EXCLUSIVE: Neiman Marcus Revives ‘Distinguished Service’ Fashion Award

After a seven-year hiatus, the Neiman Marcus Group is reviving its prestigious Neiman Marcus Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Fashion.

The award has a long history celebrating fashion pioneers, innovators and leaders. By reviving it, Neiman’s brings another dimension to its luxury strategy, seeks to reinforce partnerships with designers, and opens the way to launching a new “NMG Awards” platform next year.

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“We’ve decided that Brunello Cucinelli will be the recipient of the 2023 Neiman Marcus Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Fashion,” Geoffroy van Raemdonck, chief executive officer of the Neiman Marcus Group, told WWD. “It’s exciting to bring the tradition of that award back in tandem with the launch of the NMG Awards. These Neiman Marcus awards are really at the heart of how this company operates and how we want to revolutionize luxury experiences in many ways.”

Executives are not yet divulging much about the NMG Awards, its categories or any recipients other than that, along with the Distinguished Service honor, there will be a Neiman Marcus Award for Creative Impact in the Field of Fashion for “exceptional innovation in their creative approach,” among other awards.

NM’s Distinguished Service Award was created 85 years ago by Carrie Marcus Neiman, the late cofounder of Neiman Marcus, and Stanley Marcus, the late and legendary Neiman Marcus president/ chairman/impresario. It was last bestowed upon Carolina Herrera in 2016, but was discontinued as NMG became consumed with financial difficulties and management changes, and went in and out of bankruptcy in 2020, and then had to navigate through the pandemic. Now, following its restructuring that created a healthier balance sheet, the retailer is in a better position to forge stronger partnerships with luxury designers and brands, and get back to distributing awards.

NM’s Distinguished Service Award has been given to more than 100 luxury fashion luminaries including Yves Saint Laurent 65 years ago, Oscar de la Renta 55 years ago, Ralph Lauren 50 years ago and Missoni 50 years ago. Christian Dior, Coco Chanel, Estée Lauder, Giorgio Armani, Karl Lagerfeld and Miuccia Prada were also recipients.

From the Council of Fashion Designers of American to Fashion Group International, there’s certainly no shortage of fashion organizations giving awards and staging award ceremonies. Asked what makes NM’s Distinguished Service Award different from others, van Raemdonck replied: “I think what’s very different with this award, compared to a lot of other awards, is that with the recognition, we are putting enormous investment into providing a platform for Brunello Cucinelli and future recipients to reach our customers. And when I talk about an enormous investment, it’s a multimillion-dollar investment in open-to-buy and in ‘retail-tainment,'” the CEO said, referring to Neiman’s blueprint for working with brands and designers to develop more imaginative and often complex store experiences and presentations for shoppers that go beyond the usual retail theater.

“It’s about creating multi-sensory experiences in stores, but there’s also investment digitally providing the award recipients access to our customers through having a presence in our social platforms and our digital properties, as well as in our books. The Distinguished Service Award recognizes brands for their contribution and is about bringing everyone together to celebrate them. But we’re also providing a platform for those brands to really reach customers in the U.S.”

Originally the purpose of NM’s Distinguished Service Award was to shine a light on emerging European and American fashion designers. With its revival, it has three main criteria and broader significance. As van Raemdonck, along with NMG’s president and chief merchandising officer Lana Todorovich, explained, the award is about honoring a creative mind making a significant contribution in fashion who also has had an impact from a social, environmental and governance standpoint, and thirdly, someone who has been “revolutionizing” the luxury experience in their own way.

Lana Todorovich, Geoffroy van Raemdonck
Lana Todorovich and Geoffroy van Raemdonck

“You’ll see that when we announce the other NMG Awards, they’ll also have those three elements. But there will be a different lens on the criteria,” van Raemdonck said. “Obviously with Brunello, we are singling out someone who’s achieved a very big business and aspires to continue to grow his business every year and for the decades to come.”

But the new NM Awards, the CEO said, are intended for those not as widely known, or perhaps still early in their career, or with a business that’s less developed in the U.S.

Van Raemdonck often describes the Neiman Marcus Group as transforming into a company that “leads with love” — his metaphor for striving for tighter relationships with customers, designers and brands. And as such, “you celebrate your brand partners for their contribution and you invite the industry to celebrate them.”

By reviving the Distinguished Service Award, “It’s also a way to honor past recipients and the legacy of Carrie Marcus Neiman and Stanley Marcus and how their legacy is still alive today and very relevant,” van Raemdonck said. “It fits into our strategy because our strategy is also about revolutionizing luxury experiences.

“When you look at the list of who has received the Distinguished Service award, it goes from Christian Dior to Saint Laurent, both luxury brands that today exist with different creative directors who are very much of the moment, very relevant and incredible partners to us,” van Raemdonck said. “It went to [Elsa] Schiaparelli, which is a brand being revived,” and was featured last fall inside Neiman’s Dallas flagship within a space evoking the Surrealist spirit of the house’s Parisian headquarters.

“It’s also about the notion of modernity and being forward-thinking, which you find in someone like Brunello who has achieved so much and continues to achieve so much.”

The NMG Awards (including the Distinguished Service Award) will be bestowed annually, though the cadence could be altered. The 2023 award celebration will be in Paris during Paris Fashion Week in March. “We think that the celebration with the industry makes a lot of sense during fashion week, and because Brunello is Italian, I think honoring him in Paris is a really nice gesture bringing the industry together to celebrate him and past recipients,” van Raemdonck said.

In effect, the celebration will continue in the U.S. with Neiman’s clientele via Cucinelli collaborations, personal appearances, “retail-tainment” and online.

In the works, Todorovich cited an exclusive Brunello Cucinelli “Icon Collection,” saying, “It’s truly a collection across all of the categories — women’s ready-to-wear, men’s ready-to-wear, shoes, handbags. For the very first time in history, this will actually be a cobranded collection. Brunello Cucinelli and Neiman Marcus together as a brand will be on all of the collateral associated with this collection, and each piece of the limited edition collection will be labeled ‘Exclusively Designed for Neiman Marcus.'”

“This will be a pretty large collection,” arriving in April for spring selling and again in August with a fall collection, Todorovich said. Ten Neiman Marcus stores and Neiman’s website will sell the spring line.

According to the Neiman’s executives, the cobranding of the collection was Cucinelli’s idea and a reflection of how Distinguished Service awardees will actively determine strategies and tactics to amplify their partnerships with the Neiman Marcus Group.

NMG has been steadily building its business with Cucinelli, who is said to do more volume at Neiman’s than any other retailer. In September Neiman’s collaborated with Cucinelli on a “360-degree” campaign called “Muse of the West.” The collaboration, which took six months to pull together, encompassed an exclusive, multicategory, 30-piece Brunello Cucinelli women’s collection that sold at the 36 Neiman Marcus stores and on Neimanmarcus.com; marketing initiatives including a look book and a first-time video with Carolina Cucinelli, co-creative director and copresident of Brunello Cucinelli, and her sister Camilla, co-head of the designer brand’s women’s style team. There was also a dinner and fashion presentation for VIP customers and influencers spending a day at the 100-acre RoadRunner Ranch in Dallas.

Brunello Cucinelli
Brunello Cucinelli

“Among Brunello’s many contributions to our industry, he has made particular impact through his elevated luxury lifestyle design that recognizes the luxury customer’s desire for impeccably crafted, artfully made pieces,” said Todorovich.

“What’s striking about Brunello and his business is there’s this important balance between profits and giving back with incredible charitable donations to worthy causes,” added van Raemdonck. “There is a focus on human dignity and ethics. I mean, his business approach is very much connected to our set of values. The two companies find lots of commonalities in those values. So I think he has made a difference in how luxury brands behave in the world we live in today.

“If you look back, we’ve honored Christian Dior and Coco Chanel, who were honored between the ’40s and the ’60s,” van Raemdonck noted. “Looking at their brands today, it’s great that these brands were honored with the creative director and founder who had their name on the door. Today, there are different creative forces there. And those brands still exist globally. And so we’re really celebrating the journey of brands and our humble contributions in their journeys. We feel that as a multibrand retailer that is in these relationships, that is something we should continue to do.”

In years past, the Distinguished Service Award honored fashionable figures though not necessarily those working in the field of fashion. Hollywood stars such as Grace Kelly and Rosalind Russell were among those honored. Van Raemdonck said future recipients don’t have to be someone whose name is on the front door of the brand, or a creative director. He said it could be someone in the beauty industry. (Estée Lauder was honored with the award in 1962.)

He’s also open to the possibility of honoring a movie star. “If you want to look at the next five years, there are many ways we can express and celebrate exceptional contribution to the field,” said van Raemdonck.

“The key element for me is it’s not recognizing someone just for their past. It’s recognizing someone for what they’ve done, and then helping them in projecting for the future, because it’s all about the future.”