Fortunately, once a year, a well-respected panel figures that out for us (and for the Vogue/Fashion Fund Finalists). In the past five years, top brass like Proenza Schouler, Phillip Lim, and Rodarte have been among the designers hand-picked to be finalists; this year, the nominees are a varied mix of sexy red carpet dress-makers and punky jewelry designers. Using this handy guide, you too can act like the insider's insider.
The Red Carpet Favorites
The darlings of any award finalists crew, these designers would be considered the next Valentinos and Balenciagas of the world... if they weren't clothing A-list celebrities already. Prabal Gurung is likely the best known of the group, since his flattering, feminine dresses have already graced the likes of Michelle Obama and Demi Moore. Christian Cota, on the other hand, is one rung below (dressing Gossip Girls and small-screen lovelies like Rose Byrne) though no less talented. Then there's Joseph Altuzarra, the boyishly charming talent known to few in middle America, but absurdly beloved by editors and insiders (aka "the deciders") for his perfect tailoring and latter-day Tom Ford for Gucci vibe.
The Street Locals
The two most notably street-inspired designers actually both specialize in jewelry. While the majority of the womenswear talents have a fairly polished aesthetic, Eddie Borgo and Pamela Love hew closely to the punky reality of downtown and Brooklyn. Eddie Borgo even got It-girl (and Elle staffer) Kate Lanphear to star in the latest ads for his chunky, spiked pieces. Love, on the other hand, is a note-worthy fixture in Williamsburg (she drums for a band called Scorpio Rising), in addition to designing moody, talismanic pieces like heart-with-flame pendants and armor-like cuffs.
Note to the gents out there: Menswear is back. Men are increasingly aware of how they're styling themselves, and that's reflected in their buying habits. (The new metrosexual is the nouveau-hipster? We're still puzzling, but it involves fitted check shirts, glasses, and well-tailored suiting.) Among those highlighted by the Fund this year are southern gentleman Billy Reid, the downtown-crisp collections of Loden Dager, and high-styled looks of Robert Geller.
The Wild Cards
In any group of upstart finalists, there should be the folks with whom even the fashion editors are a bit less familiar. Los Angeles-based Gregory Parkinson's collections boast some seriously original prints, giving the reigning louche SoCal aesthetic an exciting, ladylike update. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Moss Lipow is an interesting name to add to the mix, since he's a statement eyewear designer (one might recognize his Aviator and Black Hornet styles).