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Zac Posen on the Future of Fashion Design

By Charles Purdy

World-renowned fashion designer Zac Posen is known for his glamorous creations, his couture detailing, and his innovative approach to design. He sees fashion and technology as inextricably linked, so it’s no surprise that he’s already imagining the future of fashion.

I recently spoke to Zac Posen as we prepared for 2016’s Adobe MAX conference (at which he was a keynote speaker)—and if you’re lucky enough to chat with Zac about his work, you quickly become aware that he’s a true creative polymath. Since the launch of his eponymous collection, in 2001 (when he was just 21 years old), he has become known for stunning red-carpet looks (Natalie Portman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Oprah Winfrey, and his childhood friend Lena Dunham are just a few of the stars on his list of “favorite red-carpet moments”). But Zac, who is currently earning fashion-industry raves for his work as the creative director for womenswear at Brooks Brothers while also designing his own line and serving as a judge on the iconic design-competition show Project Runway, has also designed handbags, eyewear, accessories, and a line of MAC cosmetics; created ready-to-wear designs for Target; and developed a line of bridal gowns for David’s Bridal. He works across clothing categories—from a jaw-dropping glow-in-the-dark couture gown worn by Claire Danes at 2016’s Met Gala to his recently revealed designs for new Delta Air Lines uniforms. On top of all this and more, he’s an accomplished cook (his first cookbook will be published in 2017).

Image of Claire Danes in a Zac Posen glow-in-the-dark dress at the Met Gala 2016
Image of Claire Danes and Zac Posen at Met Gala 2016
Image of Claire Danes and Zac Posen at Met Gala 2016

This one-of-a-kind Zac Posen gown is made of organza and fiber optics that allow it to glow in the dark. Actress Claire Danes wore it to the 2016 Met Gala.  

And never fear: he’s already thinking about how, in the near future, we’ll want to dress our robots.

MARRYING HIGH TECH AND HIGH FASHION

Zac has a lot to say about the intersection of fashion and technology. But the subject of robots came up because, knowing that Zac and his partner, Christopher Niquet, are dog lovers (with three dogs of their own), I begin our conversation with one of my most burning questions: “How do you—as both a dog person and a celebrated fashion designer—feel about clothes on dogs?”

“We don’t dress our dogs—my animals wear their natural coats,” he says, “but kudos to anyone who loves their animals.” Then he adds, “And in the context of science and tech, this raises other interesting questions—for instance, I watch a lot of tech programs, and very soon we’ll be addressing the question ‘What do you dress your robot in?’ That sort of artificial intelligence is really not very far away.”

This future focus and an awareness of the possibilities of technology have been important parts of Zac’s design work since he began his career—in fact, since before he began it. As a high school student, he was awarded a bronze award in a New York State math competition for his creation of a computer wireframe of the human body, which would allow users to simulate fabric drape and other aspects of garment creation. And for a couture designer, he’s worked with some unusual clients, such as Dupont, on the creation of new textiles. In fact, part of his work on the new Delta uniforms involved creating fabrics with antimicrobial and other properties that would suit the way flight attendants and other airline staff work.

Delta uniform designed by Zac Posen
Delta uniform designed by Zac Posen

Zac spent more than a year on Delta Air Lines’ new uniforms for flight and ground crew; the designs were revealed in October 2016.

Zac says that advancements in technology are changing the fashion industry in concrete ways: “in the design process, in terms of creative rendering; in the pattern-making process and the cutting of fabric; and of course in the fabric itself.” He adds, “And a component that I’m starting to see even more, especially in the sportswear arena, is the actual construction of garments, the bonding of fabric, alternative ways of joining fabric beyond the standard or machine-guide stitch.”

He’s also excited about the way that technological advances are enabling creativity—how they allow artists to explore other disciplines and then share what they’ve created. “There are so many more outlets and platforms out there,” he says. “You can be anything today, and getting some traction on social media can be a real enabling tool…. One of my roles is to inspire people to get in touch with their creativity. In my own career, I have found that through platforms like Instagram—sharing the physical creative process and showing how the brain and hand can work together.”

THE FASHION FAST TRACK

Reading Zac’s bio, you might assume that he decided on being a fashion designer at a very young age. He grew up in New York City, in Brooklyn Heights, where he attended Saint Ann’s School. In his sophomore year of high school, he interned with fashion designer Nicole Miller. At 16 years old, he enrolled in pre-college courses at Parsons The New School for Design. And at 18, he was accepted into the womenswear degree program at London’s Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design. Just three years later, one of his creations—a gown made entirely from thin strips of leather and dressmaker hooks and eyes—would be displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and he’d be launching his brand. Two years after that launch, he was awarded one of fashion’s most prestigious honors, Swarovski’s The Perry Ellis Award for Womenswear, by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. And he hadn’t even turned 25 yet.

Model photos from the Zac Posen Resort 2017 collection.
Model photos from the Zac Posen Resort 2017 collection.
Model photos from the Zac Posen Resort 2017 collection.

Three designs from the Zac Posen Resort 2017 collection.

But as a child he did have a few different ideas. “I wanted to be on Broadway,” he says. “At a young age, I wanted to be a performer. And then I wanted to be a baker or a chef. But I was interested in fashion and costumes from an early age as well, and sketching clothing and collections. My dad is a painter; he paints in a photorealist style using fabric and draping, so the creative process and the manipulation of fabric were always something in my household when I was growing up. I think it’s so important to nurture and support your children’s creativity—which is what I had.”

And Zac has become someone who nurtures creativity himself. For students, he has developed the Zac Posen Scholarship for Fashion Design at The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. He has been involved with groups such as Google’s Girls Who Code (working with girls and young women to create a dress made with animated LED lights). And of course there is his work as a judge on Project Runway, where he shares his design expertise with up-and-coming fashion designers.

“Creativity is always an exciting dialogue, and I’ve always been interested in the development of new artists and creators,” he says. “And that’s as someone who started as a young creator—but I’d rather say ‘new creator’ because I don’t want to define this by age. You should be able to start a brand or try something new at any age; it doesn’t need to be age-driven. And I think that’s one of the strengths of Project Runway.

Zac Posen, Nina Garcia, Heidi, Klum, and guest judge Emily Ratajkowski on the set of Project Runway

Nina Garcia, Zac Posen, Heidi Klum, and guest judge Emily Ratajkowski on the set of Project Runway. The design competition show is currently in its 15th season.

ONGOING INSPIRATION

Inspiration is a two-way street for Zac. When I ask what he’s learned from the young designers on Project Runway, he reminisces about his early days: “When I started, I made all my pieces myself, and it was kind of on a PR schedule. I was living in London, a girlfriend would want a dress and commission me to make one, and within a day I would’ve made her a piece of clothing. So that kind of quick, instinctual creativity and having a challenge was something I was very familiar with. So as far as the creative process, I would say that maybe working on PR has put into question the overthinking that can happen sometimes in my studio…. And I think that it’s taught me, or re-affirmed for me, the power of creativity and the power of humanity—humanity’s connection to the creative process.”

He adds, “The success of the show is not, at the end of the day, how fabulous Heidi looks or how good Tim Gunn’s mentorship is or how critical Nina and I are; the success of the show is built on the creativity, season after season, of the designers.”

Designs from the Zac Posen fall-winter 2016 collection.
Designs from the Zac Posen fall-winter 2016 collection.
Designs from the Zac Posen fall-winter 2016 collection.

Three designs from the Zac Posen Fall-Winter 2016 collection.

Being open to inspiration, whatever its source, is surely key to Zac’s ability to work across the fashion spectrum. For instance, he has said that his work with Brooks Brothers has influenced what he designs in his Zac Posen line (where he has incorporated more daywear pieces, all with his signature couture details). It also explains how a designer who dresses movie stars and who counts Balenciaga, Vivienne Westwood, and Alexander McQueen among his influences can also create functional—but still stylish and attractive—uniforms for flight attendants.

“I like both kinds of projects,” he says. “In terms of Delta, they gave us great insight and feedback, and it was a real partnership—it was like working with a corporation as if they were a couture client. And you always want the client happy, or at least I do…. I like having projects that have a deadline and challenges, and I think part of creativity is the idea of commitment. And then I like free creative time, too, which I get when I’m doing something like a dress for the Met Ball. I like being challenged in different ways…. I think the biggest trick to having clarity is always being open to learning.”

THE EVOLUTION OF CREATIVITY

In an all-too-brief but absolutely fascinating conversation, Zac and I discussed dogs, artificial intelligence, how baseball gloves are made, social media’s influence on culture, finance’s influence on fine art, and a lot more. But because we were in a MAX frame of mind, the conversation kept coming back to technology and its influence on his field.

Photo of Zac Posen by Michael Beauplet.

Photo of Zac Posen by Michael Beauplet.

“What defines how we dress is, in a funny way, evolving because of how technology has evolved,” he says. “Everything is morphing: sexuality is morphing, and technology and humans are morphing. Technology has also allowed us to virtually self-create and exist, to not have to physically interact with one another. Fashion design in the future could be completely virtual—and that’s one big unknown: when the virtual creation of a product remains virtual and retains value…there may come a point where garments exist and have value only in a virtual way.”

He continues, “The tools for creative expression have been evolving through the course of human history, and they’ll continue to evolve.”

Zac Posen was one of many creative luminaries who spoke at 2016’s Adobe MAX. Visit the MAX website to watch recorded keynote presentations and conference sessions.