It is a well known truth that fashion can be a notoriously difficult, competitive and enervating industry, especially for an enthusiastic young designer starting out with limited funds and scant business knowledge. There is mounting pressure to design and produce numerous collections with a unique signature that pleases both press and buyer. Perhaps the most acute cycle of strain— that has felled many a top designer—is to maintain consistent profitability in an unstable luxury economy. It is crucial for recognised experts to nurture and encourage new talent if we are to enjoy a fashion landscape that contains more than high street landfill. Which is why the November 2013 announcement of the inaugural LVMH Young Fashion Designer Prize, spearheaded by Delphine Arnault, executive vice-president of Louis Vuitton, has instantly become the most prestigious and coveted award in fashion.
The international prize is open to any designer under 40 working in either men’s or women’s wear, with the requisite of having produced two or more collections. “You can apply only through the internet,” says Delphine Arnault. “We think this is one of the strong points of the prize: anyone in the world who has a computer can send their file and have a chance to be selected.” The panel of judges is astonishing and presumably somewhat terrifying, having been comprised of some of the world’s top designers (from the LVMH stable bien sur), including Jonathan Anderson, Nicolas Ghesquière, Marc Jacobs, Raf Simons, Karl Lagerfeld, Phoebe Philo, Riccardo Tisci, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim. The jury also includes numerous business experts including LVMH’s Delphine Arnault, Pierre-Yves Roussel and Jean Paul Claveries, for the potential success of a maison is not based solely on aesthetics. The winner receives a substantial €300,000 grant and a one year mentorship, which provides invaluable insights into the real and very tough business of fashion. The mentorship means personalised insight is available from all the areas of expertise in the LVMH group: production and distribution, image and communication, marketing and intellectual property. “This sponsorship initiative reflects the values of our group. Our designers single out the talent of tomorrow and they are rewarded and supported through the development of their house,” affirms Arnault, who has been a member of the LVMH board since 2003 and has a degree from the London School of Economics and the EDHEC Business School. “It’s a passion of course, but also a responsibility I think, to discover young designers and help them grow.”
Our designers single out the talent of tomorrow and they are rewarded and supported through the development of their house,
Interestingly, the recipients of the first three awards have been London based graduates from the renowned Central Saint Martins College. The first LVMH Prize winner in 2014 was Thomas Tait, a Canadian born designer based in London, whose women’s wear design philosophy is architectural, fluid and graphic. Tait completed his studies in Montreal and at 21 was the youngest graduate ever to receive an MA from Saint Martins. Like many designers starting out, his entry into fashion came with a sense of youthful optimism. “I had absolutely no money but was so naïve that I didn’t realize the enormity of what I was doing” he admitted to W Magazine. After winning the LVMH prize, Tait was selected to present at Fall/Winter 2015 Fashion Week in London. He presented a polished, yet decidedly experimental collection described as a ‘sci-fi Spaghetti Western’. It was, according to Tait “a nice reflection of how the prize influenced and elevated my brand”; critics and buyers, including Kanye West front row, agreed wholeheartedly. “The idea that something can be disorienting is fascinating,” said an impressed Tim Blanks post-show. “That makes him somebody you need to watch.”
The more established London based women’s wear brand, Marques’Almeida, created by Portuguese designers Marta Marques and Paulo Almeida received the 2015 LVMH Prize. The pair first met at fashion school in Portugal before reconnecting during their MA at Central Saint Martins. Deciding to join forces as Marques’Almeida in 2011, the label has showed at London Fashion Week since 2013. They won the Emerging Talent—Womenswear Award at the British Fashion Awards in 2014, and were also on the shortlist for the LVMH Prize in the same year. Their collections hit a sweet spot, using techniques such as denim ruffles, tiers of chiffon and raw fringed edges to create pieces that were wearable and relatable—a hybrid of cool everyday basics with a high fashion sensibility. Their treatment of denim is an ongoing standout, including cropped jackets, low cut flares, frilled slip dresses and oversized jackets that have became a cult favourite. Marques’Almeida already had an established, albeit fledgling, business that included stockists, such as Net-a-Porter, Joyce and Opening Ceremony. The LVMH Prize provided an unparalleled opportunity to grow and strengthen both their team and their brand. Marques and Almeida told BoF, “Sales doubled and the team grew three times. It also bought us time to focus on the design. At the same time the mentoring meant that boring questions like ‘Where do you find a warehouse?’ Could be discussed with someone with a proper knowledge of the supply chain.”
In a surprise move at the 2016 announcement, Delphine Arnault revealed that a special prize of €150,000 and executive mentoring was to be awarded to Vejas Kruszewski of Vejas, a 19-year-old Canadian who had taught himself to sew by watching YouTube videos. “Jury members Humberto Leon and Carol Lim are stocking six of the eight finalists and they said Vejas has amazing sell through, so he has a unique point of view but also a client—someone is buying the clothes,” said Arnault.
This years winner Grace Wales Bonner, was chosen from a short list of 23 and is another London based Saint Martins graduate, whose sublime menswear collection impressed the jury on a variety of levels. Her graduate collection in 2014, Afrique, won the L’Oréal Professionnel Talent Award, was followed by her debut Ebonics Autumn/Winter 2015 collection with Fashion East at London Collections. The 25-year-old’s work explores black male identity, sexuality and cultural history. An examination of tailoring and luxury that bridges African and European influences, whilst incorporating traditional techniques of embroidery and hand worked embellishments from both India and the Caribbean. A glance across all of her collections reveals an extremely cerebral narrative that draws on disparate, elegantly blended references of black masculinity throughout the ages; from African potentates and emperors, to the slickly suited Blaxploitation films of the 1970s. By using creative historical references, such as that of Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges an 18th century composer and violinist from Guadeloupe, Bonner plays on the idea of dress moving fluidly across cultures, centuries and indeed genders. Her last collection was an elegant and suave fusion of tailoring and ornamentation shown on both men and women, seamlessly interchangeable, handsome and beautiful.
The LVMH Prize is setting a new standard for fashion competitions. It is impossible to measure the benefits of a significant cash injection, high level recognition and support for a young designer. The industry is experiencing tectonic shifts but through the nurturing of young talent, the LVMH Prize allows the industry to engage with a rich tapestry of fresh ideas imbued with deep cultural, historical and creative meaning. Raw talent, expert mentoring, financial support and ultimately, a curious consumer. The real future of fashion.
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