Phillip Lim at the CFDA Awards
Um, I said it first: Fashion Manifesto
Don’t misunderstand, I’m usually a fan of Eric Wilson’s reporting but today’s NYT’s article is too little too late. The angle: celebrity designers are getting a competitive edge in a world usually negotiated best by designers. He got the right names, the photos, and vanilla quotes from successful designers like Diane von Furstenberg and even from the celebrity designers (an Olsen)– but what about recent grads who will be milled into these celebrity brand-builders? The questions were soft, obviously designed to placate rather than provoke and overall the article was utterly disappointing– not unlike the celebrity’s lines.– Joanne Molina for Second City Style
By ERIC WILSON
ON Monday night, the 33-year-old designer
Phillip Lim, who worked quietly behind the scenes in other designers’
studios for a decade before putting his name on a label that is now
sold at Neiman Marcus, won the fashion industry’s highest award for
emerging talent. Yet his obvious pleasure at being recognized by the Council of Fashion Designers of America
at its annual ceremony must have been tempered by the fact that he was
handed his statuette by two women who also call themselves young
designers — Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.
The ubiquitous celebrity
twins, who turn 21 next week, had been invited by the fashion industry
to present awards for rising stars at the New York Public Library.
This fall, the Olsens are introducing a collection that will compete
with Mr. Lim, and they would not mind someday being nominated for the
award he won.
“You think, ‘Wow, how unfair,’ ” Mr. Lim said last
week before the awards, after reading an article in Women’s Wear Daily
about the Olsens’ plans to expand their marketing, fashion and
lip-gloss empire — estimated by Forbes in 2003 to have sales of $1.4
billion — into the contemporary clothing market, the industry’s
catch-all term for trendy sportswear lines like Vince and Theory, as
well as that of Mr. Lim.
While sewing his own tuxedo for the
awards ceremony in his garment district loft, Mr. Lim described a
growing frustration among his peers as they face an onslaught of
competing labels from celebrities. The Olsen twins, whose earlier
merchandise was aimed at tweens and sold in mass stores like Wal-Mart,
have grown up and moved on to try the adult market. They have a
high-end designer line called the Row, which is sold at Barneys New
York. On Monday night, they wore their new label, Elizabeth and James
(named for their unfamous siblings), whereas not long ago they might
have worn the designs of someone like Mr. Lim.
There is a great
paradox here. For decades fashion has courted celebrities. It
encouraged pop stars who moonlighted as designers, like Sean Combs, Jennifer Lopez
and Gwen Stefani, to stage runway shows for flashy jeans and
confectionary hot-pants ensembles. Mr. Combs, partly for his oversize
personality and courtship of key players like Anna Wintour and Tom Ford, was nominated for awards for years and won for best men’s wear in 2004. It seemed harmless fun.
now a number of designers are not so sure. Mr. Lim, who expects his
collection to reach $30 million in sales this year and plans to open a
store in SoHo next month, said the chances of a young designer
surviving in the business today are “slim to none.” By contrast,
celebrity lines like those of Mr. Combs and Ms. Lopez typically break
the $100 million mark in sales in their first or second year, thanks to
the power of a star name hitched to a huge marketing campaign. And they
almost always begin with a lucrative fragrance deal, whereas it takes
years for traditional designers to get the attention of companies like
Estée Lauder or Coty.
“Celebrities have made it harder for real
designers,” said Vera Wang, who won the top fashion council award for
women’s design in 2005 and has designed for more than three decades.
a big open field out there now, like the Wild, Wild West,” Ms. Wang
said. “You could be competing against a television or movie star for a
fragrance deal, and that’s an added pressure for designers. We’re
working really hard to keep our heads above water, and does the public
differentiate, or care? Those are big questions. The most obvious
impact is in fragrance, but certainly in apparel we’re feeling it now
The struggle of talented designers is an old lament.
On top of familiar pressures — the contracting number of department
stores, the difficulty of finding financing, the fickleness of
consumers —some designers are now waking up to realize they are
competing with celebrities for market share. With the likes of Sarah
Jessica Parker, Jennifer Lopez and Paris Hilton jumping into the
high-end department-store tier of the fragrance business, celebrities
have grabbed 10 percent of that $2.8 billion market, as of 2005,
whereas a decade ago their presence barely registered.
suggested that Ms. Parker, who introduced a casual apparel collection
for the T-shirt chain Steve & Barry’s last month, should begin
wearing only her own clothes at public events. To play by the new rules
of the business, Ms. Wang is creating a lower-priced line for Kohl’s,
which will compete with a collection by Daisy Fuentes.
about the talent that “real” designers bring to their craft? Doesn’t
that skill and artisanship matter to consumers, compared with the brute
marketing muscle behind a line like, say, Kate Moss’s recent collection
for Topshop, which was copied from pieces by other designers that were
in the model’s closet?
Diane Von Furstenberg, the president of
the designer council, argued that most celebrity collections, unlike
those of its high-end members, are intended for a mass market. “I can
see that the young designers fear they can get overpowered,” she said,
“but they shouldn’t, because talent wins out.”
event, which in its earliest incarnation was the invention of the
fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert to promote American designers as a
group, comes across today as a competitive sport between designers to
draw the attention of photographers, resulting in the spectacle on
Monday of Michael Kors posing with Heidi Klum, Liya Kebede and Debra Messing as Charlie’s Angels at the end of the red carpet.
The courtship of celebrities for publicity remains a fact of business one could not overlook at the awards, where Ralph Lauren was introduced by Oprah Winfrey,
Uma Thurman wore a dress designed by Zac Posen, and the Proenza
Schouler designers, Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, who shared
with Oscar de la Renta the award for women’s wear designer of the year, arrived with Kate Bosworth in one of their designs.
culture’s heightened focus on fashion encourages designers to raise
their personal profiles. “Post Tom Ford, fashion has become a very
different place,” said Thakoon Panichgul, who was also nominated for
the honor Mr. Lim won. “There was so much globalization of fashion
before when Tom Ford was the ‘it boy’ and because of that, people
expect more of a designer. You have to do more than one job. You have
to be out and about and be very sociable.”
The Olsen twins, whose
offbeat personal style of excessive layering and oversize proportions
has had as much influence on modern fashion as Seventh Avenue, seemed
to recognize this social aspect of the designer job, serving as hosts
to a fashion industry dinner with the Swarovski crystal company on
“At the end of the night, we’re going to go home
like everyone else and wake up tomorrow and go back to work,” Ashley
Olsen said at the party. She and her sister mingled with seasoned
designers like Ms. Von Furstenberg, Arnold Scaasi and Pierre Cardin,
85, the apotheosis of old school licensing, whose name is on more than
800 products, with a volume of about $1.5 billion. That is comparable
to the sales of the Olsens.
“We live in a media-crazed culture,
where it’s all about celebrity,” said Daniel Silver, who with Steven
Cox makes up the Duckie Brown design team, which was also nominated for
an award. Mr. Silver said they could not compare the work of
celebrities to their own, but they acknowledge that sharing the stage
with them has had an impact on the psyche of the modern designer.
is no sense of enough there,” Mr. Silver said. “Being self-funded, it’s
always a struggle. Quite often, if you are somewhat successful, and
slightly lucky, you still tend to implode anyway.”
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