Emerging designers: new ways to forge a (long-lasting) reputation
The digital revolution, climate change, the power of social media, new consumption attitudes, the rising influence of Chinese consumers and the transformation of the distribution sector, with the e-commerce explosion and Millennials coming of age on the market: these, and many other factors have radically transformed the fashion industry in the last few years, fostering a new, hyper-competitive global environment to which emerging designers and fashion start-ups must adapt in order to survive. FashionNetwork.com assessed the situation by talking to experts and designers in Trieste, Italy, at the ITS (International Talent Support) emerging designer competition. Since 2002, ITS has been shining a spotlight on talented new stylists, many of them going on to make a name for themselves in fashion, from Demna Gvasalia, creative director of Balenciaga, to Peter Pilotto, to the Creative Director of Iceberg, James Long, to Mark Fast, Richard Quinn, Astrid Andersen and Yuima Nakazato.
“The strong yearning to launch a label in their own name is still there. It’s the same as it was fifteen years ago. However, the way emerging designers are going about it has changed. In the past, after they left fashion school, it used to take them longer to understand which direction to take. They were far less mature in this respect. Nowadays, there is greater awareness of the issues they will have to deal with,” said Barbara Franchin, who founded ITS in 2002.
“Of course, the way in which we perceive and assess them has changed too. Digital tools are now ubiquitous in the fashion world, and we are accustomed to turn everything into digital images in a flash. For students who are about to graduate, it’s no longer sufficient to present a sketch to be picked, their collections must be virtually complete. Previously, the [ITS] jury plumped for the project, for the endeavour. Now they are warier, they want something concrete,” added Franchin.
The geography of creativity has also changed. “The dominant days of London’s Central Saint Martins and of the Antwerp fashion academy are over. And so are Europe’s glory days. Now, Asia is dominant. Of the 22 finalists in the fashion and accessories categories this year, 11 came from Asia: six from China, four from Japan and one from South Korea,” said Franchin. Indeed, Chinese designer Daoyuan Ding won the competition’s 17th edition, held on July 12.
Focusing on sustainability, the new way of being creative
German designer Michael Kampe, 32, is part of the ‘old order’. He caught the eye at the Trieste competition in 2010, winning the Diesel prize, when he was still studying at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. After an internship at Diesel, he was hired as junior designer for the Italian denim label, and later moved to Scotch & Soda and Hugo Boss, before becoming the creative director of Lee Jeans last year. “In my opinion, the web’s globalised information exchange is the main impediment to fashion creativity. As soon as you have an idea, you discover on the web that someone else has already developed it! It's totally frustrating and inhibiting. Not knowing was actually an opportunity for us,” said Kampe.
However, Kampe considers the themes of sustainable development and inclusivity as “major opportunities for young designers. They provide [designers] with additional motivation, and this stimulates creativity. Through fashion, designers are able to have a genuine impact on society and culture. They can create beautiful products, each time asking themselves how they could do more to improve the environment. The new generation of designers needs to learn to create fashion using fewer material and resources, delivering a clear message and having a greater impact on society,” said Kampe.
Engagement becomes an important element of the creative process, while in the past designers were driven above all by aesthetics. “Wherever they come from, young designers are well aware that fashion is the world’s second most polluting industry. Nowadays, the majority of them take this issue into consideration, it's very encouraging,” said Belgian designer Glenn Martens, creative director of Y/Project.
Martens observed that budding designers “are highly focused on the raw materials they use for their collections. They work in a very artisanal way, relying on their manual skills. Volumes are a secondary consideration, while my generation was more concerned with the way garments are constructed, with tailoring.”
But the road to recognition is long and complex, said Martens, winner of the ANDAM Prize in 2017: “As for every generation, it remains a complicated business. The industry is ultra-saturated. To emerge, you need first of all to believe in yourself, be smart, open-minded, and also honest with yourself, in other words to persevere, without pulling the wool over your eyes. Each case is unique, in the end. You might succeed because you are a distinctive designer, because you have the right connections, or other reasons. It takes a combination of different elements, and some luck on top of it.”
With a style as daring as it is innovative, Martens has been able to weave all these elements together, as shown by his career. “In a society where personal image is paramount, I didn't expect a label like mine to generate so much interest,” said Martens, who now has to deal with the issue of managing his label’s growth. “We have reached a crucial stage: our minimum production lots have increased, forcing us to work with bigger manufacturers. For them, we are still small fry however, and we are last in line, while our creations are very tricky to produce,” he added.
The industry is polarised: major labels at one end, small independent ones at the other
Though the environment is tough and extremely competitive, emerging designers now have a unique opportunity, according to Stefano Martinetto, CEO of the Tomorrow London Holdings agency [which offers fashion designers a multi-service platform featuring production, distribution, marketing and communications]: “The fashion market is transitioning towards a polarisation comparable to that of the music industry. On one side, big luxury groups, like the music majors, are shifting their labels towards a model almost exclusively based on direct retail sales. On the other, multibrand retailers, stripped of the leading labels, are overhauling their approach. Like art galleries, they need to interact with artists, to liven up their stores with initiatives, as the music industry does to launch a new album, while at the same time there exist platforms like Tomorrow which team up with independent labels, the equivalent of indies in pop music.”
Unable to access major fashion labels, multibrand retailers are showing an increasingly strong appetite for novelty, and the amount of room they dedicate to independent labels will gradually extend. “Given this context, it has never been so easy for emerging designers to enter the market, provided they have a unique vision and the ability, more so than in the past, to develop their project,” said Martinetto.
Emerging designers increasingly need to play the part of orchestra conductor. “Talent is necessary, but it’s no longer sufficient. Having a global vision is a must,” said Valentina Maggi of HR consulting agency Floriane de Saint-Pierre & Associés. “Nowadays, a creative director must be capable of putting together a flawless fashion collection, but must also have a very clear vision of what a label can be, whether it’s their own or not. They are regarded as fully fledged brand activators, expertly combining both social media and visual communication,” said Maggi. Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton and Olivier Rousteing at Balmain are prime examples of this new generation of eclectic, influential designers.
“To create their own brand, the latest generation of stylists must be business-oriented from the outset. Thanks to the web, they can interact directly with their audience and sell without intermediaries, while their predecessors had to go via showrooms and press offices. This is a much faster route to success, provided they resort to established distribution organisations and partnerships. In this way, they are able to build an eco-system which will ensure their survival. The problem is that the majority of [emerging designers] still focus exclusively on their collections,” said Maggi.
The delicate balance between creativity, commercialisation and communication
The web has made it possible to cut costs across the board, from communication to distribution. But funding their label remains a major problem for designers, both emerging and more established ones, especially in terms of raw material sourcing and garment production. Not to mention that, to win over buyers, they often need to produce at a loss for three or four seasons, if not more.
Of course, rookie designers now have many more chances of garnering support than in the past, thanks to designer competitions, which have multiplied in the last few years, and to the business incubators and mentoring programmes developed by fashion industry institutions in various countries. Yet, they don’t always manage to grab these opportunities. “There is so much competition. Many simply don’t realise that no one will wait for them. And often they don’t like listening to our advice,” said Luca Rizzi, in charge of the Tutoring & Consulting division of Italian show organiser Pitti Immagine.
Echoing Maggi’s words, Rizzi underlined the importance of having a comprehensive project: “The market does recognise storytelling and communication, and not simply products. A label must have a coherent concept. Sometimes young designers hit the market with just one idea, a single product, with no depth. No one asks them to know everything and to be the complete package, but from the outset they must have a more global kind of approach, with a vision and a plan for the next three/four years at least. Successful designers need to have a comprehensive skill set, from design to communications.”
According to Aitor Throup, a designer who notably worked for Dutch denim brand G-Star Raw, and now spearheads his own label, New Object Research, “the worst enemy of a designer is impatience, the temptation to launch their own brand when they aren’t ready. Creating a label means striking the right balance between the collections, communication and commercialisation, while the choice of distribution platform is a strategic one. You need to design a winning product with a strong, clear message, addressing three fundamental questions: Why? How? What? Without clarity, there is no brand,” concluded Throup.
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