In the boom times of the ’80s, ’90s and the pre-recession Noughties, fashion designers angling for growth followed a similar trajectory—one that often involved rapid expansion, usually with the end goal of being acquired by a large conglomerate or being installed at one of their heritage houses. Better still if the designer had a larger-than-life personality and a penchant for snappy sound bites; not to mention a knack for getting their clothes on (and being seen with) the right celebrities. In recent years, though, with the fashion, retail, and media industries growing even more fragmented and frenetic, that method has proved unsustainable. We’ve seen designer burnouts, store closures, a surplus of inventory, and, most worrying of all, a worsening climate crisis. Enter a generation of craft-first designers who are rethinking ways of working, creating and selling; along the way, beating the system and saving the world—and more often than not, it’s women who are leading the charge. Here’s who you need to know.
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen started The Row in 2006 with a single white tee crafted to perfection. In the years since, they have built not just a full-fledged fashion brand but an entire immersive universe. Their New York flagship is more a tastefully-curated home than boutique—a three-story townhouse filled with treasures from Frank Lloyd Wright, Isamu Noguchi, Basquiat, and Man Ray, all for sale. Inside, one finds a product selection that is slowly but surely growing organically. There are the hugely popular bags, unadorned because the Olsens don’t do flashy logos and hardware. Similarly, minimal and sculptural footwear was launched a few years ago. Likewise, the ready-to-wear is unostentatious, save for the subtlest amount of flourish that signals its wearer’s fashion credentials.
As a result, the label is beloved of women all the way into their 70s—a reality reflected in their casting. Recent lookbooks have featured Saskia de Brauw, Georgina Grenville and Lauren Hutton. Last year, The Row menswear was launched—a fitting move as the brand takes its name from London’s Savile Row—to little fanfare but has quickly gained plenty of fans. This quietness has come to define The Row. The brand doesn’t do advertising. The founders may have been pop culture phenomenons since before they could talk, but they rarely grant interviews; nor do they appear on the brand’s Instagram. In fact, the account rarely even features its own products. For every image of a runway look, bag or shoe, there’d be 11 of artworks by the likes of Ernst, Leger, Miro, Schiele or Twombly—proving that in this age of never-ending noise, sometimes it’s silence that speaks the loudest.
In less than a decade, Rocha has built a brand that has become both a critical and commercial success. Her strength lies in the way she is able to reference cultures far away or long gone, and weave it all together in a deeply personal manner that’s always distinctively identifiable—one that celebrates the full bloom of femininity and romance without ever venturing into the territory of impractical fantasy, costume or twee.
With their billowing volumes, sheer layers, delicate embroideries, and expressive prints, Rocha’s clothes may look soft but the women in them always look strong—shod in flat shoes, hands tucked in big pockets and bodies enveloped in flattering, generous silhouettes. It’s no wonder that Rocha has found fans of all shapes and ages; and her inclusive, multigenerational casting reflects this. Her fall/winter 2019 show featured appearances from iconic faces of the ’80s (Jeny Howorth), ’90s (Kirsten Owen and Chloë Sevigny), and the ’00s (Lily Cole).
The French-Belgian designer has had an explosive rise. After stints at Maison Margiela, Alexander McQueen and Balenciaga—where she picked up their flair for disruption—she won the LVMH Prize in 2017 on the strength of her graduate collection. With her singular vision, it feels like Serre burst onto the scene with a fully-formed fashion vocabulary complete with instantly identifiable signatures— think crescent-moon motifs and full-coverage bodysuits. In the two years since, she has expanded and refined those signatures. Her design language revolves around the dynamic collision of disparate cultures and inspirations, where old-school couture silhouettes are remixed with hypermodern sportswear.
Serre is also a savvy merchandiser who provides a plethora of ways for fans to buy into her work; from the bodysuits, bowling-ball bags and her Nike collaboration, all the way to demi-couture one-of-a-kind pieces. The word “couture” may conjure images of old-timey gilded glamour, but Serre’s couture is truly radical: Upcycled and repurposed from deadstock materials and found fabrics like vintage silk scarves, beach towels, fleece blankets, and fisherman’s vests. Watch closely as Serre boldly continues to write the future of fashion.
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While the rest of the industry ponders power-dressing and real-life solutions, Hearst has emerged as a beacon of those movements. Her clothes exist outside the realm of trends, with a focus on lush, tactile materials cut into beautifully restrained wardrobe heroes—the perfect pea coat, trench, knit dress, slip, leather skirt or tailored suit. These are pieces meant to be worn and loved for years instead of looking tired after a season, which is how Hearst approaches the subject of sustainability—the value at the heart of her brand, where it’s incorporated into minute details and day-to-day practices of her business.
It’s about the traceability of her materials—wool from sheep on her family ranch, for instance—and the responsibility for her workers’ welfare (the wool is spun by rural women empowered by a nonprofit in Uruguay), all the way to how she manages growth. Her sculptural bags are highly in demand and while most other designers would have cashed in big time, Hearst limits distribution by making them available only through direct order to cut out material wastage. When she opened her first store last year, she did it without using any synthetics or chemicals. With a recent minority investment from LVMH, Hearst proves that beauty with mindfulness is the way forward.
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