SHOUTING IN A LOUD ROOM
Byline: Eric Wilson
NEW YORK — Just a couple of years ago, emerging designers in this city often complained that the establishment wasn’t doing enough to support them, but now they have a new message: Back off.
Their resentment is not directed toward supporters of financial means nor retailers willing to give new names a chance. Rather, it is aimed at the sudden crop of showcases and venues geared toward the fashion naive and meant to be a springboard for their works to reach a broad public eye or an audience of influential editors and buyers.
While the showcases, such as Gen Art, South of Seventh, Moet & Chandon’s Designer Debut and Paper Magazine’s Lab, Launchpad and Lounge, have highlighted a range of New York’s most intriguing young designers, some past participants and organizers are beginning to complain that the prominence of such events has begun to wane as their quantity has increased.
The biggest complaint is that when anybody can be a rising star or win an award, the impact of such an achievement becomes commonplace and that they are competing in an amateur-hour type of environment.
“There’s no question they are diluting themselves and dissipating any attention they could get,” said designer T.C. Laughlin, who showcased her ready-to-wear collection a year ago at South of Seventh, a venue that was set up in a similar style of centralized venues to 7th on Sixth, only geared toward small, “downtown” start-ups.
“Showing makes you think about your collection a little bit differently,” Laughlin said. “From that standpoint I think it was great. But businesswise, I don’t think it had a phenomenal impact.”
While it is not a popular position to take that giving a hand to a struggling design company can be a bad thing, another complaint that has been lodged against such fashion philanthropists is that some honorees have either been showcased in multiple “rising star” venues or have no business being in one in the first place.
William Calvert, a eveningwear vendor whose popularity among retailers and editors has risen quickly, has participated in Moet & Chandon’s venue, a group show at 7th on Sixth paid for by the champagne maker; South of Seventh with his own show, and Gen Art’s “Fresh Faces” and was a Rising Star Award winner from the Fashion Group International. And yes, he thinks it’s overkill.
“Certainly, every season or every year, there’s a number of designers worth paying attention to and there are others that need maturing and should be allowed to mature,” Calvert said. “But when you have competing venues, it just gets silly.”
There are at least six venues actively promoting young talent and a seventh, currently defunct, that may or may not come back.
Gen Art, a nonprofit group that promotes fashion and film, has been one of the most consistently respected resources for its “Fresh Faces” since 1995, partly because retailers and editors have become participants, acting as both nominating committee and jury to about a half-dozen designers each year. Among its successful past participants have been the Organization for Returning Fashion Interest, Rebecca Danenberg, Rebecca Taylor, Shoshanna and Calvert.
A year ago, Gen Art started another competition, now called “Styles 2000,” in which anyone can enter a juried contest for $5,000 in prizes in an attempt to become the “next big thing,” an event that will be repeated on April 4.
Moet has hosted a young designer spotlight for three seasons at 7th on Sixth, in which the collections of three or four designers have been presented during one show. Notable participants have included David Rodriguez, P.a.k., Gregory Parkinson, Alexandra Lind and Lotta. Also at 7th on Sixth were the debut of Paper Magazine’s three-day-long new-designer shows, where Orfi, Savoia and Jenisa Washington for Sold presented their collections, and Girls Rule, which has shown the collections of junior and streetwear designers over 12 seasons.
There are also annual award ceremonies, including FGI’s Rising Star Awards and the longstanding Perry Ellis Awards for new design talent from the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
Lastly is South of Seventh, the alternative venue staged by retail consultant Vicki Ross for two seasons until its last show in April 1999. Ross said she is trying to get back on track for September.
Coordinators of these events are quick to point out that there is a need for venues that are geared toward young designers, either by covering most of the cost of a runway show or helping them with retail and buyer contacts. However, they also privately acknowledge there is heavy competition among them to be the first to recruit raw talent.
When South of Seventh went head-to-head with Gen Art’s Fresh Faces in 1998, for instance, executives at design firms Jean Yu and Rubin Chapelle were caught in a battle between the two venues over where they would show. Both eventually showed with SOS after Ross forced an ultimatum that their participation in Gen Art would preclude an SOS show.
After SOS lost its original backing from financier Henry Buhl’s nonprofit agency, SoHo Partnership, Ross struck a deal with Park Avenue South Partners, but that fell through, as well. Now Gen Art’s biggest competitor is the newly launched Paper Magazine venue, which staged corporate sponsored shows for several small companies — including some that had been part of Gen Art — in February. That event was “curated” by Paper editor in chief Kim Hastreiter, who hand-picked all of the participants.
“Every event has a different impact for each designer involved,” said Ian Gerard, a co-founder of Gen Art. “Every time we have an event, I hear about such-and-such an editor seeing a designer for the first time. Kim Hastreiter, although she might not want to admit it, saw for the first time some of the designers she showed at Gen Art.”
Orfi, Slinky Vagabond and Claude Sabbah are among the collections that had been shown at Gen Art, Gerard noted. But he said he was “very psyched” that Paper Magazine had gotten into the act, citing the various benefits bestowed on designers thrust thusly into the limelight.
“Everyone wants to find the next big thing,” Gerard said. “You see Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar doing this now, where they really hadn’t focused on young designers before. Part of it is that there is all this talent coming around in the last five years that is now having all this impact. I don’t think it’s overkill. It definitely will take some time before it becomes overkill.”
Hastreiter also considers her shows a success, noting Liz Collins and Claudia Hill have both subsequently scored retail interest, while Slinky Vagabond was featured on MTV and Jenisa Washington was on E! Entertainment Television.
“Some of them do have the potential to become large commercial designers,” Hastreiter said. “But a lot of the designers are hesitant to show in these kinds of venues because either they are not seriously curated, meaning they are subject to vote by quorum, or they are open to anyone who can rent a space.”
The former objection was admittedly self-serving, as Hastreiter promoted the Paper event as being a singular vision of young design talent. In other words, it was hers.
“To me, it always boils down to the curator,” she said. “If there’s a good curator, it’s going to be an interesting show. At a certain point, it becomes a personal taste, an opinion on what I believe is excellent. It’s like seasoning something. It’s like cooking, using all really great ingredients, like lettuce and veal. But you could also get great lettuce or bad lettuce and great veal or bad veal, so I looked for really great things and tried to balance them together, where everything kept its own flavors and also worked well together.”
In response, Gerard noted that Gen Art’s sometimes eclectic mix of flavors has its own appeal.
“One of the main things we are trying to do with a single presentation of multiple designers is to make it easier for buyers and reporters to come and see all these people in one sitting,” Gerard said. “Also, since we are getting input from a lot of different people, we tend to show a wider range of designers. Whereas Paper Magazine might be more avant-garde, we go everywhere from streetwear to eveningwear. If you are not interested in some of those categories, these might not be designers for you, but that doesn’t mean they are not quality designers.”
Ross also had positive things to say about the quantity of designer venues, but less-than-flattering commentary on each of them, calling Paper’s shows “too editorialized” and criticizing Moet’s most recent seasonal roundup — juried by a group of retailers and press that included some of the same members as Gen Art — as including a roster of established designers that seemed hastily put together.
“Maybe people were awfully busy and couldn’t help as much as they wanted to,” she said. “But I think there is an awful lot of talent out there and not enough showcases.”
In response, a spokeswoman for Moet said, “We’re always going to have criticism. These designers have been designing for a number of years, but they were never given the opportunity to showcase their work in such a visible location as the Bryant Park tents.”
Ross’s SOS project, which she called “more generous and open,” meanwhile, was roundly criticized in its last season as a failure at attracting an appropriate audience of buyers and press. Ross acknowledged that if she is able to bring the concept back, it would be as a general installation or showcase rather than with independent shows.
“This is where young talent starts off,” she said. “Maybe the venue has to be reinvented, maybe we all can’t do fashion shows for young talent. Maybe they should show four or five good ideas and not for 15 minutes. It is overkill, when you compare new talent to an Oscar de la Renta show, where maybe 100 people are working on the show, from the design studio to stylists to the makeup team.”
As for the designers, they had a mixed prognosis for the future of such events.
Shoshanna Lonstein credits some of her success to appearing in an early Gen Art show, an occasion that helped her Shoshanna line land Henri Bendel as a retail account, said Felicia Marie Geller, vice president of sales for the dress firm.
“It was invaluable exposure,” she said, “and it definitely did have an effect on the bottom line.”
Laughlin, however, said she jumped into her 1999 SOS show expecting more media attention than she actually received.
“The attendance was very good, but I didn’t get tons of press, to be perfectly honest,” she said. “I got a lot more mileage out of the video we did for the show than anything that happened around that time.”
On the other hand, Neil Bieff, who showed in the same group, said, “It’s probably a great thing to have all these opportunities for people to exhibit their wares that they may not be able to do otherwise. It’s great to have a choice because you can probably cut a deal with some of these people.”
Michael Akers, another Gen Art alumnus, said the event was a valuable learning experience, “but I don’t know about getting any potential customers.”
“Our society in general has become so information driven that there’s too much information out there now,” Akers said. “We just need to pick and choose the appropriate organizations and the way we get the information.”
Ironically, this is a notion that is beginning to dawn on the fashion establishment. After presenting his fall collection, designer Geoffrey Beene, who also showed with SOS in 1999, said it would be the last time he uses a runway, because “I just find models marching up and down a runway is too predictable now; it is a bore.”
Calvert, a protege of Beene, also had criticisms of the recent shows, noting that while Moet, Gen Art and the FGI Rising Star award have been big helps to his business, he criticized SOS because it was covered by many in the industry press as “one big group show,” even though it was set up similarly to 7th on Sixth.
“Certainly, some of those designers shouldn’t have been showing,” Calvert said. “At Moet, there were 1,200 people in the audience, including some serious hitters as far as press and stores. I seriously doubt those people would have come if we had each done shows on our own. We can’t all be Miguel Adrover.”