NEW YORK--Kenny Hwang used to pick up broken glass from vandalized bus shelters, take it home in plastic bags and make jewelry out of it. Now he designs jewelry that wholesales from $30 to $300 and is sold at Barneys New York and the SoHo designer boutique If. Hwang, and five other designers ranging in age from 23 to 37, presented their designs and spoke about their inspirations at "Names to Know; Designers to Meet," the first in a series of 1995 Frontliners symposia sponsored by The Fashion Group International here. For an hour and a half last Wednesday, J. Morgan Puett, Russell Bennett, Han Feng and Jolain Muller, and accessories designers Hwang and Wells Jenkins of Wells-Ware, got the undivided attention of some 45 high-level executives, including Joan Kaner, fashion director of Neiman Marcus, and Ellin Saltzman, fashion director of The Limited Inc. Hwang, who at 23 is the youngest of the group, expressed the central sentiment of the evening. "I used to be an artist," said Hwang, who was a Hunter College physical therapy major who only two years ago would go through piles of broken glass he found in the street--chunks from vandalized bus shelters proved particularly irresistible--and make jewelry with it. A metalsmith taught him to work with silver, and Hwang began to sell his broken glass and silver pieces at a SoHo flea market. Now, he's running a wholesale business worth about $250,000. "Now, I've become a businessman," said Hwang. "That's the most important thing I've learned. It's about deliveries, it's about making what sells, it's about doing your own books and knowing where your money goes." Puett, a photographer trained at Chicago's Art Institute, started making clothes when she couldn't find what she wanted to wear. Friends began to ask her to make pieces for them, and a few years later, she opened a boutique in SoHo with rough wood floors and farm implements hanging from the ceiling. The decor, and her designs, are inspired by memories of her small-town Georgia childhood and her fascination with handmade objects. "I like to bring my personal history into everything I do," said Puett, who grew up in a family of beekeepers. In addition to her pigment-dyed natural fiber signature line, Puett also creates one-of-a-kind gowns dipped in beeswax to add body and texture. But Puett said she's been on the fringe long enough; now, she wants to "have a dialog with the fashion industry," to see how she can be more marketable. "Somebody once told me that if I did everything in black, I'd be rich and famous by now. That wasn't the original motivation--but it is now." Bennett comes from a more traditional apparel design background, including a long stint as Franco Moschino's design assistant. His influences, he said, include everything from the chic of the Forties to Laura Petrie, the quintessential housewife of "The Dick Van Dyke Show." "There's a sensibility that's very classic, there's an influence of the Forties and Fifties, and there's things that I don't know where they came from," he said, as he showed a polkadot bustle-back skirt and boned jacket. While Bennett pointed out some of his styles that have been selling, he and Muller both said they struggle to get real estate on a selling floor that's already filled and sometimes is unhospitable to new names. Muller said her biggest problem is differentiating her minimalist designs from others vying for the same customer. "It's a very crowded market, and there's really no need for new designers, but there's always someone crazy enough to try it, like me," said Muller, who worked for Calvin Klein and Joseph Abboud before starting on her own a year and a half ago. "The purpose of the Frontliners is to have a fairly intimate setting where we invite people from different disciplines to talk about topics in the industry," said Margaret Hayes, executive director of The Fashion Group. There are seven more symposia in the series this year, and topics will include innerwear, stress management, retail and merchandising, beauty and men's wear. The next symposium, on Feb. 15 at 5:30 p.m., is entitled "Creative Merchandising." Scheduled speakers are Barbara Ashley, senior vice president of retail services at The Taubman Co., Charles Fagan, managing director of New York stores for Polo Ralph Lauren, and Susan Slover, president of Susan Slover Designs.
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