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October 21, 2009 7:11 PM

Eye, Fashion

Open Mike

With the recent spate of documentaries, designers young and old have been getting plenty of face time these days. But as much as these behind-the-scenes, no-holds-barred portraits can prove revealing — and entertaining — they can often be more...

With the recent spate of documentaries, designers young and old have been getting plenty of face time these days. But as much as these behind-the-scenes, no-holds-barred portraits can prove revealing — and entertaining — they can often be more about the director's perspective than their subjects' voices. So I was especially excited to hear from them at the Friends of the Costume Institute's season opening event "Young Americans: Designers in Conversation."

Held Tuesday night at the Met in the American Wing's Charles Engelhard Court, the event gathered Doo-Ri Chung, Derek Lam, Juan Carlos Obando and Brian Reyes for a panel moderated by Robin Givhan to discuss everything from celebrity designers to the Michelle Obama effect.

"What niche did you want to fill when you started off?" Givhan began.

"I don't think I started with a niche in mindSI wanted to start a conversation and I hope it's still an exploration of the niche," said Lam.

"I have no niche," chimed in Chung. "My first collection was 15 jersey pieces. [It was about] how do I evolve that language?"

Indeed, evolution was a key theme throughout the talk.

"Do you feel we are elevating hot young designers too quickly?" Givhan queried.

"It's the designers who are responsible," said Obando. "What do you want to do with your career? And trying to assemble a group of people around you who you trust. It's like Giorgio Armani has said, 'The only thing left after
an explosion is ashes.'"

"Do you want a five year career, a ten year career or a career for the rest of your life?" explained Reyes, adding, "There is nothing better than your first piece of press." Of course the nature of celebrities was a hot button topic.

"Do you feel like you have to be a persona to compete with the Lindsay Lohans of the world?" asked Givhan, joking, "There, I said it! You know you were all thinking that."

"I choose to be in this field because I want to be true to myself and I try not let that other stuff distract me," offered a diplomatic Lam.

Another woman who got her share of attention was Michelle Obama, whose every sartorial step is tracked.

"The First Lady has been hailed as a savior for the fashion industry. Has the way she has embraced fashion changed the way you think about what you do and how people look at what you do?" Givhan threw out.

"I think most Americans think of fashion as something frivolous," said Chung. "She's so amazing: I would hate for her to be defined as a fashion plate."

"I think she's been a good example [for] women's figures," said Obando, referring to Mrs. Obama's fit, but not skeletal frame.

"And she wears separates," exclaimed Reyes to much knowing laughter.

During the audience Q & A at the end, one woman mused about the impact of online exposure on the element of surprise and romance in the designers' creations. Chung offered a rather wry commentary on the rampant copying of
her pieces.

"I'm knocked off by Club Monaco and I think they do it really well," she laughed. "I'm sometimes like, 'Why didn't I think of that?'"

— Vanessa Lawrence
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