If the rise of streetwear labels has taught the wider fashion industry anything over the past decade, it’s that to start a burgeoning fashion brand, one no longer needs the approval or support of big editors, retailers and luxury conglomerates to be successful.

While having these gatekeepers on your side certainly helps, putting out culturally relevant products, having a strong two-way communication strategy, and a tight knit community of your own will go a long way.

So where does that leave the fashion prize? The once most accurate look into the future, telling the fashion industry who, and what, are on the brink of breaking through.

In Paris, at the annual LVMH Prize — now in its seventh year — we looked for answers. In a large room filled with nerve and an underlying panic for a coronavirus spread (the LVMH Prize cancelled its annual cocktail the day prior), shortlisted emerging designers from around the world gathered. To a jury consisting of leading journalists, stylists and buyers including Anna Wintour, Sarah Andelman, Edward Enninful, Gigi Hadid, Derek Blasberg, Adrian Joffe and more, they presented their Fall/Winter 2020 collections. Against the organization’s advice to not shake hands with the jury and fellow attendees, many hugs and kisses were exchanged. Fashion.

While some designers don’t see the need for industry validation received from being nominated for a fashion prize, many other young designers today disagree. It’s certainly true that fashion competitions are powerful vehicles to catapult a brand into the wider consciousness of the fashion industry. Virgil Abloh, Simon Jacquemus and Demna Gvasalia were all finalists for the prize’s 2015 edition. Martin Margiela, Glenn Martens of Y/Project, and Koché designer Christelle Kocher have all won the grand prize at ANDAM, while everyone from Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent to most recently Richard Malone and Emily Bode have been crowned the winners of the International Woolmark Prize.

But it’s not just heightened exposure that brands who enrol into fashion prizes today seek. We asked some of the shortlisted designers of this year’s LVMH Prize to elaborate.

Priya Ahluwalia, founder of Ahluwalia Studios Menswear label founded in 2018 Key stockists: SSENSE, LN-CC, Browns

“I do think that there’s something in the credibility you get out of your brand being celebrated by such an establishment, especially given the 1700 applications,” says Priya Ahluwalia, who goes on to explain how after she was shortlisted for the prize, many buyers came back to the designer to increase their orders.

“If you win it’s a lot of money and fashion isn’t a high cash game,” continues Ahluwalia, who last year also won the H&M Design Award. “When you think about it, you’re selling clothes at a wholesale price and then you have to pay for look books, shows etc. It’s a lot of outgoings and fashion is really hard to get investment in, unless you’re fashion-tech.”

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The winner of the LVMH Prize receives a grant of €300,000 (about $349,000), along with a year of personalized support by LVMH’s top advisors. Winning the prize, Ahluwalia says, would be big. “I need the fundamentals,” she says. “The main things I would do would be getting a studio, build a better website, hire my studio manager full-time and get someone on production, so I can focus on the bigger picture.”

But beyond exposure and a potential cash injection, it’s something bigger the fashion prize offers. The process of the prize itself is a rare case where young designers get to meet each other and figures often deemed inaccessible. “I always say that being a designer is quite isolating. You design in your own studio. So to get the opportunity to meet all these that I’ve met in the past two days is unbelievable. 65 experts who have never seen my brands now have. This is a dream come true, honestly.”

Nicholas Daley, founder of Nicholas Daley Menswear label founded in 2014 Key stockists: Dover Street Market, Beams, Mr. Porter

Fellow Londoner Nicholas Daley agrees. “Let me remind you, these times and prizes are the only time we [as designers] really meet. For the fashion community, these prizes are really important as they bring people together which is the only way conversations can happen,” he explains.

“I guess with the current climate, cross-pollination is definitely a good thing. I’ve always been quite open with fellow designers because I’m quite confident so if people ask me where something is made or sourced, I always try to be transparent because everyone approaches things differently,” Daley, who last year was a finalist in the International Woolmark Prize, adds.

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Like fellow Adidas-collaborator Ahluwalia, the designer also agrees on fashion prizes being the perfect way for notable figures to see your work. “I just spoke to Gigi Hadid ten minutes ago, and it’s great that judges can give you feedback.”

For Daley, winning the prize would mean he could strengthen the structure of his business internally. “We want more human resources, and push more on our e-commerce and production sides,” he says. “As the brand is expanding, you want more production expertise to elevate the product. I feel like my identity and what I’m trying to say is pretty clear, but it’s all about the back-end, which ultimately projects you to the next level. Because I want my weekends back,” he laughs.

Charaf Tajer, founder of Casablanca Menswear label founded in 2019 Key stockists: United Arrows, Maxfield, Gallerie Lafayette

For Casablanca’s Charaf Tajer the meaning of a fashion prize is simple. “Being selected is already a victory. So is the association with LVMH. [Overall] it’s great exposure and great to meet different people with different influences,” he says.

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Peter Do, founder of Peter Do Womenswear label founded in 2018 Key stockists: Dover Street Market, Net-a-Porter, Moda Operandi

“For me it’s also a homecoming,” says New York-based designer Peter Do who is now in his fourth season. “I’ve been here once in 2014 when I won the student prize. That really launched my career and was my ticket at Céline [working for Phoebe Philo]. There wouldn’t have been any way I could have gone to Paris and work for [the house] if it wasn’t for the prize, so I do think the prize is important for students to give them a platform to show [their work to] established brands where they might never get an interview.”

Having already garnered nearly 300.000 followers on Instagram on his personal and brands accounts, and selling at some of the world’s best stockists, Do explains why fashion prizes remain important for independent designers.

“Whether you’re big or small, places like this allow for collectivity to happen. Even for a brand like us who have a client base without this, we’re still meeting people we’ve never met before, especially press and stylists.

The prize money, if won, he says would be put back into his team of 12. “I want to pay them better. Our team gets paid but not at the market value that they should be paid for, for the amount of work we do.”

Piero D’Angelo, founder of Piero D’Angelo Womenswear label founded in 2018. Key stockists: Open Cell

Competing in a fashion prize can also be an opportunity to educate luxury houses on pressing issues in our current climate like sustainability and diversity, something big brands often don’t fully address themselves. It’s one of the reasons Italian designer Piero D’Angelo enrolled into the prize.

“[What I do] is a door to the future. It’s about what could be achieved,” he says. D’Angelo, whose studio is located in West London’s Open Cell, is part of the Biodesign movement along designers like Alice Potts, Stephanie Moscall-Varey and Jen Keane. Some of D’Angelo’s garments created from lichen are literally alive and absorb pollutants like sulphur dioxide and nitrogen. Others just use 1,5 liters of water in their production, a dramatic reduction compared to those produced by many other fashion houses.

“I don’t have any background in science or biology so I had to require all the knowledge myself,” he explains. “I like the idea of bringing it into fashion and making garments for fighting environmental issues. Fashion that isn’t just aesthetic but also function.”

One technology he’s created with bio-chemists at Open Cell allows for a hardened slime to grow up to 1,5 centimetres an hour. In a designed mold it gets its shape.

“It shows me that biotechnology could be applied now and it’s not just an idea for the far future. The funding would push forward my scientific research and I would be able to hire people like biologists and scientists that can help me as I don’t have their skill set. It would allow me to make my products available to the market faster.”

That’s the kind of innovation fashion prizes should be supporting.

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