Given the current economic climate, we couldn't help but feel this latest Fashion Week was overcast with a chance of showers. Yet, when clouds form and belts tighten, it becomes even easier to see which designers can genuinely innovate no matter how scant their resources, and which clothiers are just smoke and mirrors held up by money. Creating short films to showcase collections, traveling to remote Indian villages for fresh inspiration, opening new boutiques in a time when others are closing flagships—fashion's best entrepreneurs are using extraordinary effort and ingenuity to grow their brands in the face of a shrinking economy. Take a few lessons from our top ten of the hardest working designers in fashion—because, when times get tough, the best get even tougher.
Diane Von Furstenberg
Call her fashion's version of a Wonder Woman (a comparison she openly encourages). This unofficial cultural hostess of the Meatpacking District, CFDA President-Elect, and CFDA Lifetime Achievement Award winner isn't resting on her laurels, but continuing to expand her brand's clothes, accessories, shoes, bags, cosmetics, and swimwear (sold in 56 countries) at a pace that would kill a vigorous go-getter half her age.
Don't be fooled by her cutie-pie appearance. This hungry Brooklyn-based designer has branched out in just about every way possible. She blogs, creates films for each collection, collaborates with Urban Outfitters on her "Rapscallion" line, designs clothes for bands like Au Revoir Simone, produces a men's line, Patrick Pleet, and tries to do it all in the most environmentally-conscious way possible. Look forward to her upcoming a book of paper dolls for Dossier Journal and a new collection of hats and accessories for next season.
Lisa Mayock and Sophie Buhai of Vena Cava
These CFDA runners-up have been running the style circuit like champs in recent seasons. Drawing inspiration from near (Woodstock, NY) and far (India), the duo tap obscure history, African tribal prints, and a touch of contemporary tongue-and-cheek wit to create a brand of ineffable and surprising depth. Who else would ever think of cross pollinating Ancient Egyptian themes and punk styles or pairing silk with beaded safety pins? Their recent collaborations with Gap and Via Spiga helped them gain worldwide recognition, and let's not forget that their blog—VivaVenaCava—is a hoot.
This CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award for Best Designer Award winner and craftsman approaches his growing business like an artisan, but still manages to bring himself to larger and larger markets. Every one of his lines including Philip Crangi Jewelry and Giles & Brother employs unusual materials, ancient metalwork techniques, a solid grasp of history, and a scenester's understanding of humor and shock. After recent projects like collaborations with Boy by Band of Outsiders and just about every other truly cool designer at New York Fashion Week, he's just opened his first "brick and mortar" shop, The Crangi Family Project, in Meatpacking District. How does he find the time?
Above, from left: Philip Crangi, image via E.R. Butler & Co.; A piece from Giles & Brother fall '09.
After creating his label at just 19 years old (overachiever, much?), this prodigious young man has gained acknowledgement as the designer who led the transformation of sweats from lazy dressing to an edgy, downtown staple. As expertly crafted as his pieces are, they're still comfortable, easy to wear, and always of the moment. His CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award in '09 was the high point of an 18-month period when he collaborated with Gap, Uniqlo, and Keds; saw his work sold in over 200 boutiques; and unveiled a new basics label, T by Alexander Wang. Is it that he's the master of capturing how the hip girls dress or is it that the hip girls all want to be dressed by Alexander Wang? It's a wonderful mystery.
Phillip Lim of 3.1 Phillip Lim
This modest risk-taker experiments with multimedia methods of expanding his brand and has become known for his quirky, youthful collections that vary from season to season. In a time where many designers are shying away from opening retail stores, Phillip Lim is doing the opposite. Currently focusing on a mens line, accessories, shoes, sunglasses, men's bags, and developing online content, he's branched out into editorial production with Me Magazine. We got tired just thinking about all that.
Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler
After launching their business in '02 to immediate critical acclaim, Barneys bought their entire edgy, masculine-meets-feminine collection. And it was only the beginning. Known for their "dressing the cool girls" aesthetic, these darlings won the CFDA Award for Best Accessory Designer in '09, made a splash with their Target collection, continued their line of eyewear, shoes and handbags, and have become the apple of Anna Wintour's eye. No mean feat, indeed!
This environmentally-mindful trendsetter was one of the first designers to prove that beautiful clothes can also be produced in in an eco-friendly way. Not to mention, she's one of first members of her generation to show that pantsuits can kick some serious ass. Yes, she's designed yoga gear for Adidas, kids clothes for Gap, her own line of accessories, organic skin care line, and perfume, but it is her signature look of sexy, feminine pieces paired with masculine trousers and blazers that keep her on every editor's mind.
Project Runway judge extraordinaire, this American pioneer in fashion has been around since '81 and manages to stay center stage no matter what else is going on. His extensive brand includes women's and men's RTW, swimwear, accessories, handbags, small leather goods, belts, shoes, sportswear, neckwear, eyewear, timepieces, and fragrances—but like other members of his elite circle, his greatest and most lucrative, product is his name.
Miuccia Prada of Prada
This trendsetting entrepreneur (who also happens to have a PhD in Political Science) built her family's small luggage company starting in '78 into a billion-dollar internationally acclaimed brand. Though she comes up with radically different, creative, idiosyncratic themes each season, Miuccia runs a design house that has become an international conglomerate, with a variety of labels under its wing like Jil Sander, Azzedine Alaia, Helmut Lang, and Fendi. She also won the CFDA International Award in '93 and again in '04. Unlike Lagerfeld or others, she's not a character or a showboat. She is fashion.