On Tuesday, the nominees of the International Woolmark Prize gathered in New York to show their capsule collections to a team of judges who, together, make up some of the most recognizable and powerful faces in fashion. With baited breath (and some designers, nearly out of breath), the hopefuls listened as InStyle's editor-in-chief Laura Brown announced the winners. For womenswear, L.A.-based Zaid Affas snagged the prize, and for menswear, liminal sportswear brand DYNE took home the award. A roar of applause filled the room, followed by a palpable sigh of relief.
Tasked with creating innovative looks using Merino wool to present to the likes of André Leon Talley (Vogue), Steven Kolb (the CFDA), Stefano Tonchi (W), to name a few, the nominees worked tirelessly while simultaneously preparing their collections for Fashion Week in September. The payoff? Oh, just 70,000 AUD (about $55,000 in U.S. dollars), a chance to compete in the international finals to win even more dough for their business, and some serious fashion street cred. To be selected to compete for the prize is a feat in itself (and comes with a strict list of criteria for consideration), but to win the award is life-changing.
IWP's womenswear award recipient Zaid Affas cut his teeth at Ralph Lauren, Ports 1961, and BCBG before starting his eponymous label. For him, "luxury" is a fashion buzzword that's overused, and sometimes, not applicable to some clothes that are marketed that way at all. "Sometimes that word is used, but the quality isn't there. There has to be longevity in the clothes that's not only interesting, but timeless," Affas told Refinery29. Affas' commitment to what he calls "true design" has landed him several high-profile clients like Gigi Hadid, Kendall and Kylie Jenner, Tracee Ellis Ross, and more.
"Women want something they can use for a long time. To do real luxury, timelessness is important. If someone is going to invest real money in it, they need to be able to use it for a long time. For me, it's not as much about trends, as it is an expression of design," Affas said. Since its inception, Zaid Affas has incorporated inclusive size ranges and silhouettes for all types of women, and plans to use the prize money to continue fostering relationships with customers via trunk shows and made-to-order garments. "It's not just about spending money anymore. Customers want to learn about the product. And we build a lot of our business through department stores and trunk shows."
Back in 2000, IWP's menswear winner Christopher Bevans of DYNE was discovered in New York's famous textile shop Mood Fabrics while shopping for materials when he was whisked upstairs to meet with Sean Combs and Jeff Tweedy, the head honcho of Sean John (their office happened to be located in same building as Mood). "I rolled up with pieces that I made and a travel sewing machine. That was my portfolio. I was like, 'I got a sewing machine; I can make anything that you want!'" he said. After a few years at Sean John, Bevans ventured out on his own and started DYNE. The goal? To enter sportswear through a technological lens.
"Our primary mission came from fabric, and then to the innovations we're trying to implement: from NFC technology, for example, to other things we're working on. That was the business plan that was put together that got me my backers, actually," Bevans said. "I'm always on the hunt for pushing the boundaries of fashion with other technologies; I nerd out on that. I talk as if it's a tech company versus an apparel company, but that's how we approach it." Bevans' win comes just one day after being announced as a finalist in the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, too, so it's safe to say the menswear innovator will be very busy for the foreseeable future.
For budding designers, even those like Bevans who have been in the industry for over a decade, competitions like the International Woolmark Prize are one of the few chances designers have at getting the financial boost they need to secure a spot for themselves amongst the industry's elite. To wit: Past winners of the prize include Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent, and knitwear queen Gabriela Hearst won the prestigious award last year. Before heading home to celebrate, Affas made sure to pass on some parting advice for future competitors: "Be on time!"