So You Want To Be a Fashion Designer?

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The New York Sun

If you’re a watcher of “Project Runway,” you know that it’s a long road for the designers who make it to Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, which begins Friday. They have to win the nutty challenges, overcome stiff competition, and woo the lovable yet tough judges.

But plenty of designers don’t want to give up months of their lives for television — even with the possibility of a runway show at the end. What, then, does it take to have your work shown in America’s fashion capital?

First, a designer has to pass the criteria established by the group that organizes fashion week, IMG Fashion. “We have to make sure they have proper reps in the country. It is a waste to have people show and not have proper buyers,” the senior vice president of IMG Fashion, Fern Mallis, said.

Second, there’s the fee. And it isn’t cheap. The large white tent at Bryant Park includes three separate spaces that increase in price — $25,000, $35,000, and $45,000 — and size. But those fees don’t include the many additional costs, such as hair, makeup, and models, which “can cost someone dearly,” Ms. Mallis said.

But the benefits of showing at Bryant Park can be well worth the costs. The centrally located tents are the headquarters of the week, and the schedule is designed for exclusivity: There are 85 shows on the roster and no two designers show their collections simultaneously.

“There are lots of things that don’t come with a venue off-site,” Ms. Mallis said.

Most important: an audience. If the location is inconvenient, the crowd may not make the trip. “A lot of people just say, ‘I’m skipping that show because the next show is at the tents.'”

Even so, some designers choose a venue away from Bryant Park for personal reasons. Designer Zang Toi chose not to show at Bryant Park this season, but not to cut costs. “I decided to do a charity show for the Lance Armstrong Foundation to benefit cancer survivors,” Mr. Toi said of his September 11 show, which will take place at the restaurant Daniel. “It costs almost as much as the tent.”

One young designer, Ashleigh Verrier, got her start through a scholarship for fresh talent: She was chosen as one of 10 designers to show her spring 2007 collection at the UPS-sponsored tent at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. But Ms. Verrier took a different route with her spring 2008 collection and showed it at a private location. “I was trying to figure what would make best economic sense for my brand,” she said.

For designers, there are many paths to fame, from producing their own, small-scale shows to aligning themselves with organizations aimed at helping fresh talent. One organization, Gen Art, has helped launch the careers of heavy hitters such as Zac Posen and Phillip Lim. Each season, a committee views about 150 designers and chooses 12 to showcase, the senior fashion manager of Gen Art, Kristen Amato, said. The show is free to the designers — who are not amateurs. “It is necessary they’ve shipped and sold at least one season to stores,” Ms. Amato said.

Another approach is to go local. While the big names in fashion are uptown, Fashion Indie Week Brooklyn is showing off the work of 35 designers in venues all around the city — including a show last Tuesday on the Brooklyn Bridge. Organized by the founder of the Web site, Daniel Saynt, this week of shows, parties, and events brings together designers who are based in, or otherwise connected to, Brooklyn.

This is the second season for Fashion Indie Week, but it is the first with a borough theme. “We’ve been amazed by the scene in Brooklyn. It’s underrepresented. A lot of fashion is coming out of here,” Mr. Saynt said.

The founder and head designer of Williamsburg-based brand Brooklyn Royalty, Bob Bland, uses hand-dyed and treated cotton jersey, washed silk chiffon, cotton tulle, and Italian leather emblazoned with graphics that celebrate the borough.

One goal of Fashion Indie Week Brooklyn, according to Mr. Saynt, is to avoid the monotony that he found uptown when he attended shows. “Even the Gen Art shows, which are supposed to be for a younger audience, are generally boring,” he said.

Fashion Indie Week has come a long way from its first season of just 13 designers, and it plans to expand in seasons to come. Currently, the Fashion Indie staff chooses participating designers, but next season the plan is to let readers vote online. And it doesn’t hurt that some major sponsors are eager to associate themselves with the outsider of fashion weeks. Body Shop has already signed up to be this season’s official makeup sponsor.

For designers lacking the money to put on large-scale fashion presentations, the experienced Mr. Toi has some encouragement. When he started out, he sent photocopied black-and-white sketches that he colored in himself to Vogue magazine, where the editors took notice and featured him. The bottom line: “You have to be creative if you don’t have the budget,” he said.

The New York Sun

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