Once again the fashion industry pulled out its fancy frocks, shook off its cynicism, and indulged in a meal of chicken pot pie to celebrate Seventh Avenue’s next generation of designers at the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund dinner. The Fund, now in its ninth year, provides money and mentoring to promising designers. And over time, with its impressive list of winners and finalists who continue to build their businesses and attract acclaim, the program has set an international standard for nurturing talent and breathing fresh air into an industry that thrives on innovation.
This year’s big winner was Greg Chait for his lush knitwear-based collection The Elder Statesman. Tabitha Simmons, a former stylist and wife of photographer Craig McDean, was a runner-up with her fanciful footwear. And joining Simmons on the runners-up platform was jewelry designer Jennifer Meyer, wife of actor Tobey Maguire, who thanked her grandmother for teaching her how to make enameled baubles when Meyer was just 6 years old. They will all receive business mentoring. Chait wins $300,000; Simmons and Meyer will each get $100,000.
The winners were chosen from a group of 10 finalists that included several more widely known brands such as Suno and Wes Gordon. The former, designed by Erin Beatty and Max Osterweis, has received considerable media attention due to its focus on ethically responsible production, sourcing many of its fabrics in Africa and India. And Gordon, a young man with a penchant for ladylike, socialite style, was thrust into the spotlight when first lady Michelle Obama wore his silver metallic jacket to the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards earlier this year.
Other finalists included the stylist turned designer Andrea Lieberman, the urbane sportswear label Assembly New York by Greg Armas, jewelry designer Jennifer Fisher, Florence, Italy, native Sofia Sizzi’s Giulietta collection and eyewear team Illesteva.
In past years the finalists have been dominated by New York ready-to-wear designers. This time, however, the field was more diverse with almost half the designers focused on accessories and others who were based in Los Angeles. Indeed, as part of the months-long competition, the designers presented a runway show in L.A. in front of the mandatory collection of Hollywood celebrities.
The Fashion Fund, which now has a $12 million endowment, was founded in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which left the American fashion industry reeling. Young designers, who were already operating on a shoe string, were hit particularly hard. To help them rebound, Vogue—led by editor in chief Anna Wintour—organized a group presentation, in space donated by designer Carolina Herrera, where the struggling designers could show their collections to media and retailers. That hastily organized event led to the creation of the fund. And over the years, designers including Proenza Schouler’s Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, Derek Lam, Thakoon Panichgul, Alexander Wang, Sophie Theallet, and Joseph Altuzarra have all cycled through the program. Indeed, it has become almost a rite of passage.
It has also become a tradition at the dinner for a more senior designer to give a sort of keynote address offering inspiration and a bit of commiseration. This year, Burberry’s Christopher Bailey talked about his path to becoming the creative director of a billion-dollar company.
He was introduced by Chelsea Clinton, who noted that Bailey was her friend at least a dozen times in her brief remarks, in case anyone was wondering why she was at a fashion event speaking on behalf of a fashion designer. In listing Bailey’s accomplishments—from his business acumen to his skill with social media—the youngest Clinton was as methodical as her mother. In underscoring Bailey’s authenticity and his support of younger colleagues, Clinton was as charming as her father. The combination of this potent DNA led CFDA president Diane von Furstenberg (and wife of Barry Diller, chairman and CEO of The Daily Beast’s parent company, IAC) to offer this postelection prediction: “Most of us have voted for her father. Many of us have voted for her mother. In a few years, we’ll be able to vote for her.”
The daughter of former president Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton politely demurred.
If Bailey—earnest, self-effacing—had a singular message for his audience, it was the importance of working terribly, terribly hard in an industry that can be resoundingly ridiculous. As a junior designer at Donna Karan, he recalled work days that lasted into the wee hours of the morning—albeit with the spiritual, Zen-master quirks for which Karan has become known. A masseuse would arrive at 3 a.m. for stress relief. By 4 a.m. they’d all be chanting over the fabric—for reasons he has yet to understand. At 5 a.m. Demi Moore would arrive for a fitting.
When he interviewed with Tom Ford for a job at Gucci, he recalled walking into a large darkened conference room to meet Ford who was dressed in a white shirt “unbuttoned to his navel” and wearing a large gold belt buckle. Bailey got the job and proceeded to “work like a whirling dervish.”
After five years at Gucci, he got the call to come to Burberry and reinvent the British brand, which had grown musty and stale. His days there began at 6:30 in the morning and didn’t end until sometime around 9 p.m. “The first five years were the most intense of my professional life,” he said.
A career in fashion is not for those seeking glamour, he said. It’s for those with passion. He then ticked off a few key lessons he has learned. Fashion can be too insular, so seek counsel from outside the industry. Be yourself and don’t try to mold yourself into some cliché of a fashion designer. Remember your values.And finally, he said, dreaming is profitable. There was a room full of young designers hoping desperately that is so.