Som Sums Up His Life in Fashion

Designing apparel is a careful balancing act between the creative side and the business realities, designer Peter Som told students at Marymount University.

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ARLINGTON, Va. — Designing apparel is a careful balancing act between the creative side and the business realities, designer Peter Som told students at Marymount University on Friday.

This story first appeared in the April 28, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Som received the 2009 Designer of the Year Award from Marymount and sat down to critique the work of the graduating class of the school’s fashion design program.

Designers have to be fully committed to their vision and be able to listen to other people, he said.

“You have to depend on other people,” said Som. “Just being a designer, that’s only one part of the pie of the whole business.”

Som also told students that it was important to keep learning, even after leaving the formal classroom.

“They’re always going to be students,” he said. “Once you graduate, you’re going to be a student of life and you’re never going to stop learning.”

Som is no stranger to the critiquing process or to the importance of young designers getting insight from established industry figures. While at Parsons School of Design, he apprenticed with Isaac Mizrahi, whom Som said was his hero, and he has been involved in his alma mater’s student critiques in the past, as well.

His advice is hard won and comes from the trial and error of experience, he said. Som said when he started, he did everything himself in his apartment and learned the hard way that relying on other people to take responsibility for pieces of the business was important by getting a lot of things wrong, he said.

“It’s not just about pretty dresses,” he said, adding he works with a business partner. “It’s a business. If it wasn’t, it’d be a hobby for me. This is not only about design and creativity, but it’s about really growing a business. For us, it’s been aggressively slow and steady. Not too slow, but we’ve worked really hard to do the right things at the right time. Timing is everything.”

Timing didn’t always work in Som’s favor. He left Bill Blass, where he was creative director of women’s, in October when the company’s fortunes floundered; in January, he lost another source of funding when he and his backer, Lord & Taylor subsidiary Creative Design Studios, split. The two hits left the designer scrambling for financing.

For his fall 2009 collection, Som opted not to do a traditional runway show, instead inviting editors and buyers to see a pared-down version. It was a decision he said felt right for the moment. He hasn’t decided yet if he will participate in the spring shows in September.

Som said it is an exciting time to be in fashion with the energy of the Obama administration. “I think what [Michelle] is doing for fashion is great,” he added. “She’s embracing new designers, different designers, she’s not conforming to a certain mold of what a first lady should be. I think she’s truly a modern woman in every sense.”

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