SCOUTING THE SCHOOLS
Byline: Robert Murphy / With contributions from Miles Socha, Paris / James Fallon, London / Alessandra Ilari, Milan / Janet Ozzard, New York
PARIS — The race to uncover fashion’s next big name is heating up.
Major houses, manufacturers and headhunters are intensifying their search for talent at European and New York design schools, which recently showcased student collections in a flurry of glitzy graduation shows.
As they face intense competition to uncover talent in the usual places, they are also scoping out new fashion frontiers in Eastern Europe, South America and Asia.
There was no mistaking the heightened interest last month at Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art, in London, as representatives from LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, Mila Schon and Valentino were front-row-center.
Similar scenes played out in Paris for the Chambre Syndicale show, and in Belgium at the Royal Academy of Antwerp and Brussels’ La Cambre school, with high-profile talent scouts and manufacturers elbow-to-elbow in the audience.
“Fashion houses don’t want to miss out on a hot designer,” said Michael Boroian, a headhunter at TMP International in Paris. “The stakes are getting bigger as high fashion becomes a global commodity.”
According to Boroian, who recently has recruited for Yves Saint Laurent, Giorgio Armani and Pinault-Printemps-Redoute, houses increasingly scour the schools to detect up-and-comers early.
“They see the success of people like Alexander McQueen and John Galliano [both St. Martins alumni] and they think they can find like talent from the schools,” said Boroian, who has recruited design graduates from La Cambre, the Royal Academy of Antwerp and Saint Martins.
Kuki de Salvertes, who runs the Paris fashion showroom Totem, which represents Olivier Theyskens and Veronique Branquinho among other breakthrough talents, noted that fashion schools — like skirt lengths — come in and out of fashion.
“Saint Martins and Antwerp imbue students with an identifiable style,” said de Salvertes. “Antwerp, for example, is somber and not very revealing, which is the opposite of Saint Martins. Since fashion moves so quickly, after we’ve seen those feelings, we want to see something fresh, ” de Salvertes added.
Indeed, some question whether the usual suspects among the schools are withering a bit under the intense scrutiny and high expectations of the talent hunters.
For example, Marianne Castier, a talent scout who works with Boroian at TMP, pronounced this year’s crop of students disappointing at best.
“Saint Martins was horrible,” she said. “A complete waste of time this year.”
She also gave poor reviews to the student shows in Belgium.
On the plus side, she said she was pleasantly surprised by the designers in lesser-known schools in Britain, including those in Nottingham, Manchester and Redding.
“There are more individual voices coming out of those schools,” she said.
De Salvertes, who used to do much of his talent trolling in Antwerp, said he has also been looking farther afield, as well.
“I think Brazil is blossoming as a new talent pool,” he said. “Designers there are sensual and sexy, which seems fresh now.”
De Salvertes has recently taken 24-year-old Brazilian Icarius de Menezes under his wing and is hoping to push him to the fashion forefront with a major fashion show in Paris this October during the ready-to-wear shows.
“Brazil is currently an interesting area to explore because fashion does indeed reflect social changes, art and music, and currently the Latin influence is very big,” agreed Davide Dallomo, who runs Lagente, a Milan- and London-based company that recruits for fashion firms.
Other scouts are carefully watching what’s brewing in former communist countries in Eastern Europe.
Floriane de Saint Pierre, who runs an executive search firm in Paris, cited Russia and Yugoslavia as particularly interesting frontiers for young designers.
“They have worked with so many constraints they have a lot to express,” she said.
She said youngsters from these countries tend to have a background not only in fashion, but also architecture, philosophy and fine art, bringing a distinct perspective to the task of making clothes.
Christophe Girard, director of fashion strategy at LVMH, described Asian countries, notably Korea, Taiwan and Japan, as emerging frontiers. He added, however, that London, Paris and New York remain the principal fountainheads for fashion talent.
LVMH, which controls houses ranging from Christian Dior to Louis Vuitton, employs about five people, including Concetta Lanciaux, vice president in charge of human resources at LVMH, to keep their eyes peeled for new talent.
“It’s like a garden,” said Girard of the fashion business. “You can always keep the beautiful old roses, but you need some young fresh plants to be brought in.”
Not that fledglings are immediately prepared for the task. Some executives cautioned that a designer’s talent may not be discernable at the time of graduation collections.
De Saint Pierre said students are like wine: They take time to mature. Jean-Jacques Picart, an industry consultant here agreed, noting: “Just because you have your driver’s license doesn’t mean you can drive.”
Ostensibly, that is the reason some executives said they prefer to look for talent behind established designers like Jean-Paul Gaultier or Gucci Group’s creative director Tom Ford.
Ford said he didn’t attend the student shows this season partially because the company never hires designers right out of school.
“But I’d say half my design staff are from Saint Martins or the Royal College,” he said. “They’re all older now, in their 30s, but those schools are definitely a source for the entire industry, and the graduate shows are definitely something to be supported.”
For Ford, students still have high ideals that don’t always correspond to the business of making clothes.
“That’s something you can learn only through the execution process,” he said.
This year at Saint Martins, American Express, a name not readily associated with fashion, sponsored a $1,000 award for innovation. Alexander McQueen honored Alexandre Roux with the award, which includes a three-month placement in the McQueen studio.
“To build a fashion community, it’s important to get the financial backing of someone like American Express,” said McQueen, adding that such support has pros and cons.
“As someone who has been in LVMH and seen the corporate side of fashion, it’s hard. They take innovation and want to make it commercial.”
McQueen’s cautionary comments underscore a recent trend among students: Most don’t want to work for big-money houses, but prefer to launch their own labels. It’s indicative of the glamour that has accrued to fashion as press coverage of it has reached saturation levels.
“Students have become fashion stars even before they graduate,” said Belgian designer Walter van Beierendonck, who has a label called Wild & Lethal Trash and also teaches at the Antwerp Academy, the school that produced Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester and Dries Van Noten.
“Before they’ve sold a garment, they’ve had press coverage, and since they come from Antwerp, they think they are well on their way to stardom. For that reason, most of the students here would loathe to work for someone else. The system makes them think they can successfully launch their own lines.”
Students at Brussels’ La Cambre school also dream of fashion stardom, with their own name in lights, not someone else’s.
“They approach the business like they are rock stars,” said Francine Pairon, formerly fashion director at La Cambre, who last year transferred to Paris to run a new fashion program at the Institut Francais de la Mode.
“The fashion business has so many different facets, and not every student, even if they have talent, is particularly suited to successfully maneuver launching their own line,” she said, in the midst of evaluating the graduating collections in Brussels.
The Belgian system fosters young and independent designers.
In the early Eighties, when the mass market apparel business was suffering, manufacturers bet on innovative independent designers like Van Noten and Demeulemeester. Since that investment paid off, manufacturers now are willing to gamble on young designers, with the hope that one day they will turn a profit.
Marc Gysemans of Gysemans BVBA, which produces for Veronique Branquinho and Bernhard Willhelm, attended the Antwerp show, singling out students Markus Strasser and Christian Wynrnts as youths he may want to bet on.
Gysemans said that if he hammered out a deal with one of the two it could resemble the one he entered into with Branquinho, in whose business he has a 50 percent stake.
Another manufacturer, Guy Bossuyt of Mortier Bossuyt BVBA, who has worked with Raf Simons and Van Noten, has recently signed a deal to invest in and manufacture Antwerp graduate Anke Loh, who this year won top honors at the prestigious Hyeres fashion festival in southern France.
“More than ever, we believe in young designers and we would like to work with them, either subcontracting or in license,” said Bossuyt.
“It’s a risk producing young designers, but it’s a risk worth taking,” he said, adding that he appreciated youngsters who blended “strong vision” with commercial viability.
But not all designers want to launch their own lines.
Xavier Novarro, 32, who recently won a new award sponsored by champagne maker Moet & Chandon, granting him a six-month internship at an LVMH house, said he would like to “work for a big house in Paris in haute couture or pret-a-porter. I never want to start my own label.”
Novarro said he was motivated by the possibility to work with fewer financial constraints.
According to Boroian, successful students can now command a starting salary of about $50,000 with a major house, and many are keen to do so.
Designer Donatella Versace said that unlike graduates in Paris and New York, Italian design students “would rather join an established fashion house.”
When Versace assumed the creative direction of the house founded by her brother, Gianni, she snapped up a slew of young, hip designers to both design and do fabric research.
Still, Versace acknowledged that schools were now preparing students to “focus on business” to prepare them to open their own houses.
A spokesman for the Armani Group said “FIT, Saint Martins, Parsons and the Royal College are still the most valuable source, because their graduates are increasingly international.”
Armani usually hires young designers who have “an entrepreneurial mind,” the spokesman said, adding that youngsters usually approached the house “either as a stepping stone to later pursue their own careers or to work for smaller fashion houses.”
In the U.S., Donna Karan International has established an internship program that accepts students from Parsons School of Design, The Fashion Institute of Technology, the Rhode Island School of Design and Columbia University.
“We have one person who focuses only on interns,” said Donna Dean, director of human resources. “With the shrinking job force, we have got to get people into the company earlier.”
It is getting harder, though, to find the creative juice.
“It used to be just four of five fashion houses looking for talent,” said Dean. “But now, there are dozens of companies, not to mention the dot-coms. Everyone is competing very hard to find amazingly talented people with an aesthetic.”