New order: the young designers taking on fashion’s old guard in Paris
The idea that Paris is the fashion capital of the world is often conjured through images from the major maisons, steeped in glamour and luxury and with decades or even centuries of heritage. The biggest players are gatekeepers, in short, of an established industry that can make it hard for newcomers to get noticed. And yet, in the past few years, a generation of emerging designers – backed by initiatives such as the LVMH Prize – has been transforming Paris Fashion Week into an experimental hub, and turning industry expectations on their head by rethinking everything from creativity and sustainability to pricing and distribution. Here are three young designers currently making waves on the Paris scene.
Fans of the intellectual aesthetic of Phoebe Philo’s Celine now have something new to look forward to: Korean-American designer Rok Hwang makes, for his label Rokh, the kind of clothes that art-obsessed women gravitate towards. Not least because he spent his formative years working alongside Philo at Celine, before spending time at Chloé and Louis Vuitton.
Hwang grew up in Austin, Texas, and moved to London aged 19 to study womenswear design at Central Saint Martins, under the supervision of Professor Louise Wilson. Since then, he has lived between London and Paris: ‘I do love my life in London, but I take the Eurostar about twice a month. Most of my friends live in Paris, and my fashion references are mainly French: Vionnet, Lanvin. Deep down, I think that’s the reason I decided to stage my very first show there. After all, Paris is still the dream.’
The A/W19 show – a sartorial reimagining of his Texan teenage years, rife with the kind of deconstructed midi-skirts, oversized cocoon coats and long paisley dresses that delight art dealers and CEOs alike – came eight months after Hwang won the 2018 LVMH Special Prize.
But, if his vision has caught on, it is thanks to his realistic approach to clothing: ‘I work with an all-female team. We construct each garment from the body and try on every sample. If it can’t be worn comfortably or make a woman feel good about herself, no matter how amazing it looks on a hanger, we cancel it.’
His philosophy, he says, couldn’t be simpler: ‘I am fascinated by the quality of artisan-made objects; that human touch, those irregularities that make every piece unique. It’s exactly what we try to accomplish at Rokh. Perfect imperfection.’ rokh.net
Fashion insiders line up for Marine Serre’s shows season after season, while high-profile fans include Beyoncé and Isabelle Huppert. Not bad for a 27-year-old from rural Corrèze in south-west France, who, as a teenager, had her ambitions set more on Roland Garros than Avenue Montaigne.
Serre ended up studying fashion in Marseille and at La Cambre in Brussels. From then on, her career soared. Her first internship was at Alexander McQueen, just after the designer’s death. Then there was Maison Margiela, Dior (the Raf Simons era) and Balenciaga, where Demna Gvasalia offered her a position that finally allowed the young designer to pay the rent. At the same time, her graduate collection was garnering attention. Hip Paris concept store The Broken Arm ordered her first few pieces, and her brand was born. A year later, in 2017, Serre won the main LVMH award.
The secret of her success may lie in her reflective nature. ‘In fashion, we produce way too much, but my collections will look exactly the same if I make the effort to use recycled or upcycled fabrics. So why not opt for the most ethical path? It’s a no-brainer,’ she says (30 per cent of her garments are made from recycled materials).
Serre is exercised by climate change – her A/W19 show imagined a post-apocalyptic Paris – and her clothes have the energy of an urban warrior’s uniform. No wonder cool kids all over the planet are sporting her signature crescent-moon-print pieces. marineserre.com
‘Growing up, I was obsessed with Paris so, for my tenth birthday, my father brought me here. After that, my obsession grew,’ says Belgian designer Glenn Martens, who studied interior architecture at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp (graduating first in his class). ‘I was then offered a job at Jean Paul Gaultier, which meant I could afford life in Paris.’ That was in 2008. A short stint at his own label preceded his appointment, in 2013, as creative director for Y/Project. The brand was founded by the late Yohan Serfaty, a committed disciple of Rick Owens. Today, Y/Project is a very different proposition (‘It took us about three years to change everything,’ says Martens). That transformation was built on Martens’ particular passions and biography. ‘My father is really into history; he would talk to me about it as if telling a fairy tale,’ he says. ‘I guess it stuck.’
Historical references – from the Renaissance to the Belle Époque – pepper his collections, although never in a literal way. ‘It’s more about creating an atmosphere, an emotion, then mixing it up with everyday life.’ He has no qualms about mixing sweatpants and pearls, or Bizet’s Carmen and Shaggy’s Boombastic in a show soundtrack. His offbeat style resonates with his fanbase, and diversity is his speciality. ‘It’s what I love about Paris. It’s a world capital, but also quite a small city. You can have a cocktail at the Meurice and, two hours later, be dancing at a rave in Aubervilliers.’ § yproject.fr