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May 2, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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From Cut-Out to Couture

Like anything else, it starts with an idea. Inspiration may fly in the window of a stuffy studio in the form of a dancer’s movement, a French film, or a screwed-up page of newspaper. That might be all it takes to ignite a flame that sparks fashion design into process.

This concept is developed in the mind of a designer, either working alone or as part of a team; pinned up on mood boards; and stretched to cover a season’s collection. Even if you have no interest in fashion, you wear clothes, and by doing so, you contribute to a global industry that is a major player in economic and cultural spheres. As the ‘Devil’ told Anne Hathaway, that lumpy blue sweater filtered down from Oscar de la Renta to Yves Saint Laurent to other designers’ collections to department stores to be eventually found in a favourite clearance bin.

The amount of work that goes on beyond the frills and chiffon is endless, and it starts with a croquis: an impressionistic draft of the designer’s proposed creation. Its model tends to be nine heads tall—accepted proportions for fashion illustration—and utilise a balance line that centres weight on one side of the body for dynamic grace.

Then, using CAD and other computer design software, this sketch is then turned into a flat, a computer-generated graphic that looks like a cut-out doll’s dress and defines a garment’s specific trims. Fabric pinned onto a mannequin tends to follow this process, as the draping of specially-weighted muslin can help designers get a better feel for fit.

Trips to trade fairs, showrooms, and representatives’ offices are essential. Sample yardage is pored over in large swatches called headers, and quality, timing and cost are discussed before an order is finalised. On top of this, many fashion designers prefer to design their textiles in-house for more creative freedom and control over the look of the final garment.

Textile specialists are in great demand due to the ‘fibre frenzy’ of the 1990s and recent innovations in natural and sustainable styles—even here in New Zealand. AgResearch, a state-owned independent research and development company with arms in biomaterials and textile chemistry, has developed a new process that enables blocks of colours and graphics to be printed into wool during one dyeing process. It was presented at the AgResearch Fashion Collection runway show last year, where designers such as Annah Stretton and Stitch Ministry displayed a range of garments using the fabric. The technique has been picked up by apparel company BGI Developments, who are looking to take
it overseas.

Once a textile is selected, the garment is broken down into a cut paper or computer-aided pattern: a plotted foundation that can make or break a design. At this stage, fashon designers often use the rub-off technique to further play with the pattern. This technique enables them to remove seam-lines, alter the overall shape, and style features of an existing pattern to create a new aesthetic.

Then comes editing, an important stage in the process, as a garment’s design can balance delicately on having just enough bound buttonholes. Furthermore, the sample, of which up to three may be made for promotional purposes, must be pristine, as these are the garments that will eventually tempt us in the pages of fashion magazines.

And it’s big business: for the past decade, New Zealand’s average clothing exports have boosted our economy by $230.6 million per year (Fashion Industry New Zealand). Most of that is manufactured in big factories in the Asia-Pacific region, which have reduced marginal costs through the division of labour and high-tech capital. A marker, for example, positions all the garments’ pattern pieces on one piece of paper, often digitally, for efficient use of resources.

The spreading process piles fabric so garments can be cut in bulk. Shade sorting ensures there is the right amount of piles for a desired colour. Correct tension, lay stability, and elimination of static energy are all required to achieve the level of quality demanded by consumers. The actual cutting of the fabric can be done in a separate factory with the aid of high-tech machinery and more workers; techniques include die, laser, waterjet and ultrasonic cutting.

The sewing process presents another array of choices: there is always something to be considered and co-ordinated. Seam types are determined by aesthetic standards, durability, and machinery. They can be superimposed, lapped, bound, or flat. Seam strength and elasticity are also needed to “make it work”, as Project Runway’s pedantic guru Tim Gunn says (too often).

Then come the stitch types, such as lockstitches, chainstitches, and handstitches. To achieve these, more technicalities, such as sewing machine feed mechanisms and thread packages are dealt with, too. The grading process of standardised sizes occurs at the factory, and ensures that clothing sizes remain more or less the same from store to store.

Furthermore, labels, linings, warmth wadding, eyelits, zip fasteners, pleating, and more are influenced by seasonal trends and cultural ideals.
Then, the finishing touches to polish off the garment are applied, ensuring that it is fit for the retail rack. Pressing can smooth away crease marks, give contours to the garments’ mould, or adds strategic creases for stylish expression. A garment can also be finished with wet processing, with anti-microbial, aroma, moisture management and even UV guard finishes to choose from.

The garment is then whirled through editorials, buyers’ offices, catwalks, advertisements, wholesalers, boutiques and retailers, before making its way into your wardrobe.

No matter how appealing an outfit is, it may never be worn without sound business practice and a solid body of networks. Some designers prefer to go it alone. Other designers move under the cover of umbrella companies, mainly for economic practicalities; even Balenciaga signed under LVMH last year. For example, Australasia’s Long Beach Holdings puts together ranges, controls merchandises, travels for trends, designates production, ships, and imports for brands such as Glassons and Max.

So, there you have it. Just as that Prada-wearing skeptic told her hapless assistant, there is a lot more to your ‘cerulean’ jumper than meets the eye. In reality, fashion design is a huge process that is both deeply embedded in our culture and greatly beneficial to our economy. Perhaps you should think about that at ‘T-shirt time’.

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