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Vying for the LVMH Prize: Young, Gifted and Important to Know

By Matthew Schneier

Kruszewski at the LVMH Prize competition, in Paris
Dmitry Kostyukov
Kruszewski at the LVMH Prize competition, in Paris

At the LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton offices on Avenue Montaigne, the designers of 21 young labels were clocking the 12th hour of what seemed like a never-ending workday, in booths arranged honeycomb style.

They had come from all over the world for a chance at the fourth LVMH Prize, which offers 300,000 euros (about US$316,000) and a year of support and guidance from within the company’s professional ranks.

The shortlisted designers, winnowed from 1,200 applicants, were spending two days explaining themselves and their lines to 45 experts, including editors, critics and retailers. (Kendall Jenner, the ubiquitous model, is a new addition to this list. “It’s great that she agreed,” said Delphine Arnault, the prize’s supervisor and the offspring of Bernard Arnault, the LVMH chairman. “She wears the clothes.”)

Agnes DherbeysAnna Wintour visits the Jahnkoy booth by the foreign-born, American-based designer Maria Kazakova, during the LVMH Prize competition, in Paris.
Anna Wintour visits the Jahnkoy booth by the foreign-born, American-based designer Maria Kazakova, during the LVMH Prize competition, in Paris.

Then, eight finalists will face a jury of LVMH executives, including Arnault, and the artistic and creative directors of several of its brands — among them, Karl Lagerfeld of Fendi, Nicolas Ghesquière of Louis Vuitton, Phoebe Philo of Céline and Maria Grazia Chiuri of Dior — to find the grand prize winner, announced on June 16.

“It’s quite humbling,” the English designer Molly Goddard said as spectators pushed through the aisles to inspect each designer in turn. “You realise you’re a tiny little pea in a big pool.”

It’s a role reversal of a kind for Goddard, who emerged from London Fashion Week last month as a big pea: the winner of the British Fashion Award for British Emerging Talent in 2016 and the woman behind one of that week’s most charming shows. To display her fall collection, she laid a table for her models and sat them down over wine and Cokes to chat and flirt as they would at a dinner party, negotiating their giant tulle tutu dresses, which are Goddard’s specialty (though far from the only thing she makes).

Agnes DherbeysEnglish designer Molly Goddard at the LVMH Prize competition, in Paris.
English designer Molly Goddard at the LVMH Prize competition, in Paris.

Swimming upstream through the dense crowds at LVMH, dodging Lagerfeld and his entourage here, a cluster of Arnaults deep in conversation there, one had the impression of a professional cadre of young designers who have been facing crowds from their very beginnings.

“If I remember, when I started and we did our first collections at school, it was not this level, honestly,” said Chiuri, on a break from the Dior studios, where she was working on her new collection. (In those days, designers a year out of graduate school were not granted an audience with the artistic director of Dior.)

“When I started in fashion, normally you started to bring coffee,” she said with a laugh.

The challenge for most of these designers is not attracting attention. The fashion media, churning through its own version of the 24-hour news cycle, is not slow to anoint next big things who scarcely have a full rack of samples to their name. (Yes, guilty.)

The challenge is translating early momentum into a sustainable business, especially an international one. (This is a tricky subject at the moment, as suggested by the visa issues facing foreign-born, American-based designers. One, Maria Kazakova, who designs Jahnkoy, was advised by her lawyer not to leave the United States, so she talked visitors through her collection via Skype on an iPad.)

Agnes DherbeysCharles Jeffrey at the LVMH Prize competition, in Paris.
Charles Jeffrey at the LVMH Prize competition, in Paris.

“You kind of have to scream when you start,” said Charles Jeffrey, the Scottish designer who emerged from, and remains tethered to, the London club scene. His label, Charles Jeffrey Loverboy, is named for Loverboy, the party he hosts at Vogue Fabrics, the club in the Dalston neighborhood of London’s East End. At LVMH, he wore his usual makeup and plume of bleach-yellow hair, like an 18th-century courtier with a hint of the performance artist Leigh Bowery.

Jeffrey’s exuberance has delighted London (“You have to meet Charles,” Jefferson Hack, a founder of Dazed magazine, said to Lagerfeld, as the designer made his way through the stalls). His combination of Westwood-esque tailoring and crafty pastiche can be very winning. But he is working to shape it into pieces that can be reproduced more readily than those he makes from found treasure and trash.

“We can push that a little bit further going forward,” Jeffrey said.

Agnes DherbeysKozaburo Akasaka, with a model at the LVMH Prize competition, in Paris.
Kozaburo Akasaka, with a model at the LVMH Prize competition, in Paris.

There was refinement on display in several corners, including at Atlein, the new label by Antonin Tron, who worked under Ghesquière during that designer’s halcyon days at Balenciaga. The debt is evident in Tron’s snaky jersey dresses and wool tweed jersey tailoring, but no less welcome.

Tron’s pants, as they came down the runway at his first proper show earlier in the day, and the meticulous slither of those jersey dresses — probably as unconcealing and thus unforgiving a fabric as you can get — fit beautifully. Getting them that way, I observed, must have been a nightmare of pins and tiny tweaks. “Yeah,” Tron said. “We take the time. I like to take the time.”

And there was craft at Kozaburo, the New York-based collection by the Japanese designer Kozaburo Akasaka, who painstakingly shreds, reweaves and teases old jeans into a lichenous, nearly furry texture, and fine wool into a raw-edged, anxious, punky version of a suit, with knock-kneed, high-water pants that recall the great Tokyo-based designer Christopher Nemeth. Akasaka makes every piece by hand (which is why a pair of those jeans will run you about US$3,000). If the long-term viability of such a project is in question, the immediate impact isn’t.

Contrast that with Martine Rose, showing nearby. Rose, based in London, is a hero to the menswear wonks there (though she sells her collections to women’s stores, too). She has a deft way of unnerving you with the bare materials of everyday life: chavvy sportswear and office drab. It was a surprise, though a funny one, to see her take on the daily uniform, pinning neckties with nameplate Martine Rose pins and tucking them into pants with three waistbands and two belts.

Akasaka has only a single store carrying his collection: Dover Street Market in New York. Rose has 60. Even so, she said, she cannot rest on her laurels. “It’s a funny old game,” she said. “It can change in a ——.” She snapped her fingers.

That is the inherent difficulty of a system that raises young designers to early success, but often leaves them without the infrastructure to maintain it. Even a win here is not a guarantee of success.

Matthew SchneierA look by Martine Rose at the LVMH Prize competition, in Paris.
A look by Martine Rose at the LVMH Prize competition, in Paris.

Earlier in the day, the Canadian designer Vejas Kruszewski showed his collection in a small gallery on the Rue Bergère. Kruszewski works in Toronto, a bit removed from the nerve centres of fashion, but he has a wily and intelligent way of splicing odd references (here, Italian Renaissance painting) into a collection that looks modern and street-easy. He had taken the necklines and the puffed sleeves of several centuries back and recut them in leather and towel cloth. Suddenly, they looked tough.

Last year he walked off with a special award at the LVMH Prize, pocketing 150,000 euros. The award brought new recognition, new opportunities (he is now moving his production to Italy, which will make the collection easier to sell to European stores) and cash flow.

“The brand wouldn’t exist if I didn’t have that money,” he said. But it goes fast, eaten up by the demands of presentations, production and overhead.

“It’s all gone now,” he said. “One way or another, it kind of trickles away.”