American designer Zac Posen emerged as fashion's newest star in 2002 when his alluringly feminine dresses made their New York City runway debut. Though he was still rather young to be a business owner, Posen earned enthusiastic write-ups on the pages of Vogue and other esteemed fashion magazines for his creative flair. He was hailed as the design world's latest prodigy, and possibly even the savior who might rescue American fashion from the styles-and-sales slump it had experienced over the past decade. New York Times writer Guy Trebay was an early champion of Posen, noting in a September 2002 article that the twenty-two-year-old designer "occupies an important symbolic position in the fashion system one hears so much about. He is the future."
Raised in lively New York City neighborhood
Posen is a native New Yorker, and his rapid rise in fashion was partly fueled by personal connections to some well-known tastemakers in the worlds of art and film. His father, Stephen Posen, was a painter, and his mother, Susan, was an attorney who worked in corporate finance. Born in October 1980, he and his older sister grew up in a loft home in the midst of SoHo, an area of lower Manhattan that takes its name from its location "south of Houston" Street. The small factories that had flourished in SoHo since the nineteenth century moved out, and beginning in the 1960s artists and daring New Yorkers in search of large living spaces began converting the industrial buildings to residential use. By the time Posen was a small child, SoHo had hit its peak of gritty, downtown New York urban cool, and it was humming with art galleries, boutiques, and upscale restaurants.
Posen was a creative child. For his toy figures he made outfits out of unusual materials, like seaweed, and staged puppet shows for his family. "I used to steal yarmulkes [a Jewish head covering traditionally restricted to males] so that I could make bell dresses for dolls," he told People writer Michelle Tauber about his visits to Jewish religious services with his family. But Posen also noted that while his parents were extremely supportive of his childhood interests and hobbies, at times he was a bit uneasy with them himself. His interest in fashion "was definitely something, when you're a boy, that you're ashamed of," he admitted in the same interview.
"I don't have a formula, except that I don't believe in playing it safe."
Posen attended St. Ann's School in Brooklyn Heights, a private school that combined academics with a focus on the creative arts. As a teen, he was known for the sometimes outlandish outfits he wore to school, some of them bought off thrift store racks but embellished at home on his sewing machine. A pair of trousers with antlers attached to them was one of his more memorable ensembles. One schoolmate at St. Ann's was Lola Schnabel, daughter of painter Julian Schnabel, a well-known figure in the New York art world of the 1980s. The two became close friends, and their bond was cemented by the fact that both suffered from dyslexia, a reading difficulty.
Makes dresses for teen pals
Posen excelled in math but was drawn to the visual arts. He designed costumes for school plays at St. Ann's and continued to create unusual outfits. He landed his first design commission at the age of fifteen, when Lola Schnabel's little sister, Stella, then twelve, asked him to make a dress for her to wear to an event. She told him she wanted to appear as if she was without clothing, and so Posen created a skin-colored gown from velvet that caused a stir when Schnabel was photographed at the event.
Around 1996 Posen landed a much-coveted internship at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and there he was able to closely examine the work of masterful fashion designers of the past, such as Madeleine Vionnet (1876–1975), a French pioneer who cut her dresses on the bias, a method that highlighted a woman's curves and eliminated unnecessary details. He also took courses at the Parsons School of Design in the city in its pre-college summer program, and landed another impressive internship, this one with designer Nicole Miller (1952–) in 1998. The first piece he drew at Miller's studio was for a white shirt made out of poplin (a tightly woven cotton material), which was selected to go into production. A year later, he took a job as a design assistant with Tocca, a hot new label.
Though Posen had been accepted into an Ivy League school, Brown University in Rhode Island, he chose to move to London instead to enroll in a highly regarded art school, Central St. Martin's College of Art and Design. Hoping to impress the associate who called him in for an entrance interview, he showed up with ivy trailing from his long, curly hair, and won a spot in its fashion and textiles program. The school, like St. Ann's, was known for its freewheeling atmosphere, but Central St. Martin's also placed immense importance on finding one's creative vision through independent work habits. Not surprisingly, Posen flourished there. He admitted, however, that the decision to attend an art college had not been met with overwhelming enthusiasm back at home. "My parents were always very supportive of anything I was interested in," he explained in an interview with Kathryn Wexler of the Miami Herald, but admitted that with his decision to enroll at a "fashion school for college, it became more of a question. My mom and grandparents value a liberal arts education."
Review in the New York Times
To help pay living expenses in London, Posen started a private couture, or custom-made clothing business, which grew by word of mouth. That changed in February 2001, when a dress that he made was actually the subject of an article in the "Fashions of the Times" supplement of the New York Times Magazine. The dress first had been spotted in December 2000 by journalist Daisy Garnett at a private party in Greenwich Village in New York City. It was worn by a sixteen-year-old woman, Paz de la Huerta, an actor who had been escorted to the party by Posen. "It was dark pink," Garnett wrote, "made of brushed silk, and it tied up in a knot at the back.... It looked like it had been found in a trunk belonging to a 1930's Parisian dancing girl who had been inspired by the paintings of [French Post-Impressionist painter] Toulouse-Lautrec and created a dream dress for kicking up her heels in Montmartre."
Posen had originally made the dress for model Naomi Campbell (1970–), who was a friend of Lola Schnabel's. In the February newspaper article, Garnett wrote that the dress had been borrowed by actor Jade Malle for the January 2001 wedding of Kate Hudson (1979–) and rock singer Chris Robinson (1966–). Malle knew Posen through her cousin, who had attended St. Ann's; Malle had once borrowed a halter dress that Posen had made for her cousin, "and as I walked down the street, strangers stopped and begged me to tell them where I got this dress," Malle told Garnett. "The Fashions of the Times" article generated major buzz for Posen, as did a leather dress that was featured in a Central St. Martin's exhibition of Victorian undergarments. The complex frock, made of lengthy strips of glossy leather held together by hundreds of hook-and-eye closures was also chosen to appear in London's Victoria and Albert Museum, and it eventually became part of that museum's permanent collection.
Despite his success, Posen was forced to return to New York, as he told the Miami Herald. "I couldn't legally work in London, and I couldn't afford to live there," he said. Moving back into his parents' home, he opened a small space above a New York boutique, and by late 2001 had established his own label, as well as a company he called Outspoke, which was managed by his mother. In December a line of his dresses began selling at the posh Manhattan retailer Henri Bendel.
The Posen-Portman Connection
American designer Zac Posen owes much of his early success to having some of his first dresses worn by glamorous young film stars, including Claire Danes (1979–) and Natalie Portman (1981–). Portman's entrance at the London premier of Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones in May 2002 helped boost his career immensely. Posen has referred to Portman as his muse, or inspiration, following a fashion tradition of designer-actress alliances, such as Narcisso Rodriguez and Sarah Jessica Parker (1965–), and Marc Jacobs and Sofia Coppola (1971–). Jacobs even named a handbag in honor of the Academy Award-winning director of Lost in Translation.
Posen and Portman have often been photographed together at high-profile events, such as the 2002 VH1 Fashion Awards. "Zac's clothes are classical and elegant but also made for young people," Portman told People.
First collection earns terrific praise
Posen's first real runway show came in February 2002, and he staged it at a former synagogue in New York's once-neglected Bowery neighborhood on the Lower East Side. In the audience that day was Barbara Bush, daughter of U.S. president George W. Bush (1946–), along with the woman considered the most powerful in fashion, American Vogue editor Anna Wintour (1949–). Though such runway presentations are costly to mount, Posen used the prize money he received from winemaker Ecco Domani and its Foundation Award for Young Designers. The rest came from private contributions from his family and friends. It was a well-chronicled event in the fashion press and earned Posen several enthusiastic reviews as well as many new clients.
Posen's next show was held in September 2002 during New York Fashion Week, when store buyers and journalists are offered a glimpse of the next season's designer lines. It coincided with a tremendous honor for such a young designer: his dresses had recently gone on sale at Bloomingdale's, and the department store's flagship New York emporium had devoted an entire row of windows to Posen's line. The dresses were priced in the $1,200 to $1,500 range, and Time journalist Belinda Luscombe found them "1940s-style shapely; they flare at the hem and enhance the bust and waist. Several spring looks are constructed of thin bands of material sewn together horizontally, like belts, that can be adjusted."
Posen's star continued to rise over the next few years. He showed his collections at the twice-yearly New York Fashion Week, and his dresses became a favorite of the fashionista set, the passel of stylish and influential women who work in fashion, either at design houses or in journalism and public relations. He was not immune to the lures of his dresses himself. "I like to try on my clothing and see how it feels," he told Tauber in People. "That's really important—to see how something makes you feel."
Strikes a deal with Diddy
Posen's Fall 2004 collection, staged during New York Fashion Week earlier that same year, featured his first foray into sportswear. The collection's theme was "Blixen," named in part after the writer Karen Blixen (1885–1962), the Danish baroness born Isak Dinesen who penned the novel Out of Africa. The term "Blixen" also touched upon two other meanings: the German word for lightning, and the name of one of Santa's reindeer. "Not only was this his most accomplished collection to date, it was also one of the best of the fall season," remarked New York Times fashion writer Cathy Horyn, who liked the juxtaposition of fabrics and colors. "The clothes had much going for them: youth, wit, technical finesse but, above all, real sophistication," Horyn asserted.
Yet Horyn also wrote another article about Posen's impressive rise in the cutthroat fashion world that appeared just eight days later in the New York Times that contained a few disapproving comments. "Success in fashion is one part talent, one part luck and one part a tireless ability to hold a gaudy marquee over your head," Horyn wrote. "Posen has all these qualities in excess." Nevertheless, Horyn conceded that "I have also come to the conclusion that of all the young designers gathering on the horizon, Posen is the one who is most likely to break through precisely because he possesses all the same qualities that worked so beautifully for his predecessors in this venal [capable of being corrupted] industry."
Posen teamed with rap impresario Sean "Diddy" Combs (1969–) in the spring of 2004 for a business venture. Combs, a producer and record-label mogul with his own clothing line called Sean John, made an undisclosed financial investment in Posen's company. Business writers and fashion industry analysts viewed it as a smart move that would help take Posen's company to another level thanks to the mass retail connections that Sean Jean Clothing had already forged in the industry.
Despite the deal, Posen was determined to maintain a close-knit corporate inner circle staffed by friends and family. His mother serves as chief executive officer of Outspoke and vice chair of the venture with Combs's company. His older sister, Alexandra, is his creative director, and a grown-up Stella Schnabel is his stylist. "I love the industry," Posen told Marc Jacobs (1963–) when he and the older American designer— to whom Posen has often been compared—interviewed one another for a June 2003 issue of WWD. "It's amazing and overwhelming." Posen offered up a piece of advice to aspiring designers or creative types: "I think one should follow their dreams and should always persevere." "Something that's been really important to me is to physically make your clothing and put it on as many different kinds of people as you can to see how they feel in it. And find your vision and put it out there."
For More Information
"Breakthroughs 2002." People (December 30, 2002): p. 134.
Garnett, Daisy. "A Star Is Born." New York Times ("Fashions of the Times") (February 25, 2001): p. 66.
Horyn, Cathy. "A Little Bit Adorable." New York Times Magazine (February 22, 2004): p. 66.
Horyn, Cathy. "Sophistication of the Slinky Sort." New York Times (February 14, 2004): p. B6.
Huckbody, Jamie. "The Man Who Would Be King." Independent (London, England) (February 14, 2003): p. 6.
Kato, Donna. "Distinctive Style, Business Savvy Make Fashion Designer Zac Posen Star at 24." San Jose Mercury News (December 19, 2004).
Luscombe, Belinda. "Boy in Vogue." Time (September 30, 2002): p. 78.
"Marc and Zac." WWD (June 2, 2003): p. 36S.
Rubenstein, Hal. "The Look of Zac Posen (Fashion/The Look)." In Style (December 1, 2003): p. 152.
Tauber, Michelle. "Sew Cool." People (September 15, 2003): p. 153.
Trebay, Guy. "At 21, a Grasp of Women's Clout." New York Times (February 12, 2002): p. B8.
Trebay, Guy. "The Rise and Rise of a Prodigy." New York Times (September 18, 2002): p. B9.
Wexler, Kathryn. "Boy Wonder: Designer Zac Posen Set Fashion World on Fire at 20." Miami Herald (May 4, 2004).
Wilson, Eric, and Julee Greenberg. "Combs Hopes to Score Hit with Posen." WWD (April 21, 2004): p. 3.
Zac Posen Official Web Site.http://www.zacposen.com (accessed on August 23, 2005).