Over the past 10 years, fashion has undergone a significant process of democratisation and change. The Internet revolutionised the industry, with e-commerce on the rise, fashion shows being streamed live and bloggers playing a key role as today’s influencers. And, despite fashion being now as readily available as a bottle of shampoo, increased competition and a harsher economic reality means young designers have never had it so hard. Truth is, there may be potential for most, but only room for a few. Gathering a roster of industry insiders to our Brussels offices, we spent a recent Monday morning discussing what it takes to make it. After several hours of debate, the conclusion, as always, was that no magical formula to success existed. At the end of the day, survival of the fittest remains the only rule. You won’t make it as a young designer if you’re not talented, passionate, determined and business-minded. Some have to work harder than others and many may not have the financial backing or A-list address book to speed things up, but the best ones will eventually get there through sheer talent and perseverance.
Diane – I thought about being a designer as a kid, but didn’t draw well. I studied film and briefly went to do a course at Parsons and FIT in New York. It was a very factory-oriented environment and I didn’t want to stay there too long. I put a collection together and decided I would show it when it was ready. I didn’t want to work for anyone else. I sent a friend of mine some samples of my first collection and it sold immediately to several stores. I think the pricing was totally off, which explains why they may have bought it so quickly. It’s almost like I was paying to produce. I learnt lots of little things by experience. I designed my collection for 13 years and had a licence with Seibu in Japan for five years. I was quite successful, especially with the press. I don’t think it was easy being a young designer in America at that time, even though the context was clearly different from what it is now. Being independent was always hard.
Philippe – How many clients did you have at the peak of your career?
Diane – About 25. I stopped designing in the early 90s for several reasons. A lot of people I knew were dying of AIDS and it was really depressing. It just wasn’t very inspiring for me. I realized I couldn’t live in New York any longer and decided to move to Paris.
Philippe – You mentioned never wanting to work for anyone else. Is that something anyone relates to?
Alexandra – I do relate to that. After graduating from the Academy in Antwerp, I went to New York for an internship and that was something I had really fantasised about. It felt like a real shock when I got there and made me realise how much of a bubble Antwerp actually is. The school does not prepare you for what comes next. I started working for this high-end, commercial designer and understood it wasn’t my thing. It felt quite alienating, even though it was good being confronted with that side of the industry. I launched my own label last year after winning the Festival d’Hyères in 2010. It was like a gut feeling for me and I trusted my instincts.
Nicholas – We profiled you a year ago, when you were planning on launching your own brand. What has changed for you since then?
Alexandra – I feel much more confident with my decision. I know it was a big risk, but I wanted to give it a try.
Philippe – I guess it has to do with ego after all. Is that something designers all share?
Marc-Philippe – I graduated from the Academy, too, but my experience is very different from Alexandra’s. I was hired by Natan straight after graduation and was given a lot of responsibility from the beginning. My boss – Edouard Vermeulen – took over the company 25 years ago and I have a lot of respect for him. Two years ago, I decided to launch my own label as I felt there was something missing for me creatively. My four years at Natan have been like a second school in many ways and I know that Mr. Vermeulen does not believe in ego at all. It’s easier working for Natan than for my own brand.
Nicholas – Can you explain why?
Marc-Philippe – With my own label, my boyfriend and I have to make all the decisions. As I split my time between Natan and Marc- Philippe Coudeyre. I try to do my best and deal with what I can handle. The fashion industry can be so frustrating sometimes. Every season, we have to come up with new ideas to improve on things. We have showed in London, New York and Paris. I hate to complain, but it has not been easy.
Philippe – I guess you don’t have the luxury of having your own team either.
Marc-Philippe – Exactly. When I work for Natan, I don’t have to worry about the money. It makes a huge difference, of course, because we are self-financed. You learn something new each season.
You have to filter when you’re a designer. Listening to yourself and having your own strength is much more important than what others may think
— Diane Pernet
Philippe – It sounds to me like there’s a major disconnect between the educational system and the demands of the industry.
Tony – I don’t think my job is to teach students about the business. My job is to help them develop their own style and creativity. If they want to do a business course, they can go to IFM in Paris and enroll for that. I love my work and am also a designer, but you learn so much on the job and nothing replaces that.
Alexandra – I think the industry is much bigger now and there are as many client groups as there are designers. I don’t think you should let others influence you too much. Everyone will have a dif- ferent opinion and it’s not always relevant.
Diane – You have to filter when you’re a designer. Listening to yourself and having your own strength is much more important than what others may think. Take in what’s wise and leave the rest.
Allison – When you start your career as a designer now, there is so much pressure to get to the next level. What everyone forgets is that it takes time to build things up. Nobody succeeds overnight. I think the older generation understood that it took time to get there. I have a business background, but have always been involved in fashion, working in shops and showrooms, gaining experience within the commercial sphere. Fashion has to sell. It doesn’t matter how creative you are, the bottom line is always sales. Still, I think schools should nurture young talent, regardless of what the business is. Having schools like La Cambre and the Academy in Belgium is extremely precious.
Stijn – We’ve always worked with young Belgian designers since setting-up PURE, our PR agency. It’s so important for us to support independent brands. We don’t ask them for a monthly fee either, because we don’t feel it makes much sense with new designers. We are selective, of course, and watch how these talents grow and develop, but I feel fashion needs them more than ever.
Emmanuel – I agree with Stijn. As a retailer, it’s also key for me to buy new brands and give young designers a chance. Even though the Internet has made things more challenging for us, I don’t think it will ever replace great service or personal contact. Our role is also to educate clients and make sure they dis- cover something interesting each season.
Allison – Designers need to have a strong voice and listen to their hearts. The press plays a fundamental part, too, as it communicates directly with the consumer. If there is desire from the con- sumer, retailers will follow and buy the brand. It’s all connected and you need to see it as a whole. Having your own vision is not enough anymore.
Stijn – I think the press creates the image, too. Philippe – So we all agree that visibility is inseparable from success.
Alexandra – I don’t know. I still don’t have a press agent and don’t feel like I need one.
Philippe – Winning Hyères gave you a lot of press though and you could use it to your advantage.
Alexandra – I guess that’s true.
Allison – If you can inspire people, then the rest will follow. Look at Raf Simons. He’s had an amazing career, because he’s so talented and influential.
Philippe – Certain designers will enjoy a cult following in the industry and there’s something almost irrational about it. It doesn’t matter where they go, people will always support them.
Nicholas – Does winning a prize make a huge difference then?
Allison – It does. I work with Anthony Vaccarello, who won the ANDAM prize last year. It gave him money and press, as well as access to certain industry circles. All these really high-profile people were on the jury and they started making calls to send the best buyers to his showroom.
Philippe – This is exactly what happened with Jean-Paul Lespagnard since Anne Chapelle decided to help him. He got the attention of major industry players because of her influence. That doesn’t take away the fact that he’s very talented and hard-working. He doesn’t come from a privileged background either.
Tony – There is no formula for success. Fashion is a nightmare industry, because I don’t know of any profession where you have to rely on so many other people. Everything can go wrong, from production to sales to shows and you have to deal with the damage when it happens. It’s a huge pressure and responsibility as well, which is why this business makes people crazy.
Allison – You have to be ambidextrous to succeed in fashion. You need that combination of creative vision and business acumen. Look at Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent. It was the perfect marriage between art and commerce. These partnerships really work.
Marc-Philippe – This is the sort of dynamics I feel I have with my partner. We complement each other and both have distinctive roles. It’s impossible managing everything on your own. Nevermind the mistakes and so-called failures, it’s all positive in the end, because you’re always learning. I love fashion and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. It’s the passion that drives you.
Diane – And hope. Let’s not forget that.
Founder of A Shaded View on Fashion, Diane is an American journalist and style icon living in Paris.ashadedviewonfashion.com
Antwerp-born and raised, Alexandra studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and won the prestigious Festival d’Hyères in 2010. She showcased her first collection in Paris last October.alexandraverschueren.com
Of Franco-German origins, Marc-Philippe was born in Scotland and studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. He was hired by Natan straight after graduation and launched his eponymous line in 2010.mpcoudeyre.com
Head of the Fashion Department at École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Visuels de La Cambre, Tony is also a freelance designer and fashion stylist. He is based in Brussels and has collaborated with designer Annemie Verbeke for several years.lacambre.be
A fashion consultant in marketing and brand management, Allison is based in Brussels. This year, she’s launching “The Fabric Sales”, a concept revolving around materials available for designers and the wider public.thefabricsales.com
Brussels-based Stijn co-founded PR agency PURE with his partner Tom Tack. Focusing on Belgian brands and emerging talent, he represents young designers such as Jean-Paul Lespagnard, Elisa Lee or Jessie Lecomte.welovepure.com
Born in France, Emmanuel opened Mapp in 2009. He buys a unique selection of international brands, mixing young designers with more casual offerings.thisismapp.com