MADE in the U.S.A.

Between parties and presentations, Jenné Lombardo, Mazdack Rassi, and Keith Baptista of MADE have turned Milk Studios into New York fashion week's most happening hub. Can they replicate their success worldwide?

Published April 09, 2013
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On a Saturday night during the hectic swell of New York fashion week, the founders of Made fashion week, the presentation-and-party platform that twice a year becomes a crackling nexus of downtown fashion, are happily installed at their favorite hangout, the Standard Grill. It's that rare calm in the storm of New York's show season when the three of them can sit down together and drink tequila.

As they do, Mazdack Rassi, Jenné Lombardo, and Keith Baptista slip into familiar roles. Rassi, a born host, does the ordering. Baptista, exhausted but composed, sinks into his seat—he just produced Altuzarra, his third major show in three days. Lombardo, meanwhile, keeps a restless eye on the table next to us, where a group of vanilla-looking young ladies are eating fondue and giggling as they sip from a communal punch bowl. Lombardo tries valiantly not to comment, but holding back is simply not her style. "Missionary sex," she snipes. "All year long."

Mogul talk it isn't. Lombardo's knack for trash talk is matched by her late-night stamina, and Rassi, too, seems to come alive when those around him are throwing back shots and clapping shoulders. (Baptista keeps more conventional hours, not to mention a lower profile. "I'm the safe one," he told me.) But their festive lifestyle takes nothing away from the fact that Made has become a serious enterprise, and one that's growing fast. Since 2009, when Made launched with MAC cosmetics as a sponsored initiative that provided 27 emerging New York designers with presentations at Rassi's Milk Studios free of charge, the program's profile and reach have skyrocketed. The party spirit isn't beside the point. It may be a major part of it.

On one level, the flag that Made has planted is about brick-and-mortar. There's been a perceptible geographic shift of New York fashion week in recent seasons, away from the carpeted, trade-show atmosphere of Lincoln Center and toward downtown. This shift comes to a head at Milk Studios, the Made headquarters. Made, its founders want to make clear, isn't Milk. Milk hosts it, and Milk also exists outside of it: as a year-round photo studio, gallery, and general crossroads of everything from music to the skater scene. Milk is a venue. Made is a "culture," an "ecosystem." You might invoke the all-powerful B-word: It's a brand.

Whatever else the trio's intentions may be, kicking up dust is key among them. "Disruptive" is how Rassi describes their approach, with boyish enthusiasm.

Unlike venues, cultures and brands can travel, and a pair of ambitious recent efforts to export Made outside the downtown environment aim to help it do just that. One was the transfer of the trio's sponsored-hub model to Paris, the other the debut of their first collection, Made4Impulse, for the fashion-forward Macy's line. It begs the question: Does everyone want a piece of Made? On the retail side, the answer isn't yet clear. But on the sponsorship side, interest is high: Though MAC remains an important partner for Made, there's now a flow of inquiries so steady that a major agency, CAA, has been brought on to help sift through them.

Whatever else the trio's intentions may be, kicking up dust is key among them. "Disruptive" is how Rassi describes their approach, with boyish enthusiasm. "People say we're breaking the rules," Lombardo says. "I think we just saw the necessity for change."

It all began with a photo studio. Rassi, then working in real estate, opened Milk in the nineties. Calvin Klein showed there starting in 1998, and Rassi would let unknown designers piggyback on those shows with presentations of their own. The up-and-comers paid what they could for the privilege—until 2009, when the economy was in the tank and they couldn't pay at all. Rassi discussed the situation with Lombardo, who at that time worked for MAC. She convinced her bosses there to bankroll designer presentations and events at Milk—in exchange, Rassi said with offhand canniness, for "a little R&D."

Rassi remembers the early days fondly. "The energy was unbelievable. Kids running through the hallways, high-fiving each other—it was true collaboration, true New York." Realizing they needed production know-how, he and Lombardo brought in their friend Baptista, a highly respected event and show producer.

With his reserved air of ultra-competence, Baptista adds a different personality to the mix. Like Rassi and Lombardo, he doesn't see a penny of the significant sponsorship dollars that Made raises. "Every dollar goes back in," Rassi says. It's an admirable commitment to what is, inarguably, a nurturing program—even if the founders are at the same time investing indirectly in their respective businesses. Baptista is co-owner of Prodject, a major production firm, and Lombardo has a consulting company, The Terminal Presents.

Especially with CAA on board, the press often positions Made as an upstart rival to IMG and that company's tents at Lincoln Center, and there are definitely parallel sponsor lineups: Lexus (at Made) versus Mercedes-Benz; MAC versus Maybelline. But Baptista insists there's room for everyone. "It's like this whole press thing we had last season about Hedi versus Raf. Shouldn't we just be really excited that we have two fabulous designers at two great houses doing really new and original work? Why should there have to be a winner?"

Lombardo concedes, with barely suppressed partiality, that the two are different. "It's like Vegas versus Montauk," she says. "Which one do you want to go to?"

The CFDA opted for Montauk. Or, at least it did on the Friday evening when the winner and runners-up of the latest CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Awards presented their Fall '13 collections at Made. As they prepared, the cabinlike lounge on Milk's eighth floor started filling up. Photographer Ben Watts lingered by the bar, nursing a Peroni (also a sponsor) and swiping through iPhone photos of go-go dancers from the party that he and Rassi had cohosted the night before. He razzed Lombardo for spending all night at dinner on the floor below, but she'd have none of it. "I did come up! It sucked."

Diane von Furstenberg arrived. Tabitha Simmons took the CFDA president through her shoe collection, which she'd set up in a large studio with glittering views of the Hudson. At the end of the walk-through, von Furstenberg greeted Baptista like an old friend. Lombardo and Rassi hovered, until a handler ushered them into a group photo.

Dasha Zhukova's Radio Garage had set up an informal recording studio next door for the duration of Made fashion week, and Lombardo suggested to Rassi that he might persuade von Furstenberg to do an interview. "Get her the fuck in there."

It didn't happen. But Made is more about less-established designers anyway, each of whom, based on interviews, seems more genuinely grateful than the last for the support and show space. In addition to the paid-for venue and production package, which includes hair and makeup, they get a legitimate spot on the fashion calendar.

The Purple after-party found Rassi in a plush corner of the Boom Boom Room, drink in hand. "Just so you know, we don't expense this," Baptista said.

The happiness of the whole arrangement was more than evident on CFDA night. Elder Statesmen's Greg Chait was taking advantage of the studio space to shoot his lookbook, with retouching to be done immediately; meanwhile, next door, jewelry designer Jennifer Meyer had drawn a pair of A-listers. One was her husband, Tobey Maguire; the other was Leonardo DiCaprio. Dutifully examining pieces laid out on palm leaves, a newsboy cap pulled far down over his brow, DiCaprio was clearly not inviting photo ops. "I didn't even try to talk to him—just gave a nod," Rassi reported. "He shoots at Milk in L.A."

After the Suno runway show on the second floor, Lombardo swung by her dressing room ("I change three times a day") and then back up to Made's media center on eight, a windowless room that had already fallen into a state of busy-looking disarray. Most of the bloggers had departed for the day, but not all, and Rassi stood at a monitor, mesmerized by super-slow-motion footage that a team from Legs, his in-house production company, had just filmed at Suno. "See you tomorrow," Rassi announced on his way out. "Don't get too drunk!"

Four nights later found Rassi in a plush corner of the Boom Boom Room, drink in hand. It was the Purple after-party; Theophilus London was there with Rassi, as was Baptista, who coolly eyed the bottle that a waitress was bringing over. "Oh, now he's drinking Scotch!" As he prepared to leave, Baptista added, "Just so you know, we don't expense this."

Lombardo, atypically, was nowhere to be found. Later, she told me she'd ordered 15 hamburgers, then promptly gone upstairs to bed. (She lives in Brooklyn but takes a room at the hotel during fashion week.) Rassi, on the other hand, was just getting started. He pointed at people loosely grouped around him, instructing them to order on his tab. When a girl neither of us knew started talking about her dream career in fashion broadcasting, he leaned in, affectionately squeezed her nose, and over the music, yelled: "She looks like Selena Gomez, doesn't she?"

A couple rounds later, circa 2 a.m. and with the evening far from over, Rassi started taking me through photos on his iPhone. There he was, on a heli-snowboarding trip in British Columbia with Jake Burton—"my best friend"—and Olympic snowboarder Shaun White, and grinning ear to ear. Another, like a mug shot, showed him with a bruised face—taken following a run-in at last fall's Alexander Wang bash during which a member of A$AP Rocky's entourage clocked him on the dance floor. "The moral is, don't try to break up a fight," Rassi joked. Apparently, it's all water under the bridge. According to Rassi, the kid who punched him in the face is a friend now too.

Rassi didn't make it into the office the next day. This happens occasionally. Earlier in the week, a brand strategist told me that he had missed a dinner meeting—"pulled a Rassi," as the strategist put it—with a potential major sponsor. "He just never showed up."

The client signed on anyway. Rassi's exuberant socializing, like Lombardo's, isn't necessarily bad for business—in some ways, it might actually be good. As Anndra Neen designer Phoebe Stephens had put it earlier in the week, "They have the professional side and the party side. You'll be out with Jenné, and next day you'll see her give a speech and you'll be like, 'Whoa!'" (Meanwhile, Baptista tends to amuse his partners with his self-effacing politesse. Rassi told me, with a mix of affection and disbelief, that at first Baptista hadn't even wanted his name on the press releases. "Getting upset with Keith is like beating Mother Teresa," Lombardo said.)

There's a Robin Hood element to Made's success story: The founders embody the enterprise's youthful energy, package it, and sell it to deep-pocketed sponsors, then pass the proceeds along to cash-strapped young designers.

There's a Robin Hood element to Made's success story: The founders embody the enterprise's youthful energy, package it, and sell it to deep-pocketed sponsors, then pass the proceeds along to cash-strapped young designers to offset the costs of showing their collections—costs that might otherwise prove an insurmountable obstacle. "They save us a huge amount of money—probably 200 or 250 grand—and I can't even count how many influential people Rassi has introduced us to," Suno's Max Osterweis said. (According to a spokesperson, "real costs" come to between $50,000 and $200,000 per show.) Not only did the CFDA help the Fashion Fund designers present at Milk, but of the nine labels nominated for the CFDA's Swarovski fashion awards for up-and-coming talent this year, seven showed their Fall collections with Made. (One, Pamela Love, opted not to show but threw a party with Made instead.)

It's surprising, then, given their track record, that only in the last year or so have Rassi, Lombardo, and Baptista committed to Made as more than a season-by-season thing. The industry hasn't always been encouraging. "A lot of people didn't want us to roll this out when we started, because it somehow created change, or conflict. They were like, 'Don't create a program that takes people away from the tents, is inconvenient for editors, is going to be overcrowded,'" Baptista said. "But this was something that was important. It needed to happen."

In Paris, too, the founders say, there is need for Made—arguably more. "There's no room in Paris for these young designers, and you can't get around the city to save your life," Lombardo put it. Earlier this year, they booked the stately Hôtel Salomon de Rothschild, long a favored Paris venue, secured Gareth Pugh and Anthony Vaccarello as headliners, and invited ten lesser-known designers to pitch tent there too. "It's taken a few years for us to get the respect of the Féderation," Lombardo admitted.

They were pleased with how Paris had gone, with one exception: Apart from MAC, they hadn't been that triumphant on the sponsor front. Asked how they'd paid the bills, Lombardo shrieked: "We don't really want to talk about it!"

But Baptista gathered himself. "We as partners in the program made a substantial investment in Paris," he said. "I think that everybody wishes us success; it's a question of whether they're willing to invest their own time and energy to help us succeed, and that's where we have to kind of make a breakthrough."

All three were more eager to talk about the impromptu bash they'd thrown at the end of the week at their favorite bar in Paris. Lacking the resources to organize anything ambitious, they'd simply reached out to their friends. Rassi called André Saraiva—amazingly, he flew over from L.A. and hosted. Drinks flowed. Certain personalities got up on the bar. "We had some of the most fashionable people on the planet, who will remain nameless, wearing Carr's Irish Pub T-shirts and doing a wet-T-shirt contest!" Rassi beamed. "It was amazing."

I suspected exaggeration. But Baptista's got the R-rated photos on his phone to prove it.

Leaning forward in his seat, Rassi recites a line he admits he's delivered several times before, including to the mayor's office. "Don't ask what Made fashion week does. Ask what would happen if we went away."

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