Merchants of Style

More than the glitz of the runway, designers look for recognition and even a few sales

On The Town | Saleha Waqar | October 2011

On the runway, their clothes are untouchable. Each twisting, billowing fold, each taut and polished button, and each sparkling, smiling sequin is a solid sculpture of fabric. When these clothes come to the showroom, they are suddenly tangible; it’s almost like walking through the looking glass. The designers, who take their grand bows on the runway in the showroom become merchants of style.

Vienna MQ Fashion Week 2011 was not just about the glitz of the runway but about real artists who are trying to gain recognition and ultimately financial compensation for their work – a fight to continue to do what they love.

The showroom at the MuseumsQuartier 21 was divided between three rooms: Two exhibiting the designers’ previous Fall 2011 collections and one of their Spring/Summer 2012 collections. The setup was simple: Garments hung along the walls with each designer given a small space for passing out information and negotiating with clients in front of their stands. Halogen bulbs reflected off glossy fabrics, and the relatively manageable number of potential buyers allowed for much-needed breathing space. Most of the designers were there in person, eager to chat about their goals, their experience and the potential of the Vienna Fashion Week.

Marcel Ostertag, a well-known German designer, was as warm and sunny as his Spring collection. He beckoned me to a seat, recounting his experience of Vienna Fashion Week over the past three years – from the time of its inception.

"Of course I am here to sell," he laughed as I asked him what he hoped to gain from VFW. "In Berlin, I have a fairly large clientele, and a lot of my clothes get sold during Berlin Fashion Week. In Vienna, I received five orders the first year, but none the second year. So I am really hoping to get some this year. "

The pieces that hung behind him were from various collections, including some audaciously coloured furs and shimmery chiffons.  While he finds the Fashion Week well organized, he suggested that designers should be allowed to bring their personal sales teams. "The organizers here have their own sales group, but it’s a just bunch of young girls, most of whom have no experience in fashion marketing," he said. "I think changing that might help with the sales."

Where Ostertag is hopeful about Vienna’s interest, the designers of Mark&Julia are sceptical. Their clothes are very avant-garde, clearly inspired by Scandinavian fashion sensibilities – minimalist and cutting-edge. Their Spring 2012 collection, which is somewhat reminiscent of Acne garments, has been mistakenly placed in the midst of everyone else’s Fall collection. Mark shrugs off the faux pas with a smile.

"We are only attending because we were sponsored by Vienna Fashion Week," he said. "Vienna, and Austria in general, is not ready for our clothes yet. We have exhibited and sold in Berlin and Copenhagen, and Austria definitely has a lot of potential. But even though designers try to be creative, they sometimes can’t help but forget what it’s like to be in a market outside of Austria."

Mark also tells me that they put their Spring collection in a barn for a few days for it to acquire an "earthy" smell. I decided to test, sniffing a pair of tan coloured pants: Not a whiff of farm life.

Eastern and Central European designers are also hopeful that their clothes will sell. The two Bulgarian designers of the brand "Bipone" have given a sense of Eastern European fun and glitter to their current collection of evening gowns. Evocative of Madame Gres’ spectacular draped creations, their pieces are constantly surrounded by admirers. Still, there appear to be few orders.

A team of Polish designers tell me that customers remember them from last time. Whether their collection is sold or not, this response is very encouraging.

At the same time, not everyone is as concerned with selling. Martina Mueller, designer and creator of Callisti, a relatively well-known Austrian fashion brand, is primarily interested in the publicity.

"I’ve been part of Fashion week here since the very beginning. I have seen it grow from housing just a handful of designers to almost 70 designers this year. The first year, the audience was limited to art students, but now all kinds of people from various levels of fashion are attending. It’s a chance to develop the scene in Vienna and to take our work outside Austria. For me, it is all about added recognition."

Showrooms attract potential buyers, event organizers, and a lot of publicity for the designers – valuable exposure to the tangible world market outside of the cocoon of creation. For these Polish, Brazilian, Georgian, Hungarian, German and Austrian designers, its potential exceeds its current limitations.

For fashion to sell, a "fashion culture" has to exist.

In Vienna, the interest can be measured by the long length of queues. The market, however, still has a ways to go.

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