Today’s Challenge of Emerging Designers


Photography: Jun Ying


The fashion industry sure enjoys a lot of perks due to globalization.  Outsourcing materials and productions from third world countries have become so much easy that designers can now produce collections at a much affordable price.  At the same time, competition is much fiercer than ever.  Giant global brands like H&M, Forever 21, Mango and Uniqlo are dominating globally.  With a price point that’s too attractive for consumers to ignore and to adopt the idea of “supporting local designers”, how can emerging designers ever compete with them?  Can emerging designers today ever grow their brand globally?  Should they be satisfied serving only their local market?

Hélène Cohen, a fashion designer and teacher at Lasalle Montréal, shares her thoughts and advise for emerging designers to thrive in this industry.

Englave: Can you share with us your experience in the fashion industry?
Hélène: I have worked with many different companies as a freelance designer, amongst other roles. I researched the market for my clients, performed diagnostic evaluations of brands with recommendations for new avenues and products, forecasted and adapted trends for the Canadian market and that at all possible price points and for a variety of clientele bases.  While freelancing, I also managed to develop my own line of women’s fashion and got local recognition.  I was also part of a group of fashion designers that tried to make things change in Canada.

Nowadays, I have discovered a new passion: teaching, transmitting my knowledge and experience to the new generation of hopeful future designers.

Englave: What are the elements you love the most about your career?
Hélène: I would say that the ever changing dimensions of our work forces us to stay on our toes. The work is never boring: maddening, often, rushed, always. Boring: never!

Englave: What is the most challenging aspect of your career?
Hélène: Trying to help bring Montreal in the foreground, as a creative fashion capital.

Englave: Has there been a recent emerging designer’s collection that has left you speechless?
Hélène: Too much and too many to only cite one (even though, speechless is not the expression I would use). What I find fascinating is the return of collaboration with arts, and in this case with new media. For example the work of Lucy McRae and Bart Hess, or the collaborations between Gareth Pugh and Nick Knight and Ruth Hogben. Also, I must say that what I am thrilled to see is the amazing creativity we are witnessing in men’s wear: Juun J, Alexandre Plokov, Damir Doma, Sruli Recht.. to name just a few.

Englave: Do you think it is now easier or more difficult for emerging designers to grow their brand globally?
Hélène: I believe that it is so much more difficult! In the past, you had time to build your name in your own city, country, and continent. Nowadays you are immediately pro-pulsed against a global competition, where all is at hand from everywhere. Competition with brands is also fierce: brands spend millions in efforts to dominate the fashion market and you must constantly try to innovate, not only from the perspective of the product or concept but also from that of the marketing of your line.

Englave: What are the top 3 qualities that emerging designers must have in order to strive in this industry?
Hélène: Creativity is first. But close behind is business savvy and of course a passionate determination.

Englave: What is the best way for designers to balance their ambition in producing uber cool design concepts and the importance of producing commercial collections to quickly generate revenue?
Hélène: I teach to both marketing and design students and I often suggest that they create tandems: the contrast in their interests forms a dynamic complementarity. Designers are so “right brain” while marketing people bring in the logic and business aspect of the left brain: together they form a full brain! And that’s what you need: someone to concentrate on everything that design people hate.

Englave: What is your opinion on outsourcing production to third world countries?
Hélène: Mixed feelings. As long as you can be sure that the people who are doing the work are treated in an ethical manner, that what you are paying is enabling them to send their children to school, then you are doing the planet a favour: increasing education in low wages country is one way of making things better.

Canada is running out of qualified manual labor: no one wants to work in a factory. So, what are the options?

Englave: Luxury seems like a word often used loosely by emerging designers to describe their brand.  What is luxury to you?  What is your advice to designers who aspire to build a luxury brand?
Hélène: Fashion does not have to only reach the “chosen few”, the elite. Fashion can also address a creative, intellectual elite. If you absolutely want to thrive in the luxury market, however, you must be located where the luxury market shops. You must establish a “prestige” image and be willing to adapt your style to the wishes of that market.

Englave: If you had the power to single-handedly redefine the industry, what would you do to make this industry a better playing field for new designers?
Hélène: One of the problems of emerging designers being financing, I would enable corporations to invest in startups. But not just financially: giving a big lump of money to a designer might prove detrimental. I would also make sure that these companies “lend” some of their talented employees: financial advisor, marketing personnel, packaging and graphic designers, … This could be based on international contests where the new names would be highlighted

Also, creating small sales rep agencies that would be willing to represent these companies, even if their production is minimal and allow them to grow at a safe pace. Trying to expand too fast can damage your company: deliveries, quality and you health suffers from it and, so does the reputation of the line.

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