Zac Posen sat down with WWD’s Jenny B. Fine at the StyleMmakers luncheon to discuss how he designs for the red carpet, its impact on his business, the importance of social media and what he’s learned from being on camera.
WWD: Katie Holmes gave you a great introduction. Is it more difficult or easier to dress a friend for the red carpet?
Zac Posen: When the trust is there and the whole team trusts you the responsibility is really high. I would never want to disappoint the agent, the manager, the stylist, the makeup artist and the community that’s all around them because there’s such a high-octane emphasis on all these moments. The people I’m close with get me and get my work and eventually they just get the best pieces out of the studio.
WWD: You became a designer at a very young age and immediately became known for this very glamorous aesthetic. How did that develop? How did you merge the world of art and Hollywood and fashion?
Z.P.: I grew up in lower Manhattan and my father is an artist. At a very young age he recorded everything on VHS and I saw so many inappropriate movies at such an early age. I think the visuals enchanted me. My older sister and I loved the classics. We were raised on Judy Garland and “Singing in the Rain.” I wanted to be a singer, then my voice changed and I got into the costume shop. I started my company with a very entrepreneurial dream, as my mom said, “on air and interns.”
WWD: What was that dream?
Z.P.: To be able create in its purest form and to be able to empower women and represent the beauty of diversity and the beauty of women of all ages and all body shapes and in a beautiful and powerful light. I think that’s what started bringing me into actors and artists and performers. The first big moment for us was with Natalie Portman. I picked a dress that I knew would print well in newsprint.
WWD: Tell us about that dress.
Z.P.: It was the “Star Wars” premiere and I knew her because of a kid in my building in New York. We were the same age and he ended up going to Harvard with Natalie. One day she came to visit him and came down to the loft where my first studio was and she tried on the dress. It was black-and-white and called the Empire State dress, the opening look of my first full fashion show. She wore it and the next day the dress was on the cover of most of the New York newspapers and it created this momentum. I was flown out here by American Vogue and I had a trunk show at Tracey Ross. The next day in the L.A. Times, we had a huge profile. Then all the Rolls Royces from the Hills started driving down and these incredible grande dames came out and I thought I was living “Sunset Boulevard.” The great actress Anjelica Huston came in and introduced herself. The community here immediately began this great dialogue and rapport and I started seeing the stylists come about. That was the beginning of seeing this whole enterprise taking off.
WWD: So the red carpet helped establish your company. What kind of impact does it have today on your business? Is it a mandate for designers?
Z.P.: It’s very important for the right brand. Not every brand is a glamour brand. Not every red carpet is a glamour moment. For me it’s hugely important. It’s enabled my company to have global visibility and synergies with media. It became an essential building block and in terms financially, it can make a piece a bestseller worldwide. You can also have moments when something doesn’t go as wished, but you kind of have to trust your gut. Life is really too short and if you have friends and want to put them in something no matter what the result is, you want the collaborators to feel wonderful about themselves and dream to become what they want to become.
WWD: How do you view a red-carpet commission?
Z.P.: Sometimes pieces get called in and it becomes kind of a roll of the dice collaboration because there’s lots of other powers that be. There is a business behind this for a lot of brands. But at that point, I try to take the best care possible. It is a top priority among designated people in my company and myself and as much as they’ll let us, we will be as collaborative as possible. There is a real mutual respect. I love performers and the whole behind-the-scenes grease paint and smoke and mirrors of it. I think Hollywood has been a very impactful important force globally. Movies gave women a real strong voice and represented strong female archetypes. As soon as we got talkies, that happened. We saw women using it for themselves to grow their own careers.
WWD: How does social media impact how you approach the red carpet?
Z.P.: Social media has evolved the whole game. People are addicted to their phones. You have to think how a piece photographs. The more I grow as a creator, I have to say that I get less worried about that and more focused on the experience of the garment itself. But for the red carpet, it’s essential. There are visceral things that humans react to. There are colors that are emotional, clothing that expresses things about vitality, emotion, sex. You can play with that and it becomes a dialogue. I don’t ever feel pressure to keep up the game because I think having pauses from dressing sometimes creates more anticipation and excitement, but at the same time, I feel a great responsibility to the loyalty of great performers who come back to me and ask me to dress them. I’ve taken chances when people aren’t so popular for the moment. I don’t care about that. I know talent and star quality when I see it and I go for that and get inspired by that.
WWD: When an actress has a big red-carpet event, what do you think is the right balance of power and opinions between the actress, her stylist and the designer?
Z.P.: A lot of the times the designer is taken out of it. I’ve had opportunities when I am allowed into fitting and when I’m not. I like to be there to check on the hem length and the comfort of it. I’ve watched it evolve. The financials behind it are enormous. It’s important for large brands to have this presence and get their name out in millions of media hits to be all over social media. I’ve had to do it renegade, rogue.
WWD: And you’ve been very clear about the fact that you don’t pay actresses.
Z.P.: Well, it’s silly. Maybe one day I will, but at this moment I’m not. I can’t. That’s the reality. I think the quality of clothing speaks to itself. Sometimes it feels demoralizing. You get excited to make a classic fishtail gown which became part of our signature, but at the end of the day when those flashes are so bright, however it’s going to be constructed, they are going to wear what works for them.
WWD: You are in front of the camera as well as behind the scenes. How has that impacted your approach to dressing celebrities? Has it given you a different perspective?
Z.P.: I feel a responsibility to represent fashion, people building a business, or people who have a dream to build a career on their creativity, when I’m on the carpet. I try to make an example to a much larger public. Being on TV is something that I really didn’t expect. When we started our company, a big network came to me and wanted to do a reality show. We probably should have done it, but we didn’t and over the years we have played in with media and entertainment, then this great opportunity came with “Project Runway.” I started to learn my weekly ratings in every demographic and I love the process. I learn a lot from Heidi Klum who is an incredible delegator and knows a lot about performance and how to do the one-liners and pickups. I went to musical summer camp as a kid and I feel like I got it back every summer as I shoot “Runway.” It’s about people expanding their vision, that’s what fashion does and entertainment does, makes people touch into their emotions and understand they can dream, too.