There’s no one way to design

Boring alert.  Or should I say “taking all the mystery out of design” alert. This won’t be nearly as cool as watching how crayons are made on Sesame Street but it will explain how the design process can be as unique as the garments themselves. I was watching my portfolio students develop their collections and each of them developed their own way to apply their brainstorming process to the next step.  A professor once told me, “You’ll never have enough time or money” so I like to keep tabs on the way they actually do it while they’re stressed out, freaked out, unsure, sleepy and/or short on time because they come up with smart and streamlined ways to design.

This first approach is a lot like patternmaking where you have your main patterns, or blocks and you work and make changes based on them.  After developing a few pages of sketches of garments inspired and drawn from the design brainstorm, the student jumped into Illustrator to nail down the flats.  You can see that she drew a basic shape for pants and made short steps and changes from design to design, each building upon the last.  She also has a little library of details to work from in the center of the image.  This is design at it’s most refined.  I like to dare my students, and you, to find a Burberry ad that doesn’t feature a trenchcoat.  Why is that?  Because it’s their currency.  They developed it (in 1856, mind you) and it works really well and you can sure as hell bet they’re going to use it until the very end.


This next student has jumped from hand drawing to working in Illustrator too but has chosen a more natural gesture in the croquis.  You can see the student is working with a few details (color, shoulder emphasis, and a feather detail) discovered while brainstorming to create the line and imposed those restrictions from look to look.  A collection needs it’s basic pieces: tops, bottoms, dresses, etc. so applying them from style to style becomes a pretty straightforward process.  It will be important to not be afraid to let go and change your mind if the elements become boring or you feel like breaking out of it a little bit.


This last student has a more holistic, “throw everything on the wall and see what sticks” approach. She took everything she’s accumulated: drawings, photos, fabric swatches, and the customer profile and laid it all out to create a big, non-edible, fashion stew.  Most importantly, she also created a list of the garments she wants in her collection and then refers to her brainstorm wall to develop her designs, getting ideas and checking them off as they develop.  This allows her to see everything at once and how they work together.


The wonderful part is that each one of these ways came naturally and were a system developed by the student alone.  They are all correct, and they all work.  On a larger scale, say in a big company, the processes will differ depending on many things, mostly the fact that this is just how they’ve always done it.  There’s no one way to design and it isn’t always a straight road.  It can also be a lot of going back and forth.  Some start by playing with fabric, some start with drawing, some just start, god bless them.  My mistake was in thinking you can only go forward and not wanting to change or go back for fear of thinking I was redoing work or it meant I made a mistake.  With my students, I try to dispel expectations and encourage a system so it won’t feel like doing work again.


Mean Trick

In an effort to teach students how to design, I have to be a little mean and trick them. The reason I can do this is because it happened to me and I have a duty to pass on the pain.  It’s not fair and it’s certainly not very kind the way I set them up for it, but by god, as I live and breathe, it works.

Drawing number 423.
Drawing number 423.

I’m not afraid to compare a fashion students’ process to those of the masters.  They both need to draw, research, discover, extend, and doodle the same way.  It’s not just the sheer number of studies that da Vinci produced, but it was also the evolution of the idea.  If you check out the final product, you’ll notice that there isn’t anyone collapsed dramatically on the table like there is in the study.  I wonder how many steps it took for him let that go.  Maybe the collapsed guy is da Vinci himself?  It’s scary to anticipate producing 50,000 drawings in order to get to The Last Supper, but I think it paid off.

In my pursuit to stop students from drawing clothes, and start designing them, I try to find ways to unlock and stretch their creativity and wipe away stagnant ideas that they may think are brilliant.  Often when students begin to design their collections, they don’t realize how far they can go, or they are paralyzed, or they think they have a plan about how it’s going to look.  So since I know that they’ve been banking on this, I ask them to take 5 minutes and sketch the perfect look for the collection.  I ask them to sketch the look that is the backbone, heartbeat, essence of the collection, the one without which it couldn’t exist.

And then I tell them to tear it up and NEVER DRAW IT AGAIN.

"I'm not mad at you.  I'm mad at the dirt." Mommie Dearest
“SCRUB, Christina. SCRUB.”

Pretty sick, huh?

You should hear the gasps from them.  It really makes the semester.

Once the shock wears off, I tend to the wounded.  Surprisingly, the trick his goes over much easier for those who feel they aren’t real designers or feel they have no talent for design.  This may be because they don’t feel invested or don’t know what they’re doing so they’re not attached to anything.  But it’s that lack of attachment that makes it easier to get up after having the rug pulled out from under you.

The other folks’ reactions, possibly the naturally talented, range from angry to mildly annoyed, like I’m wasting their work or making them learn or something.  But by forcing them to search, I’m forcing them to practice the process.  Most of all, I’m also putting them all at the same baseline.  You ALL have to start again.

"You want fame? ... Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying. With sweat."
“You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying. With sweat.”  Debbie Allen, Fame

To those still in shock, I ask: are you really telling me that your first idea was the best?  Have you exhausted the process?  Have you…nothing…else to say?  I’m writing this in the midst of grading, sometimes feeling disappointed in myself, in them. So I’m trying to figure out how to push my students more.  This is what I want to tell them:

extra mile
You’d be surprised how short it is.

I also want to quote Picasso: “I begin with an idea and then it becomes something else.”

But I might just have to tell them, just as I was plainly told by my very first design professor,  “Working on something for 12 hours is not unheard of.”

Knowing a daunting process is ahead of you is not a pleasant invitation for creativity.  If you can break out of any expectation, by gentle training, a mean trick your professor plays on you, or by practicing a lot of yoga, then the process is that much easier.

You’ve GOT to be kidding me or Why is this fashion?

In case you didn’t get the email blast from Karl, the Haute Couture Spring 2013 Collections were just shown in Paris.  What?  YOU DIDN’T KNOW THAT?  How could you not KNOW that?  What kind of fashion person ARE you?  What are you going to talk to Karl about when you have your meeting with him about the $40,000 dress you’re going to buy?  You’re VERY unprepared.  I guess you’re going to have to shop at H & M or something.  I’m very disappointed.  Well, I don’t know what YOU’RE going to do but I’m thinking about purchasing this one from Maison Martin Margiela:

SHUT UP! WHAT?  You have a problem with this?  You’d never wear it?  It looks weird?  You think that it’s a joke the fashion world is playing on me?  Well,  you’re probably not going to like it, but I’m going to defend these shenanigans.  I’m here to tell you why I’m buying this and why it I’m not cray-cray. I’m also here to listen to you snort a lot.

  • Question: If you had the most talented, experienced people, and technical virtuosity at your disposal, what would you do?  If there was someone on your staff who developed a special technique,  wouldn’t you let them shine? If your craft was supported by the government and people were watching you season after season, would you dare send a pair of pants down the runway that has been made before?  I don’t imagine you would.  I know the garments are weird and ridiculously expensive and wouldn’t look good on anybody really but but I like to be inspired and see people push the envelope.  These people are as serious about lace and embroidery, color and fit as you are about summary judgements and syllabi and spreadsheets.
  • In haute couture, they also have a responsibility to honor the brand and history of the house.  Margiela is known for avant-garde, high fashion.  While, the house’s namesake is no longer with the house, this team of designers are the fresh, yet anonymous, force in fashion today.  They also, gratefully, look to the future in terms of textiles and processes.  They even have a cool website.
  • There’a reason why Banana Reblah-blah-blah doesn’t have a fashion show.  It would be boring.  Basically, these folks are showing off.  It’s a fashion show for crying out loud.  They’d be disappointed if they didn’t ruffle a few, hand-dyed, organically raised ostrich feathers.
  • Maybe they ARE f***ing with you.  It’s possible.  Believe it or not, haute couture can have a sense of humor.  They need impart some humor after the stress of doing this brings. You haven’t seen anything if you haven’t seen Valentino and Giancarlo Giammetti fighting over hemlines in Valentino: The Last Emperor.
  • It’s a composition.  It’s important to remember that the look is part of a whole collection.  It’s a rhythm and there’s a purpose if you see the collection as a whole.
  • The inspiration and theme is a huge part that dictates what you see.  In this case, the collection had an eco-trend to it which is very unique for couture.  They repurposed beaded dresses and used denim which was also probably a first.  And you can bet they still had exquisite craftsmanship.
  • Finally, the parts are bought.  Not necessarily the whole thing.  And you’re probably not the one buying them.  Only about 100 women in the world have the luxury to set an appointment with the atelier, rummage amongst the actual garments they saw in the show, pick what garments they fancy, and have a discussion with Karl and the Directoire about how to make it a little more wearable and get it made especially for them.  They aren’t looking for practicality like we are.  They’re dressing for events, personal interest, for fun, for each other. They’re the designers’ muses.  They don’t shop like you and me:

If you’re hankering for another fashion documentary, there’s a great one from the BBC called “The Secret World of Haute Couture.”  If you can find it, (you can watch youtube clips or I found it through a good old interlibrary loan) you’ll get to see who the club members are and hear their filthy rich stories.  It’s likely still leave it snorting but it might do a better job at putting the pieces together than I did.