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The Next Big Thing Is Up and Coming: Cultivating Emerging Designers From London to NY

Americans tend to view fashion as more of a utilitarian concept than an art form. The sad consequence is that support of up and coming designers does not prevail even in urban cities like New York, where deserving talent is begging for support.
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The contours of an emerging fashion designer's life can vary dramatically based on his location relative to the Atlantic. Europe has a long tradition of supporting fashion design as an art as well as an industry. One European capital in particular stands out: "The opportunities are so good that we would pack up and move to London in a heartbeat to receive some of the services they offer," the CEO of one emerging label recently told The Cultivate.

Americans tend to view fashion more often as a utilitarian concept than as an art form. The sad consequence is that support of up and coming designers does not prevail even in urban cities like New York, where deserving talent is begging for support.

Emerging European designers are much more likely to be supported by ministries of culture with large budgets available to spend on assisting emerging talent. For instance, the French Association pour le Développement des Arts de la Mode (ANDAM) was founded under the French Ministry of Culture. The association, founded in 1989 and supported by corporations such as LVMH, has supported designers like Martin Margiela, Gareth Pugh, Viktor & Rolf, Christophe Lamaire, and Jeremy Scott. The foundation grants designers £220,000, a slew of industry resources, and exposure to international press.

When these designers received the prize, they did not necessarily share a potential to reach a mass market; rather, it was their ability to produce goods that people aspired to own while still putting forth a vision that expanded the community's notions of what fashion is and what it could be. The support allowed these designers to remain outside of the mainstream, producing collections that while not always wearable, are certainly innovative and disruptive.

Somewhat surprisingly, the prize has been awarded to a large number of British designers, as Britain has become a wellspring of emerging talent over the past few years. However, there is no shortage of institutions dedicated to emerging fashion designers in Britain itself. Britain shows its support through avenues such as the BFC/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund, the New Gen Award, the BFC/ELLE Talent Launch Pad, and the Dorchester Collection Fashion Prize. The BFC even held a presentation in New York for its emerging designers. The London Development Agency invested £4.2 million to support emerging designers and London fashion week.

One of the most important institutions in London fostering emerging talent is the Center for Fashion Enterprise (CFE), supported by the London Development Agency and the European Regional Development Fund. The CFE provides subsidies, business coaching, studio space, and other perks such as PR and business software to emerging designers. Each designer's program is specifically catered to the designer's ambitions and growth strategy.

We recently spoke with the business team behind New York-based designer Frank Tell about this issue.
"It's not the American way to subsidize business in any sort of way, but this is more of an investment than a subsidy," explained Hector Meza, the business partner of Frank Tell.

It is unlikely that the US government will take up the cause of emerging designers anytime soon. Only about 13% of funding for the arts in the United States comes from the government. Private investments make up the largest portion of the sum. Even though Americans donate approximately $13 billion to the arts each year, some degree of cognitive dissonance exists in Americans' relation to fashion. Most Americans might say they consider fashion an art form, but they don't consider giving to emerging design talent in the same way they would consider giving to a sculptor or a painter.

Corporate sponsorship, the alternative to private support of emerging designers, has proven tendentious. Gen Art helped produce design talents such as Vena Cava and Phillip Lim in its early years, but it shut its doors in May after 16 years. In its last few years, the organization appeared more concerned with maintaining its corporate sponsorships than with providing a platform for emerging designers. As its brand image and designer associations went downhill, Gen Art became less attractive to designers, editors and industry professionals. Ultimately, the organization's corporate support fell through, resulting in its downfall.

But still, Americans haven't given up on their own designers: just as Gen Art began to sink, who but the cosmetics industry swooped in to offer the fashion industry its support. Last year, John Dempsey, Group President of Estée Lauder, teamed up with Mazdack Razzi, Founder and Creative Director of Milk Studios, to launch MAC & Milk. The MAC/Milk collaboration, the brainchild of MAC executive Jenne Lombardo, provides designers with free space and free resources such as hair, makeup, lighting, and casting to produce a full show--all while keeping public attention focused on the design talent.

"Its very funny that people whose main business is not selling clothes are the ones who are spearheading the movement of helping out emerging designers," stated Meza.

The other beacon of hope for emerging design in America is the CFDA. The CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund grants $200,000 and mentorship opportunities to one fashion designer each year. It has had a large impact on launching designer success stories such as Alexander Wang, Zac Posen, and Proenza Schouler. In addition, the CFDA/NYEDC fashion incubator space provides subsidized space and business development assistance to twelve emerging designers over the course of two years.

While these programs should be lauded, more is needed. Emerging design in America falls short of its full potential because of a lack of support from private sources. Several New York boutiques focusing on emerging talent have developed cult followings in the last half-decade, and are now slowly beginning to expand to the West Coast as their market of sophisticated consumers multiplies. Demand will only continue to grow as consumers face brand exhaustion from overexposed luxury conglomerates. Investment in emerging designers is a smarter decision now than it has been at any other time in modern history.

After praising London to us, the CEO of the previously mentioned emerging design label took a pause and qualified herself: "But, New York is still New York." New York will always have something that other cities cannot offer. Showing in NY fashion week and being part of the NY market provides vast exposure and a wide variety of commercial opportunities to designers. New York's fast-paced flow of ideas allows designers to be at the center of a constantly evolving cultural universe.

The challenge in New York is not finding the money to support designers. The harder issue to solve is changing preconceptions of people who regard fashion in a purely utilitarian light. Perhaps that is what a large part of American fashion has been in the past, but the American consumer is becoming more sophisticated. Understanding that fashion is indeed an art form will be critical in meeting the demands of this growing consumer base. "What the recession is showing us is that people are not buying what is safe but rather something special," states Meza. Private investors, take note.

The Cultivate is currently working with private investors interested in creating a vehicle for emerging designers to get to market.

The Cultivate is a team of entrepreneurs, designers, and artists working towards the dissemination of emerging fashion. When the age of mechanical reproduction separated art from its basis in cult, the semblance of its autonomy disappeared forever. The Cultivate is a movement that will restore this autonomy.

Heba el Habashy and Charles LaCalle will be writing a series for the Huffington Post that will track their journey as they aim to capture the difficulties and rewards of building a business within the fashion industry. They are preparing to launch their company in the beginning of 2011.