We all remember the moment at the 2016 Met Gala when the lights dimmed, red carpet chatter silenced into hushed gasps, and heads turned to see Claire Danes step out in a ball gown that shined brighter than the explosion of camera flashes that quickly ensued. The whimsical piece constructed out of sheer organza and fiber optics was the fashion moment of the year — the LED gown fused other-wordly glamour with contemporary polish, a timeless silhouette with cutting-edge technology, and could only have been a creation of the legendary Zac Posen. I was immediately infatuated with his ceaseless passion for experimentation and
innovation — each custom gown jaw-dropping in a new way — paired with his unwavering vision as an artist, each piece unmistakably his. Zac Posen became my idol that night. I saw everything I aspired to be in him — not only his early entrepreneurial spirit or his comedic persona as a Project Runway judge, but also, above all else, his devotion to cultivating his own artistic vision in an industry saturated with redundancy.
So, last Friday, November 1st, Zac Posen shook the fashion industry when he announced that he was closing the shutters of his eponymous label. On the same day that Barney’s New York closed its stores, liquidated its assets, and licensed its intellectual property to Saks Fifth Avenue, Zac Posen announced his decision to “cease business operations and carry out an orderly disposition of its assets.” As stated in a press release, after “consistently evaluating strategic options to strengthen our financial profile and fuel potential growth… We are disappointed that these efforts have not been successful and deeply saddened that the journey of nearly 20 years has come to an end.” Essentially, his backers, Yucaipa Group, had been seeking to sell their stake of the company but were unsuccessful in finding new shareholders. Posen later shared in an exclusive interview with Vogue that he had “been personally trying to find the right partner for some time… But time ran out, and… the climate out there [is difficult]… it’s not an easy time in our industry.” The announcement was startling and unexpected, as his social media, with a following of 1.9 million, showcased a fitting with supermodel Winnie Harlow, a quote in The New York Times, and a throwback to his interview with Trevor Noah in the days prior. Having interned at Zac Posen this summer, I was fortunate to have witnessed the fairy-tale magic come to fruition firsthand. So, when I heard that the
House of Z was coming to an end, I was in utter disbelief. But within hours, my social media feed was inundated with news broadcasts, nostalgic photo galleries celebrating Posen’s most memorable runway looks, celebrities’ social media posts about his legacy, and even his own social media post expressing his appreciation for his team and hope for the future, confirming that it was really true. The press, the fashion and retail world, and even Project Runway fans came together over mutual sentiments — shock, disbelief, and devastation, which hit me harder and harder every day. How could it be that the legendary Zac Posen — Vogue icon, Hollywood favorite, and arguably the most prominent name on the red carpet — was no more? And what does this mean about the state of the fashion industry?
Zac Posen, at only thirty-nine-years-old, had become one of the most legendary names in fashion since founding his namesake label two decades ago. In fact, he first rose to fame at just nineteen-years-old when a dress he made for Naomi Campbell while studying in London galvanized public attention. The New York Times’ 2001 piece, “A Star is Born,” recognized the dress as “the best dress of the season, [which] wasn’t on the runway. It was whipped up by a genius in training.” Far beyond his years, Zac had already established his niche as a designer, sharing that Naomi’s dress was going to be “made from 36 separate pieces, with open slits on the side of her body, so that they form triangles. My teacher at St. Martin’s says that if I succeed with it, it will be the hardest bias cut dress ever made…. I think it will be almost impossible to make, but wait until you see it.” His talent for fabric manipulation and sculptural forms garnered the attention of celebrities and supermodels across the nation, as he “[loved] making dresses for the women who inspire me… My favorite part of designing is to see exactly what the third pleat in a dress does when someone is wearing it: how it lives and how it makes a girl feel wonderful and sexy. I’m an artist and an anthropologist.
And I’m searching for a place where clothing transports, protects and enhances the wearer.” Upon returning to New York, he started an atelier in his parents living room to meet the demands of his increasing celebrity clientele. Within years, he had won the most prestigious awards in the industry, including the CFDA Fashion Fund, was endorsed by Anna Wintour and Vogue, received grants from industry supporters and an investment from Sean Jean, and had piqued the interest of the top luxury retailers in the nation. Needless to say, Zac Posen had become a coveted name in fashion before his designs were even available on the market.
Fast-forward twenty years, Zac Posen is a global icon. Though each piece gracing the red carpet is one-of-a-kind, his signature fairy-tale statements are recognizable with a blink of an eye. He is one of the most prominent names in media headlines, as Founder and Creative Director of his namesake label, in addition to Creative Director of Brooks Brother Women. He is a magician who marries art and science with his 3D-printed dresses that bloom like roses and floor-length gowns that flow like melted metal onto the red carpet. He is a sculptor who crafts these architectural masterpieces at his in-house atelier, The House of Z, one of the sole ateliers left in New York. He is a Netflix sensation; a vocal political advocate; philanthropist and chairman of the Elizabeth Taylor Aids Foundation;
his designs so coveted and persona so iconic that he was selected to replace Michael Kors as a judge on Project Runway and that celebrities practically have to wait in line for a custom piece — Beyoncé, Michelle Obama, Meryl Streep, Miley Cyrus, Oprah, Arianda Grande, just to name a few.
As the industry grows increasingly turbulent, however, a seal of approval from the first lady, Anna Wintour, or an Oscar winner is not enough for investor appeal. Zac Posen as a company flourished in a system in which window displays at Bergdorf Goodman’s, Vogue covers, celebrity clientele, and a beloved television persona offered far beyond financial security and even surpassed the checkmarks of fame, influence, and prestige. But despite this facade of glamour and status that consumers associate with designer labels, established production and distribution models, retail strategies, and marketing tactics have been subverted in the wake of radical industry shifts. As Posen wrote in his statement, this unpredictable climate poses an “increasingly challenging fashion and retail landscape” for designer labels. Venture capital firms are investing in hype names, along with digitally-driven companies targeting niche millennial demographics, such as Outdoor Voices or Everlane, above all else. It’s a system in which Supreme, Off White, and even heritage houses capitalize upon the logo mania craze, building consumer empires around their brand image while Derek Lam had to close his renowned company in 2005 amidst financial difficulties in exchange for a contemporary, trendier line. Similarly, contrary to consumer expectations, Marc Jacobs profits predominantly off of beauty and fragrances, as his apparel lines grow increasingly unprofitable. Thakoon Panichgul, another CFDA award-winning designer, too lost his financial backing and, after a two-year-long hiatus, recently returned to the fashion scene with a new investor supporting a revamped direct-to-consumer model.
Our culture embraces a multi-thousand-dollar sweatshirt boasting a one-word logo splashed across the chest over a timeless, hand-embroidered garment with incomparable tailoring, fit, and quality — this mentality has trickled down, infiltrating all sectors of the industry and their respective consumer segments, regardless of price point. The industry has evolved into a world where twenty-year-old social media influencers with distinct alt-yet-basic personas achieve higher rates of consumer engagement than Hollywood celebrity endorsements; so, of course a Reformation dress for girls who are different but still cool will replace their apparel from department stores that millennials barely remember. There is little stability, predictability, or consistency. The nuances of these industry shifts are up for interpretation, but, to me, the fact that we just lost the House of Z, one of the only ateliers left in the industry, is beyond devastating. As Posen’s 2017 documentary, House of Z, explores, “[f]ashion has a dark side” underneath its beauty and glamour, dominated by a “rhythm… quite intense. You have to be very prepared for it. I don’t foresee it slowing down. Beyond fashion I think that culture has a side where they love to shoot you up like a clay pigeon and then take out their rifles. I lived that, and I got to see the perspective from up in the sky.”
Frankly, pursuing a career in fashion has been frightening to me, as far too much of the industry now compromises ethics, craftsmanship, and innovation for speed and trend conformity, and that holds dire environmental and cultural implications. Feel free to call me an idealist, but I’m well aware that consumer demand drives the industry and that innovation and marketability must coexist in order to maintain relevance. And it is important to note that so many designer houses are disappearing, not
because of a radically avant-garde aesthetic or an inaccessible price point, but because of these shifting priorities that have trickled across the industry, regardless of accessibility. What does it say about our culture, and the market we as consumers have created, that the companies that are thriving must compromise artistry to meet consumer demand? The pendulum has swung far towards the polar end of the spectrum balancing these two forces that define fashion, creating a stark binary between capital and artistry. It makes me question what it even means to be a designer in the industry today.
But I remain hopeful because companies like Zac Posen’s level of sophistication and commitment to artistry transcend ephemeral cultural changes that catalyze this ebb and flow of incoming trends. The market may be a constant cycle of new consumer ideologies, which provide opportune times for trends to come and go — but fashion, rather than trends, leaves its legacy and is timeless in its power and influence.
This summer at Zac Posen, after years of admiration, widened my vision to greater magnitudes of beauty and creativity than I ever conceived possible. It was so much more than the sight of my favorite 2019 Met Gala piece by Zac Posen standing in the entrance to the office (which, by the way, included 408 pieces of 3D-printed embroidery and took over 160 hours to create) or the thrill of celebrity clients.I struggle to describe my emotions as I walked through the atelier each morning to see that the brown paper molded around a dress form like sculptural origami had been transformed into the architectural boning that would soon
support a gown. And the next day fabric would be draped over the dress form, a sculpture waiting to be made. Or a walk through the showroom before a Market appointment, the garments sorted by color story yet fluid and organic in visual composition. I remember the details, even the way the bouquets of flowers juxtaposed varying hues and forms to capture the variance of volume and dimension along the racks — fishtails thoughtfully composed of a mosaic of darts meant to flatter a woman’s form, next to whimsical satin skirts that swung as you ran your fingers through the rack.
I don’t think I’ll ever find the words to articulate the transcendent power of the fashion I witnessed this summer — the old Hollywood glamour, the blooming skirts and trailing trains, the hand-embroidered brocades, the anatomical construction, the confidence of the Zac Posen woman. The experience will forever be a part of me, and I eagerly await to see what the future holds. With time, Posen will “look at the world we’re living in and figure out what the next move is, where [he] can share [his] creativity and [his] love, and build another community.”
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