Nicole Richie, John Varvatos’ Top Advice for Young “Fashion Star” Designers

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While much has been made of the inventive format behind NBC's new show, "Fashion Star" -- in which designers compete to score retail exclusives on their pieces with top buyers -- one of the most interesting aspects of the program is the constant feedback loop to which the designers are subjected.

Unlike shows like "Project Runway," where a set group of judges would give feedback based on their own expertise, "Fashion Star" really gives two sets of feedback -- one from the mentors (John Varvatos, Jessica Simpson, Nicole Richie), and one from the actual buyers, who represent H&M, Macy's, and Saks Fifth Avenue, respectively.

The show navigates a creative space that, in many ways, represents the delicate balance most young designers are learning to strike in an increasingly competitive, commercial fashion world: Be yourself, but be sell-able. At last night's "Fashion Star" party for H&M, we asked a slew of the show's participants -- both designers and judges -- about the kind of advice they found to be the most beneficial.

John Varvatos, Mentor:

Number one: Be a sponge. Try to absorb as much as you can of everything without trying to filter it out. Still be who you are. Still believe in what you do, but I think if you're not a sponge -- you have to listen to the buyers a little bit, you have to listen to the mentors. 

You have to think about how the buyers are going to look at things ... How do you sit as a brand in a store? How do you tell your story in a store? How do you market your image in a store? We had a competition doing a window in a store, and another competition on your advertising. A lot of that is about branding -- it's not about, 'Oh you have this great idea for a leather jacket.' How do you tell the story, how do you let people know that it's your brand, your personality.

Nicole Christie, Buyer for H&M:

I've really been sticking on the points of commerciality: What makes a garment commercial. You have to think not about your vision, but about the end result -- take yourself out of your head and what you want to design, and think about what's going to sell ... I think that when you're in your own design design bubble, that's the biggest problem. They're used to designing for a certain customer and they're in their own world; they have to lift their heads up and go to the customer over there. Like, 'I need to go to their bus stop; they're not going to come to me.' 

More color, less color, no tweed for May -- all this stuff that should be intuitive, isn't. The reality is, you can design pretty things and have them in your house, but it doesn't mean they're going to get bought. 

Nicole Richie, Mentor

I'm constantly encouraging these designers to have an open ear -- to constantly be open to growing and evolving, but to also go with your gut, and not listen too much. It's a very interesting balance, and I'm telling them two opposite things, and then don't really have too much to say after that. Like, 'I know I'm telling you this, and I know I'm telling you this, so just go with it, and we'll see where you land.'"

[The best advice I got was] just the idea of constantly being open to learning. As a business person in general, starting a brand is beyond just being an artist. And that's what I'm constantly telling these designers: You can be the greatest artist or designer in the world and you can create the most fabulous gown, but unless you have the business side behind you, you're not going to last, and it's important to balance the two. 

Luciana Scarabello, Designer

The most important thing is to try to keep a balance between who I am as a designer, as well as to be able to sell to three large retailers ...  As designers, we have our individuality and our own aesthetics, but then the retailers are looking for things that are also mainstream that you can sell to most of the public. So it's trying to keep a balance between those two things, because if you do something that's too weird, they won't buy it. But if you do something that's too mainstream, they won't buy it.

I tend to do my dresses with an open back -- I love an open back on a woman. And in the competition, I try not to do that as much because I know the buyers are looking at whether the woman can wear a bra or not. Those are the things that got me looking at my designs -- that it has to not only be beautiful, but it has to be functional. [Ed note: On last night's episode, Scarabello became the first designer on the show to sell to all three retailers. Nice work!]

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