Boy in Vogue

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Two women are talking after seeing Zac Posen's spring 2003 collection in New York City. "Did you love the show?"

"I did. Did you think it was amazing?"


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"I did. Did you get chills?"

"I did."

Fashion insiders are not famous for their critical rigor, but even in this industry, people haven't seen the kind of hyper hype that surrounds the 21-year-old Posen in a long time.

Posen has put together three seasons' worth of feminine, flirty, busily constructed clothes. He did this while still living with his parents and drawing a $15-a-day allowance. And yet all fashion indices point to him as the Next Big Thing in Frocks. Magazines have written worshipfully about him. Manolo Blahnik collaborates with him on shoes. Posen's shows feature A-list models like Naomi Campbell, whom he pays in clothes. And during last week's Fashion Week, when all the most influential sheiks of chic were in Manhattan, Bloomingdale's devoted a row of windows to his work. "I haven't seen such talent since Marc Jacobs," says Kal Ruttenstein, Bloomingdale's senior vice president of fashion direction.

But all this doesn't mean Posen will make it. The fashion business has such a ferocious appetite for the new and young that it grinds them up early and completely. Exhibits A, B and C: the tormented careers of former guys-to-buy Miguel Adrover, Todd Oldham and Isaac Mizrahi.

There will always be young designers trying their luck in the fashion biz, nascent talents like Behnaz Sarafpour and guerrilla stylist Imitation of Christ. There will always be a pantheon of one namers: Oscar, Donna, Calvin and Ralph. But apart from the unstoppable engine that is Michael Kors and the freakishly gifted Marc Jacobs, there are few American designers under 50 whose fare satisfies the fashionistas forlong.

Posen already plays their game like an old hand. A lifelong New Yorker, he has networked more tightly than Kevlar. He went to the same high school as celebrity-loving painter Julian Schnabel's daughters Stella and Lola. Stella is now his stylist--"and my muse," he says. At an art opening, he met Interview magazine editor Ingrid Sischy, possibly the most connected woman in New York City, who in turn introduced him to powerhouse publicist and show producer Ed Filipowski of KCD (clients include Tom Ford and Versace), who agreed to represent Posen for free.

Posen's hidden weapon is his CEO, major investor and probably the only person who cares more about his success than he does: his mother Susan, a former mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer. His father is a middlingly successful painter, and his elder sister is the creative director of his label. It's a good old-fashioned family business.

But the designer is his own best creation. At his studio in the days before his show, he works relentless 20-hr. stretches, not much of it designing. He's doing fittings and chatting with models. "I want my clothes to empower women, whether that means being desired by a man or by a woman," he tells one. "Sounds like you've got it all figured out," she says, warily. He's schmoozing on the phone with actress Claire Danes, who won't be able to attend because she's in Los Angeles.

The night before his show, when he should be consumed with jitters, he's working the crowd at Bloomingdale's. An event in his honor on the fourth floor has not exactly been mobbed, so he takes two models down the escalators and starts introducing himself to shoppers and telling them there are free drinks on the fourth floor. Soon, the number of women looking at his clothes has swelled.

What they find is $1,200-to-$1,500 dresses that have a fresh-from-the-womb maturity. Heavily darted, they're '40s-style shapely; they flare at the hem and enhance the bust and waist. Several spring looks are constructed of thin bands of material sewn together horizontally, like belts, that can be adjusted. "I think the idea of self-tailoring is very modern," says Posen. "I want to embrace the creativity of people. Besides, all women fuss with their clothes." His pattern-making skill is almost mathematical, fitting flat geometric shapes to moving form. "My clothes are supportive and seductive," he says.

They're also well crafted and wearable, but not visionary or synthesized from personal experiences in the way one sometimes hopes from a young designer. Imitation of Christ, for all its excesses, is at least presenting an idea about fashion, one that rebuffs beauty and elegance. We expect designers to get more commercial as they get older. Marc Jacobs, made famous by grunge, sent out, for spring, unimpeachably buyable little 1960s Italian housewife cocktail dresses. Posen seems to have been born commercial.

New York City and America are very different places since last year's spring shows. But Posen's clothes haven't changed much. They're egocentric — all about themselves. In other, less hyped designers' shows, such as those of Behnaz Sarafpour, there's anevolution of thought that can be plotted. But perhaps Posen just has a youthful excess of business savvy and a desire to please, instead of rebelliousness. Maybe when he's 45,he'll be the most radical designer around.