fear for one’s fashion-designer life, and ultimately the relief—are experienced during the fifteen-minute interview in which the designer stands, unarmed, before the panel. Which brings us to the door.
PART II: THE DOOR
On one side of the door on Condé Nast’s fourth floor are the judges: Julie Gilhart, senior vice president and fashion director of Barneys New York; Jeffrey Kalinsky, president and founder of his self-titled store; Steven Kolb, executive director of the CFDA; Reed Krakoff, president and executive creative director of Coach; Patrick Robinson, executive vice president of design at the Gap; Andrew Rosen, president and co-CEO of Theory; Sally Singer, Fashion News/Features Director of Vogue; Lisa Smilor, associate director of the CFDA; Diane von Furstenberg, president of the CFDA as well as the Diane von Furstenberg; and Anna Wintour, Editor in Chief of Vogue, who, in a complete disclosure, I should mention is my boss, obviously.
The Fashion Fund does not attach heart-rate monitors to the finalists, which is too bad because you can almost hear the increased thumping as the designers reach the door. Though in the case of repeat finalist Phillip Lim, 34, the thumping might be slightly less. This year, he has brought ten handmade scrapbooks, one for each judge, that include an invitation to last year’s competition and end with a photo of the Celeste Bartos Forum in the New York Public Library, where he plans to unveil his spring 2008 collection. A few days earlier, he showed off photos in the album: himself as a style-conscious young boy; his demurely dressed seamstress mother; his professional-gambler father, straight out of some underground seventies film. He talked about his new store in SoHo and marveled at his nomination. “It’s been such a crazy journey,” he said.
Outside the door, surrounded by male and female models, Scott Sternberg, 33 (in oxford shirt, tie, pants—all from the cinephile’s Godard-inspired Band of Outsiders label), stood with a semi-hunched, fingertips-touching intensity, as if electricity were running through his body. “I had so much kinetic energy going in there,” he said later. “I was just so anxious to tell them all the ideas I have.” The door opened; Lim withdrew, chin high and smiling; the models wearing Sternberg’s clothes replaced the models wearing Lim’s clothes, fashion vacuum filled. The former agent at Creative Artists Agency, attempting to create a giant brand that is not a giant brand, filmed them all with a small disposable video camera. He presented his five looks and then took questions, seated in a small chair, no blindfold.
“Are you going to do a show?” a judge asked.
“September, we have a boat.”
“Do you see yourself as being as big as Ralph Lauren?” another judge asked. “Because all the things that you’re saying sound like early Ralph Lauren.”
“I worship the guy.”
Next up, Erin Fetherston, 27. She immediately set up the room as if it were a stage set for a play about her dressing room: chair, mirror, dresses. “I was a total drama child,” she had told me days beforehand on the roof of her studio. “I just loved creating the scene. Pieces that you make get entwined in their own plots.” A brief bio: attended Berkeley, went to Parsons in Paris, set up a fashion business there with a little help from her fiancé’s mom, who used to work at an atelier.
Judge: “How do you feel about the public side of being a designer?”
Erin: “I’m the best ambassador for my brand, so I feel very comfortable in that position.”
Koi Suwannagate, 38, the next finalist to present, was nervous until a judge pointed to one of her beautiful cashmere creations and asked, “Could you come closer?” “After that I was OK,” she explained later in her airy open studio in downtown L.A., surrounded by bales of vintage cashmere, racks of old garments (to study their stitching and construction), and a collection of butterflies, which fascinated her when she was growing up in Bangkok. Translated into English, the Thai word for butterfly means “clothing of the spirit.”
“So you see yourself targeting more of an artistic world?” a judge suggested.
“Yes, because every piece is a work of art.”
The next designer didn’t seem nervous—waving, smiling, meeting the judges’ eyes. Menswear designer Michael Bastian, 42, told the panel, “I’m in no rush to get into women’s.” His dossier: moved to Manhattan from upstate New York; worked at the carpet-and-rug department of A&S in Brooklyn after college; was fashion director at Bergdorf Men’s for five years, then said to himself, “I’m going to start a little chino business.” Despite a successful line and the just-announced appointment as the new creative director of Bill Blass menswear, he admitted that he was not what he seemed. “Right now, I’m a little bit of a paper tiger. The reality is, I’m by myself. There is no full-time employee in this company.”
“And if you won?”
“The first thing I would do is get a design studio.”
“What makes Michael Bastian different?”
“I want to make things that a guy can wear every day for ten years.”
Buzzer, thank-yous, coffee refills. Philip Crangi appeared, one pant leg rolled up, one not, yet looking elegant and poised. “Hi, thanks for letting me give you my spiel in person,” he started. Crangi, 36, whose partner is his sister, Courtney, discussed his lower-priced lines, in response to imitators. “Immediately we saw that people were knocking off our staples in stores. So we thought, If somebody’s going to knock us off, it should be us.”
“You sound very ambitious—how big do you want to be?” a judge said.
He used the words global and brand.
About his craft: “You would never look at a piece of jewelry and say, ‘Wow, that’s something that my kitchen counter is made of.’ ”
“Is your one leg rolled up on purpose?”
Crangi looked down, smiled, waited. Then: “Yes.”
Rogan Gregory, a.k.a. Rogan, who hails from Ohio and Canada, believes that intellectual fashion is not necessarily exclusionary. “You know, Richard Serra, Donald Judd—all these guys are intellects, but they’ve got the real American blue-collar feel,” Gregory, 35, said. “And fashion is like sculpture. My father was an architect. He taught me how to build anything, so when I want to build something I just build it, including clothing.” (He is also behind A Litl Betr and, with Ali Hewson, the ethical Edun clothing line.)
Judge: “Do you make furniture?”
Gregory: “It’s kind of a bad habit, because I should be focusing on my fashion, but it kind of helps my aesthetic.”
Threeasfour entered. Adi Gil, Gabriel Asfour, and Angela Donhauser are known as avant-garde designers who will try anything, who will cause a person to reimagine, for instance, what a dress is. While they have not changed in that respect, they are now attempting to be designers who will also think about making money to support themselves as designers who will try anything. Gil wears the fractal prints that one model shows off.
“We worked with a guy from Arizona,” said Asfour, 42, who met Donhauser, 35, and Gil, 33, on the streets of New York. “He’s a computer nerd who gave us the prints.” They pointed to a model wearing an amazing vortex-shaped dress. “We call it the tornado dress,” Donhauser said. “When you move, it creates a tornado.”
A judge asked, “Was your first work sold?”
“We didn’t want to sell it,” Donhauser said.
“How would you identify yourselves?” another judge asked.
“We do sportswear, we can do couture—” Asfour started.
“—But our way,” Gil finished.
Gertrude Stein (mention of her, that is) opened Vena Cava’s presentation.
“She was a woman taken seriously for her work, not because of her looks or her husband,” said Lisa Mayock, 25. “We found that very inspiring.” She and partner Sophie Buhai, 26, met through friends in California before the two went off to Parsons; after they graduated, a tusk belt they created was widely imitated.
“We’re interested in doing prints that pass through trends, a dress that could be passed from mother to daughter,” Buhai told the panel.
Victoria Bartlett’s VPL (which stands for Visible Panty Line) was last in alphabetical order. Days prior in her studio, she had talked about dancing, Vaslav Nijinsky, Anita Berber—all influences on her spring 2008 collection. You could see the intensity of her work methods in the kaleidoscope of body-obsessed projects. At the presentation, her clothes shone as much for their design as for their sense of one another—pieces made for layering that blur the line between lingerie and sportswear.
“The idea is that you could mix and use them as building blocks,” Bartlett, 45, explained.
When the morning ended, the judges reflected on all they had seen, saying things like “She was very articulate,” “beautiful,” and “I don’t know if [he/she/they] [is/are] ready.” Over the next few days, if designers ran into this reporter, they would invariably ask, “How’d I do?”
PART III: FIELD TRIP
Like rare and exotic plants, designers may or may not travel well, so it was something of a creative experiment when the finalists were flown to a nondescript hotel in Cupertino, California. They mingled at postflight drinks, played canasta (Mayock and Buhai), or searched for the pool (Crangi, Bartlett, Suwannagate). They visited family (Mayock, Fetherston) or lamented lost luggage. Threeasfour would have to wear what they wore on the plane to the fashion show. “We were thinking of doing a Gone With the Wind thing,” Gil said, “and making clothes out of the curtains, but they were too ugly.”
On the bus to Pebble Beach, the driver pulled over, got out on the highway, and, after closing the trunk in the back, joked, “Did anybody have anything in the trunk?” Which was a joke you never want to make to fashion designers on a bus. The tone: levity.
“Are there pebbles? I’d be very upset if there are no pebbles,” said Bartlett.
“I hate golf,” said Suwannagate.
“I hate golf,” said Donhauser.
In a fashion coincidence, Bastian and Lim, on opposite sides of the bus, were both listening to Thomas Yorke on iPods.
“I am a car geek, so I’m excited,” said Sternberg.
“I’m more into RVs,” said Mayock.
Finally, they arrived at the tent, the models walked in, and the show came together. On the way home, designers nodded off one by one. Mere hours before they flew back to New York, Threeasfour’s luggage arrived.
PART IV: AT FASHION WEEK
“I’m Erin Fetherston…and I’m a designer,” she said into a microphone backstage as Fashion Week began. There seemed to be added buzz for the finalists’ collections because the judges came to many of their shows. As promised, Sternberg showed his new collections, including Boy by Band of Outsiders for women, on a yacht docked at the Chelsea Piers, where Amanda Peet and veteran tailor Martin Greenfield endured the surge of waves caused by the wake of passing motorboats.
At the Vena Cava show, in Chelsea rather than in a Bryant Park tent, Buhai’s mother recalled the first time Sophie, as a toddler, gave her fashion advice. “She said, ‘You need a belt!’ And she was right.” Judge Reed Krakoff liked the casual feel of their atypical runway show. Threeasfour’s show received extensive international television coverage, which Asfour may or may not have noticed as he extolled the gathering of a dress’s hem. “I went crazy making this,” he said. “In terms of what we do, this is major.” VPL’s show seemed focused and mature. Lim sat for a long time before his packed show at the Celeste Bartos Forum and said it felt like a dream come true. Bastian, as if going home, presented his collection at Bergdorf. Suwannagate’s models in cashmere dresses resembled water creatures, walking to evocative French-Polynesian music.
PART V: THE HOMEWORK
The sketches for the L’Oréal assignment—a piece based on a lip color from the company’s Infallible line—started rolling in. Fetherston, who had been tasked with cerise, produced a very Erin Fetherston (naturally) feminine concoction: a pink chiffon top dotted with organza flowers layered over pale-pink crepe and accessorized with a floral headband. Lim translated apricot into a cocoon-shaped dress juxtaposing opaque and translucent fabric with ruffled detail that was, we don’t have to tell you, Lim-esque, right down to his signature pocket. For geranium, Suwannagate went with, in case you didn’t guess, cashmere: cardigan, bustier, and pants, all adorned with flowers. Bastian worked the assignment into his men’s collection, which usually includes reversible cashmere sweaters; on one he embroidered the first thing that came to mind when he thought of lipstick: the words KISS ME—but backward, to make it more infallible.
PART VI: WRAPPING UP
The judges began calling on studios, which proved difficult schedule-wise at times. (Jeffrey Kalinsky was about to visit Threeasfour when their best customer, a princess, showed up.) “We all have different strengths, but it all ends up being pretty thorough,” Andrew Rosen said of the process on the day he showed up at Rogan.
The designer still hadn’t figured out what to do with his L’Oréal color, persimmon. “In fashion there are no rules,” Rosen said. Julie Gilhart was also there. “It’s true,” she agreed. “The most interesting people are the most original.”
After touring the store, accessed by a discreetly marked door, Rosen turned to Gregory. “I totally understand where you are,” he said, “but you’ve got to have a showcase for the customer to see it. It’s a little too underground right now.” Later, he hailed the benefits of producing clothing locally—logistical convenience makes for quick response to sales. “In the beginning, it doesn’t matter whether you make $20 or $25 on a pair of jeans,” Rosen said. “What matters is it sells.”
Gregory was nodding his head. “I realize,” he said, “the importance of having someone with wisdom.”
“Starter for Ten” has been edited for Style.com; the complete story appears in the November 2007 issue of Vogue.