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Can fashion save itself?
From left: Fashion designer Tom Ford; Anna Wintour, artistic director of Condé Nast and editor of Vogue; and Steven Kolb, chief executive of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, at a dinner in New York, Sept. 6, 2019. Wintour and the CFDA have raised $4.1 million to help small designers, stores and factories survive, but hundreds have applied for the grants. Krista Schlueter/The New York Times.

by Vanessa Friedman

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The revelation of the crisis in retail caused by the coronavirus and the global response has coincided with the close of the first round of applications for A Common Thread, American fashion’s self-rescue plan. The initiative was created less than a month ago to help the independent designers, stores and contractors that make up the fashion ecosystem.

Can the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Vogue succeed where the Small Business Administration has stumbled?

In the 10-day application period that began April 8, more than 800 companies and individuals from 38 states applied for a slice of what is currently a $4.1 million fund, raised from industry supporters and private individuals, with grants earmarked for business with revenues of under $10 million and fewer than 30 employees.

No grant will be more than $100,000.

“We don’t pretend this is a bailout,” said Anna Wintour, the artistic director of Condé Nast and editor of Vogue. “We see this as a grant that will bridge a very difficult time, something to keep the lights on. The goal is to give a little bit of money to as many as possible.”

It could help designers pay the factories that produce their samples, and the fabric suppliers; help stores pay designers for stock that has been ordered and produced; and help factories pay their garment workers.

“What really struck me was the depth and severity of the current crisis, as reflected in the applicant pool,” said Steven Kolb, the chief executive of the CFDA. “There were businesses on it that are 30 years old, who have helped build the American fashion industry, but who have remained content, year in and year out, to operate locally, without the goal of being a global lifestyle brand.”

He paused and then added, “It was really difficult to see some of the names.”

(Kolb declined to provide the names out of respect for their privacy, but, he said, “You can look at the New York Fashion Week schedule.”)

According to the CFDA, approximately 71% of the applicants were brand or designer names, 13% independent retailers, 7% small factories, and 8% associated companies like production and PR companies that help support the industry.

After an initial vetting by the CFDA to weed out incomplete applications and ineligible names, a committee of 10, which includes Wen Zhou, the chief executive of 3.1 Phillip Lim; Rachna Shah, a partner at KCD; and Jeffery Fowler, the president, Americas at Farfetch; will read the applications and decide on the grants. The committee hopes to have the first money out by mid- to late May.

A Common Thread is just one of a group of fashion-world initiatives in the major style capitals. In London, the British Fashion Council’s BFC Foundation Fashion Fund for the Covid Crisis is looking to disburse an initial 1 million pounds ($1.24 million) to independent designers and students, in grants of no more than 50,000 pounds. In Milan, the Camera della Moda is raising money to support independent talent through a campaign called #TogetherForTomorrow, which is also connecting young designers to experts in different fields.

In Paris, the LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers — at 300,000 euros ($325,000), the most lucrative emerging designer award in the world and normally allotted to a single emerging designer — will be shared among the eight current finalists. A second fund, which includes the 150,000-euro Karl Lagerfeld prize, will be available to aid winning designers from the last six years of the LVMH competition, on application.

A Common Thread began as a repurposing of the fundraising the CFDA and Vogue engaged in for their Fashion Fund prize, and since then, it has been augmented by donations: Ralph Lauren gave $1 million; PVH, the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, gave $50,000; and hundreds of small donors, many anonymous, have been giving between $5 and $25.

“I’ve been so moved and touched by the generosity,” Wintour said. “When Ralph called to tell me of his contribution, I just burst into tears. To have him step in and help us get started had been such a vote of support. And then there were hundreds of small donations, that just break your heart. There have been participants in past Fashion Funds who returned their money from last year who didn’t want their names mentioned. They just said, ‘We are in this together.’”

Many designers who have applied to A Common Thread said the experience was fairly straightforward.

Jonathan Cohen, a designer who is known for his joyful prints and conscious upcycling, was a runner-up for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2018. He applied for both a small business loan ($200,000) and the A Common Thread grant for $100,000.

“The difference on this application was focusing on how we were affected, as well as what we need to keep going,” he wrote in an email.

Cohen was in San Diego, where he moved to be with his family. It is the first time he has lived at home since he was 19 (he is now 34) and the first time he and his business partner, Sarah Leff, have been separated since starting their business in 2011.

“At this time, we are paying all expenses out of personal pocket,” he wrote, adding that normally he would have payments from stores for spring-summer merchandise but that most of that money was now on hold and not likely to arrive for months (if at all). “A Common Thread would be very helpful to cover immediate expenses, as well as plan the next six-eight months. For the SBA, it is very unclear when/how much money we will get.”

Kolb said he expected to be able to award money to 10% of the applicants. Those who do not receive funds in the first round, which is earmarked for those in the most immediate need, will be automatically included in the next round. He expects most grants to range between $25,000 and $75,000. (He estimates that $2 million will be disbursed.)

“We’re not naïve about this,” Wintour said. “We know we can’t help everybody. And maybe some of the people we do help won’t make it. But we wanted to show there is a support system in fashion. That there is a future.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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