There may never be a better time to be a fledgling fashion designer.

Retailers increasingly need a stream of discoveries to woo shoppers into stores—leading to all manner of ventures seeking business relationships with new labels.

It is no accident that several of the hottest fashion labels right now—Vetements, Jacquemus—are barely off the starting blocks. Consumers are hungry for new brands: The less familiar, the better. Shoppers in their 20s and early 30s in particular often prefer unusual or unknown brands over established labels, according to recent research by NPD Group.(formal dress)

There may be a certain amount of brand fatigue for consumers bombarded with advertising messages. In a farm-to-table era, small brands have cachet. As a result, the fashion industry is rallying support for newbie labels, and hoping to discover the next Alexander Wang while they’re at it.

The Council of Fashion Designers of America recently inaugurated the third class in its fashion-incubator competition, which offers new labels a two-year program including studio space and professional mentors. Italy’s fashion council, the Camera Moda, has begun encouraging new designers, connecting them with established mentors such as Giorgio Armani.

A look from Azede Jean-Pierre for spring 2016.

Luxury conglomerate LVMH employs scouts to search for new labels in which to invest. And last month, Saks Fifth Avenue held a showcase for emerging designers and selected two labels it plans to work with closely and carry in stores and online.

Barneys New York has long been a champion of new designers, says Daniella Vitale, chief operating officer at the retailer. “The difference today is we try very hard to mentor, cultivate and guide them on building a business,” she says. “The worst thing we can do as a company is launch someone who is supertalented and watch them flounder.”

A new venture to nurture new talent emerged last fall. The London-based retail site, called 151Luwolt, sells emerging design collections and serves as a talent incubator, nurturing brands with mentoring, networking connections and the potential for financial investment.

Launched by Roy Luwolt, a fashion-industry businessman, the website acts as a virtual butterfly net, catching and propagating emerging talent such as Azede Jean-Pierre, a New York-based former assistant to the couturier Ralph Rucci, and Edeline Lee, a London-based designer of colorful, graphic styles.(year 12 formal dresses)

Mr. Luwolt recently included Charles Harbison, who launched his New York-based Harbison label in fall 2015, in a pop-up shop in Dubai. “I walked away with store contacts in Dubai and Doha,” says Mr. Harbison, noting such global reach would have been nearly impossible on his own.

New York fashion week attracts so many new brands vying for attention that the week now begins unofficially three days early, when unproven labels hold runway shows and presentations. New York’s fashion week for fall 2016 in March grew to 442 shows, up from 164 shows for fall 2006.

A look from Edeline Lee for fall 2015.

For shoppers, the risk of buying from a young apparel label is that quality and fit can vary from season to season. And it can be hard to find sizes in tiny production runs.

Yet many young designers are at their most creative in their early years, full of ideas and unafraid to challenge traditions. Jonathan Anderson’s first collections for his London-based J.W.Anderson label took gender-bending to extremes, with dresses(sexy formal dresses) and frilly blouses for men. They have influenced the likes of Gucci and sparked a widespread he-she clothing trend that would have been hard to predict five years ago.

“In the beginning, it’s just very raw and new,” says Kristen Cole, founder and creative director at retailer TenOverSix, whose stores in Dallas and Los Angeles feature emerging labels. She wants to snare these labels when they are at their most radical, before department stores discover them. “Once they start selling to department stores, they start getting more commercial,” she says. “I get it—that’s how you have to evolve.”

TenOverSix picked up Alexander Wang’s early collections—the label launched in 2007—and carried the line “until the bags were everywhere,” Ms. Cole says. For this spring, she has stocked Isa Arfen, a bold, colorful London label; Sandy Liang, a New York label that puts twists on classic looks, like floral embroidery on a leather moto jacket; and Catherine Quinn, a Los Angeles luxury label that creates timeless, minimalist looks.

Armarium, a new apparel-rental venture, aims to have 30% of its stock from emerging designers, says co-founder Trisha Gregory, who last fall participated in a pop-up shop with 151Luwolt. “It’s very important to us to have those finds,” she says.

At 151Luwolt, Mr. Luwolt gives labels a sales platform, helps shoot their marketing imagery and shows the labels’ apparel in Paris and London showrooms. A former banker and the co-founder of shoe line Malone Souliers (with creative director Mary Alice Malone), Mr. Luwolt spends about five hours a week working on business strategies with the designers who he says have proven they “are ready to go to the next level.” He plans to take investment stakes in some of the most promising brands, he says.

The 151Luwolt site gets its name from its unusual pricing structure, where most apparel is priced in one of three categories—100, 500 or 1,000 British pounds.

In a fourth pricing level, called “Luwolt,” designers set prices. “Until you earn the right to be expensive and cool, you’ve got to use 1-5-1,” Mr. Luwolt says.


“It’s not about [getting] a deal,” he says. “It’s about an entry level to a brand that you don’t know. People are in love with the unknowns.”