By  on April 5, 2010

Sustainability, celebrity dressing, out-of-touch fashion magazines and even Susan Sontag’s burial outfit were among the range of topics touched upon by a panel at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Thursday night.

The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan peppered Francisco Costa, Yeohlee Teng, and Maria Cornejo — all of whom have won the Cooper-Hewitt’s National Design Award for fashion — with questions about their craft and businesses. Before panelists got into the nitty gritty of their work lives, the museum’s new director Bill Moggridge introduced himself with “I’ve been a New Yorker for five days now.” Like the designers in the room, his work — the first laptop computer — is on display in “Design USA: Contemporary Innovation.”

With candor and seriousness, designers opened up about their work and of course the beleaguered economic environment. Costa said, “In retail, everybody is suffering — never mind the crisis.…It’s not just a financial crisis we’re living. It’s a moral crisis. There is so much — so much of everything.”

Citing an example of how fashion can be more validated, Costa said he recently participated in a retail conference in Melbourne, Australia that included a runway show for consumers featuring clothing that is in stores, and shoppers purchased tickets for the event.

In light of the fact shoppers can watch so many shows live online, but they won’t find those clothes in stores for months, Cornejo said the immediate exposure could be prematurely killing a season. That also might explain why pre-fall and other less-publicized collections are doing so well at retail, she said.

As for her design sensibility, Cornejo said, “I always say this to my assistants, ‘I can’t wear this to Trader Joe’s.’”

More inclined to read her subscription to National Geographic, Cornejo said, “Most of the time I feel totally alienated by fashion magazines. Anyone can make a 15-year-old model look good but it’s tough to make a 47-year-old woman look good.”

Teng also talked practicality. “My wardrobe is like a man’s wardrobe. I have multiple pieces of the same style. It’s a terrible thing to admit when you work in fashion,” she said.

In regards to her customers’ needs, Teng said, “My bar is how much use you can get out of something that’s from Yeohlee, so I want people to wear my clothes to death. In fact, Susan Sontag is buried in my clothes. That’s a fact.”

Panelists sounded off about the out-of-reach cost of creating sustainable goods. Teng said, “There is something wrong about having to spend more money to build something sustainable. Something has to be done nationally [to make it more affordable.]”

“Only big companies like Target and Wal-Mart could [afford to] do it. And if they did it, it would trickle down to us,” Cornejo said.

In terms of decreasing fashion’s carbon footprint, Teng noted New York City’s office of Economic Development aims to establish a “vibrant” online directory so that any start-up or midtier company could easily find what they need to buy or make locally.

As for how influential celebrities are, Eva Mendes, who has appeared in Calvin Klein ads and is routinely photographed wearing the label, has helped to attract more ethnic customers, Costa said.

He was less than enthusiastic about celebrity designers. “It’s always our responsibility to be challenging — to challenge our customers and to innovate our trade. Otherwise, this one has a line and J. Lo has a line — everybody can have a line and call themselves a designer. But I think that’s kind of demoralizing for our trade,” Costa said. “We have to keep ourselves thinking about design. It is what moves. The creativity of design is what’s it.”

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