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.Take Masataka Ohta, whose elaborate folkloric samurai and mise-en-scènes captivated the audience at the festival. While making his design debut at the festival, Ohta also owns a trendy Tokyo-based contemporary label, called Soak, which he founded four years ago with three other Tokyo-based designers and graphic artists. "Soak's success allowed me to expand into the high-end category," said Ohta.

Paris retailer Armand Hadida and Issey Miyake art director Roy Genty were also members of the jury.

"The market is more and more sophisticated and challenging. In order to survive, you must personalize your own creative message and set yourself apart from the rest," said Hadida, owner of L'Eclaireur stores.

"I am not interested in a mature collection; they have time to mature. What designers need to show today is a coherent yet creative aesthetic," said retailer Maria Luisa Poumaillou, who gave a nod to Backlund's "coherent aesthetic."

Backlund shared her glory with Peter Bertsch, who was a hit with French fast-fashion firm 1.2.3, which awarded him with 15,000 euros, as well as the opportunity to produce a collection that 1.2.3 will sell at a handful of its stores. Bertsch's moody silhouettes and evocative textiles were lauded by designers and fashion aficionados at the festival.

A 2006 graduate of the Royal Academy of Antwerp, Bertsch morphed orchid-like shapes into dresses and jackets. "The idea was to optimize the appearance of women and create a new breed of people," said Bertsch, who used synthetic materials to contrast his organic forms.

While creative creations were favored, the jury agreed that conception and research behind each project was also key to a debut collection. Germany's Peter Wiesmann and Denmark's Mathilde Botfeldt were given honorary awards for their thoughtful explanation and research behind their collections.

Hats also were tipped to Japanese designers Shiori Suzuki and Emi Sekiguchi, graduates of Central Saint Martins, who won the public vote for their fantastical collection inspired by the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. "It is a very harsh market right now. It is much easier for young designers to get started in Japan," said Suzuki, who has her own label in Tokyo. "Young people in Tokyo spend more on clothing, especially new brands, and the gap between wholesale and retail prices is much lower," she explained."Five years ago, designers launched their own labels immediately in order to be noticed," agreed industry consultant Jean-Jacques Picart. "Today, businesses are more cautious. They want designers that already have acquired substantial experience in creative studios."

"Young designers are much more conscious of the difficulties of the market," agreed Agnès Barret, whose Paris-based consulting and recruiting firm, Agent Secret, works to create a dialogue between creative minds and business mangers. "There is a lot of creative talent on the market today. The challenge is showing them how to put themselves forward and teaching investors about the creative process."

Also at Hyères, 10 budding photographers competed for a prize with works ranging from portraits of youth and awkward adolescence to intriguing geometric forms. The top prize was shared by the U.S.'s Jessica Roberts and Popel Coumou from Denmark.

The villa also boasted a series of art exhibits. Lacroix tapped artists David Dubois and Christian Rizzo to curate an exhibit of his work displayed over the covered pool and gymnasium at the villa, while Bless, the conceptual design duo of Desiree Heiss and Ines Kaag, hung whimsical hammocks for fatigued fashionistas who basked in the sun overlooking the Riviera town.

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