Zac is Back

Once a fashion enfant terrible, American designer Zac Posen is all grown-up—with the hard-won scars to prove it.

Zac Posen remembers the first time he saw Naomi Campbell. Then a student at Central Saint Martins, Posen was living in London, in a basement apartment in Bloomsbury, and the model called on him after seeing a 1940s bias-cut dress that he had designed for their mutual friend Lola Schnabel. “I was in one of those big Georgian town houses where the living room opens up to the stairs,” Posen recalls of their meeting in 2000. “I remember seeing the most amazing legs you’ve ever seen come down the stairs—just the legs—and then a bag with an NC monogram. She was also carrying a bottle of her fragrance at the time, which looked like a sex toy designed by Brancusi, and a book about Nelson Mandela. She tracked me down—and thank god she did because she has been a friend and customer ever since.” Repeated calls for comment to Ms. Campbell went unanswered.

Within months of their first meeting, Campbell put Posen on the fashion map when a pink trumpet dress that he designed for her made the rounds of the society and fashion pages. Four years later, the flamboyant kid from New York was being touted as the savior of American fashion. The young man, raised in Soho by a painter father and a lawyer mother, was merely 21.

From the outset, unlike the aggressively modern posturing of his young contemporaries, Posen’s designs harked back to the unabashed elegance of both Old Hollywood and couture pioneers. (Posen interned at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, at 16.) The accolades soon followed, including a nod in 2004 from the Council of Fashion Designers of America for most promising new talent. And for a while, his glamorous gowns were practically de rigueur on the red carpet, worn by actresses including Natalie Portman and Kate Hudson.

But Posen’s outsize personality and bravado rubbed
 some people the wrong
way—like his decamping to Paris for two seasons, where (sacré bleu! ) he had the gall to stage a show where Yves Saint Laurent used to present his couture collection. Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus, had a front-row seat as Posen was thrust into fashion’s blazing-hot center ring: “Zac, like many young designers—and frankly many established designers—struggled to remain editorially acclaimed while building and driving a business.”

By the time of the 2009 recession, Posen’s business took a pounding, and his mauling in the press had become routine. Hissed the New York Times in 2010: “He was the designer wunderkind who went too far, too fast, his sequins falling to the floor like the feathers of Icarus.”

But Posen kept his wings on. He stopped trying to be all things to everyone, ditched the sportswear that 
had muscled its way into his collections, and focused instead on his soigné brand of martini-drenched American elegance for young sophisticates. (A self-professed “math nerd,”
Posen is aware that the margins on a sumptuous gown are “significantly higher than selling 20,000 T-shirts.”) 
He also began to show again in New
 York. That approach appears to be working. His fall 2015 collection,
which he described at the time as hav
ing “the glamour of Grace Kelly and
the fierceness of Chaka Khan,” was one of the standouts of New York Fashion Week.

“It took me 10 years to understand where my designs could fit into the American design heritage,” says Posen, now 34, sitting in his Midtown atelier, in New York City, and wearing a dark-brown three-piece suit, dark-teal shirt, and brown knit tie. “It’s important to find your voice, and that takes time and exploration."

“When you’re young, you have a lot of different people telling you to ‘try this, try that,’ ” he says. “All with good intentions, but it’s a lot of different voices and demands. At the end of the day, you have to say, ‘Who am I, and what can I present to a global market as a brand?’ It was pretty clear to me that, from being on the road, the focus should be on American-inflected glamour.”

Posen has regained his former stature, with a slew of celebrities, from Michelle Obama to Julianne Moore, wearing his dresses on the red carpet. And he’s busier than he ever was in his 20s, now churning out a curious mix of high and low. In addition to helming his secondary handbag line, ZAC Zac Posen, with prices starting at $195, he was recently appointed creative director of women’s wear at Brooks Brothers. His first closely guarded offerings for the label will appear in stores early next year. He was also recently tasked with redesigning the uniforms for decidedly unglamorous Delta Airlines and is rumored to be taking on the reboot of the 1940s couture label Charles James, acquired by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Posen flatly denies that Weinstein has hired him to consult on the Charles James label, but he did serve as a consultant on Weinstein’s Broadway show Finding Neverland. (Neiman’s Downing, for his part, says, “What better designer than Zac, who understands the importance of building a gown from the inside out?”) Rounding out his duties, Posen appears as a judge on Weinstein’s fashion reality-TV show, Project Runway, having replaced Michael Kors as the resident tough-but-fair quipster.

At a time when fashion is arguably more swayed by the cult of personality, Posen, who wanted to be a performer growing up, is more than ready for his close-up. “When I started in fashion,” he recalls, “people would say, ‘Oh, you’re too theatrical for fashion.’ Can you imagine? So having something like Project Runway gave me a place to use my performance skills and energy and get that out there in the right venue.”

As Posen knows all too well, fashion is more performative than ever. “Obviously the fashion show is a short-lived theatrical production,” Posen explains. “But the role of the designer today, as the representative of a brand, is a performance 24-7. My interest in theater was great preparation for being on TV or having to be on the road and be entertaining, informative, and inspiring.” But as his highly popular Instagram feed attests, his life is not all galas, gowns, and television appearances.
 “Away from the office, I have a very normal life,” says Posen, probably the only designer under 90 years old to live in a doorman building on the Upper East Side. “I walk my dogs—my poodle, Tina Turner, and two long-haired dachshunds called Candy Darling and Betty Blue. I love cooking, catching up on French culture with my partner [stylist Christopher Niquet], and watching my TV shows, everything from Modern Family to house-makeover shows and documentaries. In an indirect way, it feeds into my designs. After all, I am an American designer.”

The Zac Posen of today seems far removed from the image he presented as a tyro designer in the aughts. Gone are the capes, tails, and top hats that he would routinely don, replaced by three-piece suits for work and boulevardier-in-New York casual threads for after hours. Gone are the curly locks, now shorn into a handsome Caesar cut. But Posen is not too hard on his youthful missteps. “I think the industry kind of exploded when I was 21, and I thought I had to rise to that,” he says. “I thought that’s what they were looking for from me. I cringe when I watch a video of myself from then. But I can also say, ‘Well, if you don’t do it at 21, when the hell else are you going to do it? Because it ain’t cute at 30.’ ”

Image Credits: Chelsea Lauren / Getty Images; Catwalking/Getty Images