These days fashion awards are a dime a dozen, from the CFDAs to the famous Hyères prize. But one that stands out from the crowd is the prestigious International Woolmark Prize, credited for launching the careers of Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent, among others.
Launched in 1953 and halted briefly in 2008, the accolade was revived last year, with Belgian designer Christian Wijnants taking home the A$100,000 (HK$770,000) prize.
This time around, the contest was expanded to include contenders from the mainland, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea, and two Hong Kong-based brands - ffiXXed and Plotz - are among 10 Asian nominees.
The two home-grown brands will be up against 47 other emerging designers across Australia, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the United States, according to Woolmark's recently unveiled list.
"We are very excited to have two Hong Kong brands this year," says Simon Locke, a judge for the regional competition. "For me, [ffixxed and Plotz] have their own unique handwriting along with universal appeal. Not only have they achieved that fine balance between art and commerce, but they are also viable businesses."
All 10 Asian nominees will present a capsule collection (comprising six sketches and one complete look) made of Merino wool at the regional finals in Hong Kong next month. The winner will then compete for the overall prize alongside other finalists in Milan next year.
Although both brands are relatively new - Plotz was established in 2007 while ffiXXed came a year later - they have already received a fair amount of recognition here and abroad.
Plotz is a local brand through and through: its founder, Singchin Lo, was born and raised in the city and graduated from Polytechnic University's School of Design in 2005.
"I was your typical kid - I never liked to study, but I loved drawing. Fashion design appealed to me because it was about creating something from nothing. I love to design things freely with no restrictions, whether people like it or not," says the 31-year-old.
After graduating, Lo cut his cloth at local companies such as I.T and Moiselle, but yearned to do something more creative. Eventually, he landed at local brand Sin Sin where he worked on womenswear. In 2007, he launched his own brand, Plotz, a play on the word "plot".
"I wanted to do something that was individual and trend-defying. Hong Kong brands tend to be more commercial - that's not me," he says.
Since then the brand has gained a following among editors thanks to its original fabrics, all developed by Lo. These highlight and contour a woman's body, incorporating additional techniques such as pleating. The look is edgy yet feminine and always understated. Details are kept to a minimum so the fabric really shines through.
"For me it's not about silhouette but the fabric. I like to redefine fabrics; sometimes I will cover a fabric entirely with thread so it's transformed into something new. If you can make the fabric original then the design can be, too," says Lo.
This is best illustrated by his autumn-winter collection, Hybrid, which is inspired by Google Maps. "I was interested to discover how different areas on Google Maps are represented with different graphics and patterns. So I applied many techniques to one item, including inverted pleating decorated with studs and curved ruffled seams," he says.
Each piece is a work of art and features combinations of different fabrics and embellishments in a palette of icy blue, grey, navy and hot pink.
To date, Plotz boasts about 30 stockists (it's available at Liger in Hong Kong) and a more wearable diffusion line called Plotz Underline.
Lo says winning the Woolmark Prize would bring his work to a global audience. "I hope it will prove that Hong Kong designers can be creative. I would love to use the money to focus on the Chinese market. Every designer wants to open a shop but Hong Kong rents are crazy, so this would help."
While Plotz is all about femininity, ffiXXed - a design collective founded by Australian-born duo Kain Picken and Fiona Lau - blurs the boundaries between men's and women's collections as it creates unique pieces under the banner of "wearable conceptual art".
Lau studied fashion at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, known as RMIT University, while Picken earned a fine arts degree, specialising in painting, at the University of Melbourne's Victorian College of the Arts. The two met in Australia but started working together in Berlin on a fashion and art project, which led them to formulate the idea for ffiXXed.
"The initial pieces were almost like wearable sculptures," says Picken. "We made fabric flags with zips that wrapped around the body. Many of our designs were like objects - for one exhibition we made a sun visor with a mosquito net draped around it. Last summer we made a sweater entirely from cork."
"As time passed the brand has evolved into a contemporary, unisex hybrid-style fashion label. The look is a lot more about collaging. We still have the conceptual art element but it's more refined," adds Lau.
Deciding to build on their ready-to-wear collections, the duo came to Hong Kong in 2009 to source factories and have been based here ever since. Today they work out of studio in an old village house in Wutong, Shenzhen, where they oversee an entire team and complete everything from sampling to final production.
"Our aesthetic is always difficult to define. It's not sexy at all. It's more about reinterpreting the everyday and making it more interesting or enhancing it. Our process is not linear," says Lau.
As such, ffiXXed's collections are not based around a theme. Instead, they take inspiration from everyday objects - be it the wooden bead mats found in local taxis, which they transformed into vests in their spring-summer 2013 collection, or the city's demolished buildings which inspired the digital prints and unfinished textures in wearable woven rugs for autumn-winter.
The pair say their adopted home has taught them much about fashion. "One of the most interesting things about coming here was learning about this whole different approach to materials. It's all about recycling things and reusing materials, which you can see throughout our collections," says Picken.
Their approach has been successful. In 2010 The New York Times cited them as one of seven designers to watch. They also show collections in Tokyo and Paris each season and boast around 50 stockists internationally.
The Woolmark Prize could help them achieve their ultimate dream of hosting their own runway show. "This could be huge for us. We could get a lot more press and exposure. We could do runway shows. Winning this would be life-changing," says Lau.
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