An Ode to El Corte Inglés

Let’s just take a moment to gaze at that glorious typeface.  It makes me so happy.

El Corte Inglés on Calle Princesa ready to serve you.

And it’s green!! A solid, classic green. When was the last time you saw a department store with a kermit the frog green sign? Stein Mart, maybe?



Green is the color of money, luck, earthiness, health, and nature. It makes me wonder what bounty lingers behind the concrete facade of this, the most prevalent and important of Spanish department stores? (Quickly, El Corte Inglés is the main department store in Spain and well, I find myself there quite a bit. The end.)

So it deserves an ode. That dignified name demands it: The English Court!  An ode to department stores and their elephantine yet historically game-changing ways, their shiny and chrome yet intoxicating perfume and jewelry counters, and their definite promise of satisfaction but disorienting path to obtain it.

A little Roman inspiration in this door handle?

From Dillard’s to Hecht’s, from Wanamaker’s to Macy’s, department stores have ushered my sister and I through every awful back-to-school, Christmas, and swimsuit shopping season, but I love them. I love their breathtaking selection of pantyhose, their hefty, manual credit card machines (in days of yore), the enormous registers and particle board cash wraps, the dressing rooms with burgundy curtains and off-gassing, beige carpets, and the ever present ladies shuffling around with their name tags, clicking pens, and spiral keychains wrapped around their biceps.

Stand to the right in all cultures.

We can talk about merchandise assortment, price point, and positioning, but I think the defining detail of a real department store is the presence of an escalator. You can’t have a department store without one and the experience is just not complete if you don’t have a mini panic attack in your stifling, puffy coat, carrying your bundles, dying for water, whilst stepping precariously onto the people mover.  It’s the same everywhere, I swear it. Preferably, there are two sets of them to keep things exciting.

Fortunately, at El Corte Inglés near Callao, if you get through all the floors with your bundles, there’s something special waiting for you at the top. This isn’t a food blog, but man, the Spanish sure know how to do a food court.  A nice way to shop.

Let’s regroup.  This place has everything. You can get shoes and shirts but also purchase insurance, plan your vacation, get a spa treatment, go to the grocery store and the pharmacy, and play the lottery!

They even cater to plus sizes and first communion.

There’s a Corte Inglés for every market too: books, housewares, furniture, electronic equipment, home improvement. It reminds me of Harrod’s (another green logo) tagline: “All Things for All People, Everywhere.”

So the flagship, fancy store is at Calle de Raimundo Fernández Villaverde. Clearly, they cater to tourists because the signage is multilingual and all the normal luxury brands are represented.  I don’t normally poke around in these parts but the lady at the Chanel counter was more than happy to give me a free sample of Bel Respiro. (I know, I know. It’s French.)   

Finally, they’re celebrating their 75th Anniversary.  They designed a special website so that customers can share stories and memories of shopping there over the decades.  Like many apparel brands do, it started as a tailor’s shop and then grew, and adjusted its sails through tumultuous times and changing hemlines.  Here we are today. It’s unbelievable to me that there are still a few of these beasts of enterprise that have held on.  They technically shouldn’t be here given the ease and efficiency we have with digital and mobile shopping. Maybe people still go because they secretly like the elevators, perfume counters, and piped smooth jazz.  I still remember the perfectly coordinated “travel outfit” my mom and I picked out at Dillard’s before we moved to Germany in the 80’s: creased, navy slacks, a light blue cable knit v-neck sweater, and a plaid, button-up shirt with blue and gold accent threads and puff sleeves that brought the ensemble together. I felt ready for the big journey. It was such a big deal to go there, experience that.

You can’t get that on the internet. Not yet anyway.





And Ye Shall Have Fabric

My fabric!
The photo makes them look like farmhouse dishtowels.  They’re not.

So it starts with fabric.  It always does.  You can do almost everything, or do away with almost anything when designing fashion but you are always a slave to the fabric.  A few years ago I had a little daymare at work about how much fabric ruled my life.  I imagined myself not just making garments with it and ordering it, but eating it and dragging it around with me, draped in it; slowly turning into a fabric-human hybrid like the pirates on Davy Jones’ Flying Dutchman.

Vacations have passed, schedules lined up, and it became fabric time.  Time to see what my collection will really be, time to collaborate, reassess and let go.

The "plan."
The “plan.”

Remember these sketches?  When we last left off, these were just daydreams but since then, I’ve passed it off to a textile artist, Ryan Parker, who helped me make decisions about pattern, color and dye techniques.  He’s one of the many talented people of the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia and is the artist behind the textile prints of Lobo Mau.

I have only a small idea of what the dyeing process is.  I heard the words “mordant” and “woad” being thrown around.  They’re the kind of words that you say a LOT in one particular place at one time but never hear anywhere else.  I participated in a dyeing seminar one time and I can’t tell you how many times the word “thiox” was said and I haven’t said it since.

Primal approval.
You know it’s  good sign when the animals like it.

A designer friend of mine was once presented with a trillion amazing options and questions from a textile artist about what she wanted her fabric to look like.  The possibilities are truly endless when you consider fiber, weave, dye technique, color, pattern.  Her response to the artist?:  Just do whatever.  I chuckled when I heard this because designers are thought of as such control freaks and it’s actually a much easier task to work with what you’re given instead of micromanaging.

I like to think of textile artists like playwrights.  They create the backbone of the collection by tying it together with color and technique, just like a writer used words and sentences to convey thoughts and ideas.  The designer is the director who makes sense of it all and brings the many parts together to create a cohesive image.  In that sense, it’s important to start with fabric.   Some designers have an unyielding idea of what fabric they’re looking for and they ultimately don’t get what they want.  You have to see what the industry has to offer, learn what’s impacting them, and see how new technological developments are applied.  (I wanted to use feathers one time and was surprised to see how the avian flu effected the prices.  You also haven’t seen ANYTHING until you’ve seen a disenfranchised feather salesman.)

This, of course, is a different story if you have a department in your big important company that engineers your fabric for you every season.

BAD gold leaf! BAD!
BAD gold leaf! BAD!

There was an initial desire to incorporate gold leaf in the collection but it turned out to be tedious, it took two people to do it, and the result was tacky and “Greek Goddess.”  In my book, things can take time, things can take money, but things sure as hell better not make me frustrated.  It ruins the entire creative experience.  I felt bad about the “ruined” fabric, the flaking gold leaf, the frustrating process that wasted his time but we thought the fabric could be salvaged.  There was faint stripe running through it that looked promising.

So he’s gonna try something else.  Mix it up.  Make it cool.  Turn lemons to lemonade.

I told him “just do whatever.”

It will work out.

I’m a man of wealth and taste

I often compare the fashion industry to the music industry to help students understand how designers and brands evolve from season to season and, in many cases, from decade to decade.  I had a conversation about the Rolling Stones with someone yesterday and later, when I went to teach, I used their story and the key to their longevity as a way to describe how collections work in fashion.

I'm not a Kennedy.
I’m definitely not a Kennedy.

The Rolling Stones have been strutting around since 1962, for the love of god.  That’s about the same time that JFK was assassinated and Jackie wore her “Pink Chanel Suit.”  (Which wasn’t really Chanel btw, but was Chanel fabric that the NY dress salon Chez Ninon cut and made into a suit, “line for line,” so that she would appear more patriotic.) That smart, sweet, pink suit was just one in a long line of suits that Chanel had and would develop over the years.  Even after Coco died and even later, when Karl took over in 1983, the boxy little suit, with the gold buttons and embroidery, bouclé fabric, and a chain sewn into the hem to make it fall right, has been the cornerstone of every collection.

Told you there'd be a suit.
Told you there’d be a suit. Spring 2013

There ain’t ever going to be a Chanel collection without a one.  (I’ll bet you, um, a Chanel suit for it.) They know how to make them real good by now and they’re not letting go of it:

The Rolling Stones adopted the rhythm and blues ethos and made it the heartbeat of not just every song on every album, but more importantly, their lives.

Oh gosh.  I want to BE there.
Oh, and what a life it was.

They immersed themselves into the music and, with the timing that only the sixties could offer, Jagger’s marketing prowess, a *smattering* of drug addiction, and an intense commitment that included Richards’ sleeping with his guitar (“If there’s no babe around, you sleep with it. She’s just the right shape.”), they developed into the band that never quits.  I mean, NEVER.  There are like, 14 documentaries about them.  They’re not even a band anymore.  They’re a hydra of music, model-wives and children, houses in St. Tropez, high colonic cleanses, ironclad licensing contracts for their team of lawyers to sort out, and really, really, really, skinny hipped men.

And what they have in common is that they both have been able to make something, the same, but different, every time.

To quote someone I NEVER thought I’d quote and I shudder at doing so, Gene Simmons said, “Instead of being in a rock and roll band, I want to be in a rock and roll brand.”  Brand is about consistency, which the Stones and Chanel (and fine, KISS) have in spades.  It’s also about a rthythm, about knowing what to change, how much to change, what works, what doesn’t, and working with what you have – even if it’s with a mean French woman or a strung out lead guitarist.  Your foundation is your currency and that’s what you base your collection on season after season.

What’s a Stones reference without Anita Pallenberg?

It’s hard to tell students that design is about systems and taking baby steps while simultaneously pushing them to experiment and indulge their creativity and imagination.  All the experimenting will pay off because all those discoveries are what you use to diffuse a single thing, like a garment or a genre, over time.  It’s a real time-saver.  We’ve all seen designers pull out all the stops but they burn out so quickly because they don’t have a foundation.  Better to find your root, your chord progressions, your silhouette so you don’t become a one hit wonder.

Zipper Time

So how old do you think the zipper is?  I had no idea but apparently it just turned 119 or something. It seems kind of hard to put an age on something that has had so many evolutions but fashion just sneaked in another reason to hold an event to commemorate it anyway.  Maybe it was riding on the coattails of the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition “Punk: Chaos to Couture” and similarly obligatory Met Ball extravaganza from Monday night.

Art + fashion = BFF

The Snyderman-Works Galleries in Old City hosted the show and fashion designers in apparel and accessories exhibited their designs.  I read somewhere that the seemingly impractical Elsa Schiaparelli was the first designer to use a zipper in a garment.  We’ve come a long way since then.

The smallest runway in the world.
The smallest runway in the world.

The ladies from Three Sirens Boutique submitted a few looks and I snapped this one on my way to the bain maries full of falafel balls.

Exposed zippers look better with red hair.
Exposed zippers look better with red hair.

Lele Tran had her smart and versatile zipper scarves on display (read: male model.) Not only are they uni-omni-multi sex, you can wear them as a dress, skirt, wrap, or a top.  Super smart.

What's more beautiful, the scarf or the man?
What’s more beautiful, the scarf or the man?

Autumnlin Atelier has been working her zipper talents for years now.  I blogged about her RTW line, Heartless Revival, last October.  If you want to see how to repeat something so that it looks like something else, stare at a few of her zipper “armor” pieces for minute and watch them transform.

Zipper vest!  Why didn't I think of that?
Zipper vest! Why didn’t I think of that?

Kate Cusak has mastered the art of zipper jewelry.  It’s hard to reinvent something that is such a commodity and make it not only look fresh, but elegant.

Lovely, but it might get caught in my hair.

I’m surprised this zipper trend is still kicking.  I remember several years ago when every consumer got a schooling on zipper application and there was hardly a garment that didn’t showcase this invention.  I thought it would die down but YKK (not to mention the Swiss/German/Italian folks at Riri and American guys at Talon) keep reinventing it in fashion and technologically. (They actually have a trend report!) Today, there are waterproof zippers, reversible zippers, separating invisible zippers and something called “PowerRail® Hook and Holder System” and more that all come in brass, aluminum, nickel, or nylon, with multiple teeth thickness and size, tape thicknesses, and every length and color imaginable.  I can’t tell you how angry I got the first time I tried to place an order for manufacturing.  I felt like I was trying to buy health insurance (“I just want a zipper!!!!”) But it certainly made me think a little bit longer when I poured myself into my jeans the next day.

Designer Interview: Lobo Mau

Huffin' and puffin'.
Huffin’ and puffin’.

I hear a lot of students talk about how they want to start their own fashion label so I thought I’d interview an independent designer to lay it all out for those aspiring to do so.  Nicole Haddad is the owner and designer of the Philadelphia fashion label Lobo Mau (Portuguese for “Big Bad Wolf”, a child hood obsession) and she has bravely been living the *glamorous* life of a designer for several years now and shared a few thoughts with me.  She’s also refreshingly honest, non-scary and always says thank you.

She’s busy bee.  Aside from getting production going for her Fall 2013 collection, she just participated in a Harajuku-themed fashion show for the Suburu Cherry Blossom Festival and she’s been asked to show at Immaculata University’s Annual Fashion Show as well.  And rounding out the Spring is a two day trunk show at Arthur & Daughter’s in York, PA on May 3rd and 4th where she’ll be showing her Spring/Summer Collection.  Her website is brand, spanking new.  I asked her to tell me the good, the bad, and the necessary details to start and run your own fashion label.

Do you use computers in your design? At what point?

Although I am a huge Photoshop and Illustrator user, I don’t need any computer programs for the design phase. My textile prints are mostly hand-drawn and silk screened onto the fabric by artist Ryan Parker. I draw my flats by hand. I think computers only come in at the photo editing phase, after the season’s look book as been shot.

How does your background and history play into your designs?

On my mother’s side of the family I come from a long line of Sicilian dress makers and fashion designers. My great-grandparents had several bridal and evening gown shops in Philadelphia. They dressed all the local celebrities such as Grace Kelly. I learned a lot of sewing techniques from my grandmother who was a bridal designer and had a shop in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. My dad’s side of the family is Brazilian, so I we have been visiting Brazil at least once a year my entire life. In Brazil, it is common to have clothing custom made by local seamstresses. I began designing my own clothing at a very young age and having my designs made during my visits to Brazil. Brazilian fashion also really influences my aesthetic.

She started WAY early.
She started WAY early.

Who are your favorite people to work with? Designers, models, photographers?

I love photoshoots. If you find the right photographer, who really gets your vision, the collaboration can be explosive. The photographer can elevate your product to the next level with a great photo. It takes me about a month to plan my look book shoots with my favorite photographer, Ross Ericsson.

What is important to you as a designer?

I want to make clothing that women want to wear. It is really a simple goal, but it can be difficult to achieve. As a designer, it is my mission to analyze women’s relationship to their clothing. And believe me, this relationship goes deep. The right garment can make a woman feel incredible. My mission is to make women feel cool, thin, and chic. I want my customers to walk into a room wearing Lobo Mau and get a ton of compliments on her outfit. And she does!

Where do you see the fashion industry going?

I definitely think mass customization is the way of the future. We are going to be able to order garments that fit our bodies perfectly, at no extra cost.

What do you think up and coming designers need to learn today?

How to make a living doing what they love. You can’t survive as a designer if you aren’t selling your product. The goal of a designer is to solve problems. If you aren’t solving the problem of how to make a living, then you aren’t really designing.

Can you share with me the difficulties you have that you think young designers don’t know?

I don’t think young designers realize how tenacious you need to be to survive. You can’t expect to work a 40 hour work week and be done with it. When you start your own line, you are working all the time. You have to always be thinking ahead and strategizing about your next step. It’s also really important to be organized and to make sure you aren’t spinning your wheels unnecessarily. Time is money!

Do you think your design training prepared you to be an independent designer? Why or why not?

I got a great education, and I learned how to make my deadlines and how to present myself and my work with the utmost professionalism. My education definitely laid the groundwork for my career, but I had to fight my way through using trial and error.  I’ve probably made every mistake in the book when it comes to starting my own line, but these mistakes made me stronger and more knowledgeable. I’m at the point now where I have established my brand and my aesthetic. I know who I am and where I want to take this brand.

Who or what has gotten you through tough times?

The tough times are constant. Every time I want to give up, I have a breakthrough. I also have this amazing community of Philadelphia designers around me, and we all lift each other up. We have a great co-op called US*U.S. where we work together and sell our clothing. And of course, I have my family and my husband who keep me going.

What is your inspiration?

I’m inspired by print design, color, and a garment’s proportion.

Bold colors, eh?
Bold colors, you say?

What was a turning point in your career?

Probably when I quit my day job. When you don’t have a paycheck coming in, you hustle much harder. Fear of failure is what gets me up in the morning. I have made a decision to take this difficult career path, and I need to make sure I don’t let down the people who believe in me. Most of all, I can’t let myself down!

What gets you in the studio every day?

I strive to be a responsible business woman. I want to make my deadlines and be on top of my emails. I have all these great new boutique accounts, and I want to make sure that these are lone-term relationships. I want them to know that they can count on me to deliver!

What’s your favorite part of designing/being a designer?

I love clothing. I used to lay awake at night as a child and dream up clothing that I wish I had. I love seeing these dreams come to life, and it makes me giddy to see people wearing my designs. I can’t contain myself. I want to Lobo Mau-ify the world!

Me want.
I DARE you to take my little couch.

What’s your least favorite part?

Hemorrhaging money. Being an independent designer is SO expensive. Everything I make just goes right back out again. I have to pay for fabric, fabric printing, manufacturing, parking, photoshoots, models, graphic designers, printing etc.

How would you define your style?

Fresh, edgy, chic.

Watchoo doin’ in the bathtub?

What fabrics, colors, silhouettes do you work with?

I only work with jersey knit fabrics. It makes sizing so much easier. I choose really simple shapes and usually a-line silhouettes. I like to hide and show the body.

When you sit down to design each collection, what do you do?

First I choose colors, then we choose the print. Next I begin drawing. Once the fabric is printed, I begin making the pieces I’m absolutely sure about. Usually the collection begins to develop based on these finished pieces. I really try to merchandise each collection so that pieces can all be mixed up and worn together. I think a lot about how my buyers will view the collection. I want to give them diversity with the pieces.

What is your favorite way to draw/sketch? What do you use?

I have a 8”x11” sketchbook that I carry around with me. I like to continuously draw and redraw the pieces until I get them right in the context of the collection.

Bangs 4evah!
Bangs 4evah!

Thank you for your time Nicole!  I wish you all the luck in the world!

Fashion Forecasting and Lidewij Edelkoort

You’re just gonna have to look it up to see how to pronounce that.  I did.

"There is no creation without advance knowledge, and without design, a product cannot exist. " Lide
“There is no creation without advance knowledge, and without design, a product cannot exist. ” Lidewij Edelkoort

I’ve been getting really excited preparing for a lecture about trend forecasting.  I’ve always loved pouring over the books I got at trade shows but enlightening students on this career has made me want to cultivate my own micro-forecasting world.  I don’t know anyone who has a career in this but I would love to hear all about it if anyone out there is one!  The thing that excites me the most is that in order to become one, you basically need an immense amount of knowledge on all things past and present.  The end.  And then you need to be able to interpret how they affect our lives.  That’s all. (I’m guessing they’re probably very smart people.)

This is what one looks like.

Can I be you one day?
Tissue scarves are IN.

Her name is Lidewij Edelkoort and she’s been doing this for at least thirty years.  From her website, it looks like she knows a LOT about cool things like fashion, color, design, technology, art, history, politics, the environment, literature and… sigh.  I bet she sits at her cool kitchen table in Paris and flips through Taschen books she gets for free and takes calls from Virginie Mouzat while sipping some tea we won’t hear about for 4 years (am I glamorizing this job or what?)   There are a few other impressive forecasters out there too like Martin Raymond and David Wolfe but their pictures aren’t nearly as dramatic so here’s a book one of them wrote:

"Trend forecasters are lifestyle detectives." Martin Raymond
“Trend forecasters are lifestyle detectives.” Martin Raymond

It’s not lost on me that “forecasting” sounds like something mystical and interpretive.  It sounds like a scam to a certain degree.  When I introduce the concept in class, I always have a student ask me, “If designers are the ones setting the trends, why do they hire someone else to tell them what’s going to be popular?  That’s crazy!”  It’s like when I got my fortune told and the fortune teller said my “aura was stuck” but that she could help me if I came back and paid her more.

Rasputin knows the colors for Fall 2016.
Rasputin knows the colors for Fall 2016.

So it’s a really good question.  And it’s a big one to answer but I have a two thoughts on it: 1) times have changed and 2) it’s complicated.

The Kaiser said, “You cannot live in an ivory tower and make fashion or anything artistic….You’re to live in the real world.”  Indeed.  Even a couturier like him knows he’s not alone in creating fashion.  Gone are the days when a single person decided what was in.  If a couturier with all the skill and talent at their fingertips is truly an artist, they need to consider more than what their subjective view of the world is.

And when you’re living in that world as a designer, there are a lot moving parts.  To get a garment made requires many different people, across many cultures, with many steps and things to keep track of.  You’re like an air traffic controller except the thing you’re trying to get down the runway doesn’t weigh as much (but it took the same amount of fuel to get there.;))  Simply, you don’t always have the time to shop the market and see what’s out there.  Sometimes you need someone else to organize that information for you.

Like these guys.
Like these guys.

These agencies are smart and know what they’re doing, so don’t be too shocked when you see the price tag that goes along with their reports and subscriptions   However, remember that while they might be seasoned at interpreting the trends, they get their information from the exact same world we all live in.  Your most important skill to foster your inner trend forecaster is to keep those eyes open, make connections about what you see, and, for goodness sake, find inspiration in them.