Every year the American fashion industry celebrates itself by handing out awards under the auspices of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Seventh Avenue is a particularly insular club -- rarely has anyone based outside New York ever been honored -- and so the list of nominees has a repetitive quality. The award for womenswear design, in particular, feels a bit like a baton that has been passed around among a small coterie of designers. And the nominations for menswear design sometimes have the ring of desperation. Designers who don't even have a full men's collection have been nominated, in part because the pickings are so slim.
But one of the most problematic categories has been the Perry Ellis Award, which is meant to celebrate rising talent. Oftentimes, there has been precious little new talent worth getting excited about. And so, in order to round out the list of nominees, any designer who managed to pull together a fairly decent collection had a reasonable chance of receiving a nod from the industry.
This year, however, things are different. The three designers nominated for the Perry Ellis Award in ready-to-wear each make a strong case for taking home the prize when the honors are handed out in New York on June 7. Even more reassuring, the list of viable nominees could have been even longer. This time, there was no grasping for anyone who'd had a bolt of fabric and the nerve to put on a show.
Nominees Zac Posen, Derek Lam and Patrick Robinson, who designs under the Perry Ellis label, each bring something unique and valuable to the fashion industry.
Posen, with his skill for creating buzz and his flamboyant display of technique, brings old-fashioned feminine glamour to the fore. His work has more sex appeal than that of designers who play to the limited audience of young New York socialites.
Lam, who worked for years with designer Michael Kors, shares his mentor's eye for clean lines and luxurious fabrics, but his collections have a saucy, coquettish sensibility that renders them charming but never saccharine.
In one year, Robinson has succeeded in bringing an eccentric, eclectic point of view to a mid-priced clothing line that, before his arrival, lacked personality and direction. He, too, never loses sight of a woman's feminine side.
Beyond these designers, there are others whose names also are not well-known but who have presented collections filled with promise. Jeffrey Chow, Peter Som and Behnaz Sarafpour all showed collections infused with energy and a clear personal aesthetic. Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, the team behind Proenza Schouler -- last year's Perry Ellis winner -- continue to impress with their adventurous collections. And there are others such as Sebastian Pons, and Alexandre Plokhov and Robert Geller -- the team behind the menswear line Cloak -- who have something interesting and unique to say.
None of these designers is striving to become the next enfant terrible of fashion. They are not plagued by rumors of illicit or raucous behavior, although Posen has been caught more than once in the paparazzi flashes as he danced into the wee hours. The work of these designers is more uptown than downtown. It is polished and sophisticated, unconcerned with signifying detached cool or displaying self-conscious ugliness. Only the nonchalant night-prowler style of Cloak is an exception to this rule. Mostly these designers are creating elegant clothes with the potential for broad appeal.
This is welcome news to an industry fixated on a handful of designers who have become set in their ways. None of these newer talents has yet become a "personality" or a brand. For the time being, attention is focused on the clothes above all else. In time, one or more of them may emerge as bona fide stars, able to draw attention to the industry by force of charisma. That, too, is important. But before fashion can worry about the stardust, it needs to make sure that its foundation is sound. Refreshingly, the new talent runs deep.