ZURICH, Switzerland - The Swiss Textiles Award is not the richest fashion design prize available -- the 300,000 euro prize from Mango takes that category. But, over the past 5 years it has emerged as perhaps the most influential award of its kind, and the only one to operate with a global remit.
In 2003, a little-known Belgian designer named Raf Simons won the prize and went on to wow fashion critics, who were now playing close attention to his work. Cathy Horyn had this to say of his Simons' men's 2005 Spring/Summer collection, shown in Paris in July 2004:
What Mr. Simons did in an instant was to render the day, and most of the previous one of the spring men's collections, obsolete. In 18 years of reporting on fashion, the last 5 at this post, I have stood up from only a handful of shows with a conviction that everything had been transformed.
The next year, Simons was tapped by Prada Group to become the Creative Director of Jil Sander. The brand has had its ups and downs since then and was subsequently sold to private investors. But, while it has yet to find its commercial rhythm, there is no doubt that Simons work for Jil Sander has propelled him into an elite group of global designers who are genuinely pushing design forward.
Can the Swiss Textiles Award take the credit for Simons' giant leap? Of course not. But it has demonstrated an uncanny knack for recognising the world's best fashion talent first, and giving them a platform of wider recognition and financial support to extend their reach. The award winner from 2006, Bruno Pieters, was announced as Creative Director of Hugo by Hugo Boss in 2007.
I spoke to Robb Young, a Business Strategies Consultant for the Swiss Textiles Award (and respected fashion journalist who writes for The International Herald Tribune and The Financial Times), to learn more about the Swiss Textiles Award and its strategy.
BoF: How did you get involved with the Swiss Textiles Award?
The Swiss Textiles Federation asked me to reposition and rebrand the award in the Spring of 2003. The first thing I did was to introduce a strict nomination system and separate jury to get the widest possible appraisal from truly influential members of the fashion industry.
I've been lucky enough to have secured some spectacular partners as either nominators or jury members such as Suzy Menkes, Sally Singer, Carine Roitfeld and Franca Sozzani. Top buyers have also been very supportive like Julie Gilhart from Barney's, Sarah Lerfel from Colette, and Armand Hadida from L'Eclaireur.
Fashion curators like Pamela Golbin from the Musee de la Mode et du Textile at the Louvre and Valerie Steele at FIT have also chipped in, as well as consultants like Robert Burke, Armando Branchini, Floriane de Saint Pierre, and of course, Diane Pernet.
The world is changing fast so we've also been attentive to the rising influence of emerging fashion markets by having excellent buyers and editors from the Middle East, Russia and China on board.
BoF: What is the Swiss Textiles Award and how did it come to be?
Well, essentially, it's an annual €100,000 prize that puts the spotlight on a young designer who is both a creative maverick and commercial success. It's given at a critical juncture in their business development cycle. The endowment is put aside for business activities that are tailored to the needs of the winning designer's brand. The Swiss Textiles federation pays €100,000 worth of bills for the winning designer over a year– typically for the costs of their fashion shows, production, the hiring of specialist staff or whatever will bring the designer's brand to the next level. Plus, each designer contestant gets vouchers for free fabrics as well.
To be eligible, designers must have presented at least four successive independent seasons in Paris, New York, Milan or London. This makes sure they have already proven some degree of longevity and can make it past the first few business hurdles of their own accord. They should be champions of a visionary and modern style; be on the forefront of seasonal tendencies while having a challenging and coherent brand identity; and they must have substantial retail distribution and media attention.
But contestants have to be nominated by a rotating panel of fashion industry experts – there's no way to apply.
BoF: With so many fashion design competitions and awards around the world, what makes the Swiss Textiles Award stand out?
Our winners, for one. But you're right, there are several other awards out there serving a variety of interests nowadays. Some are quite successful in their own niche while others are not. But the Swiss Textiles Award is the only truly international one open to the best young designers from any of the fashion capitals. Other awards are restricted to designers showing at a particular fashion week, as a way to support national industries. And others still are there to promote a high street brand by vetting potential designer collaborators - or they are positioned to reward design students fresh out of school. That's important too of course, but we're focused on serious young fashion entrepreneurs.
You know, it's not only about the size of the prize money – because some awards now bestow higher prizes than ours. But, in addition to the cash, the Swiss Textiles Award aims to be the definitive authority on up-and-coming fashion design talent.
We're here to recognise and nurture designers that have star potential to build their own signature brand. We like to think that our winner each year reflects the collective sentiments of the leaders of the global fashion industry – well, as far as that's possible anyway. Our point of difference is that we have a system in place where we are objective enough - through our esteemed nominating panels and juries - to look beyond a lot of the politics and nepotism that haunts the fashion industry. It's about talented designers with a clear business vision and creative ambition for their brands.
And I think there is something to be said for being the first one out of the starting blocks. The Swiss Textiles Award will have its tenth anniversary next year and embarked on its current international strategy six years ago.
BoF: Who are the previous winners of the Swiss Textiles Award?
Our roster of international winners includes Raf Simons (2003), Haider Ackermann (2004), Christian Wijnants (2005), Bruno Pieters (2006) and Marios Schwab (2007). There have been some really touching stories where the award came through at pivotal moments in these designers' careers to help them push forward through thick and thin.
BoF: So if there's no way to apply for the award, how does one get considered for nomination?
Next year's shortlist will be chosen by yet another nominating panel of experts and the ultimate winner will be selected by a jury later that year. So it's all about designers being tapped for the waves they're making from their shows and their success on market. Those who make a big impression on the fashion industry leaders should have every chance to be nominated.
For the 2008 Edition of the Swiss Textiles Award, Rodarte, Louise Goldin, Richard Nicoll, Toga, Cathy Pill and Jean-Pierre Braganza will show a selection of their most recent Spring/Summer 2009 collection in Zurich on the 13th of November to an international jury.