NEW YORK — The CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award elicited such a strong response from talented candidates that its jury has arranged to create two additional prizes.
A year ago, the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Vogue magazine set out into unchartered territory with the establishment of a fund to assist emerging designers, taking an unusually active role in the destiny of struggling new businesses and, as a result, facing a challenge far greater than they had expected.
The first awards will be presented by Mayor Michael Bloomberg at a dinner Thursday night. One finalist will receive the major prize of $200,000, along with a year of structured industry mentoring, while two runner-ups will each receive $50,000. This represents an expansion of the fund, one aimed at recognizing the real potential of the 10 companies that have remained in the competition after a series of intricate hurdles, including a lengthy written application and a live presentation before its judges.
The final vote is expected to take place Thursday morning among that committee, which comprises Vogue’s Anna Wintour and Sally Singer; designer Narciso Rodriguez; Julie Gilhart, fashion director of Barneys New York; Robert Duffy, president of Marc Jacobs; Stephen Ruzow, president of women’s wear at Kellwood Co., and the CFDA’s Peter Arnold and Lisa Smilor. Selecting the winner, several participants in the process said, has been an arduous and emotional process, not only for the candidates, but also the judges, who have considered the implications that their votes will carry.
“The most important thing I took away from this was, for all of the judges, how emotional and involved everyone became,” Wintour said. “We were so enchanted by the talent and by the dedication of our finalists. It’s been a really wonderful experience.”
When the contest began in February, 137 designers submitted preliminary applications to the committee, which then selected 52 candidates to proceed based on their editorial and business experience. In the second phase of the competition, those designers were asked to submit full portfolios, including details on sales, numbers of employees, even salaries — sensitive information that the judges said will remain confidential. From those responses, 10 finalists were asked to make presentations at Vogue before the panel. The finalists are Libertine, Edmundo Castillo, Cloak, Proenza Schouler, Peter Som, Habitual, Behnaz Sarafpour, Doo.Ri, Dean Harris and Derek Lam.
“To talk to all of us — with that lineup of judges — with such confidence and passion was extraordinary and heart-warming,” Wintour said. “It made one believe in the future of fashion.”
When the CFDA and Vogue announced the fund last September, Wintour and Arnold began a capital campaign with the goal of raising $5 million that would create an endowment so that the awards can continue annually on a long-term basis. Arnold said last week that the CFDA has raised about half that from corporate sponsors Barneys New York, Kellwood and Vogue (which, like WWD, is owned by Advance Publications Inc.).
The fund was created to give American designers a better chance of succeeding in the difficult business environment of Seventh Avenue, which has laid waste to innumerable designers who have been championed early in their careers. Several monetary prizes have been created to aid fashion designers in recent years, but the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund is by far the most ambitious, with plans to arrange for intense business mentoring from established professionals for the winner on issues such as sourcing, public relations and staffing.
While this may raise questions as to whether making such a financial reward would impugn the impartiality of an industry organization or one of its leading fashion publications, those involved in the selection said the process has been fair and ultimately beneficial to every applicant. All 10 finalists, for example, will be featured in a 20-page story in the November issue of Vogue photographed by Arthur Elgort.
“In hindsight, it hasn’t been about the winner as much as it has been about the process,” said Gilhart. “Just having to apply — all these designers have had to think about what they’re doing, how they can formulate their business plans and what their goals are. That in itself is so amazing.”
Still, the prospect of casting her final vote, she said, “makes me stop breathing.”