After a Fashion

Sometimes you have to go back to the very beginning to understand where you can begin again

CowParade entry Miss Chemoo, designed by cancer-survivor and community volunteer Kathleen Ash of Studio K Glass. The colorful cow now resides in front of the Embassy Suites on South Congress.
CowParade entry Miss Chemoo, designed by cancer-survivor and community volunteer Kathleen Ash of Studio K Glass. The colorful cow now resides in front of the Embassy Suites on South Congress. (Photo by Seabrook Jones/

THE CONFESSIONAL I've been known to be critical about what passes as fashion in Austin – not just critical of the clothes that are worn, but specifically of the designers (especially new "talent"). Sometimes my criticism has been constructive; sometimes it's just been mean. Occasionally I've been thanked for my honest criticism; sometimes I've been vilified. Having decades of experience in fashion, I know how the business works. But having been in fashion for decades also leaves me wide open to criticism for being too "old-school." If expecting quality workmanship, pleasing proportions, and a working knowledge of the business makes me old-school, then I am unapologetically so. I've heard many say (sounding like Patty Hearst's character in Serial Mom), "But fashion has changed!" And I, sounding like Kathleen Turner's character, want to beat them with my shoe and say, "No! It hasn't!" Being constantly critical reminds me of my grandmother, a woman who could not be pleased. She was bitter, sarcastic, and unhappy. I've found myself sounding and feeling like that lately ... and it shocks and disturbs me. At this point in my life, with constant health and legal dramas, it would probably do me some good to lighten up. This revelation came about over the last few weeks as I'd found myself summarily rejecting invitations to fashion events, knowing that I'd loathe them and have nothing nice to say. But I've been surprised before; remember my review of Coco Coquette's Valentine show? When I'm surprised like that, I'm incredibly grateful that I had the experience and that it stayed with me. Sewing again has been a pleasure, but more interestingly, it's drawn a number of people to me who want to learn what I know. And teaching what I know is one of the most gratifying experiences of all. I'm reminded of when I was a young designer wannabe. I had the drive and the desire but not the skill or knowledge. I'd taught myself everything I knew and made really bad clothes for a long time. But along the way, there were people who knew much more about it all than I did. Some became major influences in my career. One of them was an Austin designer named Libby Winters, whom I'd met at Zach Scott. Libby was a delightfully garrulous and cantankerous redhead who had learned her trade in the Thirties and Forties and seemed to know everything. She was designing clothes for a production of The Man Who Came to Dinner. I was mesmerized by the ease at which she pulled the looks together. Her next show at Zach was The Pirates of Pen­zance, with all its uniforms and big dresses. I begged to be assigned to the costume shop. Libby never once grilled me about whether I could sew but believed in my desire to be good and simply assigned projects to me and saw where I was having difficulty. She would gently point out where the problem was and show me how to do it correctly. Learning design and sewing is little more than repetition. You do it and do it and do it again until it is not only correct but fast and easy, too. Libby was not the only one who helped teach me. After years of being good at home sewing, I finally went to school to learn the real business. To get into the school, we had to know how to sew very well, but once we were in school, we threw out everything we knew and started over. Two teachers took serious interest in me, and I reveled in their attention, soaking up every bit of knowledge I could. I wanted to know how to sew anything. We learned how to sew everything from down jackets to bathing suits to sleeping bags to suits and dresses. After graduation, there were very few projects that I was afraid to undertake. However, if any one of those teachers and mentors had been as critical of me as I have been to many young designers, I'd have given up on it all a long time ago. And so, in the golden years of my life, I've decided to try to be a little more tolerant and a little more constructive and to try to remember that I was once in a place just like these other beginners. Instead of disregarding as wannabes all these fashion groups and associations popping up here in Austin, I can remember that I, too, was a wannabe at one time. So perhaps I could serve the fashion community more usefully by educating and guiding these designers, sharing what I know instead of expecting them to know everything that I do. Many of today's young designers seem to think just because they made a throw pillow once that they are ready for a full-blown fashion show. Wrong. While I sincerely believe that nothing replaces a real fashion education, there are indeed folks along the way that can be incredibly helpful in the learning process. I'd like to be one of those people.

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Austin style, sewing, mentoring, beginner, fashion designer, Libby Winters, Zach Scott, Serial Mom

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