If fashion is all about the next big thing, the nine designers nominated for emerging talent awards by the Council of Fashion Designers of America might be the names to know.
Michelle Obama already does: Two of those nominated — Jason Wu and Thakoon Panichgul — seem to be favorites of the first lady.
"Middle America doesn't know most of them at this point, but the fashion industry has seen the talent," says CFDA executive director Steven Kolb.
Winners, to be announced at a ceremony Monday at Lincoln Center, receive financial support from Swarovski Crystal. Hopefully, Kolb says, the winners for womenswear, menswear and accessory design will also get name recognition, floor space in stores and editorial credits.
Last year's winners — Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte — are now nominated as the nation's top womenswear designers. Previous winners include Anna Sui, Cynthia Rowley, Narciso Rodriguez, Proenza Schouler, Derek Lam and Rag & Bone.
"It gave us a sense of validation, of acceptance — it's the greatest feeling, I have to admit," says Laura Mulleavy. "The funny thing is, we lost for two years but we always came out of the situation benefiting somehow."
The Swarovski Award nominees are:
Alexander Wang's "girl" — as he affectionately calls his muse — is a party girl.
That means part of his job is "researching" this girl's lifestyle, says Wang, so don't be surprised if U2 is blaring from his office computer or he's hitting hotspots on the Lower East Side. "We're building a brand. It's not just about clothes and a product. It's so competitive! We're building a lifestyle and I have to give a peek into how this girl lives."
The label Wang launched in 2005 while still attending Parsons The New School of Design is steadily expanding. There's been a full womenswear collection since 2007 and come July there'll be men's. Wang, a 25-year-old California native, says he's appreciative of the recognition he's received. (His runway shows are hot tickets: Sarah Jessica Parker attended the last one.)
"I never imagined I'd be at this point in my career at this age. I thought I'd be an assistant designer somewhere or still figuring it out, but that is what makes it that much more exciting."
Thakoon Panichgul is, at 34, a veteran of the CFDA's emerging designer category — he was previously a nominee in 2006 and 2007. And while he has steadily gained buzz, it was first lady Michelle Obama, who wore a Thakoon dress at last year's Democratic convention, who really ramped up his name recognition.
"It's interesting what she's done for fashion," he says. "It's amazing what one woman is capable of doing. With the right kind of person, she can raise the awareness of anything — if her interest was asparagus farming, she'd do incredible things to raise the profile of asparagus farming."
Panichgul sees the importance of tapping into the emotions of the public at large to survive in the notoriously fickle fashion world. Thankfully, what women want is always changing, otherwise he might get bored.
Next up for this Thai-born, Nebraska-raised designer who studied business at Boston University is a satellite line called Addition. He's not calling it a secondary label, instead, he explains, it's "another creative outlet."
What a difference a year makes.
The ball started rolling for Jason Wu in 2008 when he won the Fashion Group International's Rising Star award and named a finalist for the CFDA Vogue/Fashion Fund mentoring program. But on Jan. 20 2009, he became a household name: He designed Mrs. Obama's white, one-shouldered inaugural gown.
And the berry-colored dress she wore on the cover of Vogue. And the sunny chartreuse-colored silk dress with a shawl collar she wore to step off the plane on her first overseas trip.
All this attention, Wu says, is helping with his primary mission — developing a larger, loyal clientele of customers. "I like to make everything count," he says.
That leads him to thinking about expanding beyond women's ready-to-wear. "I'm thinking of new categories, I'm trying to think of what hasn't been done. ... But it all has to make sense for me. I'm not in this just to make a quick buck. I hope I'm establishing a long career."
Wu, 26, was born in Taiwan, but hopscotched the world, including Vancouver, Tokyo and Paris, before settling in New York — just days after Sept. 11, 2001 — to attend Parsons. His first collection debuted in 2006.
As a fashion student, Robert Geller worked with the best of the best — Marc Jacobs — and those days as an intern keep him going now that he's on his own in the menswear world.
"He (Jacobs) and that whole place is a huge inspiration for me because I got a chance to see the magic of fashion as well as the unglamorous side of fashion — the lugging around clothing and fabric around Midtown. I loved it all," says Geller, 32.
After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design and finishing training with Jacobs, Geller became part of the Cloak team that was a mini phenomenon in fashion-forward circles in the early 2000s. After that he started a small womenswear line called Harald, but when an investor approached him about an eponymous men's line, Geller jumped at the chance. "Menswear is my first love."
He envisions a consumer much like himself: "You have to have an interest in fashion to wear it, but not be a `fashionista.' It's an approachable guy."
TIM HAMILTONEven though Tim Hamilton has made his mark in menswear, he largely credits his late Lebanese mother with helping to shape his aesthetic. With his American-English father, she exposed him to art and design from a young age — in an unlikely place. Hamilton, 37, was born and raised in Iowa.
Beyond the nuts and bolts of garment design, Hamilton, essentially a self-taught designer, says he's interested in what clothes and style have to say as statements. "I've always been fascinated with the exterior presence of fashion and how it affects people."
Hamilton's label is three years old, and he's been nominated as a CFDA emerging talent three times. The recognition has helped him reach a wider audience, he says. He also just added a women's line to his three-year-old brand.
His career highlight so far? "The latest is being the only American being invited to show in Paris for menswear week and also being able to keep living and working my vision."
With a background in political science and art history from the University of California at Berkeley, Patrick Ervell, who spent his childhood in the Bay Area and Sweden, says he approaches fashion from a different angle.
He envisions a new look in American men's sportswear, one that's more modern than the Americana epitomized by a more traditional designer like Ralph Lauren. His own personal uniform is "Levis and a T-shirt."
"I think I have a specific point of view and it's my goal now more than ever," he says. "My long term goal is to be known for a certain thing, but in the short term, I have to sell clothes."
He started selling clothes in 2006 and has four runway shows under his belt. The new fall collection relied heavily on outerwear, with a lot of shrunken classic silhouettes.
Classmates at Berkeley included the Rodarte sisters, Kate and Laura Mulleavy, with whom he studied for midterms. He learned from them to be patient when it comes to the CFDA award.
"Rodarte was nominated 4 times," he says. "I'm not expecting to win, you have to wait your turn."
ALEJANDRO INGELMOShoemaking was in Alejandro Ingelmo's blood, even if he didn't always feel destined for it. When he started his collection three years ago, he became the fourth generation to join the family trade despite starting Parsons to go into clothing design.
One class on shoes made the difference, he says. "It came very naturally and I picked it up quickly."
He interned in the shoe division of Donna Karan and then, three years ago, used the rest of his money intended for school to begin his own collection.
His mother wasn't thoroughly convinced, pledging allegiance to Manolo Blahnik until Ingelmo received a write-up in Vogue and an order from Bergdorf Goodman, he says with a laugh.
Ingelmo describes his signature look as having the sexy allure of his Cuban roots mixed with the edginess of the New York streets. Just weeks ago, Ingelmo saw a paparazzi shot of Beyonce wearing his Thriller shoe.
"My family is proud of me. I left for New York without my parents' approval, so it's a good feeling when I accomplished something," says the 35-year-old Ingelmo.
ALBERTUS SWANEPOELMilliner Albertus Swanepoel is certainly an emerging talent, getting his big break doing turbans and then cloches in 2005 and 2007, respectively, for Proenza Schouler, and then making the much-buzzed-about feathered fedoras for Carolina Herrera last year.
The new kid on the block, however, Swanepoel is not.
At 50, he has been working in New York's fashion industry for 20 years. "I've had to work three other jobs at the same time most of that time," he says. "I'm really a blip on the fashion scene."
That's no longer the case, with major retailers now carrying his hats.
He fell into it by chance, arriving from South Africa at first with hopes of working with garments, but he got a job at a company that made gloves. That was pretty much a winter-only business, Swanepoel explains, so he was interested in a summer income. He was fond of hats, but had to learn exactly how to make them.
"I love that they're sculptural and very small, and that there are certain restrictions of what one will wear on their head. Hats are a very personal object."
The company now known as Subversive Jewelry has been "an organic progression" of designer Justin Giunta's artistic pursuits.
A Pittsburgh native, Giunta studied at Pratt Institute and the Gerrit Reitveld Academie in Amsterdam before getting a bachelor's degree from Carnegie Mellon University and then a fellowship from Yale. He thought maybe he'd be a sculptor.
"I wanted to make a living off of what I can make with my own hands," says Giunta, now 30.
He challenged himself to make jewelry charms. Starting in 2003, he brought his 12-piece collection around Manhattan on foam core boards and got turned down more often than not. But, he says, a few stores took his charms and Subversive was born. "`Wearable sculpture' is how I approach each piece."
Giunta was not a jewelry-wearer until he started making his own, but now he's an avid collector of coin bracelets from around the world. He also dabbles in clothing — celebrities such as Sting and Usher have worn his T-shirts — but isn't sure that fashion is his career forever.
"I will do many things in life. The downturn in the economy has made it hard to justify pitching luxury jewelry to every customer like I could a year ago," he explains. "Now I'm strategizing."