NYT Article: Stealing the Scene Along with the Store

  1. Let's hope Diane von Furstenberg is right, or else I feel that we're all fairly doomed!

    Stealing the Scene Along With the Store

    ON Monday night, the 33-year-old designer Phillip Lim, who worked quietly behind the scenes in other designers’ studios for a decade before putting his name on a label that is now sold at Neiman Marcus, won the fashion industry’s highest award for emerging talent. Yet his obvious pleasure at being recognized by the Council of Fashion Designers of America at its annual ceremony must have been tempered by the fact that he was handed his statuette by two women who also call themselves young designers — Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.

    The ubiquitous celebrity twins, who turn 21 next week, had been invited by the fashion industry to present awards for rising stars at the New York Public Library. This fall, the Olsens are introducing a collection that will compete with Mr. Lim, and they would not mind someday being nominated for the award he won.

    “You think, ‘Wow, how unfair,’ ” Mr. Lim said last week before the awards, after reading an article in Women’s Wear Daily about the Olsens’ plans to expand their marketing, fashion and lip-gloss empire — estimated by Forbes in 2003 to have sales of $1.4 billion — into the contemporary clothing market, the industry’s catch-all term for trendy sportswear lines like Vince and Theory, as well as that of Mr. Lim.

    While sewing his own tuxedo for the awards ceremony in his garment district loft, Mr. Lim described a growing frustration among his peers as they face an onslaught of competing labels from celebrities. The Olsen twins, whose earlier merchandise was aimed at tweens and sold in mass stores like Wal-Mart, have grown up and moved on to try the adult market. They have a high-end designer line called the Row, which is sold at Barneys New York. On Monday night, they wore their new label, Elizabeth and James (named for their unfamous siblings), whereas not long ago they might have worn the designs of someone like Mr. Lim.

    There is a great paradox here. For decades fashion has courted celebrities. It encouraged pop stars who moonlighted as designers, like Sean Combs, Jennifer Lopez and Gwen Stefani, to stage runway shows for flashy jeans and confectionary hot-pants ensembles. Mr. Combs, partly for his oversize personality and courtship of key players like Anna Wintour and Tom Ford, was nominated for awards for years and won for best men’s wear in 2004. It seemed harmless fun.

    But now a number of designers are not so sure. Mr. Lim, who expects his collection to reach $30 million in sales this year and plans to open a store in SoHo next month, said the chances of a young designer surviving in the business today are “slim to none.” By contrast, celebrity lines like those of Mr. Combs and Ms. Lopez typically break the $100 million mark in sales in their first or second year, thanks to the power of a star name hitched to a huge marketing campaign. And they almost always begin with a lucrative fragrance deal, whereas it takes years for traditional designers to get the attention of companies like Estée Lauder or Coty.

    “Celebrities have made it harder for real designers,” said Vera Wang, who won the top fashion council award for women’s design in 2005 and has designed for more than three decades.

    “It’s a big open field out there now, like the Wild, Wild West,” Ms. Wang said. “You could be competing against a television or movie star for a fragrance deal, and that’s an added pressure for designers. We’re working really hard to keep our heads above water, and does the public differentiate, or care? Those are big questions. The most obvious impact is in fragrance, but certainly in apparel we’re feeling it now as well.”

    The struggle of talented designers is an old lament. On top of familiar pressures — the contracting number of department stores, the difficulty of finding financing, the fickleness of consumers —some designers are now waking up to realize they are competing with celebrities for market share. With the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Lopez and Paris Hilton jumping into the high-end department-store tier of the fragrance business, celebrities have grabbed 10 percent of that $2.8 billion market, as of 2005, whereas a decade ago their presence barely registered.

    Ms. Wang suggested that Ms. Parker, who introduced a casual apparel collection for the T-shirt chain Steve & Barry’s last month, should begin wearing only her own clothes at public events. To play by the new rules of the business, Ms. Wang is creating a lower-priced line for Kohl’s, which will compete with a collection by Daisy Fuentes.

    But what about the talent that “real” designers bring to their craft? Doesn’t that skill and artisanship matter to consumers, compared with the brute marketing muscle behind a line like, say, Kate Moss’s recent collection for Topshop, which was copied from pieces by other designers that were in the model’s closet?

    Diane Von Furstenberg, the president of the designer council, argued that most celebrity collections, unlike those of its high-end members, are intended for a mass market. “I can see that the young designers fear they can get overpowered,” she said, “but they shouldn’t, because talent wins out.”

    The awards event, which in its earliest incarnation was the invention of the fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert to promote American designers as a group, comes across today as a competitive sport between designers to draw the attention of photographers, resulting in the spectacle on Monday of Michael Kors posing with Heidi Klum, Liya Kebede and Debra Messing as Charlie’s Angels at the end of the red carpet.

    The courtship of celebrities for publicity remains a fact of business one could not overlook at the awards, where Ralph Lauren was introduced by Oprah Winfrey, Uma Thurman wore a dress designed by Zac Posen, and the Proenza Schouler designers, Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, who shared with Oscar de la Renta the award for women’s wear designer of the year, arrived with Kate Bosworth in one of their designs.

    Popular culture’s heightened focus on fashion encourages designers to raise their personal profiles. “Post Tom Ford, fashion has become a very different place,” said Thakoon Panichgul, who was also nominated for the honor Mr. Lim won. “There was so much globalization of fashion before when Tom Ford was the ‘it boy’ and because of that, people expect more of a designer. You have to do more than one job. You have to be out and about and be very sociable.”

    The Olsen twins, whose offbeat personal style of excessive layering and oversize proportions has had as much influence on modern fashion as Seventh Avenue, seemed to recognize this social aspect of the designer job, serving as hosts to a fashion industry dinner with the Swarovski crystal company on Sunday night.

    “At the end of the night, we’re going to go home like everyone else and wake up tomorrow and go back to work,” Ashley Olsen said at the party. She and her sister mingled with seasoned designers like Ms. Von Furstenberg, Arnold Scaasi and Pierre Cardin, 85, the apotheosis of old school licensing, whose name is on more than 800 products, with a volume of about $1.5 billion. That is comparable to the sales of the Olsens.

    “We live in a media-crazed culture, where it’s all about celebrity,” said Daniel Silver, who with Steven Cox makes up the Duckie Brown design team, which was also nominated for an award. Mr. Silver said they could not compare the work of celebrities to their own, but they acknowledge that sharing the stage with them has had an impact on the psyche of the modern designer.
    “There is no sense of enough there,” Mr. Silver said. “Being self-funded, it’s always a struggle. Quite often, if you are somewhat successful, and slightly lucky, you still tend to implode anyway.”
  2. I agree--I hope Diane von Furstenburg is right! Celebrity clothes scare me...
  3. I was furious when I had finished reading this. Celebrities seem to just feel entitled to do whatever they wish because the American people are enthusiastically willing to blindly follow them. As if it weren't hard enough for a designer to break into the industry in the first place.