Colin’s Column | Does the Format of International Talent Competitions Give English Speakers an Unfair Advantage?

On the occasion of the 2013 International Woolmark Prize, Colin McDowell says it’s time to evolve international talent searches to eliminate disadvantages for non-English speakers.

Diane von Furstenberg, Donatella Versace, Franca Sozzani and Victoria Beckham at the International Woolmark Prize | Photo: Dave Benett

LONDON, United Kingdom – To get one great fashion diva to London Fashion Week would be impressive. To get two would be unlikely. Three: unheard of. But four? You are surely joking!

Well, that was the number of genuine fashion icons who were guests of the Woolmark Company last Saturday to judge the final stage of the International Woolmark Prize for new design talents using wool for their collections. Coming from Australia, China, Europe, India, Japan and the US, the young hopefuls had beaten off the competition in their area during a worldwide search which lasted for 12 months, involved 16 countries and over 70 designers as part of an initiative to re-establish Merino wool as a major fashion fabric. The competition is not new, of course. It became famous in the 1950s, when both Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld won prizes in the same year.

The finalists are chosen — against stiff local competition — by regional panels and the winners are invited to a major international fashion week for the final decision. The winner was Christian Wijnants from Belgium for his strongly directional shapes not seen in knitwear before and his strong tie dye techniques, another wool first.

Oh! And those divas? Well, how does this line up grab you? Diane von Furstenberg, Donatella Versace, Franca Sozzani and Victoria Beckham (wearing the most gob-smackingly large diamond ring that was noticed and discussed by everybody in the room).

But the competition, of which I am a brand ambassador, raises a question that interests me greatly, having run Fashion Fringe, an international search for new talent, for the last 9 years.

This question is this: just how level a playing field can the increasing numbers of international talent competitions around the world actually offer the people who put themselves up for judgment?

My job at the International Woolmark Competition, which I shared with Malcolm Carfrae of Calvin Klein, was to coach the finalists before the event began and I realised that despite all that the Woolmark Company had done to make it a fair and honest competition, the fact remained that a non-English speaker would find him or herself at a terrible disadvantage.

It seems to me that we in the West who organise these events with the highest intentions and are ready to honour different cultures inherent in the concept of an international event are getting it wrong by making conversation with the judges a crucial element of the decision-making process. I have thought uneasily about this problem for many years and I am now convinced that the only fair way in which to run an international search for new designers is to remove the huge advantage given to anyone from an English-speaking culture.

Let me be clear. If not a word had been exchanged before the final announcement of the International Woolmark Competition winner, Christian Wijnants would have been that winner in any case. Of that, I am certain. His collection used wool in the strongest, most accessible and personal way.

But it must be added that he was also one of only two competitors who spoke English fluently enough to fully communicate his aesthetic in their own words (without translators) to the judges. The confidence and self-esteem that we all look for in these competitions starts with that.

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2 comments

  1. Interesting. I agree that there is definitely a language barrier, so eliminate the “personality” criteria and focus on the design. Fashion is always going to be a popularity contest. The judges were all in the same boat, there were no judges from Asia.

    mel from Philadelphia, PA, United States
  2. This article is perfect. I am now at this very moment assisting a certification jury at a prominent fashion school here in Paris. Why? They realize that their students are competing on a global scale and they want to see how well their students are at expressing themselves and presenting their collections in English. This is vital in today’s market. I want to hear them express their inspiration, listen to technical details and discuss their target audience and pricepoints in English. To pretend that English is not important for a designer to know and to be efficient in, is a bit insane.

    Felicia S. from Paris, Île-de-France, France