The semifinalists for the LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers.

PARIS The distinction between women’s wear and men’s wear may soon become obsolete: At least, you might be tempted to come to that conclusion from reading the list of 20 semifinalists for the fifth edition of the LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers.

Among those competing for a grand prize of 300,000 euros, plus a year of coaching from experts at luxury giant LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, are no fewer than six labels making gender-neutral clothes, two that design for both men and women, eight women’s wear designers and four men’s wear designers.

Those are the official designations; in effect, half the labels are treading a unisex line with their designs.

“Gender-neutral fashion, already present in former editions, has gained considerable ground, thus proving that the prize echoes the recent evolutions in fashion,” said Delphine Arnault, the force behind the initiative and a key talent scout at family-controlled LVMH, the parent of brands including Louis Vuitton, Dior and Fendi.

“Naturally, LVMH is interested in celebrating creativity in fashion, regardless of the category it fits in. However, the gender-neutral brands we have selected must also demonstrate an ability to produce quality clothing. Some of our designers, such as J.W. Anderson, actually pioneered this gender-neutral trend,” she told WWD.

Among the candidates for the 2018 edition are gender-neutral designers including Younchan Chung, whose The-sirius label shows in Paris; Matthew Adams Dolan, based in New York; Faustine Steinmetz, a French designer working in London; Masayuki Ino, whose streetwear label Doublet shows in Japan; Ludovic de Saint Sernin from Paris, and GmbH, the Berlin-based collective headed by Serhat Isik and Benjamin Alexander Huseby.

Others who specialize in gender nonbinary creations are Zoe Latta and Mike Eckhaus, who recently showed their fall collection under the Eckhaus Latta label at New York Fashion Week, and Glaswegian designer Charles Jeffrey, whose Charles Jeffrey Loverboy brand encompasses a fashion label and a nightclub.

GmbH Men's Fall 2018

GmbH Men’s Fall 2018  Giovanni Giannoni/WWD

GmbH and Charles Jeffrey Loverboy are back for a second round, having been shortlisted for the prize last year. Steinmetz was a finalist in the second edition of the award.

“I feel a bit more calm,” said GmbH’s Isik. “Last time I was really, really nervous about obviously meeting all these people and being exposed like that. This time, I’m looking forward to seeing all of them again.”

Arnault said Jeffrey was back in the running because of his strong showing in knitwear and tailored men’s wear. “The strides he has made since he launched his brand a few years ago have also impressed,” the executive added.

For many designers, the benefits of participating become evident during the first round of the process: a showroom held at LVMH headquarters on March 1 and 2 during Paris Fashion Week. There they will meet the 48 experts charged with selecting the eight finalists.

Karlie Kloss and Bella Hadid recently confirmed they would be joining journalists, stylists, buyers, photographers and other fashion professionals on the committee. Last year, the GmbH designers got to know Adrian Joffe, who promptly picked up the label for his Dover Street Market chain of stores.

“The platform itself is just amazing. I mean, that’s already like a prize in itself, to have all these people talking to you. I definitely feel like it’s valuable and important for young brands like us, especially when you’re from Berlin and you don’t live in Paris, or you’re not within the scene,” said Isik.

The label staged its second runway show, featuring male and female models, during Men’s Fashion Week in Paris in January.

“We’ve been always trying to push for diversity and equality. I cut all the patterns myself and when I cut a garment, I don’t think of a man or a woman, and that almost is natural to me,” said Isik.

“I’m also super happy, although we’re coming from a men’s wear point of view, that 30 percent of our sales are actually women’s. It just shows the mind-set is sort of changing,” he added.

Winning the prize money would allow GmbH to deal with the cash-flow issues that result from expanding to 50 points of sale within 16 months of launching the brand, he said. “It would basically completely sustain us,” Isik explained.

Ludovic de Saint Sernin Spring 2018

Ludovic de Saint Sernin Spring 2018  Pascal Gambarte

De Saint Sernin has more modest ambitions: to move from his apartment-turned-atelier into a bigger space, and to buy a leather sewing machine. Having launched his label less than a year ago, the French designer has only two seasons under his belt.

“This is fantastic. I wasn’t expecting it at all,” he said of being shortlisted. “It’s a great opportunity and I think it’s going to be a real springboard toward international recognition.”

The brand’s first collection for spring 2018 is carried at The Webster in New York as a men’s and women’s offering, and it is being presented as a women’s line in Tokyo, where it has three stockists: Isetan, Addition Adelaide and Super A Market. Next season the label will be available at new-gen Los Angeles men’s wear store Departamento.

The former Balmain designer, whose spring designs included apron tops and flared pants and briefs with contrast eyelet lacing at the crotch, said he was inspired by his own way of dressing.

“It makes sense for our new generation and whether you’re a boy or a girl today, we are much more open to clothes without gender,” De Saint Sernin said. “As long as it’s cool and we like it, and it feels good, that’s the main thing.”

That view was echoed by Latta.

“At Eckhaus Latta, we make men’s and women’s clothes, some designs of which fit both very well. We want our customer to be able to shop and self-style as they wish to wear our clothing, but we also recognize that all bodies are different,” she said via e-mail from Los Angeles.

“We are excited about being in the company of so many other brands taking a unisex approach to fashion. As designers, it is unimportant to us if a ‘man’ wants to wear ‘women’s’ clothes or vice versa, so it’s wonderful to see that other designers (and customers) are leaning this way as well,” Latta added.

The brand is seeing double-digit growth through its own e-commerce business, and would welcome LVMH’s input on digital best practices, she said.

“As Eckhaus Latta grows, we continue to reinvest in the business. The prize would allow us to significantly increase the investment in operations and infrastructure, especially around our core product categories such as denim,” Latta explained.

Backstage at Eckhaus Latta RTW Fall 2018

Backstage at Eckhaus Latta RTW Fall 2018  Kelly Taub/WWD

Overall, Northern Europe was well represented this year, with designers from Norway and Poland making the list of semifinalists for the first time.

Among the others making the short list are A-Cold-Wall, a British men’s wear label designed by Samuel Ross; London-based designer Marta Jakubowski; Akikoaoki, a Japanese women’s wear brand by Akiko Aoki; Norwegian women’s wear label Edda designed by Edda Gimnes; Kwaidan Editions, a London-based women’s wear brand by Léa Dickely and Hung La; Polish women’s wear designer Magda Butrym; NIHL, a New York-based men’s wear label by Neil Grotzinger, and the Berlin-based women’s wear brand Ottolinger, designed by Christa Bösch and Cosima Gadient.

In addition, there are two Antwerp-based men’s wear brands: Botter, designed by Rushemy Botter and Lisi Herrebrugh, and Reid Baker and Ines Amorim’s Ernest W. Baker. Rounding off the list are ROKH, a London-based label by South Korean designer Rok Hwang, and Snow Xue Gao, a women’s wear label by Chinese designer Snow Gao that shows in New York.

“For the fifth edition, our focus was on creating a dynamic between very young designers and more established brands: for instance, both the young Dutch brand Botter and the more experienced Polish designer Magda Butrym have been shortlisted. But diversity in creativity is the key point of the selection,” Arnault said.

This year, candidates were asked to address an extra criterion, sustainability, on the application form. “Our focus is on finding brands that are ethically-minded but also creative. This is a challenge and we must spare no efforts in this field,” said Arnault, noting that brands like GmbH and Eckhaus Latta have sourced dead stock found on production sites, in effect upcycling certain fabrics.

As a last step, the finalists will gather in June at Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris to face a jury stacked with LVMH fashion stars: Karl Lagerfeld of Fendi; Louis Vuitton’s Nicolas Ghesquière; Marc Jacobs; Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri; Loewe artistic director Jonathan Anderson; Givenchy’s Clare Waight Keller; Haider Ackermann of Berluti, and Kenzo designers Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, among others.

The winner will follow in the footsteps of French designer Marine Serre, who took home the grand prize in the competition last year. The previous winners were Grace Wales Bonner, Thomas Tait and Marques’ Almeida.

The selection was whittled down from a record 1,300 entries from more than 90 countries. Unique in its online-only application process, the LVMH Prize is open to anyone under age 40 who has produced and sold at least two women’s or men’s ready-to-wear collections.

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