The Austin Chronicle

After a Fashion

By Stephen MacMillan Moser, December 26, 2003, Columns

SO FRESH AND SO YOUNG There is a rampant fashion omerta in Austin: a conspiracy of silence ... about really bad clothes. For my part, I have a little peculiarity that brings much criticism upon me: It is that I have a very low tolerance for bad design. This is an age when absolutely anyone can be a clothing designer just because they say they are, and it degrades the professionals who achieve that title through slavish devotion to excellence. Excellence is beauty, regardless of the arena -- music, film, sports, art, medicine, etc. The pursuit of excellence requires a little background information on what has been done before so that we are not constantly subjected to reinventions of the wheel. The fine art of deconstruction -- a perfect example of needing to know the rules before they can be broken -- is a masterful technique that produces great beauty in the hands of skilled artisans. But it has become the domain of "young" and "fresh" "talent" who use it to disguise the fact that they have no idea how to construct a garment properly. While knowing how to sew is not a requirement for being a designer, it is usually a requirement for "young" and "fresh" "talent" who have no other alternative but to sew their own designs. Hence, there are no buttons because the "designers" cannot do button holes. There are no sleeves, because they don't know to set a sleeve. There are exposed zippers because they couldn't do a lapped zipper if their lives depended on it. If you don't know how it's going to be put together, how can you design it properly? If you don't know how it's going to be put together, how are you going to tell someone else the way you want it done? Conversely, the smartest of the "young" and "fresh" "talent" who don't know how to sew are smart enough to hire someone who does know how to sew -- someone who sews well enough to tell them how it should be done. I know of what I speak. I spent more than 10 years thinking I was a fabulous designer -- "young" and "fresh" "talent" -- cranking out badly designed clothes ... and then went to school and learned that what I'd previously thought my career was only a hobby. At the school I attended, a community college program in Seattle, run by painstakingly detail-oriented Japanese women, we had to know how to sew very well to get into the school, but once we were there, we threw out everything we'd previously known and learned design from the ground up. The work was grueling: We spent two years on pattern-making, one year on grading patterns into different sizes, a year on draping ... and sewing, sewing, sewing. They did not teach design, per se, believing that we either had it or didn't, but we did have line development, color, and fiber classes. Of course, there were always those students who showed up for class the first week with a sketch pad and colored pencils, all prepared to draw pretty dresses all day. The instructors would laugh and say, "You won't need that until next year!" (The attrition rate was about 75%.) We learned to work with everything from Gore-Tex to chiffon, making everything from ski jackets and bathing suits to blue jeans and bridal gowns, and learning all associated construction techniques. Being exposed to such a range of possibilities was one of the most illuminating experiences of my life and took my design sensibility out of the pattern books at Hancock Fabrics to a place where suddenly every design I could imagine was imminently attainable ... and there was no reason to stop anywhere short of perfection. Gone were the combinations of inappropriate fabric and technique and poor proportioning. To the "young" and "fresh" "designer," those things are stretching the boundaries of design. To the seasoned observer, it is like a display of children's finger painting, amateurish and possibly charming in its naivete, but as rudimentary as it gets. So much of what we see from "young" and "fresh" "designers" is completely substandard product. The ones that are built on commercial patterns look like it, and the ones that aren't look worse. I've long felt that commercial patterns are a conspiracy between fabric companies and retailers to insure that you will purchase a pattern, fabric, and notions and make a garment. The pattern instructions will be so Byzantine that you will butcher the garment, producing an ill-fitting, poorly sewn mess. Then you go back to the store and start all over again time after time after time, spending more and more money. The stores are happy, the fabric companies are happy, and you are not. Perhaps the greatest freedom I gained from schooling was the freedom to leave commercial patterns behind, to envision a design and know instinctively what the pattern should look like, and to know without a moment's hesitation what the correct sequence of construction would be. It was the freedom to grow beyond the restrictions of bad design and to learn the benchmarks of quality, to know how to incorporate them into the design work, and, most importantly, to know how to identify quality in other garments and learn from them. Matching a plaid? Double-faced fabrics? Identifying fiber content? Fabric reduction? Perhaps those things don't apply to "young" and "fresh" "designers" who lack education. But knowledge is power, and having the power to shape your own design future removes you from the restrictions of being untrained -- a dead-end road in most cases. May I offer some advice? Read, read, read voraciously every book about fashion that you can get your hands on. Half-Price Books has an excellent selection of fashion books at very reasonable prices. Then move to New York, take classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology, get an internship at a design house -- any design house, since even a cheap ready-to-wear house has plenty to teach -- and your possibilities of a future in fashion multiply. And as our good friend Walt Whitman (or was it Bette Davis?) wrote, "Now voyager, sail thou forth to seek and find." But do come back ... as a designer.

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