101 Things I Learned in Fashion School

101 Things I Learned in Fashion School

by Alfredo Cabrera with Matthew Frederick

“In my years of teaching, I have found that the greater obstacle… is not the acquiring of technical proficiency… but in accepting the need to design for real people… It took me years as a working designer to realize the importance of identifying a real living customer and recognizing what he or she will and won’t wear. Far from being anti-creative, it was for me the beginning of true creativity. For what is creativity if it isn’t to take something existing in one’s head and give it relevance in the real world?”

Alfredo Cabrera has taught and critiqued at Parsons The New School for Design, Fashion Institute of Technology, and Pratt Institute. Here’s a sampling of the insights he shares in the book.

“Simple clothes aren’t simple to design. When superfluous design elements are eliminated from a garment, more subtle considerations—proportion, line, fit—are magnified. This calls for a refined understanding of anatomy (e.g. how the neckline sits in relation to the clavicle), geometry, balance, positive and negative space, and the harmony of parts to whole.”

Fashion design is the skillful arrangement of aesthetic and structural elements to create garments and collections. Styling is the arrangement of garments and accessories on a model, mannequin, or display to project a specific look, persona, or attitude… Don’t rely on styling to pull off a fashion design… If you find that you strongly intend specific accessories to go with a garment you are designing, there is a good chance it is because their aesthetic sensibility wants to be directly incorporated into the garment.”

“Good fashion is like freestanding sculpture: interesting from every angle. Novice designers often focus their efforts on the front of a garment, treating the back and sides as leftovers holding everything together. But this rarely results in a satisfactory garment. When [drawing a croquis] or sketching, try inverting your process: First apply your design concept to the back of the garment, and design from there. Often you will find that the center back zipper impulse proves immediately unsatisfying, and a center front zipper unwieldy. New ideas for both the back and front will emerge and an overall more satisfying design will result. Similarly, by applying the design concept to the sides, new opportunities may be realized. A creative side seam might be understood as a visual transition that helps the front ‘reveal’ the back. Or creative stitching and fabric placement opportunities may be discovered to complement the front or back of the garment.”

“The average adult is 7-1/2 heads tall. A fashion figure is at least 9 heads tall. A fashion illustration exists to represent and sell the idea behind the garment. Therefore, its design must appeal to the oft-held aspirations of the fashion customer: to be young, slender, elegant, graceful, and hip. The elongated figure tends to suggest all these things.”

“When drawing multiple figures, an apparent solution is to align them in a row. But for a collection having similar color or silhouette throughout, the result can be dull repetitiveness. And a collection with a lot of variety may appear incoherent. Make compositions containing multiple figures dynamic. Make arrangements asymmetrical, with background figures higher on the page than those in front. Overlap figures slightly, making sure not to obscure shapes or important design details. Group figures in twos and threes, and make them aware of each other.”

“Asymmetry implies nudity. Symmetrical garments are far more common than asymmetrical ones because of the symmetry of the human body. But asymmetry can be beautiful and provocative, at least in part because it suggests dressing and undressing. A symmetrical display of skin feels deliberate, secure, and final, but a bare shoulder or arm can suggest something has fallen off—and something else may yet come off!”

“The most effective tool for harmonious visual patterns is counterpoint. Scale counterpoint means grouping patterns of dissimilar scales, i.e. a larger patterns with a smaller pattern. A failure of counterpoint scale will result in either visual cacophony (two large patterns together) or the ‘measles’ (two small patterns together).  Type counterpoint means placing stripes with curves, regularized with randomized, florals with windowpanes, etc., rather than stripes with stripes, florals with florals, and so on. If similar patterns are used together, their scales need to be very different. For example, two floral patterns might be pairable if one is very small scale and the other very large; or two striped patterns can be placed together if one is a close-spaced pinstripe and the other a wide rep stripe.

Haute couture is protected by French law. Only fashion companies judged by the Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Paris (the Paris Ministry for Industry) as meeting specific qualifying criteria may use the label ‘haute couture,’ or ‘high dressmaking.’”

Bespoke tailoring is true custom tailoring for men. It refers to suits and shirts made to the exact specifications of the wearer, from fabric to styling to fit. Originally, the term was not restricted to high quality garments, but today is the men’s equivalent of haute couture: Use of both terms is legally guarded by the French government.”

Why do men’s and women’s shirts button on opposite sides? “Two theories have currency. One is that men of a different era had to be prepared to retrieve a sword or pistol from inside their clothing at moment’s notice. A left-side-over-right-side orientation allowed the easiest access for the right-handed. Another theory is that ‘proper’ ladies were once dressed by their maids; a right-side-over-left-side buttoning best accommodated a right-handed maid.”

“A good designer doesn’t rely on more technically astute persons to turn his or her creations into workable realities. To the contrary, the more accomplished the designer, the more thoroughly he or she engages in technical execution—structure, seaming, hardware, patternmaking, fabric selection, and more. To do otherwise is, paradoxically, to cede control of the design process and put the ‘brilliant’ designer at the bottom of the creative food chain. Indeed, as a design concept proceeds toward realization, patternmakers, sample-hands, models, and even salespersons will seek to change it to suit their needs. A savvy individual among them might dismiss the objections of a poorly informed designer by saying, ‘What you want can’t be done.’ How would an uninformed designer know otherwise?”

The book provides a good survey of the subject for aspiring fashion designers and fans of Project Runway.  The title not only refers to the number of items presented, but is also a word play (intentional or not) on the introductory course number Fashion Design 101.

Cabrera, Alfredo, Matthew Frederick, and Taylor Forrest. 101 Things I Learned in Fashion School. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2010. Buy from Amazon.com

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