Just a little over a week ago, Zac Posen was here in Houston, schmoozing with clients while presenting his Spring 2020 collection at Neiman Marcus and visiting his good pal Lynn Wyatt’s home for tea. At 39, the one-time boy wonder of fashion seemed on top of the world. 

But behind the carefree façade, Posen’s business was crumbling. A few days later, he shocked the fashion world by announcing he would shut down his company immediately because he'd been unable to find a new investor.

The announcement seemed particularly surprising since Posen had seemingly done everything right. He regularly dressed top celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Oprah Winfrey for the red carpet in memorable body-hugging gowns that evoked an aura of Old Hollywood glamour. When I visited his showroom during New York Fashion Week in September, it took four workers to move a pastel cloud-like gown made from miles of tulle worn by Celine Dion on the opening night of her world tour.

Zac Posen's tulle creation for Celine Dion

Image: Clifford Pugh

“The craftsmanship of his gowns is really spectacular,” says Julie Roberts, owner of Elizabeth Anthony, who recently chose a Zac Posen gown to wear to her son’s wedding.

Posen took on high-profile, attention-getting stints, designing uniforms for Delta Airlines and special collections for Target. He attracted new fans as the acerbic judge on Project Runway and, as creative director of womenswear at Brooks Brothers, freshened up the venerable brand while simultaneously producing up to 14 collections a year for his various namesake lines. 

But in today’s world of fashion, with new methods of shopping and getting the word out in a global environment, it wasn’t enough. 

Right out of London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, Posen burst on the scene in the early 2000s with runway shows at NYFW that celebrities clamored to get into. In 2004, his first large-scale show at Bryant Park attracted the Bush twins, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Claire Danes, and Bette Midler. Elyse Lanier and Courtney Lanier Sarofim flew up from Houston for the show and sat in the front row. 

A year later, Posen, then just 25, visited Houston for the first time to show his collection at Neiman Marcus and attend a Best Buddies fundraiser at the home of John and Becca Cason Thrash, where he “worked the crowd with the panache of a designer twice his age,” I wrote then for the Houston Chronicle. “Delivering the goods is an important part of fashion, but so is seduction, especially when you’re selling five-figure gowns. Posen has so skillfully crafted his image, his clients want to mother him, befriend him, and more.”

By 2010, though, the fashion world had soured on Posen in search of the new big thing. He decided to unveil his collection in Paris, declaring “there is no reason for me to show my collection in New York, because it’s not about craft and technique there.”

The Paris show was not well received, and Posen returned to New York in a humbler frame of mind. The 2016 documentary, House of Z, airing on Netflix, documents his rise, fall, and comeback. 

In 2016, a time when there wasn’t much diversity on the runway, he won plaudits for staging a NYFW show featuring only models of color. In recent years, though, he shied away from full-scale shows completely and instead decided to tout his collection in new ways, often embracing the latest technology. 

For his latest—and last—collection, Posen enlisted photographer Steven Sebring to create a 3D look book using interactive image technology, featuring model Winnie Harlow in swirling video poses. Every look had a QR code, so a customer could scan the style and download the video onto her phone.

Posen in his New York showroom

Image: Clifford Pugh

“As you know, I love fashion shows and did large shows for many, many years,” Posen said during the interview in his New York showroom. “It’s really nice to have it focused on the product in a different way. I always want to make sure that clothing is still center stage. That’s essential, because at the end of the day that is what we’re doing. We’re making women feel and look great and enjoy fashion.” 

Posen’s demise came during the same week as Barneys, the legendary New York store, made plans to close—and it doesn’t seem like a coincidence. Stores like Barneys that cater to affluent customers have been the mainstay of luxe brands like Zac Posen. It’s not easy to sell a $10,000 gown online. 

I have covered Posen for the last 15 years, and although I had no inkling he was about to shut down his business, he seemed in a much more mellow mood during our last interview.

When I remarked that he seemed to have survived this crazy fashion business, he laughed. “Every day is its own day, I’ll tell you that,” he replied. “You have to love it. I think surviving it is about really enjoying the process. I value that process and protect it. I think that’s what makes it worth it. And I also love people, and that helps.”

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