The Mind Behind Fashion Design Today
The Mind Behind Fashion Design Today
Lavish parties, celebrities, freebies and extravagant catwalks are some of the daily professional on goings commonly considered of those who work in fashion – by those who simply don’t. While they comprise an element of proceedings, few people consider the wider, far from glamourous picture. A multitude of analogies can illustrate this underside; a stylist laden down with bags, caught in the pouring rain in Covent Garden, as all fashion credibility swims aptly into the nearest gutter, but I feel we must consider the core rather than the metaphor. Gaining insight from the very cog in the machine, fashion designers, allows for an accurate delve into the reality of fashion.
And fashion designers have been thrown into the spotlight at the moment with the release of Frédéric Tcheng’s ‘Dior and I’. It’s easy to consider them as a sort of Pied Piper, invariably successful, leading where others consistently fawn and follow. As our theme for this month aims to uncloak the mysteries that define the fashion world, my article infiltrates the Holy Grail- the design studio. Here I probe the mind of the designer to find out what it means to be in design now, whether expectations live up to reality and how they feel about the industry they work to evolve. Like Tcheng’s documentary, I wanted to bring to light the very truth that behind the reputation and adoration – they are human too.
In our quest this month to question the preconceptions and misconceptions and step past the masquerade, I got a breadth of insight from international newcomers Elizabeth Whitehouse, Felix Roll and Tianyi Li.
Elizabeth Whitehouse is a designer for Prominent Europe, a role which sees her based on Saville Row, covering the labels Richard James Mayfair, Simon Carter and Chester Barrie. With two collections each a year, and a bespoke service to offer, she describes the extensive demands of her position as an “exciting opportunity” within a prestigious English tailoring company. So what does the job comprise? Whitehouse states it “involves concept development, branding design, communication with factories and extensive fabric and trim selection for each of the ranges.”
Felix Roll is self-employed on the other hand, having started his own design and tailoring business. Despite working autonomously at the helm of his brand, he stresses the importance of designers collaborating with others; “I believe that in order to contribute with my idea of what fashion could be, I need to understand a reality where I’m not protected by the school or by the creative freedom to do whatever I want.” And in stark contrast to the myth that designers favour slim, long-legged models to swathe fabric over, Roll offers a differing viewpoint: “To understand people and their bodies as a starting point, I need to be confronted with real people, real personalities, real shapes and real needs.”
With Whitehouse juggling a multitude of preparatory work and Roll striving to challenge the norms of design, evidently all that glitters is not gold. So is working in fashion turning out to be what they expected and hoped? Chinese designer Tianyi Li is currently studying a Masters in Ladieswear at Istituto Marangoni. While Li credits her previous work with fashion houses as experiences that met her expectations, her view is not universal. With a certain degree of tentativeness Whitehouse says; “I think it’s very early days to answer something like that.” She describes her view of the industry as “realistic” following a combined fifteen months of interning at various fashion brands. Roll recognises the industry as a machine, and an entity much larger than the sum of its parts. “As fashion graduates you always find yourself compromising between idea and reality. As human beings we quite often know what reality will bring, but always cling to the hope that we will become the new rock star. But in the end you go to sleep with more questions than you started with.”
So even designers themselves are not always resolutely enthralled with the commercial dogma they find themselves entwined within. Do they consider the industry in which the work misleading, full of smoke and mirrors and reliant on an aura of perception? Roll does query the true intentions of the big shots, the design houses, but also the intentions of the public, why, how and for whom we dress. “Needing another person’s approval in every personal statement is something that frightens me and at the same time is very fascinating. So the smokescreen as I see it is the protection we are given by the approval of others in order to express ourselves.” Giving prominence to the idea that it’s important to provide a mystery to those on the exterior to maintain the essence of fashion, Whitehouse admits that the industry often does hide behind a smokescreen. For Li, her acknowledgement of misconceptions in fashion does not deter from her hopes to see the industry become more transparent and to place a higher value on the work behind the scenes by her and her contemporaries. “It’s important for people to know that it takes a lot of determination, team work, skill and innovation to grow in this industry.”
Despite the precarious under-surface: a ceaseless cycle of hard work, imagination and intelligence, even for the most successful of designers, the industry has never shed its razzle dazzle characteristic.
Whitehouse’s metaphor illustrating why that glitzy perception is important is almost as beautiful as the clothes she crafts. “Fashion needs to have a glamorous exterior to entice and excite the consumer. As in all product design, the imagery of a swan can be used, gliding effortlessly to a spectator but underneath the surface a great deal of hard work has to be done. I believe that the hard work and stress within the process need to remain apart and hidden from the end result.” For Li, she believes the alluring appearance is an important veil to ensure the season’s designs are “presented in the best way possible and to exceed people’s expectations.” Roll’s critique is more rounded, focusing on worlds outside of fashion which leave a certain abashment of our efforts to investigate the shroud of the apparel industry. Though he agrees he says: “The production chain of the things we use in our lives is never made visible for the consumers, so they aren’t allowed to grasp the amount of work behind it, and therefore not the real value.” Our discussion is centred on a trillion dollar outfit but Roll poses the obvious question: “Why is it that when it comes to consuming fashion we can’t accept the idea of value being something more than money?” The ideal conjures up images of disposable fashion, greed and indifference. The issue lies in the fact that fashion is seen as art as well as an everyday item. Valuing art is easy but valuing fabric that protects your modesty in the same way becomes different. “Fashion being a hybrid gives it a mysterious power in society,” he says.
So in an industry obsessed with image, appearance and enshrouding itself in ideals, do these rarely seen young creative minds feel pressure to perform, think, or design a certain way? Whitehouse doesn’t think so, at least not based on preoccupation with display. “Perhaps this is just because I am a woman working in the menswear industry.” She describes pressure rather as a necessity to perform well and manage her time efficiently. Li shares a similar sentiment, instead placing a pressure upon herself: “I feel that it is important to know and understand the type of woman that you are designing for before creating the pieces.”
Throughout, the reactions of Whitehouse, Li and Roll are interesting and quell any suspicions of burning competitiveness, belittlement and icy, harsh criticism that one might expect in the design studio. The bitchiness, isolation and pressure too often associated seem non-existent in actual fact. And though fashion is certainly volatile, it is the very characteristic that has become accepted and makes it what it is, pushing forward, morphing and marching to the beat of its own drum. For those who exist within that vacuum, fashion is simply where they come to work hard, and party harder; and deservedly so.
Written by Clarissa Waldron
Images courtesy of adorngirl.com (Elizabeth Whitehouse), Vogue.co.uk (Tianyi Li) and Felix Roll