In a world of first-name basis creative directors, where does fashion find its next stars? The marquee names continue to drive the industry—the Virgils, Kims, Rafs, Thoms, Toms, and Hedis write most of the stories of our wardrobes. But if the pandemic has meant one thing for younger designers outside that canon, it’s that it has only become more difficult for emerging and young designers to establish themselves, let alone get their name in circulation for those plum luxury house jobs. Who’s the next Hedi, or the next Raf, and how will we find them?
In recent years, the LVMH Prize has been one such star-spotting mechanism. The annual accolade, bestowed by the luxury conglomerate of the same name, has become a reliable way to celebrate and support fashion’s most significant new talents, and it has reliably the industry’s most buzzed-about emerging designers: Hood By Air won the inaugural prize, in 2014, and Thebe Magugu, Grace Wales Bonner, and Marine Serre are all recent winners. The winner receives €300,000 and a year of mentoring from fashion’s crown jewel conglomerate, and those riches have come to signal a kind of industry security. The winners’ collections pretty reliably garner media attention, and their names often crop up when a designer leaves a big-wig job.
But last spring, LVMH decided to split the prize among the eight finalists, who included Nicholas Daley, Priya Ahluwahlia, Casablanca’s Charaf Tajer, and others, so that each received €40,000 and mentoring. It was a savvy way for LVMH to address the effects of the pandemic, which disproportionately affected emerging and independent designers. But the change also set off a new twist in the industry: the prize as a grant, or a lifeline.
Over in the United States, the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund also shifted its strategy. Last year, it launched A Common Thread, an initiative to assist designers whose businesses were suffering from the pandemic. This year’s prize continued that program, and was open not only to new designers but also to past recipients and finalists, as well as beneficiaries of the Common Thread program. “The program’s new format aims to help the designers better navigate and thrive in fashion’s future,” as Tom Ford, the CFDA Chairman, put it in the press release. Its winners were not exactly next big things: there were familiar names like Eckhaus Latta, Willy Chavarria, and Batsheva alongside younger brands like Hanifa (who went viral last summer for her 3D fashion show) and Kenneth Nicholson. It revealed more about the state of young American designers who are past the “emerging” label than it did about those who are gunning for that label presently.
Just as the big brands aren’t the only players in style, a few smaller concerns have hopped into the prize-doling business. In April, Mr Porter announced Mr Porter Futures, a new mentoring program to mark the site’s 10th anniversary: it will select three designers to develop capsule collections and undergo mentorship from Mr Porter’s team and a panel of experts, including designers Nicholas Daley and Reese Cooper. The goal, Mr Porter buying director Sam Kershaw wrote by email, “was to utilize our global platform and reach to draw upon undiscovered talent from around the world and outside of the traditional fashion wheelhouse – fashion schools, internships, etc.” He added that “we are not requiring any formal experience” for applicants. Instead, “what we’re looking for is raw talent, original voice, and well-conceived ideas.”
Similarly, the LA-based brand Amiri has launched its own prize, with similarly egalitarian aims. “The AMIRI Prize aims to create another platform for independent designers who have not necessarily come up through the conventional route,” Mike Amiri wrote in an email. “It provides additional resources to creatives who have vision and purpose, but not necessarily the industry support needed to make it to the next level.” Amiri’s prize comes from a recognition that old ways of anointing stars aren’t necessarily a fit for our current fashion moment. Fewer designers are emerging through the traditional avenues, especially as streetwear continues to dominate design—so what’s the best way to support those designers? “Success in this industry is tied to having the opportunity to take a seat at the table and express your voice,” Amiri said. “This prize aims to facilitate an avenue for those new voices to be heard.”
Together, these programs suggest a larger shift: away from a system eager to anoint and swallow up young stars, and towards providing the support and infrastructure a young designer needs to become a mid-career designer. In other words, Raf Simons just before he was a inspired pick to lead Jil Sander, rather than Raf Simons at the head of Prada.
It’s far too soon to speculate, but this new wave of prizes makes me wonder if the end of the era of the rock star creative director is somewhere on the horizon—if the idea that to make it as a designer, you have to get scooped up by a conglomerate that appoints you the head of a heritage house and puts a little money in the pocket of your own brand no longer fits the moment. In late April, LVMH announced the eight finalists for this year’s prize, and in one sense, it seems things are back to business as usual: just one winner will be announced in September. But the names were enticingly fresh, including buzzy talents like Christopher John Rogers and Bianca Saunders but also talents from outside fashion’s capitals that were truly new even to insiders, like Bogota-based Kika Vargas, Shanghai-based Rui, and the South African designer Lukhanyo Mdingi. At the same time, LVMH announced that it was reshuffling some of its mid-tier corporate appointments—hitting pause on Rihanna’s Fenty label, and bidding adieu to Kenzo’s Felipe Oliveira Baptista and Berluti’s Kris Van Assche. (Kenzo will likely have a new designer; Berluti, intriguingly, likely will not.)
Together, these moves suggest that one of the biggest fashion companies in the world is rethinking the best way to support young talent. Refreshingly, it all seems done with that young talent actually top of mind. For the Gen Z and millennial superstar designers of the future, running your own independent business, with a mentorship under the luxury industry’s sharpest corporate minds, may be a far healthier picture of success than the old model of moving to Paris to work two jobs.