THE ENVIRONMENT OF YOUNG DESIGNERS

...hurdles, competition and drawbacks

by Geoffrey B. Small
As I approach my 58th Paris collection, NJAL has asked me to write something about fashion today: the environment of smaller labels and young designers, the hurdles they face. I show in Paris because it remains the most competitive designer arena in the world for advanced research and design. I will be frank and speak from my direct experience of showing there for 15 years, and say what's on my mind as I try to get back in there one more time...

Today, the odds are against you. Really, they are.

And you'd better be good. Really good. The last thing in the world anybody needs is another "designer collection." In Paris alone during the womenswear week, over 1,500 designer collections and brands will be competing to be seen and bought by only about 4,000 buyers. These buyers will come from all over the world to view what they can, and order what their budgets allow them to spend, for the upcoming retail season in their stores. When they arrive in Paris, many will have already been bombarded by a thousand collections in the New York, London, and Milan fashion weeks. Bored, numbed-out, jet-lagged, they will have seen it all - and are now just trying to finish and get their priority Paris collection orders done (be they Dior, Comme des Garçons, Lanvin, or whatever) and get back to home and store.

In spite of what they say, buyers have become more and more short of time and money, due to the continuous degradation of the world economy, the elimination of the spending power of the middle class, and spiralling travel costs. They sell less designer merchandise in their stores than they used to, and therefore have less time and budget to spend on their buying trips. Many others skip their trips entirely and try to buy at home from distribution agents. Of those that can still come, most will be very careful with every penny and every second they have to spare. And none of them will be able to see even close to all the collections that are on offer.

On average, a buyer with a real store on the global circuit will spend 3-4 days in Paris and seriously see 10-20 collections that involve a real purchase commitment - if possible they might also glance at a trade show or two that involve another few hundred. That leaves at least over a thousand other collections that will never be seen by that buyer at all. And so, failure rates for collections are enormous. 95 percent close after three seasons or less, simply because they never sold a thing. More importantly, the average amount of total store budgets allocated for new, small or unknown collections is less than three percent. The pie is small and for the new guy, it's the crumbs.

Nevertheless, the constant media blitz of fashion, seen all over the world, has triggered an exponential increase in the numbers of people who now want to become fashion designers. But while competition to get in the game is growing, the game itself, the market, is shrinking. There are simply less and less consumers in the world who can afford anything beyond a piece from H&M or Zara on a regular basis - and less and less stores that can develop and keep such a clientele.

This polarisation of high and low and the elimination of the once vast and booming middle market has forced designers to all crowd into the luxury market or perish, as the majority are unable to even approach competing in the much larger and even tougher low-price end. But the luxury market is not at all easy and the bars of image, exclusivity, product and quality are getting raised ever higher and higher. And large global corporations are intent on dominating both the high and low markets with vast resources of money, advertising, distribution, production, legal, logistical and media power.

The fashion business now is basically a giant lie. The fashion media seen all over the world is produced and paid for by an established circuit of very big companies whose interest is to have everybody chasing the dream and spending their money to do so. There is the wealthy person who will spend a lot of money on recognisable brands' products, to impress other wealthy people or feel that their life has some glamour in it. There are the hundreds of millions of people who used to be able to spend 100 bucks on a pair of Diesel jeans, but today can only spare £14.99 for a pair from Zara instead. And there are the impassioned students who dream of becoming a fashion designer - who spend their own or their family's money on fashion schools, move to Paris, London, Milan or Tokyo, go through years of free work stages and internships, and if they manage to make it that far, either become a paid cog in the machine for one of the big fashion houses or companies, or finally make and develop a line of their own, and face all the inherent costs of starting a business.

And then there is the cost of showing a collection in a major centre like Paris, which of course needs more money for showrooms, trade shows, commercial agents, PR agents, catwalks, magazines, you name it. They all have power and you don't. And they will be the first to tell you that you need them more than they need you - that you cannot possibly afford to be without them, so if you don't have the money... find it. Paris is an expensive town. A single steel one meter rolling rack rents for over 100 Euros during fashion week. And that's only the beginning. Nobody in this game works for free, except the aspiring designer.

The brutal reality is that the system views the designer as a pawn in a chess game. To industry players, designers are a dime-a-dozen. Ah, and let's not forget the powerful famous stores in the major capitals (I won't name the names), who love to play "plat du jour" with designer's collections. By being in their "research" store, you will be seen by buyers when they come in to town, and perhaps some of those buyers will then seek you out to buy the collection for their own stores. So actually, you should be paying them to have your work hang in their store, right?

And you do, in one way or another. In a myriad of tricky deals, you will never get enough money in time, to cover your risks as a supplier. The bigger the name of the store, and the bigger the city, the worse they pay. And the bigger the order amount, the more you will pay out first. And then they drop you. And pick up somebody else. Somebody newer. Somebody more of the moment. The next "Plat du jour". Try to complain or stand up for yourself, and they will try to blacklist you for the next 10 years on the circuit. See, it's not about fashion. And it's not about talent. It's about power. And money. Talent is cheap. Eat it up and spit it out.

When - or if - you get this far, you start to get scared and realise "you can't possibly do it alone." You have spent a lot of money. And now you need more. You need the power. You need partners. Backers, agents, production, pattern-people, stitchers, press coverage. Someone-who-can-finally-make-a-real-product-for-you, someone who can represent you... move you up the ladder. You need a name. You need the system. And then the real nightmares begin. It's a dangerous game. And you're well on your way to losing both your collection, and your soul. I don't have space to explain more, but I lived through all this and more, survived to tell-the-tale, and found a different way. This is a master's game only, especially if you are going to keep your collection and your soul.

Achieving mastery at the Paris level requires a lot of skills: artistic, fashion, technical, research, commercial, production, logistical, financial, accounting, language, media savvy, graphics, textiles and legal skills. You need physical energy and endurance, stress prevention, the ability to handle money, people, and more. Sadly, there isn't a fashion school programme in the world that comes even close to preparing people for what they really need to pursue this thing and survive, let alone do it right. You are on your own. If you are lucky you may find a mentor who is not greedy, who will share information, knowledge and experience with you. I was once given advice from someone who worked for England's most successful independent designer company (sorry, no names here). Their motto: "No agents. Do everything yourself. Trust no one."

And you will need passion. Only passion will keep you going and practicing in the field when it seems impossible. A person without passion is logical and will quit (and rightly so). A person with true passion will continue to try to practice their art, no matter what. And only through continuous practice and the discipline that comes with it will you become what we call a Fundamentalist Designer. One who owns his/her name and collection, owns the distribution, production and financing of their art and work. No sponsors. No licenses. No parent companies. No agents. Total artistic and financial control of their intellectual property. And good customers to keep it all going. A true master of the game.

This is the only kind of designer that can truly create pure, new fashion, based on design and innovation, not hype, media buzz or a "system push." A true creator... not a "fashion DJ," merchandiser, or celebrity. Only passion, discipline, dedication and perseverance will get you to this level - along with your customers, who should be your best, and only, financial backers. Avoid the system as much as possible. Focus on doing things your customers really want and need, and they will support you - if your work merits it. And if they don't, you need to improve your work until they do. That's the fundamental. In the end, it's very simple. It's all about making things and selling things. Do both and you're cool. Miss one or the other, and you're out. Or you will need "someone" to do it for you. But no one capable is going to do it for nothing. And they will rarely do it with the kind of passion and attention that you want it to be done with. You will pay for sure. Probably with your company equity, artistic control, identity and ability to steer your own destiny with your work and art. A slave or pauper by any other name, no matter how many stores or magazines you will be seen in, for a while...

Sorry, I gotta go... less than 15 days until the new collection opens in Paris. And there's a ton of work to do if I am going to keep my own job alive. The American banking system is collapsing today in New York, and remember, there's 2,500 collections already out there gunning for my customer's budgets to choose them instead of mine... Even after 57 collections, one must never forget the laws of the old masters, "every new season is an entirely new business, and you're only as good as your last collection." If I survive this one, maybe we can talk some more, but again...the odds are against me today too.

More than ever, the new collection had better be good - really good.

In haste, with best wishes,
Geoffrey B. Small