The House of Tatterdemalion

Unfashionable, unskilled, inexpensive--but still sewing.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Defining Designer

Several months ago, I was excited to hear that one of the articles in an upcoming Threads magazine was titled "Be Your Own Designer". Clothing design is something I'm quite interested in, after all. However, upon receiving the magazine, I found I was quite disappointed with the article. For those of you who don't have the article, I'll give a brief summary of the article (but, of course, since it's been filtered through me, it will be the article as I understand it):

  • Don't design individual garments; think in terms of collections.

  • Gather images that appeal to you aesthetically; especially gather colors and color combinations.

  • Look for themes in what you have gathered.

  • Invent a title to help you define the look you envision.

  • Flesh out your collection with details and sewing patterns.
My first disappointment with this article was how little the "professional" design process had been adapted for a single person.

A "professional" designer is creating a line to be sold, and many pieces are a very good idea. They are trying to appeal to the largest group possible (for the most amount of customers). What looks "a little over the top" to one customer could be perfect for another. What may seem "subdued and boring" to one might seem "refined and understated" to another. Having the same thought repeated in many ways increases the likelihood that it will be presented in a pleasing way to the most amount of people.

A lone person may be much more concerned with getting one piece right (for an important event), or may not want such a single-story wardrobe (different moods, company, activities, occasions, or just plain tiring of repeation could all influence this).

This rift between "professional" and "personal" design can also be seen in the method for selecting a theme. A "professional" designer does not have someone specific in mind. She (he, them) is trying to appeal to as many people as possible without knowing any of those people on a personal, detailed level. It is therefore important to come up with something as interesting, aesthetically pleasing, and unified as possible, even if that something doesn't make sense on a personal level.

Take, for instance, the author's example of using "Marlene Dietrich on Mars" as title for a collection. Who, besides Marlene Dietrich on Mars, would want to look like Marlene Dietrich on Mars? (That's a hypothetical question; please don't answer it.) The thing is, while the designer may have "Marlene Dietrich on Mars" in their mind while designing the collection, that very well may not be what the consumer sees at all. While the phrase may help the designer keep themselves focused, it's really a rather abstract thought. What the designer thinks and what the consumer sees can be totally different. Maybe some people would see the collection and think "Space age glamour!"---but just as likely, they would merely think "That's great dress!"

The "personal" designer, on the other hand, wouldn't want to design something for "Marlene on Mars"--unless she (or whomever) actually wanted to look like Marlene on Mars. For certain, every time the personal designer looked at the dress, she would think "Marlene on Mars!", not "What a great dress!" There is nothing wrong with designing clothes with specific thought in mind; but if it is not a thought specific (or personal) to you, it won't work out very well for you.

This, then, is the distinction: "Professional" designers are designing for large, general audiences. "Personal" designers are designing for a single, defined audience. The former can afford--indeed, benefit--from being a bit vague. The latter would do much better to be specific.

For instance, I could title a theme "Feminine Troll". It would use linen and wool, and leather accents. The buttons would be wood or bone. The garment shapes would be utilitarian, and a bit unrefined--more boxy than fitted. However, I would also incorporate details such as pin-tucking or embroidery, and certainly use colors, not drab neutrals. While this might work splendidly to fulfill my theme, would it really suit my entire wardrobe? Can the whole of me and what I want to be and wear be summed up in two words with broad meaning? I don't think so. I think it would make an interesting garment collection, certainly, but I don't think I'd want to buy the whole collection, purge my closet of nothing but, and wear it every day.

If I had written a designing process (and I am not a professional consulting designer for several commercial fashion lines, just a highly opinionated blogger), it probably would have been like this:

  • Examine your goals for the piece(s). What will you be doing while wearing the piece? What mood do you want it to set, or what do you want the piece to say?

  • Gather images and colors that develop your goals. Pay attention to shape, texture, color and color combinations, and especially details, which can make all the difference.

  • Subtract elements until you are happy with what you have. There's nothing like going over-board to ruin a good idea. Choose only the elements that are the most effective and work well together. Leave the other elements behind for some other day.
If you'll notice, I basically turned the "professional" method upside down. She has you pick images and colors first, and then a goal. I have you pick the goal first, and then find colors and images. She has you pick the bare-bones, and then flesh out. I have you start with a lot, and then subtract. This might work well for a "personal" designer, but any "professional" designer would probably find it abysmal.

If I already had my own opinionated ideas on how to design, what did I want out of the article? I wanted to learn more about how to convey ideas or emotions with fabric, proportions, shapes, colors and textures. Many are the people who tell you to make "design boards" (bulletin boards of inspiration), but few are the people who tell you why they chose that proportion, that shape, that color. One is left with the idea that it's all about "listening to your inner self", a rather mystic process that cannot be taught, only experienced, as one is guided along by their "art".

It's true that some people do have an "eye" for artistic things, just as some people are talented in music. But that doesn't make it mystical; both can be improved through practice and study. Having some one tell me why they made the design choices they made has always been far more helpful that the seemingly far more numerous advice on gathering inspiration. Inspiration can come easily enough; refining it to something more than inspiration is harder.


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