Good design cannot happen without some form of research taking place. In terms of design, “research” means the creative investigation of visual or literary references that will inspire and inform your designs. The first thing any designer will do is undertake some form of research, but all designers will have their own particular approach to how they carry this out. Research should be in-depth and thorough. It is like detective work—hunting out obscure references that will help and inspire the design process and make your work stand out from your competitors. In this chapter, we discuss the development of a theme or a concept to inspire the design work, and it is important to stress that in terms of a theme or a concept, we are talking about a cohesive body of research; good research is not a collection of random images and references but a coherent investigation into a subject or subjects.
As a fledgling designer, clothes cannot be designed without researching and understanding clothes that already exist. A designer needs to be aware of the different types of garments, as well as the details and the techniques used to create those garments, in order to create their own designs. (For example, there are many different types of pockets, collars, and stitches used to make and decorate clothes, and the use of these details within a design will make a huge difference to the overall look of a garment.) As a designer, you also need to be informed about the work of other designers, past and present.
But as well as knowing about and understanding clothes and being aware of the work of other fashion designers, a designer also needs to create something new—so they will often research a “theme” or “concept” as a way of keeping the work original.
What kind of designer are you?
There is no point in trying to be fashionable. This book cannot tell you how to design fashion; it can only tell you what the ingredients are, ways to put them together, and many of the important things that you will need to consider when designing clothes. Clothing is only “fashionable” when your peers or the industry deem a design to be of the zeitgeist. It either is or it isn’t.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines fashion as “a popular or the latest style of clothing, hair, decoration or behaviour.” Essentially, it means a style that is up-to-date, and how this is agreed upon is subjective and relies on a number of factors. For instance, the punk movement was a reflection of how many young people were feeling in the late 1970s—disenchanted with the politics and culture of the time—and was somewhat engineered by Malcolm McLaren and designer Vivienne Westwood. Not that the punk movement set out to be “fashionable”—anything but! Its aim was to be peripheral, subversive. But this reinforces the idea that trying too hard should not be a factor.
Exhibitions, films, and music can have a huge influence on what is deemed fashionable at a given time.
For fashion design, it is important to develop an awareness of your own taste and style (not how you dress because designers are not always concerned with dressing in the latest trends; as a designer, you almost have permission not to worry about how you dress because you are doing such a good job of dressing others in your day job!).
Not everyone has an aptitude or desire to design “unconventional” clothes. Some designers focus on the understatement or detail of garments. Other designers may design “conventional” garments, but it is the way that they are put together, or styled, that ultimately makes an outfit original and modern. Knowing what you are best at is essential, but this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t experiment. It can take a while to “know yourself”—and this period of discovery is usually spent at college. There has to be a certain amount of soul-searching involved; it’s not so much about becoming the designer that you want to be, but rather about discovering the designer that you are.
You must be true to your own vision of how you want to dress someone. Beyond that, the rest is in the hands of the industry and the fashion-buying public to decide, and for every person who likes your work, there will always be someone who simply doesn’t. This is to be expected, and working in such a subjective field can sometimes be confusing; eventually, though, you will learn to navigate your way through criticism and either develop a steely exterior or recognize which opinions you really respect and which you ought to simply disregard. Once you accept this situation, you will be free to get on with what you are best at—designing clothes.
“You have a vocabulary of ideas which you have to add and subtract in order to come up with an equation right for the times.”
1 Vivienne Westwood
Vivienne Westwood wearing her “God Save the Queen” t-shirt, 1977
Know your subject
Finding out about designers, past and present, is the first essential bit of research that you will undertake. If a career in fashion is what you want, then you really need to know your subject. This might appear to be an obvious statement, but it needs to be said. You may protest, “but I don’t want to be influenced by other designers’ work.” Of course not, but unless you know what has preceded you, how do you know that you aren’t naively reproducing someone else’s work? Most designers get into fashion because they are passionate about clothes—fanatical even. This hunger and excitement for clothes doesn’t disappear when you become an established designer either; a career in fashion is also about a certain level of curiosity and competitiveness with your peers.
Making yourself “fashion aware” doesn’t happen overnight—but if you’re genuinely passionate about the subject, it is natural to want to find out about it (that’s why you’ve picked up this book, after all). If you’re applying to a university or college to study fashion, your interview panel will want you to demonstrate that you have a rudimentary knowledge of designers and their styles. You may even be asked which designers you like and dislike in order to give you an opportunity to display your knowledge and justify your answer.
Magazines are a good place to start, but don’t just automatically reach for the big players like Elle and Vogue. There are many more magazines out there, each appealing to a different niche market and style subculture, and you should gain knowledge of as many as possible...