Five Questions For Albertus Swanepoel
Albertus Swanepoel has been through this before. When the South African designer arrived in the United States in 1989, he was flying high—his apparel had earned him a Coty Award back home. Once in New York, he easily secured a design position at one of the local houses. Then came the recession. The early nineties found Swanepoel making ends meet as an assistant to glovemaker Shaneen Huxham. “The gloves were very high-end with a lot of handwork involved,” he recalls. “So it’s not like the work wasn’t interesting. The problem was that the work was seasonal.” Reluctantly, Swanepoel enrolled in a millinery course at the Fashion Institute of Technology. The rest, as they say, is history: Swanepoel’s hats, under the label Albertus Quartus, have earned him a reputation as America’s answer to Stephen Jones and Philip Treacy—that is to say, the go-to guy for fabulous headgear. To wit, Proenza Schouler, Carolina Herrera, and Alexander Wang have all enlisted Swanepoel to produce statement-making millinery for their shows. This year, he was tapped as a finalist for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award. The winner of the 2008 prize will be announced November 17; in the meantime, Swanepoel answers Style.com’s questions about life in the Top Ten.
What made you want to be a designer?
I’ve been drawing clothes since I was about five. I still have a few of those drawings, in fact. My parents used to attend a lot of weddings, and I’d go with them and draw the bride and her retinue.
If you do win the award, what’s the first thing you’re going to do with the prize money?
The first thing I’d do is get myself health insurance. Then, [I'd] hire one more employee to help with admin and press requests. I’d also like to invest in materials for research, and sample production. Actually, the first thing I’d probably do is to treat myself to a good bottle of Champagne. And in my fantasies, I’d buy a vintage Rolls-Royce.
What’s your up-and-coming designer’s take on the current economic crisis?
On one hand, I’ve added international accounts and my orders for Spring ’09 are up nationwide. On the other, I have noticed that some stores are having a hard time paying their bills, especially the smaller boutiques. My hope is that, because my business is so small and so niche, I’ll be able to survive. But in order to do that, I definitely feel I must work on my relationships with my customers. I need to know what my stores need and what their shoppers are looking for. In a way, maybe because I’ve been through down cycles before, I feel ready to struggle. Though, obviously, I’d rather not.
The whole CFDA/Vogue process seems rather nerve-racking. How did you manage to relax through it all?
Eat something delicious, one, and two, listen to opera or classical music.
What are you going to wear to the awards?
I’m still looking for something to wear!