Five Designers Discuss Femininity, Creative Commerce, and Who They'd Rather Dress: Carla Bruni-Sarkozy Or Michelle Obama

As part of the annual The New Yorker Festival this past weekend, fashion designers Maria Cornejo (of Zero + Maria Cornejo), Phillip Lim, Naeem Khan, and David Neville and Marcus Wainwright, the duo behind rag & bone—all influential members of fashion's new guard—came together for a panel discussion on their particular experiences in the industry.

Besides being talented, dynamic and immensely popular figures especially given their relatively short tenures in the business (Phillip Lim only launched his line in 2005, only two years before winning the 2007 CFDA Swarovski Award in Womenswear), it's no coincidence that the five designers were all foreigners—an increasing trend amongst fashion's younger set of designers, and something the panel addressed with eagerness. Lim discussed living two lives, a western one at school and in public, but an eastern one at home with his family, while Cornejo, who is Chilean-born but spent much of her life in England, praised New York for being a very open and encouraging city, especially for creative types.

In discussing the notion of femininity, each designer's personal tastes shone through. David Neville noted that he and Wainright wanted to make clothes that girls "look and feel cute in," while Lim feels that "femininity is sensitivy to who you are." Cornejo, the only female designer on the panel, agreed, but said it comes down to comfort for her: "Just because you wear pants doesn't mean that you're not feminine. I feel like in reality, women should feel good about themselves all the time, not just when they dress up. The minute you have to be aware of your clothes, it's a handicap."

Inevitably the discussion turned to the commercial side of fashion and the delicate balance between commerce and art, another topic the designers are well-aquainted with, and despite being such a motley crew, voiced similar opinions on as they all independently own their businesses:

Lim: "What you see from the shows, or magazines is just a part of it. The next day for myself, after we do our shows, 8 a.m. is sales. The difference between sales and press is black and white...being independent, it's building a business that will afford creativity."

During the event, we also saw four different fall 2010 looks from each of the designers, shown on models. Seeing Naeem Khan's exuberantly decadent ballgown fashioned from 24-carat gold-dipped chain links alongside a decidedly more grunge-inspired outfit of layered tweeds by rag & bone, couldn't have been more of a juxtaposition, and yet there was a similar intention behind every single garment.

An audience member posed the final question of who the designers would rather dress: Carla Bruni-Sarkozy or Michelle Obama. Not surprisingly, they opted for Mrs. Obama, though Cornejo was perhaps the most direct with her reasoning: "I’ve met Carla Bruni before and there’s not much up there," she said, while adding that Mrs. Obama actually does things that are interesting." How refreshing to hear fashion designers agree that when it comes to substance and style, substance rules.

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