Investing in young designers is key—not only for said talent, but also for the industry as a whole, according to CFDA president Steven Kolb. “One thing about American fashion is it’s very generous,” he told Fashion Unfiltered. “It’s a competitive industry—designers compete against each other—but I think supporting young designers actually strengthens the industry in a larger way.” Kolb was referring specifically to the CFDA’s Fashion Incubator program, now in its sixth year, which provides emerging designers with discounted studio space, individualized mentorship from key industry figures, educational seminars and networking events, and, as was the case in Dallas just last month, showcases in various cities in hopes of helping them grow and sustain their businesses.
Over the course of three days, five of the 10 designers selected for the current incubator program (Class of 2018), which includes Ji Oh, Jason and Julie Alkire of Haus Alkire, Aurora James of Brother Vellies, Charles Youssef, and Thaddeus O’Neil, traveled down to the Lone Star State to present their Spring 2017 collections at the W’s Dallas Victory Hotel. Not only did the group present its wares to buyers and consumers via mini installations, but the talents were able to test the retail market in Dallas by visiting boutiques like Neiman Marcus, Tenoversix, and the newly opened Forty Five Ten, helmed by ex New York fashion editor Taylor Tomasi Hill. “I get stuck in this bubble in New York,” said Oh. “Traveling here and meeting specific buyers and consumers has really taught me how this city is structured and how they look at things, and that’s really fresh in my mind.”
“We learned about who the Dallas consumer is,” added Youssef, who launched his eponymous luxury label in 2014. “She’s in some ways similar to an uptown Manhattan shopper, which is kind of what my client is like. We’re being introduced to new markets which is very exciting, and I think the W collaboration has been really amazing because they’ve been so generous.”
To say that the W has been instrumental in helping incubator participants is putting it lightly. In addition to sending each designer on an “inspiration trip” (yes, it is as good as it sounds—in March this batch of young designers will travel to places like Saint Petersburg, Bali, Seoul, and Goa), the Hotel giant also organizes trunk shows and pop-up events to help designers gain exposure. “It’s really about giving [the designers] a platform to show the world who they are, what they’re about, and to give them the opportunity to meet their customer one-on-one,” said Suzanne Cohen, the director of brand marketing for W Hotels Worldwide. “So much is done online,” she continued, “so to have that opportunity to actually see people’s reactions to your next collection and to hear feedback and to have those conversations is really beautiful for the designers.”
Cohen added this is the third incubator class W has sponsored, and each year, it is refined more and more based on what’s most valuable to designers in terms of exposure, business development opportunities, and the retail landscape. “I think Dallas has a really unique history of bringing in high-end fashion brands from New York and Paris,” she said. (After all, Dallas mainstay Neiman Marcus reinvigorated Coco Chanel’s career in 1957.) “It’s a market that probably gets overlooked by individual designers that are spending a lot of time in Chicago, New York, L.A., and maybe Miami if they do a lot of swimwear. Dallas is one of those markets where they have a great relationship with the retail stores, and there’s a lot of people that really care about fashion in Dallas.”
“To quote Tennessee Williams, everything we do at the CFDA depends on the kindness of others,” said Kolb. “The support that W has demonstrated has been so authentic—they haven’t entered into a partnership with a preconceived idea of what it is the CFDA needs help with or what these designers need, they’re coming in saying, ‘What do you need help with and what are our strengths that we can bring?’ They’ve been a real home to the CFDA and the Fashion Incubator when we’re outside New York. They’re kind of our home away from home.”
There’s a lot around the corner for this class of budding designers. Most are working on their Pre-Fall or Fall 2017 collections, some are gearing up for their aforementioned inspiration trips abroad, and a few are working on various collaborations. But all can rest assured that camaraderie and support from the CFDA—and W—will keep them moving forward. “It’s a weird time in fashion,” said Youssef. “Being part of a community where we can talk about it and strategize as a group has been so helpful, and being under the CFDA umbrella has really given us the support new designers like us need at this time.”