I <3 Mori Girls

One guilty reason why I love my students is because I often mine them for cool things.  They usually don’t realize that they’re the ones who are in the thick of it.  They tell me about some of the weirdest stuff.  Stuff they just happen to like naturally and daydream about.  Stuff that isn’t mentioned by editors, WWD, or other mouthpieces of fashion. (Would this fall under “Stuff I’m Too Old to Notice”?)

So a student I had (and if she’s reading this, thank you so much for turning me on to this) told me about Mori Girls.  Did you know about this?!?!?  (As a side note, I am always pleasantly surprised and relieved when a fellow designer admits to being the last to know about something.  A friend recently asked, “Am I the last person to know about ASOS?  Me: Um, no.)  I am hardly an expert on all the different Japanese street styles but the Mori girls, or “forest” girls, are the nature-loving-feminine-soft-flowy-dress-wearing-bang-sporting-natural-fiber-adoring subculture.

Clothing you can EAT in.
Clothing you can EAT in.

There’s a bevy of Japanese books that appeal to this aesthetic, like The Feminine Wardrobe and Linen, Wool, Cotton.  They have patterns and sewing directions for garments, slippers, bags and scarves.  Whomever designed the garments in this next one is very smart.  They created a slew of dresses, blouses and tunics from just a basic babydoll shape.  I think every last one is adorable.  I made the one on cover.  All my girlfriends were like, “That is the perfect dress” but my brother-in-law calls it “The Box.” Sigh.

I will most certainly "wear with freedom."
I will most certainly “wear with freedom.”

These Mori Girls are just few of the things that have been rolling around in my head.  You already know about my folkwear obsession but my inspiration also includes housedresses (yes, the kind grannies wear):

I'm wearing one as we speak.
I’m wearing one as we speak.
Who knew DVF could launch a brand from this?
DVF wasn’t the first to design a wrap dress.

Snow White (the Grimm version, not Disney):

"Schneewittchen" in the Fountain of Fairytales in Berlin.
“Schneewittchen” in the Fountain of Fairytales in Berlin.

and Little House on the Prairie (the books, not the show):

Garth Williams' illustrations
“After we clean, we can play with our corn cob dolls!”

With all of this as inspiration, I designed a mini-collection.  And here are some sketches:

…smocks, pinafores, wraps…
…aprons, shifts, tunics…
…pockets, layers, tabards…

I won’t say much about them.  I’m just going to quietly document the process and hopefully you’ll learn something from it.


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.