5 Universal Truths We Learned From The Real-Life Project Runway

Photo: Courtesy of Woolmark.
Competition is part of what makes the fashion industry tick, but if you're thinking Project Runway, know that the actual showdowns designers go through make the rigor of that series look like child’s play. From the relatively small Ecco Domani to the world-renowned CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, these events can launch and legitimize designers' careers, whether they win or lose. And that's because competing on good design, smart business sense, inspiring branding, and clever merchandising challenges artists in a way that being forced to craft a wedding dress out of iceberg lettuce never could.

I was recently the guest of The Woolmark Company, a group of Australian woolgrowers, for its 2015 competition for womenswear in Beijing. The five designers there had already won their regional tiers and created entire collections focused on promoting the use of wool — and that’s on top of their regular, full-time jobs. The winner, Marcia Patmos of M.Patmos, received a cash prize of 100,000 Australian dollars (in addition to the regional award prize of 50,000 AUD) — an amount that 2014 winner Rahul Mishra cautions isn't a golden ticket. “[Showing your collection] in Paris for one season during Fashion Week costs $150,000.” So, why compete in the first place? 
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For many reasons, I came to find out. And, I discovered that in these months of high-pressure thinking, doing, and assessing, designers inevitably learn a thing or two about what they need in order to be successful doing what they love. And no, “I’m not here to make friends” isn’t one of them. Below, find the five truths we picked up while at the International Woolmark Prize, and how you can use them to get ahead in your own career.

Photo: Courtesy of Woolmark.
1. Leave the “bullshit sprinkles” at the door.
There’s a tendency in fashion to embellish, whether that means adding another doodad to a jacket or overusing adjectives to describe a collection. But, in competitions like Woolmark, the people you’re trying hardest to impress likely have the strongest aversion to that kind of showboating, and crafting compelling, personal statements is part of what it takes to win. Says My Theresa’s buying director Justin O’Shea, “It's very hard to write very personally, because you're always sprinkling a little bit of bullshit dust over everything.” But, going through the process is hugely important; learning to separate the crap from the rest is a vital step in understanding who you are. Says O’Shea, “When you start saying things out loud, you finally realize what you’re about.”

Journalist Colin McDowell has reported on the trajectories of hundreds of young designers, and knows how to spot someone who actually has something to say: “In art colleges, things have become quite abstract, and you begin to lose track of what the purpose is, which, of course, is to make clothes that people actually want to wear.” Woolmark designers had 15 minutes to make an impression; there’s no room for bullshit. Said judge Victoria Beckham, “I really felt for them, because they’ve worked really, really hard, and I was just judging them [based on] their products.” Your 15 minutes might come in the form of a résumé, an interview, or a presentation, but there’s certainly wisdom in ditching the “bullshit sprinkles” when you're trying to get one point across: You want what I have. 

2. The biggest gift that money can give you isn’t necessarily the ability to buy things.
Mishra was candid about the financial significance of his Woolmark winnings ("It’s one season in Paris.”), but the real benefit lies in spending what money you have in ways that will help you, as a professional, gain visibility. “Because I could participate in Paris again, [that] means I can go to Paris a third time. Then, I’m going to become a prominent feature over there. This prize gives you that kind of momentum.” McDowell agrees: “Fashion is very generous, and you are always given a chance, but the chances are quite short. You only have two or three seasons [to prove yourself].” 
Creating product was secondary to Marcia Patmos, as well, who took no time in pinpointing where her cash was going: “Global sales, for sure. I’ve been getting approached by a lot of stores, but haven’t been able to invest. There’s so much opportunity in other countries.” Judge Victoria Beckham highlights the other benefits of winning, like mentorship access and press coverage. “Those things are as important as the money that the winner gets, actually, because you have to know how to invest and spend that money and how to build a collection.” Windfalls are nothing without the know-how to handle them deftly. Blowing it all on something that doesn't widen your opportunity for more gravy in the future is a dumb move. 

3. Always have an answer for, “Why are you doing this again?”
When Indian designer Rahul Mishra won the prize in 2014, he had a lot going against him, especially since his warm-weather designs and wool seem diametrically opposed. (Said Woolmark’s chief executive Stuart McCullough about Mishra, “I was hoping we didn’t have a disaster.”) But, faking it was never an option, and when Mishra really looked at his line outside the context of Woolmark, the connection was obvious: “Wool is a very Buddhist concept. There's no killing involved. You respect [the] animal. You respect the environment. You respect everything. For me, Buddhism is a natural fit for my brand philosophy. I'm [a] completely sustainable luxury brand — wool is one of the most sustainable fibers known to mankind.” If you’ve got to struggle to make it fit, that’s a sign that you might want to move on.

Photo: Courtesy of Woolmark.
4. You can’t do it all — and that’s okay.
There’s an immense amount of pressure these days to be renaissance men and women, and Do It All. But, if you’re compromising doing one thing extremely well for doing many things just okay, that’s not a smart trade-off. Says McDowell about designers, in particular: “People who are creative are not necessarily very good at strategy. Many people can draw gorgeously, but the people who make it are the ones who know how to survive. Sometimes, that takes a business partner.” Angelica Cheung, Vogue China’s editor-in-chief echoes the sentiment: “A lot of designers are not good business operators.”

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5. Have a “thing” that’s unique to just you.
Whether or not you’re in the business of selling clothes, you are selling something, even if it’s your skills. Among the pool of people who do what you do, you need one thing that you can become the go-to for, whether it’s a deep knowledge of a very specialized coding language or a million followers who love your 140-character recaps of Veep.

When O’Shea looks for new designers to stock, it helps if they know — and have already capitalized on — what sets them apart. “I need a hero item, because that is the one thing which, especially for online...sells the most: a Kenzo sweater, an Isabel Marant wedge sneaker, a Givenchy sweatshirt, a Saint Laurent army parka. Like, what are you putting your balls on the line with? Everything else tells the rest of the story, but you need one very strong message towards one sort of product.”   
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