Designers Maria Cornejo Francisco Costa Yeohlee Tang

Designers Maria Cornejo (left), Francisco Costa (center) and Yeohlee Tang (right). Photos: Kevin Mazur/WireImage | Roger Kisby/Getty Images | Jemal Countess/Getty Images for IMG

Yesterday a triumvirate of top designers gathered at New York's Cooper-Hewitt Museum for a panel discussion led by Pulitzer Prize-winning style editor Robin Givhan of The Washington Post. The topic? The role of fashion in contemporary culture. Calvin Klein's Francisco Costa, Maria Cornejo (who helms Zero Maria Cornejo), and Yeohlee Teng participated in the lecture. The trio are also National Design Award-winners who are featured in the "Design USA: Contemporary Innovation" exhibition which closes this Sunday.

Among a packed house, they mused about what it means to be a designer in America and the country's extended fashion influence (read: sportswear has permeated all the way to Paris!), the obstacles around sourcing sustainable fabrics, the plight of hiring young models, and their own inspirations. Here are some of the highlights:

  • On the topic of American fashion, Cornejo mused, "I think its interesting that we all come from different countries and have made America our base. I think it represents freedom. It is a melting pot." (For the record, Cornejo hails from Chile, Costa from Brazil, and Teng is Malaysian.)
  • Contrary to popular belief, the notion of utilizing organic fabrics is not as easy as it seems. "There's something wrong with having something that costs more to be sustainable," commented Teng. All of the designers pointed out that Japan is creating some innovative fabrics - including recycled paper and man-made fibers - but then collections will become more expensive and utilizing these materials certainly wouldn't help to reduce the carbon footprint. Plus, as Cornejo pointed out, the organic fabrics aren't as functional. "No one is going to pay $1,000 for a pair of organic wool pants that peels," she said.
  • Cornejo also stated that she believed that organic fabrics won't really come into play until big companies such as Walmart start sourcing for their own lines. "They are the ones who have the money to do it," she said. "If they start it, it will trickle down."
  • Costa confessed that he was intimated by the idea of breaking away from Calvin Klein's association with waif models, which he did soundly this past collection when he enlisted Kristen McMenamy, Kirtsty Hume, and Stella Tennant to walk in his Fall 2010 show. "They are models who were wonderful then and still are now," he said. "In reality no 16-year-olds are buying my clothes. I love to think of my customer as 45. That's who I love to dress."
  • Meanwhile Teng took the real people idea to new heights when she plucked a busker from Grand Central Station to play in her Fall 2010 show which was based on sound and vibration. "The models couldn't even walk because they would just look at her, making sound out of air," said Teng. "She told me that our world was, 'very strange.'"
  • Cornejo and Costa were asked about what impact the "First Lady press machine" had on their respective businesses (Michelle Obama has worn both of their designs). "It definitely helped to get the name out there," said Cornejo. It got people coming through the door." As for Obama's own fashion statement? "She basically put the message out there, real women will wear whatever suits them," said Cornejo.
  • When one audience member asked which designers the trio admired most, Teng offered, "there are lots of disciplines that inspire other than clothing. Design, pop culture, music, architecture, light and the quality of light...and food! I find food very inspiring!"
The full moderated discussion will be available later today on Cooper-Hewitt's website. Until then let us know what you think of these talking points by leaving a comment.