Sunday, August 7, 2011

On the Art of Fashion Designing

I really have almost nothing to say about designing from a general perspective. Rather, I want to talk about my own style of designing, which is, I suspect, different from that of many, perhaps even most. Also, my designing procedures have changed substantially since I started my own fashion company.

I really don't follow in any design tradition. I have no formal training in fashion design, or even in design, although I have been involved in research concerned with design for more than ten years. I do not sketch, much, nor do I make an abundance of clothes of different types (although I have, to some extent, done this before). I am a self-taught designer, following my own methods and instincts.

However, I do not lack for inspiration, either. I am an "idea mill", and have been for most of my professional life as a scientist. I typically generate several new ideas a day - although across many fields, not just in fashion design. Some of these ideas are harvestable or usable, others are not. This comes from a wide interest in different things. For example, I am reading right now several books about Harry Potter (Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter, The Psychology of Harry Potter, Looking for God in Harry Potter) - these are books by academics that attempt to make sense of the books, movies and other aspects of this publishing phenomenon. I am also reading a book called The End of Growth, about the economic turmoil in the world today and its relation to the environment. I am reading Isaac Asimov's autobiography, a James Bond thriller, a science-fiction book (The Boy Who Lived Forever), and several other things. These readings all help generate ideas, not necessarily in fashion, but also there. Yesterday, I was making some notes on a device for stiffening bones on a corset and thinking about bra design.

As I've spelled out in several postings on my company blog ("Function-Oriented Design", "Design principles", "Why fashion engineering?"), I am more interested in an engineering-like design process than a purely aesthetic one. What do I mean by this? I mean that my ideas about fashions and clothes are organized around their utility. I want to make clothes that look great, yes, but I particularly want to make clothes that serve a person's needs, usually in several ways. I want to design clothes that fulfill a function. To some extent, clothes do that inherently - they cover/reveal us, protect us, etc. Of course. But they may also serve additional needs, and that is where I get interested (although even as covering, as revelation and as protection they interest me!).

I don't know why I want to do this - it perhaps has something to do with the same wellsprings that led me to become a scientist. I understand the importance and role of art and aesthetics in design, but I want more than that in the things that I make.

Before starting my business, this desire to make things that are used found expression in making clothes for friends and family. I would ask what they would like, why, and then I would design and make a garment to suit what I had learned. The fabric had to be right for the person, of course, and the whole had to be checked with them. In this stage of my development as a designer, I made a dozen or more clothes each year (not a lot all told, but this was very part time and I was still learning and developing procedures and practices).

Although since I started my own business, my production of new designs has dropped still further, but there are signs that this is changing. The process of setting up a company is hugely challenging and takes inordinate amounts of time to do even the simplest tasks. I've had to do much of the grunt work myself, and I'm still not through all the procedure inventing stage. Also, we have narrowed our focus as a company on fine tuning one "idea", albeit a complex, multi-level idea, and most of my design efforts have gone into overcoming the hurdles in the process of making this first garment (I call it my first collection, because the garment comes in eight mutations, well, technically, 24 mutations, since the garment looks different at each size). We call this a "transformable garment" as it parallels efforts by other designers along similar lines. Our "g-zip" garment, however, is rather unique in how it achieves its transformable goal.

The ability of a garment to transform into another type of garment (or simply another color) is a fascinating example of serving a function. The need to transform is omnipresent in our lives today - hence transformable garments should be of wide interest (this is, of course, one of the reasons we selected this type of garment for our company's first offering).

Although working on the g-zip garment series has been a real adventure, our company is already (and of necessity) thinking about the next projects, and this is leading to a more playful and sustained design effort. However, design has shifted from an idea-focused effort to a more collaborative, hands-on process. As we've gained partners, especially people with both the technical expertise of making clothes but also the ability to be playful and creative and extend my original concepts, we've come up with new designs that are as interesting if not more so than my original ones. This ability to engage with others collaboratively has, in fact, been at the core of my scientific productivity over the past thirty years, so there should be no surprise that it turns up in my commercial endeavour as well!

Collaborative design is not only challenging and exciting, it is probably also the secret to a company's ability to innovate over the long term. Interestingly, the fashion industry does not, in general, favor design collaboration. There are examples, but the reward system is set up with regard to individuals. Most of the accolades go to individuals. This is regrettable, as fashion would benefit from a greater recognition of and role for collaborative design. As a designer, there is nothing quite like generating a cool idea, then having someone else take it into a new direction you hadn't thought of, allowing you to take the concept to a new level.

Perhaps the "g" in my company's name, "", should refer to "group" rather than my name "geoffrey"!

(My summer read: The Fashion Designers Survival Guide - a super, super book chock full of tips for designers and people in the business of fashion design!)