View Slideshow
Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD Milestones issue 09/10/2012

When it comes to the question of “Nature vs. Nurture,” being a natural talent sure helps in the design world. But a little nurturing doesn’t hurt either.

This story first appeared in the September 10, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Through its numerous mentoring programs, young designers get expert advice from more established designers and companies. “It’s an investment in the future of the industry,” says CFDA’s Steven Kolb. “By giving these designers the skills, the mentoring and the resources to become big American brands, we’re helping them with their success, and it creates this cycle of giving back. When they’re at that point, they’ll be conditioned to do the same. It only helps the industry.”

Several of these programs have been established in collaboration with Vogue, such as the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Awards.

“After 9/11, both the CFDA and Vogue shared an impulse to immediately do something to help young designers who were struggling in the aftermath of that terrible moment,” says Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour. “But not long after that, the idea of a more long-term strategy to establish and nurture a new generation of American designers with global reach began to take shape—that being proactive was the only way forward. Out of that the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund was established. I’m enormously proud of what it has achieved, and I’m equally proud that the likes of Proenza Schouler, Alexander Wang, Joseph Altuzarra, Eddie Borgo, Rodarte, Monique Péan and Pamela Love have so brilliantly repaid our belief in them.”

Many established designers participate in various mentoring programs.

“The CFDA played an instrumental role in the success of so many designers,” says Elie Tahari. “We’ve partnered to promote select CFDA jewelry designers by featuring their product in our East Hampton boutique, allowing me to give up-and-coming designers a platform for people to see their work, which has brought me great happiness.”

Kenneth Cole adds, “In addition to providing designers with mentorship, guidance and exposure critical to their success, the CFDA offers valuable resources that enable newer, younger companies to become more viable.”

CFDA’s splashy shout-out to drive retail business, Fashion’s Night Out, got its start in September 2009. It collaborated with Vogue, New York & Co. and the city of New York on the shopping extravaganza, which aimed to help restore consumer confidence and drum up retail sales in New York in the midst of the recession that started in 2008. Now in its fourth year, the shopping event has become an international phenomenon that’s expanded to 19 markets worldwide.

Here are several key CFDA initiatives to boost business and nurture the next generation of talent.


The original mission of 2009’s Fashion’s Night Out was to get New Yorkers excited about shopping again, after staring down a recession for almost a year. It turned into one giant global scene. Its fourth edition was slated to take place on Sept. 6.

It was Wintour’s idea, along with Diane von Furstenberg’s, to enlist the support of Mayor Bloomberg. About 1,000 stores across the city’s five boroughs stayed open late—most until 11 p.m.—and hosted special events with entertainers, models and fashion stars. In some neighborhoods, it has become a huge block party with Champagne flowing and celebrity watching galore.

Among those expected to make appearances this time around were Kim Kardashian, Solange Knowles, Matchbox Twenty, Jessica Seinfeld, Kelly Rutherford and Jennifer Hudson. The event was accompanied by a special Fashion’s Night Out collection, with a portion of the proceeds benefitting the New York City AIDS Fund in the New York Community Trust. About 250 cities in the U.S. are now involved in FNO, as well as online.

It impacts sales for some retailers, while for others, it’s a marketing opportunity that draws customers who might not otherwise go into their stores. Kolb acknowledges there are pros and cons, and some designers have complained. “You’ve got people getting ready for their shows. It creates gridlock. But overall, it’s been a really positive thing…. It happens, it’s over and everybody can get back to work,” says Kolb. “We’re creating a new national holiday, and you can feel the energy and buzz.”


NEXT: CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund >>


Now in its ninth year, the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund grants financial awards annually to one or more designers, as well as provides mentoring opportunities.

“The CFDA, through the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, has given me an opportunity to work with and mentor new designers, which has been an inspiring experience,” says Reed Krakoff.

“The CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund has done an amazing job to promote young talent,” adds Carolina Herrera. “Their mentorship program is so important in the nurturing of young designers.”

Kolb says the program has created a new generation of American designers. “You look at New York Fashion Week and you have designers like Alexander Wang, Proenza Schouler, Rodarte, Rag & Bone and Phillip Lim. There’s real energy in New York that exists now because they all came from that fund.”

The top winner takes home $300,000, and each runner-up receives $100,000. From an initial group of about 130, the selection committee narrows it to around 50 designers, and then to 10. The finalists present looks from their past and current collections, and the selection committee visits the finalists’ design studios, interviews them and assesses their day-to-day operations.

This year’s top winner was Joseph Altuzarra. Shane Gabier and Chris Peters from Creatures of the Wind and Pamela Love were runners-up. The award winners meet regularly with a business mentor chosen based on the designer’s specific needs. Altuzarra, for example, was paired with Tom Murry, ceo of Calvin Klein Inc.

“I describe it as a ‘golden ticket in Willy Wonka,’” says Kolb. “Once you’re one of the 10, you’re sort of anointed as one of this group.”

“Winning the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award has made a huge difference to our young company,” said Altuzarra. “The overwhelming support and guidance we’ve since received from both our mentor Tom Murry and the industry overall is invaluable as we continue to grow our business.”

Ten finalists for the next round were selected in July: Tabitha Simmons; Suno’s Max Osterweis and Erin Beatty; A.L.C.’s Andrea Lieberman; Assembly New York’s Greg Armas; Giulietta’s Sofia Sizzi; Illesteva’s Justin Salguero, Daniel Silberman and Alina Silberman; Jennifer Fisher; Jennifer Meyer Maguire; The Elder Statesman’s Greg Chait, and Wes Gordon. A winner and two runners-up will be announced at a gala on Nov. 13. As part of the selection process, Tiffany & Co., marking its 175th anniversary, issued a challenge to the finalists: Create a signature piece inspired by Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.

Designers and brands have gotten involved with the CFDA/VFF in creative ways. One program, Americans in Paris, now three seasons in, is underwritten by Tommy Hilfiger. The Fund hosts a showcase for 10 of its previous participants during the Paris ready-to-wear shows.

As part of its three-year partnership with the Fund, Tiffany established a business development grant to recognize the significant jewelry-fashion relationship, and challenged 10 previously participating CFDA/VFF jewelry designers to convey their creative vision for their brand, show financial need and outline plans to grow their business. Tiffany offered a one-time $250,000 business development grant, which was awarded last year to Monique Péan ($150,000) and Eddie Borgo ($100,000).

Starbucks joined the CFDA/VFF as a sponsor and collaborated with three former fund winners—Billy Reid, Sophie Theallet and Alexander Wang—in creating signature, limited-edition T-shirts inspired by Starbucks. The T-shirts were sold at select Nordstrom stores and online as well as

The CFDA/VFF program is sponsored by partner J. Crew, as well as underwriters American Express, Appleman Foundation Inc., Carolina Herrera, Coach, Nordstrom, Group, Theory, Tiffany, Tommy Hilfiger, W Hotels and Vogue. This year, four new underwriters have joined—Kate Spade New York, Neiman Marcus, Limited Brands Inc. and the Ralph Bartel Foundation. Over the years, the CFDA/VFF has granted $2.8 million to 21 fashion companies.


NEXT: International Effort >>



Like fashion itself, the CFDA has become increasingly international. The organization has created programs to boost American designers abroad, partnered with foreign firms to sponsor U.S. designers and focused some of its charitable efforts toward international causes.

“Clearly, the success of designers today depends on having a global business, one that isn’t defined by borders anymore,” says Kolb. He adds that broadening the organization’s mandate overseas is close to the heart of Council president von Furstenberg, who was born in Belgium and speaks French, English, Spanish and Italian fluently and Portuguese and German conversationally.

The expanded efforts come against the backdrop of the increasingly global reach of American designer brands overseas. PVH-owned Tommy Hilfiger reaps well over half of its revenue from international markets, the Calvin Klein brand rings up 51 percent of its retail sales outside of North America and Ralph Lauren garners about 38 percent of sales outside the U.S.

American influence on the industry has not always been this pervasive. While U.S. designers have been competing on the global stage since as far back as 1929, when Chicago-born Mainbocher established himself in Paris, it was French designers who set the trends for most of the 20th century. A landmark turning point was the Grand Divertissement à Versailles, or “Battle of Versailles,” in 1973, pitting American designers against French in a runway face-off for the ages.

In the Nineties, European labels became infatuated with tapping fresh American viewpoints. Tom Ford was named creative director of Gucci in 1994 and went on to set the gold standard for rejuvenating storied, but musty, designer brands, before exiting in 2004. Oscar de la Renta, dubbed “The Concorde Couturier,” was the first American to head up a French haute couture house at Balmain from 1993 to 2002. Michael Kors had a notable run at Céline from 1997 to 2004, while Marc Jacobs launched Louis Vuitton ready-to-wear in 1997, in probably the most successful Franco-American union since the siege of Yorktown.

“The CFDA has made the American fashion industry much more visible internationally. With that increased visibility comes increased international credibility, too,” says Nicole Miller.

Today, China has become the linchpin of many designer growth strategies. Thus, in July, the CFDA and New York’s Empire State Development agency coordinated a trip to Shanghai and Beijing for eight designers. Among those on the weeklong trip were Monique Péan, Janis Savitt, Gemma Kahng, Christopher Kunz of Nicholas K and Karen Castellano, president of Tracy Reese. “People have to find different channels of distribution,” says Lisa Smilor, deputy director of programs and operations at the CFDA, who accompanied the group to China. Jam Fashion Group, a China-based advisory firm with offices in New York, arranged meetings for the U.S. brands with potential Chinese distributors and licensee partners.

“Doing business in China is very different from doing it in the U.S.—it’s uncharted territory for us and it feels a little like the Wild West,” observes Castellano, who plans to begin selling on China’s this fall. “We met with so many potential partners but we also got a real education on how business is done there.”

Kahng doesn’t yet do business in China, but since the trip, she has had talks with luxury e-commerce site

In 2010, the CFDA organized a visit to South Korea for designers Thakoon Panichgul and Rag & Bone’s Marcus Wainwright and David Neville, who were part of an American installation at the 10 Corso Como store in Seoul, which is owned by Samsung. In South America, the CFDA and Colombia’s Inexmoda trade group brought Christian Cota to Colombiamoda Fashion Week in July.

This year, the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund began a China Exchange program, underwritten by Hong Kong’s Silas Chou, cochairman of Michael Kors Inc. In the spring, Chinese designer Uma Wang visited the U.S. for a six-week immersion program, and in May, Proenza Schouler sent Columbia M.B.A. student Margaret Livits to China for three weeks, which she detailed in a comprehensive report.

The CFDA’s Business Service Network regularly offers seminars to assist U.S. companies aiming to expand globally. Last year, FedEx gave a series of seminars to CFDA members on international shipping, and the U.S. Department of Commerce and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s office hosted a session with the CFDA on customs issues.


NEXT: Fashion Incubator >>


The CFDA’s Fashion Incubator program, housed at 209 West 38th Street in New York City, started three years ago and hosted its first group of designers for two years starting in May 2010, with a second group starting this past May. The Incubator provides a creative professional environment for 10 designers—each gets between 800 and 1,000 square feet. The space is subsidized by the CFDA, with partners such as Target and support from Mayor Bloomberg, the New York City Economic Development Corp. and Newmark Holdings.

The CFDA’s Smilor worked with the fashion community to determine what exactly a young designer would need in a studio space, and they built them with flexible walls, mini-showrooms and proper lighting. The first group of designers—who graduated last April, with a yearbook, to boot—included Bibhu Mohapatra, Prabal Gurung, Waris Ahluwalia, Alice Ritter, Joel Diaz and Christina LaPens and Tom Scott.

RELATED STORY: CFDA’s Fashion Incubator Program Shaping the Next Generation >>

“With CFDA’s recognition and support, I was able to build the foundation of my business in a very educated way,” says Mohapatra.

The current crop consists of Antonio Azzuolo, Arielle Shapiro, Benjamin and Doug Burkman, Christian Cota, Emanuela Duca, Ricky Hendry and Marc Daniels, Luis M. Fernandez, Reece Solomon, Whitney Pozgay and Timo Weiland and Alan Eckstein.

Gurung says the “incubator” experience accelerated his business. “It made me think about my business in a more professional way.” Before he moved into the Fashion Incubator he was selling five doors. Now he’s selling 70, and is moving into a 5,000-square-foot studio on West 37th Street. “It gave me access to the CFDA and its library of mentors and business advisors. There were so many opportunities. What’s important for a young designer is to have that sounding board and that access. Often your instincts are right, but you need that sounding board.”

Gurung was also a runner-up for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund and won $100,000. In addition, Carolina Herrera became his mentor, and Herrera president Caroline Brown, became his business mentor. “They’ve been so instrumental to my business growth. I don’t know what I’d do without them,” says Gurung.

Incubator designers receive business mentoring from a host of industry leaders, ranging from Trey Laird of Laird + Partners and Gary Wassner, co-ceo of Hilldun Corp., to Beth Buccini and Sarah Easley, co-owners of Kirna Zabete. In January 2011, a series was created called “An Evening With…” whereby established CFDA members, including Norma Kamali, Robert Lee Morris, Derek Lam, Nanette Lepore and John Varvatos, talked to the Incubator designers about the early stages of their careers, the challenges they faced and the lessons they’ve learned.

New York City has incubators for industries such as food, finance and technology. Fashion Incubator designers receive intensive business mentoring from experts in finance, law, manufacturing, marketing, branding and licensing during monthly seminars and lectures. They attend the Summer Conversation Series of discussions with experts about digital platforms, brand imaging, e-commerce, navigating Tumblr and doing business in Asia.

MBA students from NYU’s Stern School of Business are paired with the designers to work on a financial presentation and a business plan. They also collaborate with School of Visual Arts graduate photography students, who help the young designers create ad campaigns using DNA Models.

Other participating companies include Shopify, which has given the designers one year of back-end support, and WGSN, which has given the designers a two-year subscription.

“They don’t get any money,” says Kolb. “They get subsidized studio rent, support services and mentoring. We really work with them to grow their brands.”