PARIS — Persistence pays off in fashion, as the outcome of the second annual LVMH Prize attests.
Marta Marques and Paulo Almeida, the Portuguese duo behind the London-based Marques’ Almeida label, scooped up the main prize, which comes with 300,000 euros, or $331,000 at current exchange rates, plus a year of coaching, while Paris-based Simon Porte Jacquemus walked away with a special jury prize of 150,000 euros, or $165,500, plus a year of coaching.
Both talents had been short-listed for the inaugural award in 2014 and tried their luck a second time, lured back by the cash, coaching and global exposure that the distinction brings.
Delphine Arnault, second-in-command at Louis Vuitton and a key talent scout at the luxury group her family controls, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, noted that last year’s winner, Thomas Tait, a Canadian based in London, doubled the size of his business after receiving the prize.
“We introduced him to new suppliers, and we gave him a lot of insights on finance, accounting, legal and intellectual property,” she said. “We’re there to help.”
Arnault lauded Marques’ Almeida as a young, colorful and energetic brand that uses unusual fabrics, and already has a reputation for being wizards with denim.
She also noted that the duo boasts “amazing sell-through. It’s catering to the demands of the customer, so it’s a creative business.”
The prize is open to designers under age 40 who have presented and sold at least two collections of men’s or women’s ready-to-wear.
“I think the Portuguese have a very new, fresh energy,” said Karl Lagerfeld, who headlined a jury stacked with LVMH’s design stars: Nicolas Ghesquière, Raf Simons, Phoebe Philo, Riccardo Tisci, Jonathan Anderson and Kenzo creative directors Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, plus Arnault; Pierre-Yves Roussel, chairman and chief executive officer of LVMH Fashion Group, and Jean-Paul Claverie, an adviser to LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault and LVMH’s head of corporate philanthropy.
This year’s prize ceremony was staged at the Louis Vuitton Foundation, the luxury group’s new Frank Gehry designed art museum on the leafy fringes of Paris currently showcasing a mother lode of Modern Art masterpieces. Adding an extra dose of glamour, actress Natalie Portman, the face of Miss Dior fragrances, presented the trophy — a gold star caught in a helix of beads.
“When I won the contest with Yves, it was nothing like this,” Lagerfeld deadpanned, referring to the 1954 Woolmark Prize that catapulted his career and also Yves Saint Laurent’s.
“I think it’s wonderful LVMH is supporting young talent,” Portman told WWD after the ceremony, as camera crews swirled around the famous designers.
Ghesquière said Marques’ Almeida scored high on both creative and business criteria. “It’s their innovation; their positioning also — London street style mixed with very elaborate craft. I find this a very good mélange — not easy to do. Many people try, but they succeed with it magnificently.”
Vuitton’s creative director of women’s collections also lauded the structure of the business, and the commercial promise it has demonstrated. Marques’ Almeida already ships to 85 doors and is opening an e-commerce platform in the coming weeks.
Marques and Almeida beat out seven other finalists. They were Arthur Arbesser, an Austrian women’s wear designer based in Milan; Craig Green, a British men’s wear specialist based in London, also vying for the big prize a second time; Faustine Steinmetz, a French women’s wear designer based in London; Jacquemus, a Frenchman who presents his women’s collection in Paris; Virgil Abloh, an American designer based in Milan, where he does men’s and women’s fashions under the Off-White label, and Demna Gvasalia, a German designer who presents his Vetements women’s line in Paris.
Sébastien Meyer and Arnaud Vaillant, the French duo behind the Paris-based Coperni women’s label, had withdrawn from the competition after being named artistic directors of women’s wear for Courrèges and putting their nascent label on hold.
Friday’s ceremony marked the end of a multistep elimination process, whittling down from almost 1,000 initial applicants. During Paris Fashion Week last March, 45 experts from retail, publishing and image creation selected eight finalists from 26 semifinalists who presented their collections at LVMH headquarters over two days.
During a morning session Friday, contenders mingled with jury members informally before delivering a 10-minute presentation in front of the panel.
“I think it’s courageous, and I feel quite moved that they’re doing this,” said Philo, who quizzed each contender about the future of fashion. “It’s complex for them, and all the more reason I admire them. They’re looking at it from a very early perspective.”
A friendly mood of camaraderie reigned over the session, as the all-star jury greeted each other – Simons, Philo and Jacobs had dined together the night before – and introduced themselves to the finalists.
“They all have a different point of view, which is the most important thing in fashion,” said Ghesquière. “The prize is a platform, and it gives so much visibility.”
Yet echoing fellow jurors, he stressed that the stakes are higher for today’s crop of designers. “You have to do clothes, you have to be promotable, you have to learn how to do previews, so this is a great exercise,” he said. “You have to give the best of yourself, to explain very well your vision.”
Lim and Leon, also the founders of Opening Ceremony, came with a different perspective on five of the seven contenders, as the retailers already stock their collections, certain of which have a cult following. “You gotta be on your toes on the design side — what’s going to set you apart,” Lim mused.
“When I started, I wasn’t even thinking about fashion as a structure,” said Simons, the couturier at Dior, recalling how he started his signature men’s brand with about $1,500, driving samples to a showroom in Milan that also represented Helmut Lang. “Back in the day, you didn’t need so much.”
By contrast, fashion today “is a machine” that continues to gain speed, leaving everyone breathless, Simons said.
Tisci, the couturier at Givenchy, remarked on the diversity of the collections — some streetwise, others more conservative — hung in a showroom installation in the auditorium of the museum, with its high ceilings dotted with Ellsworth Kelly paintings and views of a stepped waterfall through floor-to-ceiling windows.
“When I was in Milan, there was nothing like this,” said the Italian designer, who ran his then-signature collection on a shoestring, relying on his model friends to help mount his first shows. “It’s an amazing thing, this support.”
“I’m hoping there will be two or three that will become major businesses,” said Anderson, noting he was “on the other side of the table” not so long ago, alluding to the struggles he had as an independent London-based designer before LVMH took a minority stake in his business and tapped him as creative director of Spanish leather-goods house Loewe.
“I understand what it’s like when you have no staff and you’re living on the bread line,” Anderson said. “I was dealing with production and packing boxes two and a half years ago.”
While stressing that their nascent business urgently need funding, mentorship and proper staffing, the finalists said participating in the prize yielded a precious windfall of attention, contacts and informal advice.
“It’s hugely benefited the brand and made it more visible to people,” said Green, raving about the chance to meet his fashion heroes, like makeup artist Pat McGrath, a member of the expert panel, and to learn to better articulate his purpose and vision.
“I only employ one other person, so the plan is to build the team. We are launching an e-commerce platform at the end of next month and that needs investment,” he said. “We’re also exploring the idea of women’s wear for the brand as we found out some women are buying the men’s.”
Abloh said the competition shines a spotlight on a crop of young designers that are encroaching on big names, the gap between them narrowed with the advent of the Internet.
Still, he said, “these are all small companies, and the fate of a fashion business is a very cruel world. I need mentoring because I just have an idea, and I need to understand how to grow it and how to sustain it. I often say, ‘All I’m good at is the spark.’ I lit a match and the wind is blowing so I need someone to cup it with their hands.”
“It puts you in a different league in one moment,” Arbesser said of the distinction brought by being a finalist or semifinalist. “People look more carefully at your work, and shops are reacting. It’s sort of a stamp of approval.”
He noted that Harvey Nichols Hong Kong recently placed an order, bringing to 22 the number of stores that carry his collection in markets including Japan, China, the U.S. and Europe. “This is a very focused and fair competition,” he concluded.
Before flicking through the racks with Jacobs, Gvasalia said the association with the LVMH Prize opened doors to factories that were previously unreceptive, and added heat to the brand, ramping up pressures on the cash flow needed to fund bigger production. “The faster you go, the bigger this problem becomes,” he said.
“It’s very easy to be in the little bubble of young designers, and so being here and pitching to a big group really widens your perspective,” said Steinmetz. “It helped me. French journalists now know I exist. They discovered me with LVMH.”
While they put on a brave face, many designers were blunt about the need for cash to build their skeleton staffs.
“We’re spending more of our time doing accounting than designing,” Marques lamented. “We really need to build a team.”
“I started with no money, so it’s a big issue,” Jacquemus concurred. “What I really need is to build up my company, to have a good foundation.”
Arnault said all young brands invariably get hamstrung by the cycle of outlaying cash to suppliers before receiving payment, making their businesses vulnerable.
Three recent fashion graduates were also recognized with grants of 10,000 euros, or $11,000, plus a one-year placement on the design studio of an LVMH brand. They are Matty Bovan and Gabriel Castro from Central Saint Martins, and Josh Dean from Kingston University, who are to be placed at Vuitton, Kenzo and Dior, respectively.
LVMH also said it would pledge a grant of equal value to two London schools “in acknowledgement of their excellence.”
Launched in 2013 and spearheaded by Arnault, the LVMH Prize is unique in its global scope, online-only registration and nominations — and a gradual elimination process that will award entrants with invaluable exposure.