Robin Givhan: How fashion designers belie "Runway" stereotypes

Models wore Billy Reid during New York's Fashion Week in September. Designer William Reid re-launched his label in 2004.
Models wore Billy Reid during New York's Fashion Week in September. Designer William Reid re-launched his label in 2004. (Bradley Dean/associated Press)

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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2010; 12:00 AM

NEW YORK - The fashion industry perpetuates an image of a cutthroat, catty world where people would sabotage a competitor just for the sport of it. If anyone needs proof of the pervasiveness of the stereotype, look no further than "Project Runway," where contestants regularly engage in snot-nosed commentary and backhanded compliments. These reality show stars may not have much of a fashion business in real life, but when they play the role of designer on TV, they do so with a full throat of venom.

Stereotypes tend to emerge from some nugget of truth, and so there are, of course, folks on Seventh Avenue who have more attitude than talent. People who have more in common with Machiavelli than Balenciaga have built flourishing businesses. But rumors of self-conscious nastiness are exaggerated. In the rarefied world of high-end brands, where folks often have more artistic vision than financial savvy, there is no small number of safety nets and support systems designed to help newbies not only survive, but also thrive.

Competitors help each other out. Not out of some good-Samaritan complex. Not solely because it's good public relations, but because it makes economic sense.

Fashion is an industry that thrives on creativity - on the energy that emerges when interesting ideas are able to ping-pong between new designers and old ones, large companies and boutique brands. Retailers can't survive selling the same old styles. And magazines can't turn a profit if all they do is write about Ralph, Donna and Calvin. New blood is essential.

One of the most prestigious competitions for new designers is the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Awards. Now in its seventh year, the collaboration between the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the influential glossy provides young designers with business mentoring and also cold, hard cash - $300,000 for the winner.

Retailers such as Nordstrom and Barneys New York help select the winners, choosing the folks who they believe have the potential to build the next big - or medium-size - brand. Successful designers such as Coach's Reed Krakoff and management wizards like Theory's Andrew Rosen are also on the selection committee. It helps them keep an eye on their competition, while making sure their industry doesn't stagnate.

This year's awards were handed out Monday night at a dinner at Skylight Studios, where veteran designers and previous winners gathered to cheer on their colleagues. The entire evening is built around the premise that talent needs encouragement and support. In addition to handing out awards, a veteran member of the trade also delivers a short speech sharing anecdotes from when he was just starting out, and how he's maintained his success.

This year, Karl Lagerfeld, designer at Chanel and Fendi, was the one to share a bit of his biography, beginning with his entry into the fashion field in the 1950s. Don't get distracted by being dubbed a "hot, young newcomer," he said in his German-accented English with its machine-gun cadence. Too often, upstarts begin to feel charmed, cocky and invincible. Youth fades, warned Lagerfeld, who is cagey about his exact age but is known to be in his 70s. Talent, if you're lucky, lasts. In other words, craft is everything.

This year's winner was designer William Reid, whose namesake label is a celebration of classic Southern style. (Jewelry maker Eddie Borgo and women's-wear designer Prabal Gurung, whose fuchsia gown first lady Michelle Obama wore to this year's White House Correspondents' Association dinner, were runners-up, receiving $100,000 each.) Reid, a Louisiana native, is an example of the kind of perseverance required in the fashion business. He originally launched the Billy Reid brand in 1998, and in 2001 was honored by the CFDA as an up-and-coming designer. But the economic fallout from the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks sent his business spiraling into disarray. He packed his bags, headed south and settled in Florence, Ala., from where he re-launched Billy Reid in 2004.

The win, he said, underscores "the generosity of the fashion community."

Other industries might do well to take a few lessons from fashion. Seventh Avenue has managed to muddle through the economic downturn; even most of the smallest, most fragile businesses have been able to hang on. Along the way, these companies have had to adjust to a new reality. Retailers no longer risk money as quickly on new brands. Those changes have forced designers to think more clearly about their customer, their product and their reason for being.

The application process to the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund also forces a come-to-Jesus moment. Designers must have been in business for two years. They need to have actual retail clients; they can't simply be producing for private customers, friends and family. They must have a public profile. But the most important aspect of the competition is the requirement that the designers lay out a coherent business plan. They can't simply speak in terms of inspiration and red-carpet moments.

More than 100 designers applied to the fund for financial aid and mentoring. Many of the past winners applied more than once. They kept honing their message and rethinking their business until they got it right. And while winning the money is a great help to the bottom line, the mentoring is the real prize.

Television has profited by taking people into the insular world of the fashion industry and exaggerating the competition and the personal dramas. But Seventh Avenue's insularity also breeds a desire to protect its own. Designers know they have to constantly be on alert against boredom, disaffection and hubris. They have to keep consumers energized. They must constantly surprise. And the veterans know that the health of the smallest, most adventurous design house serves as a bellwether for them all.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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