By  on May 24, 2007

HYERES, France — Sartorial flair and business savvy may not always be mutually compatible attributes, but Christian Lacroix reckons the latest crop of aspiring designers are arming themselves with both.

Lacroix, who headed a 10-member jury judging at the International Festival of Fashion and Photography here last month, remarked that designer newbies today are preferring to seek training within leading fashion houses rather than attempting to launch their own labels first.

"Students today are arriving in a setting that is very saturated," said Lacroix from the sumptuous gardens of the Villa Noailles, where the festival was held. "I'm not sure I would have even been selected."

The couturier weaved his way through the meandering halls of the villa and mulled over the work of up-and-coming talent while young designers went into creative overdrive, presenting collections inspired by everything from 17th-century samurai to half-plant, half-human creatures — anything to catch the jurors' attention.

According to Lacroix, the most recent crop of young designers is arriving at a crucial time in the industry. "Fashion will go out of fashion," Lacroix said. "First, fashion houses will continue to seek exceptional craftsmanship and technique that set themselves apart from the rest."

Such was the case for Swedish designer Sandra Backlund, who swept the fashion design competition's top L'Oréal Professionnel-sponsored prize of 15,000 euros, or $20,175 at current exchange, for her elaborate knitwear confections. "It's essential to preserve traditional craftsmanship," said Backlund, who drew her inspiration from a Rorschach test that she used to create her enveloping mohair and wool designs.

"I focused on bringing simple pieces together and the complex forms they could take," she said, noting she has managed her eponymous label, making every piece by hand for special orders, for three years.

The designer's knitwear know-how caught the attention of Louis Vuitton, and she contributed to its fall-winter collection. "It's essential training. We learn about production and distribution knowledge that is practically impossible to learn in school," said Backlund, who retails her sweaters for around 500 euros, or $672.50, to 1,500 euros, or $2,017.50.

Craftsmanship aside, Lacroix predicted a modern business format for budding design houses. "We are heading toward a new breed of little design houses that are self-financed, an assembly of creative talent around one idea," he said, citing brands such as France's Surface to Air and Sweden's Acne Jeans as examples of this rising trend in creative coalitions.

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