Being crowned the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund winner is one of the most prestigious awards a young designer can receive. But with the $300,000 award comes something more intangible: a coveted seal of approval from two of the most powerful women in the fashion industry, Vogue Editor-In-Chief Anna Wintour and CFDA President and powerhouse designer Diane von Furstenberg.
Together, these two women are doing something few businesses do enough of today: mentoring young talent. “By far the most important gift that the fashion fund has to offer is mentorship,” Anna Wintour told The Huffington Post over the phone.
The annual CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund competition, now in its 10th year, spotlights 10 up-and-coming designer finalists. On Nov. 11, one winner will receive $300,000 to pursue his or her independent design plan, and two runners-up will each get $100,000. The winners are then paired with established professionals from the industry to help guide them in growing a profitable and sustainable business.
But it's a gift young designers have to earn. Contestants are judged at every turn during a series of challenges, interviews and presentations, and they're tasked with creating an original piece around a theme. This year, the theme was activewear, and the challenge was sponsored by Uniqlo. Judges also drop in on the finalists during site visits throughout the process, to get a sense of their workspace and to offer guidance.
LOOK: SCROLL DOWN FOR PICTURES FROM THE 2013 FINALISTS' LA FASHION SHOW
Emerging designer and finalist Juan Carlos Obando says the judges' presence at the events and site visits is a vital part of the process. “They ask super important questions about your business and work,” he told HuffPost in an email. “The process is great. Lawren Howell and the Vogue team request several looks from your collection, and along with Anna Wintour, they select the final line-up and prepare the five looks that best represent your current work.”
The judges for the competition include some of the biggest names in the industry: Jenna Lyons of J. Crew, Ken Downing of Neiman Marcus, Andrew Rosen of Theory and Marcus Wainwright and David Neville of Rag & Bone (past Fashion Fund finalists themselves), in addition to Wintour and von Furstenberg.
“The experience of going through the questions makes the designers understand how and why they are doing things,” von Furstenberg says. “They have all these different things to go through, like putting a presentation together in front of all of the judges at 8 a.m. in the Vogue offices. It’s all very intimidating.”
How finalists handle the pressure counts, too. "The judges get reports sent to us," von Furstenberg says. "Just today, Anna sent me a report about how the finalists were behaving. It’s very interesting to see how they behave in all circumstances and how they are with people. In a strange way, all of this kind of affects the results."
“Anna and Diane provide two sides of the spectrum,” Obando says. “But in general, Anna gives you the feedback about not only how to focus your work, but also how to keep the business side as a fundamental part of the equation without compromising your creative vision.”
Working with such established players can pay off big for finalists, many of whom lack the resources available to larger brands. Von Furstenberg shared the talents of her executive team with 2008 finalist Alexander Wang. “Not only was I the mentor, but I gave him access to people in my organization, too. He had access to my CFO and my operations person -- who actually eventually became his COO,” von Furstenberg told HuffPost.
Wintour notes, “It’s also the access they have to the entire selection committee” that provides designers with critical feedback.
Nowhere was the intense pressure more obvious than at the October runway show for the competition, held at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles in front of an elite crowd that included included Victoria and David Beckham, Lena Dunham and Anna Wintour.
For those designers who don't win the competition, a separate Business Advisory Committee was created in 2007 to serve as an ongoing resource for the remaining seven finalists.
Perhaps what best illustrates the fund’s success is the attention it commands from major players in the industry. “We are seeing a lot of big companies looking at our fashion fund and investing in the talent,” says Wintour. Past winners and finalists include Proenza Schouler, Derek Lam, Marchesa, Rodarte, Thakoon, 3.1 Phillip Lim, Jason Wu, Alexander Wang and many others. The fund has become a talent pool that feeds directly to the top of the fashion industry.
And the interest doesn't stop there. A six-part television series, “The Fashion Fund,” airs in January on Ovation TV. The show will give an inside look at the studio visits, LA runway show, Vogue fashion shoots and final winner announcement.
Wintour points out that sheer ability is not the only box that must be checked in this process. “It’s not only about talent. You need to be a personality in today’s world,” she says. “What we all say to them is to focus on who you are. Don’t worry about what so-and-so is doing or what the thing of the moment may be. Understand what your own vision is and focus on that.”