HYERES, France — Are Europe’s young designers — long partial to the revolutionary, experimental or flat-out weird — finally getting practical?
If the 19th annual International Festival of Fashion Arts earlier this month in this sleepy Riviera town is a reliable barometer, it would appear so. And it comes at a difficult time for upstart collections.
Two laureates at this year’s four-day competition, which has been a springboard for names such as Viktor & Rolf and Alexandre Matthieu, showed polished collections of impeccably cut dresses and chic trenchcoats. But lest the festival lose its edgy reputation, the jury -— with members including designers Anna Sui, Martine Sitbon, Christophe Charon and Gibo’s Franco Pene — selected a wackier winner, too.
The grand prize was split between France’s Richard René — a former hand at Jean Paul Gaultier and Hermès who showed elegant dresses with hidden zippers — and a funny Mod-inspired collection of oversized coats made to fasten around Vespa scooters by Britain’s Sarah Swash and Toshio Yamanaka.
Meanwhile, Switzerland’s Daniel Ledermann’s low-plunging dresses, black coats and sweaters, earned — along with the aforementioned two — a prize from France’s 1-2-3 fast-fashion firm, which will manufacture and retail all three collections.
The soft-spoken René merited an additional feather in his cap: Nordstrom will help produce his collection and sell it in five of its stores. René also gets a trip to the U.S., where he will meet with Nordstrom customers, stage fashion shows and sell his clothes.
“It’s a modern and elegant collection,” said Suzanne Patneaude, executive vice president of designer apparel at Nordstrom. “It’s full of commercial ideas that can translate to the customer. It’s clean and it’s sophisticated.”
Overall, the level of fashion impressed the jury. “It’s a good vintage,” said Sitbon, who has sat on the jury here several times. “They have struck a good balance between creation and commerce.”
But given the difficult environment for young designers, many wondered if it would be wise for the winners to strike out on their own, recalling that many promising European talents — including Jean Paul Knott, Eric Bergère and Jurgi Persoons — have gone belly up in recent years.
Marc Gysemans, the owner of Gysemans clothing in Belgium that controls and produces Veronique Branquinho and Raf Simons, said he wouldn’t dream of financing another upstart today. “The market for young designers is at a low ebb,” he said. “It is extremely difficult. I can’t imagine anyone breaking even right now.”
Franco Pene — who owns Gibo, the Italian manufacturer that produces and distributes ready-to-wear collections for Marc Jacobs, Viktor & Rolf, Michael Kors and Paul Smith, among others —suggested designers gain experience and a taste for realism by working for other houses before they give it a go on their own.
Recently, the festival has tried to provide practical assistance to young designers. The 1-2-3, Nordstrom and Henri Bendel prize, which this year went to Michel van der Meide’s collection of parachute dresses, have all been developed to give designers a venue in which to sell their ideas.
This time, Italian fabric factory Punto Seta also will produce an original print fabric for each of the 10 designers who participated in the festival.
But it takes more than financial support for a young designer to succeed, experts at the festival said. It requires the right psychology and a keen understanding that fashion goes beyond image and is, at its essence, a business like any other.
“What is the best way to help a young designer today?” asked Jean Jacques Picart, an industry consultant in Paris. “Beyond giving them money to produce their clothes, it’s to make them aware of the risks and the possible errors. In this business, you seldom get a second chance.”
Among the most common mistakes young designers make, Picart said, is to work mainly at impressing the press and forgetting that clothes are made for real women.
“Gaining recognition from the press is easy,” continued Picart. “But it’s dangerous because many young designers forget who they are. Designers emerge when manufacturers and buyers have money to invest. Right now, that’s not the case.”
Michael Michalsky, global creative director for Adidas, said the changing retail landscape also has complicated things for young designers. “The fast-fashion giants have made it very hard for young designers,” he said. “They have the trends in the store for cheap, [just] weeks after they’ve been on the runway. I think a young designer today who concentrates on a more luxurious product would have more of a chance. But that’s expensive and difficult to produce.”
Michalsky said he’s noticed that many of the young designers who apply for jobs at Adidas also have much to learn in the areas of manufacturing and planning a collection.
“All the young people coming out of fashion schools want to be designers,” added Gibo’s Pene. “But they all can’t make it. Many would be better advised to become merchandisers or pattern designers — fields in which there are many jobs.”