It's early on a Sunday and a clutch of bad-tempered, bleary-eyed journalists are gathered - pre-coffee and jet-lagged - on the promise that they're about to glimpse fashion's next big thing. Of the many images Italian fashion conjures - heavyweight designer names, fur, leather, front rows crammed with A-listers - boot camp is not one. But appearances are deceiving. Led by the Vogue Italia editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani, the Italians are uncovering fashion's future players in the most unlikely of places: the crumbling ruins of Rome Couture Week. Now in its fifth edition, the competition Who's on Next? recognises new design talent hailing from or working within Italy. Gems unearthed thus far include 6267's Roberto Rimondi and Tommaso Aquilano, the duo now at the helm of Gianfranco Ferré, and Nicholas Kirkwood, a man who can transform the humble shoe into a sculptural delicacy. Rome Couture Week is crammed with history. Valentino contemporaries such as Fausto Sarli and Lorenzo Riva have shown their exquisitely cut creations since the 1950s. But this morning is about the new blood, and seven of fashion's most promising talents are waiting for verdicts that could change their lives. The stakes are high: Winners in the Who's on Next? accessories and prêt-a-porter categories receive a spread in Vogue Italia and an opportunity to show their work during Milan Fashion Week. The judges, hand-picked by Sozzani, comprise an international fashion A-team: Averyl Oates from Harvey Nichols, Terron Schaefer of Saks Fifth Avenue, Sally Singer of US Vogue and Tiziana Cardini of the Italian luxury powerhouse La Rinascente. Of course, even the loftiest of designers will tell you fashion is a tough gig. But now, with banks crumbling and customers spending less, it's getting harder - and no one understands this more than Sozzani. Her Pre-Raphaelite curls and diminutive expression belie her reputation as the most eccentric and pioneering of the Vogue editor sorority. She believes that unless designers have support, fashion as we know it will stagnate, particularly in her native Italy. "Unless you have someone producing and investing in them, they will get swallowed up," she says. "This is why I think helping young talents by means of a competition is the only way to give new life to the global market." Now, after days of rigorously examining, interviewing and discussing, the judges have reached their decision. Marco de Vincenzo snatches the 2009 ready-to-wear prize. At 31, he is hardly a stranger to the world of fashion. For the last decade, he has worked as Silvia Venturini Fendi's right-hand man, designing coveted handbags. This, Sozzani believes, is how new talent should emerge: not fresh from design school but after they've cut their teeth with the experts. "Big names always have a design team behind them, and this is where gifted young designers end up," she says. "Their actual training happens while they are working there, and this is when the scouting competition functions to discover and launch new talents." Sozzani's view is perhaps at odds with conventional wisdom. In the past, fashion institutions have proved time and again that fresh-faced graduates can triumph over the industry armed only with a needle and thread. John Galliano is a case in point. His graduate collection for Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in 1984, Les Incroyables, received a standing ovation, and Joan Burstein, the proprietor of the hip London boutique Browns, snapped up the whole lot. The rest is fashion history. Meanwhile, Vivienne Westwood didn't even go to design school, characteristically forging her own path to international renown. Sozzani believes these individuals are exceptions, not the rule - and that exceptions are rare in Italy. In today's climate, she believes that extended, first-hand experience of the industry is crucial for new names to tempt buyers into parting with hard-earned cash. "Consumers today are very demanding and will consider cost versus value especially because they are investing in unbranded clothes or accessories," she says. This means new designers must work 10 times as hard.
As models sashay down the catwalk in de Vincenzo's creations, it's clear his apprenticeship has paid off. Silhouettes skim the lines of the body with neoprene and jersey stripes to create Bridget Riley-esque optical shadows. The contrasts dance in the light, indicating a designer who understands how to manipulate fabric to make women look fabulous. "This is what I do after 6pm every evening," de Vincenzo says. He decided to start his own line just over a year ago and he carried out every stage, from sketch to the final look on the catwalk, from his apartment. Despite a supportive employer and a shot at presenting his work during Paris couture in January, it's been a struggle. "In Italy it's hard to be free and independent as a designer. There need to be more opportunities like this for new names." His attitude is echoed by Daniele Michetti, the Italian who took the accessories prize. Like de Vincenzo, he is a seasoned designer used to working as part of a grand fashion house. "It's difficult to make a name for yourself as a small brand because you need to take care of everything. You need an excellent collection, somewhere to show it, international press relations, great customer service. That's hard at the beginning when your budget is small." Although it's clear that new talent needs all the help it can get from the industry right now, one must wonder if a competition is the best way of to uncover the next big thing. If fashion is wearable art, how do you judge the creative vision of one designer against another? Surely pitting a Valentino against a Margiela is like comparing da Vinci to Picasso; they're simply too different. "Fashion doesn't mean one thing," agrees Oates, who, as the buying director of Harvey Nichols, can spot the dress of the season at 50 paces. "We should be able to see a new vision and a sign of the future but you never know quite how and where a new talent is actually going to emerge." Oates believes that Who's on Next? gets it right because it's happy to bend the rules. A couple of years ago the panel decided that none of the ready-to-wear designers were up to the level of accolade, so nobody won the award. "Equally, if there are two designers in the same category that are both strong in their own right then you'd have two winners," she says. "Stars do not emerge within a rigid time frame." Fashion, to put it mildly, is a fickle friend. In an industry where hype can corrupt and a new designer can flare and fade within a year, a competition seems to feed rather than stop the cycle. This, says Oates, is where the unseen role of Who's on Next? comes into play. Yes, winners get their designs in Vogue and yes, they get to show in Milan, but as the competition has evolved, so has the relationship between the judges and the nominees. "It is much more concrete in terms of a commercial partnership, with our advice and experience layered onto their innovation and creativity," she says And, Sozzani says, because the judges are looking at someone who is in it for the long haul, an interesting dress design is rarely enough: "Being a successful designer today means having an open mind, character and personality but also the capacity to make creativity wearable and marketable." The fashion commentator extraordinaire Colin McDowell agrees. He established London's Fashion Fringe at Covent Garden in 2004, and although it launched as a competition, he prefers to be called a "platform" for new designers in the UK. "I felt there was a strong need to help young design brands establish and sustain their business," McDowell says. "A competition is finite. A platform is an ongoing initiative, and this is what Fashion Fringe at Covent Garden is about." The event aims to give designers practical and psychological support. The organisation, which has supported designers including Basso & Brooke and Erdem, offers its nominees mentoring at all levels of the industry, from accounting to distributing to buying and PR. McDowell says a mentor should not be all-controlling; the industry just needs to nudge young minds in the right direction. "It is the job of the new talent to change the industry, just as Tom Ford, Calvin Klein, Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano did. All change starts with an inspired, charismatic individual motivated by a personal vision and self-belief." Far from being all about winning, it seems fashion competitions are an opportunity for the industry to guide its latest recruits. It's not just about friendly advice; it's about investing in the new generation and watching the returns. Nadja Swarovski of the crystal dynasty understands the importance of this. In the 1990s she was introduced by her fashion consultant, the late Isabella Blow, to the cutting-edge designers Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy. Over a number of seasons, she gave them free rein to use her crystals, most memorably in McQueen's crystal mesh creations in 1998. As the designers' stature grew, Swarovski crystal was transformed from a purveyor of cutesy animal figurines to a designer of must-have fashion accessories. The crystal empire now underwrites the Swarovski Awards for Emerging Talent at the CFDA Awards, the US fashion industry's answer to the Oscars. Swarovski says the industry now understands that investing in the future pays off: "Fashion has changed and the established houses realise new designers are not competition but an important part of the fashion industry's future." Not that competition is a dirty word: "Competition makes the world go around," she says. "It creates great clothes, it creates great design and that's a positive thing for everyone." At Who's on Next?, it's lunchtime. De Vincenzo, Michetti and their fellow nominees are chatting and swapping business cards with judges, distributors, buyers and press. The fashion competition may not be the perfect solution to giving new designers a boost, but it's a good place to start. In times like these, it is a lifeline not only to new designers but to the future of fashion. And that is something worth getting up early for.