New Prince of Fashion: Julian Louie

Photo: The Selby

Fashion people have a love-hate relationship with Project Runway, partly because it creates the impression that any misunderstood late bloomer with a sewing machine and a dream can become a high-end designer if given half a chance (and a decent budget at Mood). The show has sent a whole generation of young designers scurrying into the halls of Parsons. But Julian Louie is not one of them. “The whole thing just weirds me out,” he says. “If that’s what they really want—this glamorous designer lifestyle—that’s the last way to go about getting it.”

Louie’s real-life version of that show’s faux-star-is-born story line began halfway through college, where he was studying architecture, not fashion, at Cooper Union, not Parsons. After an internship at Imitation of Christ, followed by another at Calvin Klein, Louie was selected by Francisco Costa for Italian Vogue’s “Protégé Project,” for which he, along with five other unknowns, designed an abbreviated collection that showed in Florence, Sydney, and Tokyo early last year. “His raw talent was obvious,” says Costa. “And because of his architectural training, he has a different approach to fashion.”

This past September, he had his first show in New York, during which he presented a surprisingly focused, coherent collection of fifteen minidresses that can best be described as scuba gear—for evening. Constructed of neoprene and plastic zippers (he grew up in Santa Cruz, California), and embellished with tiered peplums, ruffled hems, and heavily encrusted Swarovski-crystal beadwork, the clothes are at odds with themselves—and that is the point. “One is very utilitarian American athletic and the other is very girly and ornate,” says Louie of his materials. “And when you combine them they become something jarring and new.” It’s the sort of idea that could, in lesser hands, go very, very wrong. But Louie pulled it off, impressing both fashion editors and Sarah Jessica Parker, who was spotted at his show. Unlike most fashion designers, Louie does not “think about things in a narrative way,” he says. “It’s not about, you know, ‘This is my girl. She’s with her lover, she’s in a car in St. Tropez.’ ” He says this with just the right amount of disdain. “I want the clothes to evoke something, but it’s subtler.”

The other pitfall Louie hopes to avoid is the branding frenzy that drives young designers to team up with mass retailers like Target or H&M. (Witness Project Runway winner Christian Siriano’s recent deal to design shoes and bags for Payless.) When Louie thinks about a future business model (he admires Dries Van Noten’s slow, steady rise), he imagines it to be self-sustaining and, most important, self-owned. “I’m not trying to offer an everyday wardrobe. I don’t want to create a lifestyle,” he says. “I like the more rarefied aspect of fashion.”

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New Prince of Fashion: Julian Louie