Becoming Zac Posen

Steven Pan

From designing a dress for model Karen Elson at age 16 to showing up at Oscar week with no PR plan, the designer shares his career path in his own words: "I started with one pattern maker and one sewer in my parents’ living room."

My third post as a guest editor for The Hollywood Reporter's Pret-a-Reporter is an essay about how I made it in the fashion industry.

It all started when I got my first internship at age 16. I was lucky enough to be working closely with Nicole Miller, who was incredibly nurturing. She offered to review my sketches and gave me invaluable insight into how fashion really operates as well as very instrumental design directions.

Being a person who thrives on interacting with interesting people, I was very much on the scene in NYC throughout high school. And that helped me establish a large group of friends in many different places— I made my first dress for Karen Elson when I was just 16.

Thanks to a pre-college summer course at Parsons, I learned about the strategic system of fashion design. From there, I interned at the Costume Institute at the Met — it was incredible! And that really kicked off of my love for the history of fashion — an obsession with the cut of clothing. 

PHOTOS: Zac Posen's 10 Favorite Red Carpet Moments 

During that time, I came across a community of fashion historians and restoration people who propelled my fashion history education. I will never forget the talented curator Richard Martin, who’s since passed. His body of work reflected his inspiring love of fashion as an art form and putting it into historical contexts. He was brilliant and played a pivotal role in my development as a creator.

And then came the daunting question of university and what to study — design school or not? That was a big decision to make. I applied to Central St. Martins and moved to London.

London was my launchpad. It was the place where I was able to submerse myself in the beguiling British culture. My first roommate was my fit model and a dear friend, a writer and model named Jessica Joffe, who I’d met in a nightclub. I’d made her a muse of mine.

I had also met Naomi Campbell in London, who started commissioning pieces from me and began teaching me the essential importance of the perfect fit. She shared with me all of the amazing educational tips she had compiled from working with amazing designers her whole career. 

MODERN MUSES: Posen with models Crystal Renn (left) and Erin O'Connor at the Metropolitan Opera's Opening Night, 2012


At that point, press had started — Fashion TV was coming to film in my little basement in London, and Julie Gilhart from Barneys flew in to look at my work. Simultaneously, I was living with my friend, photographer Vanina Sorrenti, who was working for British Vogue. She had established herself as an up-and-coming feminist fashion photographer, so that gave me a real glimpse into the British fashion world.

I turned 21 and I came back to New York for the summer, and I was either going to start looking for a job or start my own line. The interest from retailers was growing: Henri Bendel was visiting my studio — first a junior buyer, then an assistant buyer and finally the fashion director came, and I put on an impromptu show in my parents’ living room — and that led to my first order. We started producing it with one pattern maker and one sewer in my parents’ living room.

We had no money to make an entire collection, so my mom, who had been a corporate lawyer on Wall Street, negotiated that the retailers pay at least half of the order up front. This had not really been done since the 1970s in fashion, but it’s what made it actually feasible.

PHOTOS: Zac Posen's #DayInTheLife

Subsequently, I received a grant to do my first full fashion show. We had no PR. We were running everything in-house on instincts and intuition. We hired two more sewers and put together our first runway. I had all of my muses and girlfriends, from Jemima Kirke to Erin O’Connor to Paz de la Huerta, in the show. It was a celebration. But then it became a real business — the line got picked up by Neiman Marcus, Saks, Bergdorf and all the major retailers. I was also receiving the love from press — Anna Wintour was a great early supporter and champion of mine, and she has since remained a really close friend and mentor.

After my first show, my upstairs neighbor in the loft where I grew up was going to Harvard, and he introduced me to Natalie Portman. Natalie and I became very good friends and “red-carpet-dated” for multiple events. After my second show, I was flown out to L.A. to do my first trunk show at Tracey Ross. I had never spent a lot of time in L.A. (I don’t drive). Then I met this incredible woman I was staying with named Lisa Love, the West Coast editor of Vogue, and a plethora of extraordinary women, who remain very close to me — Jacqui Getty and Lisa and writer Nona Summers. I definitely fell in love with Los Angeles and found an inspiration in the actresses I dressed. They have become a huge part of my work as a fashion designer today. 

Since my first L.A. endeavor, I started going to Oscar week every year. At first, I would go alone and navigate though fittings and what I call the “celebrity dressing PR ninjas.” I was only 22 at the time. It was then that I started training young professionals who come along with me on the trip. Now I’d love to design costumes for film. I’m waiting for the right project, but I’m definitely ready. It’s on my wish list.

When you start as a young designer, you have to overcome some obstacles, some hoops. But it makes you a much stronger artist. Otherwise, you become stuck in a repetitious banal existence. If you really want to create timeless, memorable moments with the work you do, you have to take risks, especially in fashion. Fashion is very much like film, as there’s such a symbiotic relationship between art and commerce. I’m going to quote Stephen Sondheim — “Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor.”

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