Can fashion prizes fix the industry?

It’s not easy setting up a fashion brand these days. Just ask designer Sander Lak, whose beloved, rainbow-hued brand Sies Marjan shuttered amid the Covid-19 pandemic after only five years in business. Or Christopher Kane, whose namesake brand is facing economic collapse. Or Elena Velez and Kerby Jean-Raymond, who have both struggled to pay employees despite celebrity endorsements and critical acclaim.But the fashion industry can’t survive if young talent can’t successfully develop the next big brand; the vast network of fashion awards attempts to help young designers overcome the logistical and financial hurdles many face. “Prizes such as the Woolmark Prize have become a lifeline and saving grace for many emerging brands,” says Nigerian designer Adeju Thompson, founder of the Lagos Space Programme and winner of this year’s International Woolmark Prize. A 2021 LVMH Prize semi-finalist, Thompson is no stranger to the benefits of fashion prizes. The injection of $136,942 (AU$200,000) in funding, access to mentorship and a global retail network as a result of winning the Woolmark Prize gives Thompson the chance to supercharge Lagos Space Programme’s trajectory. Adeju Thompson, founder of Lagos Space Programme, was named finalist of the 2023 International Woolmark Prize. Photo: Courtesy“By virtue of being a Woolmark prize winner, I have been provided access to the same information as the biggest brands in the world have,” Thompson says. From struggles to triumphsA six-figure prize is nothing to sniff at for designers who may be struggling to pay off debts. But for some, what really makes a fashion prize valuable in the long-term isn’t the money. Fashion programs intended to foster talent have offered up their own propositions for how to make the transition from emerging designer to sustainable brand more achievable. “There are some things that you cannot buy with money,” says Barbara Franchin, founder of the Trieste, Italy-based incubator International Talent Support (ITS). For 20 years, ITS has staged an annual fashion prize that awards designers both prize money and a week-long collaborative residency in Trieste.   “We don’t give 200 or 300,000 euros, because we don’t think that the person at this stage can manage this money,” says Franchin. “We give them visibility, we give them confidence. We open a network here.” Franchin has ensured that prize applications don’t go to waste. In 2023, ITS opened the ITS Arcademy Museum of Art in Fashion in Trieste to showcase the tens of thousands of portfolios it has received over the years as well as the designs created at ITS residencies.  In May 2023, ITS Arcademy – Museum of Art in Fashion, the first museum entirely dedicated to emerging design talent, was inaugurated in Italy. Photo: CourtesyThat long-term support is crucial as fashion brands can fall just as quickly as they rise.“For emerging design talents, being catapulted onto the global stage can be overwhelming and daunting,” says John Roberts, managing director of The Woolmark Company. “It’s our role to provide solutions to these challenges.”Fashion prizes are a reflection of the industry’s values. In 2021, Los Angeles designer Mike Amiri launched the Amiri Prize. With backing from OTB Group, which also supports the Andam Prize and Yu Prize, the Amiri Prize offers $100,000 to an up-and-coming designer with the goal of making the industry more inclusive. The inaugural prize went to Black queer designer Lou Badger, who spent years working in the Philadelphia educational system before launching a fashion brand that deploys upcycled materials.   “It was challenging to find opportunities that were open to folks like me who didn’t receive a formal education in a creative field, or had a significant and established following,” says Badger. “I was motivated to apply for the Amiri Prize because of the explicit emphasis on inclusion and nurturing talent from nontraditional backgrounds.”For Badger, coming from a non-fashion background made the mentorship aspect the most valuable part of the Amiri Prize, but each applicant will have their own motivations in seeking out awards. “I would advise emerging designers looking to apply for a prize to conserve their energy by researching, asking questions, and determining the prize that most aligns to their needs and goals,” Badger says. Behind the glitzFashion prizes aren’t just beneficial for young talents. The powerful companies backing fashion prizes are themselves competing, not for money, but for the more intangible prize of being aligned with the next big thing in fashion. LVMH established its own namesake award in 2013, which offered early career support to the likes of Virgil Abloh and has grown to become one of fashion’s most illustrious accolades. An LVMH Prize nomination can be a massive boost for young designers, but it’s equally valuable for LVMH to be associated with emerging talent of Grace Wales Bonner or Shayne Oliver. LVMH needs the LVMH Prize, says Franchin. The

Can fashion prizes fix the industry?

It’s not easy setting up a fashion brand these days. Just ask designer Sander Lak, whose beloved, rainbow-hued brand Sies Marjan shuttered amid the Covid-19 pandemic after only five years in business. Or Christopher Kane, whose namesake brand is facing economic collapse. Or Elena Velez and Kerby Jean-Raymond, who have both struggled to pay employees despite celebrity endorsements and critical acclaim.

But the fashion industry can’t survive if young talent can’t successfully develop the next big brand; the vast network of fashion awards attempts to help young designers overcome the logistical and financial hurdles many face. 

“Prizes such as the Woolmark Prize have become a lifeline and saving grace for many emerging brands,” says Nigerian designer Adeju Thompson, founder of the Lagos Space Programme and winner of this year’s International Woolmark Prize. 

A 2021 LVMH Prize semi-finalist, Thompson is no stranger to the benefits of fashion prizes. The injection of $136,942 (AU$200,000) in funding, access to mentorship and a global retail network as a result of winning the Woolmark Prize gives Thompson the chance to supercharge Lagos Space Programme’s trajectory. 

Adeju Thompson, founder of Lagos Space Programme, was named finalist of the 2023 International Woolmark Prize. Photo: Courtesy

“By virtue of being a Woolmark prize winner, I have been provided access to the same information as the biggest brands in the world have,” Thompson says. 

From struggles to triumphs

A six-figure prize is nothing to sniff at for designers who may be struggling to pay off debts. But for some, what really makes a fashion prize valuable in the long-term isn’t the money. Fashion programs intended to foster talent have offered up their own propositions for how to make the transition from emerging designer to sustainable brand more achievable. 

“There are some things that you cannot buy with money,” says Barbara Franchin, founder of the Trieste, Italy-based incubator International Talent Support (ITS). For 20 years, ITS has staged an annual fashion prize that awards designers both prize money and a week-long collaborative residency in Trieste.   

“We don’t give 200 or 300,000 euros, because we don’t think that the person at this stage can manage this money,” says Franchin. “We give them visibility, we give them confidence. We open a network here.” 

Franchin has ensured that prize applications don’t go to waste. In 2023, ITS opened the ITS Arcademy Museum of Art in Fashion in Trieste to showcase the tens of thousands of portfolios it has received over the years as well as the designs created at ITS residencies.  

In May 2023, ITS Arcademy – Museum of Art in Fashion, the first museum entirely dedicated to emerging design talent, was inaugurated in Italy. Photo: Courtesy

That long-term support is crucial as fashion brands can fall just as quickly as they rise.

“For emerging design talents, being catapulted onto the global stage can be overwhelming and daunting,” says John Roberts, managing director of The Woolmark Company. “It’s our role to provide solutions to these challenges.”

Fashion prizes are a reflection of the industry’s values. In 2021, Los Angeles designer Mike Amiri launched the Amiri Prize. With backing from OTB Group, which also supports the Andam Prize and Yu Prize, the Amiri Prize offers $100,000 to an up-and-coming designer with the goal of making the industry more inclusive. The inaugural prize went to Black queer designer Lou Badger, who spent years working in the Philadelphia educational system before launching a fashion brand that deploys upcycled materials.   

“It was challenging to find opportunities that were open to folks like me who didn’t receive a formal education in a creative field, or had a significant and established following,” says Badger. “I was motivated to apply for the Amiri Prize because of the explicit emphasis on inclusion and nurturing talent from nontraditional backgrounds.”

For Badger, coming from a non-fashion background made the mentorship aspect the most valuable part of the Amiri Prize, but each applicant will have their own motivations in seeking out awards. “I would advise emerging designers looking to apply for a prize to conserve their energy by researching, asking questions, and determining the prize that most aligns to their needs and goals,” Badger says. 

Behind the glitz

Fashion prizes aren’t just beneficial for young talents. The powerful companies backing fashion prizes are themselves competing, not for money, but for the more intangible prize of being aligned with the next big thing in fashion. 

LVMH established its own namesake award in 2013, which offered early career support to the likes of Virgil Abloh and has grown to become one of fashion’s most illustrious accolades. An LVMH Prize nomination can be a massive boost for young designers, but it’s equally valuable for LVMH to be associated with emerging talent of Grace Wales Bonner or Shayne Oliver. LVMH needs the LVMH Prize, says Franchin. 

The fashion prize network is expanding and evolving, with prize bodies offering everything from cash windfalls to valuable fashion week slots. We’ve rounded up a few of the top prizes and what they offer emerging talent. 

The 2023 LVMH Prize jury includes Jonathan Anderson, Marc Jacobs, Kim Jones, Nigo, and others. Photo: Courtesy

Established: 2013

Rewards: $327,546 (€300,000) and mentorship from LVMH for the winner of the LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers; $163,773 (€150,000) and mentorship from LVMH for the winner of the Karl Lagerfeld Prize; and more

Notable alumni: Jacquemus (2015); Off-White (2015); Wales Bonner (2016).

Suffice to say, the annual prize from the fashion conglomerate that reaps nearly $90 billion in annual revenue offers one of the most talked-about – and financially lucrative – prizes. Conceived by Delphine Arnault, daughter of LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault and current CEO of LVMH property Dior, the prize is open to designers under the age of 40 with at least two collections under their belt. The most recent winner, Japanese designer Satoshi Kuwata of Setchu, was announced earlier this month, chosen by a jury of largely LVMH brand designers, like Nicolas Ghesquière of Louis Vuitton and Kim Jones of Dior and Fendi. 

Established: 1993

Reward(s): Slot at London Fashion Week for two seasons, grants and mentorship from BFC

Notable alumni: Alexander McQueen; Simone Rocha (2013); JW Anderson (2012).

The British Fashion Council operates numerous awards for designers at various stages of their careers, with Newgen reserved for UK-based designers poised to build the defining brands of the future. The Newgen model is unique; it not only offers a coveted showing at London Fashion Week, but also allows designers to win the prize up to three times. 

The 2022 finalists with the international jury of the ITS Contest 2022. Photo: ITS

Established: 2002

Reward(s): $16,377 (€15,000) for the winner of the ITS Arcademy Award; $5,459 (€5,000) to the winner of the ITS Media Award; week-long collaborative residency at ITS Arcademy – Museum of Art in Fashion for all finalists; and more

Notable alumni: Demna (2004); Aitor Throup (2006); Richard Quinn (2016). 

For two decades, International Talent Support has shown an eye for honoring disruptive talent like a pre-Balenciaga and Vetements Demna and Aitor Throup. The prize has expanded in those years too, to cover footwear, jewelry and photography as well as apparel design. But the contest, which is open to emerging designers, is unique in that it offers all nominees a collaborative residency at ITS’ newly opened museum in Trieste, Italy, with their work also displayed at the museum. 

Established: 1989

Reward(s): $327,546 (€300,000) for the winner of the Grand Prix; $109,185 (€100,000) for the winner of the Special Prize; mentorship for one year by Riccardo Bellini, president and CEO of Chloé, for winners.

Notable alumni: Maison Martin Margiela (1989); Viktor & Rolf (1994); Y/Project (2017). 

With backing from the French Ministry of Culture, the Andam (National Association for the Development of the Fashion Arts) awards recognize young fashion talent who have a business based in France. The jury includes an eclectic mix of fashion business leaders like Balenciaga CEO Cédric Charbit and activists like Quannah Chasinghorse-Potts. This year’s finalists, including Duran Lantink and GmbH, were unveiled in May, with the winners to be announced at the end of this month. 

Established: 2021

Reward(s): $100,000 and mentorship with Mike Amiri.

Notable alumni: Lou Badger (2021). 

A new arrival, the Amiri Prize was established by Los Angeles-based designer Mike Amiri to help foster inclusivity in fashion. The inaugural award went to the Black, queer and gender-neutral designer Lou Badger. For its second edition, the US-based prize opened up to international applicants and counts the likes of stylist Law Roach and Rocco Liu of GQ China among its jurists. 

The 2023 winners of the International Woolmark Prize. Photo: Courtesy

Established: 1936 

Reward(s): $136,942 ($200,000 AUD) for winner; $68,471 ($100,00 AUD) for winner of the Karl Lagerfeld Award for Innovation; retail space in select partners for winners.

Notable alumni: Karl Lagerfeld (1954); Yves Saint Laurent (1954); Gabriela Hearst (2017).

On naming an 18-year-old Yves Saint Laurent as a winner in 1954, the Woolmark Prize set a high bar for itself when it comes to identifying young talent. But that isn’t really the primary goal of the prize: the Woolmark Company-backed award was first conceived to highlight and promote the use of wool in the fashion industry. The prize has gone through various iterations in its history, with the most recent version launched in 2012 and open to mens and womenswear designers from around the world. Today’s jury is made up of the likes of photographer Tyler Mitchell and footwear designer Salehe Bembury, who last month named Adeju Thompson as winner of the 2023 edition. 

Established: 1986

Reward(s): $21,821 (€20,000) to the winner of the Grand Prix de Jury; $21,821 (€20,000) to the winner of the le19M Métiers d’art Prize; and more

Notable alumni: Botter (2018); Marine Serre (2017).  

Set in the modernist Villa Noailles mansion in the Mediterranean town of Hyères, the Festival d’Hyères might win out for the most idyllic location for a fashion festival and accompanying prize. With numerous backers like Mercedes-Benz, Chanel and LVMH, the prize offers not only monetary awards but visibility at some of fashion’s most influential houses. The festival has added a number of prizes to its ranks since its founding, like the Mercedes-Benz Sustainability Prize in 2021.