Originally published in
July 2009
In fashion the terms 'luminary', 'genius' and 'visionary' are bandied about liberally, used interchangeably to describe the industry's elite. But defining what a true luminary is, or more complex still understanding how a fashion designer becomes one in the first place, is far less cut and dry. As one of the most creative of all industries, those who achieve acclaim in the higher echelons of fashion are revered as artists first and foremost, yet it takes more than talent alone to make it into the history books. So what- and who - is behind the making of a fashion luminary? The Oxford English Dictionary defines a luminary (noun) as 'a person who inspires or influences others'. Colin McDowell MBE, fashion historian, professor, author and senior fashion writer at the Sunday Times Style, prefers his own honed definition. "It's someone who does one totally memorable thing which changes everything, such as Dior's New Look in 1947," he explains. "In my view the greatest luminaries have been Chanel, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent and Vivienne Westwood because they all invented completely original garments that are still current now."
"The greatest luminaries have been Chanel, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent and Vivienne Westwood because they all invented original garments that are still current now." Colin McDowell

McDowell is himself responsible for identifying and supporting some of today's rising luminaries as creative director of Fashion Fringe At Covent Garden, a competition he founded with IMG Europe to develop budding designers. "I realised that London fashion was not holding its rightful position in the international fashion scene despite the fact that we produce some of the best designers in the world, so I decided the best way to raise its profile was with a competition. At the inaugural Fashion Fringe in 2004 we had a fabulous catwalk show and our first winners Basso & Brooke were unanimously chosen by our selection committee." Bonafide luminary Tom Ford first chaired the committee, and now the equally unparalleled Donatella Versace is at the helm. It has since short-listed designers including Erdem, Sinha Stanic and Aminaka Wilmont, who have all benefited from the mentorship and finances offered to them by Fashion Fringe and gone on to join the official London Fashion Week schedule. "Producing a collection is one thing, launching a business is another, so all of our finalists are exposed to the various elements necessary to run a label," adds McDowell.

Fashion Fringe is just one body set up to find tomorrow's luminaries-similar initiatives such as Fashion East at London Fashion Week (past luminaries: Blaak, Gareth Pugh, Hussein Chalayan), the Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation events at Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion Week (past luminaries: Zac Posen, Rodarte, Proenza Schouler) and both the Qantas Spirit of Youth Awards and LMFF Designer Award in Australia all put their weight behind those with the potential to go all the way.

Once designers are thrust into the limelight though, it's PR that helps them stay there. Michael Oliveira-Salac is director of London agency Blow, after running a style magazine of the same name in the early 1990s, he established the Blow guide to off-schedule London Fashion Week shows in 1997, which lead to the formation of a PR company to represent the designers listed in it. He's since helped launch the careers of Jean Pierre Braganza, Peter Pilotto, Ashish, Basso & Brooke, Bora Aksu, Manish Arora and Spikjers en Spijkers to name but a few. So it's safe to say he knows a luminary when he sees one. The initial collection or ideas, whether they are sketches or actual samples, give a pretty good indication. I've been in the business for 15 years; when I get a hunch about a new designer, I go with it," he says.

"Blow is primarily a PR agency, but for a lot of aspiring labels we help to create the brand as well as manage its press. Advising on sales, their prices, interviewing skills and making sure they are seen at the right places and networking with the right people - the list is endless." In Qliveira-Salac's view, there's no such thing as style over substance. No amount of hype and PR will make up for weak design. "Continuity is essential, if a designer ever wishes to get buyers then each season needs to be stronger than the last. This creates confidence in the brand, and will help to build a strong fan base within the creative community." Blow, and PR agencies just like it in each of the fashion capitals are where fashion editors and stylists often first discover fashion luminaries.

Hywel Davies, fashion journalist, author of Modern Menswear and 100 New Fashion Designers and lecturer at Central Saint Martins, has made a career out of his ability to seek out fashion's leading lights. "A luminary to me is someone who is inspirational and innovative. People like Hussein Chalayan for his visionary approach to fashion and radical thinking, Martin Margiela for his aesthetic and intelligent approach to communication and Dries Van Noten for his ability to balance creativity with commerce" says Davies. "Talent is important but designers also have to be ambitious and want to be seen on a platform. Being a fashion designer takes a certain element of arrogance."

The press is integral to the making - and breaking - of a designer's reputation. In keeping with the fickle nature of fashion, journalists compete to discover the next big thing each season and risk over-exposing a young, inexperienced designer in the process. The temptation is then to dump them just as quickly in favour of the next shining hope the following season. But this ruthlessness isn't necessarily a bad thing, according to Davies. "It's survival of the fittest. There are too many designers trying to launch themselves into the industry but there isn't enough room for them all. Yes it helps if a designer has backing from the press to start with but after that it's only sales that count. Ultimately it's the consumer that will allow them to develop a career by buying their clothes."

Perhaps the most cerebral way we absorb a designer's greatness is through the work of the best fashion photographers and stylists, who interpret the clothes using their own artistic perspective. Think Melanie Ward for Helmut Lang or Lady Amanda Harlech for John Galliano and Karl Lagerfeld. Think Steven Meisel for Prada or Nick Knight for Alexander McQueen. Surely all luminaries owe at least some of their deity-like status to image-makers such as these. "Photographers are the dream makers and play a very important part in projecting the image of the designers' collections" says photographer Victor de Mello, who has shot for Harpers Bazaar and Vogue as well as campaigns for Vivienne Westwood.

Marie Von Haselberg, whose work appears in V, Surface and Gloss, considers the stylist's role just as pivotal. "A great stylist can seethe bigger picture and bring a fresh view to the collection in order to challenge and provoke" she says. Chloe Beeney, whose has styled for Vogue, Flaunt and Harpers Bazaar, concurs. "The stylist is a muse, a sounding board, even a voice of temperance. They shape fashion shows and put their own spin on a designer's work in the editorial realm," she says. "A true luminary transcends the realm of fashion and seeps into the public consciousness through their innate ability to tap into the Zeitgeist. That, to me, is the most inspiring thing of all."