The Fashion Contests Birthing the Next Michael Kors - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Fashion Contests Birthing the Next Michael Kors

The Fashion Contests Birthing the Next Michael Kors

By Constance C. R. White

Louis Vuitton's executive vice president, Delphine Arnault, presents the LVMH Young Fashion Designers Prize to Thomas Tait on May 28, 2014 in Paris,France.
SourceBertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty


Because the world of incubators isn’t just for tech geeks. Coming soon to a runway near you: a more accessible fashion industry.

By Constance C. R. White

Young fashion designers enter the business with a dream, yet often with less money than they need to surmount the ivory gates of the industry. But some leaders in high fashion think that should end. Natural selection alone won’t guarantee a surging pipeline of fresh talent for years to come. So fashion has found a new way to nurture and protect its young: incubators and contests.

Just this week, luxury goods company LVMH announced the winner of its first annual Young Fashion Designer Prize. The lucky guy? A London-based designer named Thomas Tait; he has a few collections under his belt, but you probably haven’t heard of him. Now, with LVMH in his corner, that could change.

It’s clear this generation has not been excited about working for big corporations. There’s a global hunger for entrepreneurship.

black and white portrait of Karen Harvey

Karen Harvey, CEO of Karen Harvey Consulting Group.

Source Karen Harvey Consulting Group

And the French aren’t the only ones staging interventions on behalf of the youngsters. Later this month, Elle and Harvey Consulting Group (with offices in New York, London and Paris) will pick a winner for their new initiative called “The Founders of the Future” Challenge (with a prize of $50,000 plus mentorship). In hipster Williamsburg, a new Brooklyn incubator opens next fall. And the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) is weaning its third batch of designers who earned a spot in the CFDA Incubator.

What exactly is going on? The startup bug has reached fashionista land.

As an international consultant in luxury, fashion, retail and innovation, Karen Harvey is on the cutting edge of debates on how to foster talent. To her, contests and incubators make perfect sense — especially for millennials seeking a break: “When we think about millennials who are turning 30, it’s clear this generation has not been excited about working for big corporations,” she observed. “There’s a global hunger for entrepreneurship.

“It’s clear they don’t have the patience to be an assistant, then an account manager, then a vice president,” continued Harvey. “They want to be CEO, now.”

Getting extra support now that would encourage up-and-coming designers to stick around for a long time is one of the goals of the new Brooklyn Fashion and Design Accelerator. When it opens this fall, it will help 30 new owners grow their businesses, said Debra Johnson, executive director for the Center for Sustainable Design Studies at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, who spearheads the incubator, which launched in January.

It’s not a reality show. This is the real deal: a chance to build a sustainable business.

On a recent morning, Johnson checked out the open house hosted by the CFDA for its incubator designers, who share housing in the heart of New York’s grungy fashion district with rent subsidies, technical assistance, and exposure to some of fashion’s movers and shakers. 

The present batch of 14 designers includes rising stars like Sara Beltran, who creates earthy jewelry utilizing dramatic stones, and Kaelen Haworth, whose luxury clothing evokes avant-garde glamour. The group receives guidance and expertise to give them a firmer footing in the industry and sustain their businesses for the long haul. And, no, it’s not a reality show dreamed up by the likes of Heidi Klum or Tyra Banks. This is the real deal: a chance to build a sustainable business at a time when doing so has become increasingly difficult. 

Proof: Among the visitors that morning were editors from Glamour and Teen Vogue, a top stylist, a writer for a Japanese newspaper, and retailers from Houston and New York.

black & white portrait of Kaelen Haworth, with her hand by her chest.

Kaelen Haworth, member of the CFDA Fashion Incubator 3.0 Class.

Source CFDA

Small-scale independent designers need the assist these days — badly. In the past two decades, the fashion business has become large-scale and international. And with that growth has come complexity — from dealing with global markets to changing cultural standards. LVMH, a luxury conglomerate that controls several leading luxury fashion brands, is just one illustration of the changed landscape.

When competing as a small business is, to say the least, a major challenge, fashion incubators and contests offering generous prizes can radically lower the cost of entry and increase the odds of not just survival but also growth. 

And not all incubators are meant for the runways. Some are birthing commercial, everyday designs (a sign, if ever there was one, of entrepreneurship going mainstream). Take the Workshop at Macy’s, the retailer’s bootcamp for its would-be vendors, which gets promising designers up to speed on the intricacies of selling to a company with a store in almost every major American city. Attracting more than 1,000 applicants, the Workshop, conceived by Macy’s group vice president Shawn Outler, is highly competitive. If you’re lucky enough to win a spot, you are then put through an intense four-day program in New York that culminates in a critiqued presentation.

Lisa Moore, 33, from Dallas, made the cut this year. Five years ago she quit her job on Wall Street to launch Cover, which specializes in fashionable swimwear with sun protection. Having an accomplished entrepreneur father to lean on for advice is helpful, she says, but the Macy’s Workshop was the most “life-changing.” Cover has hit it big and has been featured in industry tastemakers like Elle and Vogue.

Fashion has long been an innovative and wildly creative industry. Now, with cleverly designed contests and incubators, it’s bringing that spirit of innovation to where it’s most needed: to nurture the Lisa Moores of today — and the Christian Diors of tomorrow.

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