Are designers, designers? Dedicated to the incompetent

Read through for the punch line.

What motive is it that moves designers to seek the advice of salesmen or retailers in regard to styles? Who is the originater of this wonderful idea of cooperation that seeks to transplant the creative ability of the designer to the retailer? What ideas in style and manufacturing methods has the retailer been responsible for that this ‘genius’ of organization should justify his action in trying to wrest the style control from the Designer. If the designers are so dull that they need the retailers to advice them as to what to make for the folliwing season they should resign their positions for they then and there confess that they lack the first essential of a Designer and that is the ingenuity and originality to design and to create. The niggardly contempt that has been shown to the entire designing profession by rank outsiders is not surprising considering how easy some of the professions are willing to be led by the nose.

It was the designer who developed the Convertible collar Balmaraan, Balmaroon, Raglan, Waist Seam Coat, the body fitting sack. It is the skill of the designer as a style creator, as a draftsman and tailor that has put the ready made industry where it is to-day. It is also due to the progressiveness of the manufacturer in employing capable designers and foremen and not the retailer. The ability of the Designer is responsible for the high quality of the ready-made product. It has almost eliminated the merchant tailor.

Yes, the retailer would like to be the adviser. He likes to play a sure game. His judgment would be conservative styles all the time. His advice would be —go easy, no fancy goods, no freak styles, no nothing, except conservative style so that he wouldn’t take chances. Very nice for the retailer! What would this mean Fellow Designers? It would mean just one thing and that is “no designers”, no advance, no progress. One pattern, one style only with perhaps a longer or shorter coat, a regular or semi-peaked lapel. The entire clothing business would go back 25 years and the designer would go back to the cutting board or to the tailoring bench. Designing—the biggest asset of the clothing industry would be crushed because somebody, for some reason invites thc retailers to do it.


Punchline: written by Harry Simons, October 1921 in The American Designer’s Association newsletter. [There’s more choice material where this came from, courtesy of Michael Mills who photocopied some old issues for me.] I know Zoe commiserates and I’ll bet Simons is spinning in his grave over the recent turn of events.

Coincidentally enough, I’ve been reading Terri Agins, The End of Fashion: How Marketing Changed the Clothing Business Forever in which she documents the “four megatrends that sent fashion rolling in a new direction”:

  1. Women let go of fashion.

  2. People stopped dressing up.
  3. People’s values changed with regard to fashion.
  4. Top designers stopped gambling on fashion.

The last of which was Harry’s point of contention. I’d also argue Ms Agins misses a fifth trend, that of the affect of job specialization (splintering) in mass production. Due to specialization, now designers are no longer pattern makers; this would have been unthinkable in Harry’s day. Today of course, most designers aren’t designers at all but rather stylists, the job function arguably diluted further still due to retail influence.

Still, Agins concurs:

Today, a designer’s creativity expresses itself more than ever in the marketing rather than in the actual clothes. Such marketing is complicated, full of nuance and innovation -requiring far more planning than what it takes to create a fabulous ballgown, as well as millions of dollars in advertising. In a sense, fashion has returned to its roots: selling image. Image is the form and marketing is the function…that’s why designer logos have cecome so popular; logos are the easiest way for each designer to impart a distinguishing characteristic on what amounts to some pretty ordinary apparel.

In many respects, I’d agree. Still, I think that the sameness of everyday apparel presents an opportunity for those of you who’d focus less on branding and logos and more on having a product line worth the hoopla of your marketing efforts. People are tired of sameness, do something different. Excite people, cause them to covet. Covetousness is my goal as I move closer to producing my own line.

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9 comments

  1. Josh says:

    I’ve just about given up on creating my own line of clothes, and I’m actually thinking of creating woat and goat crap. lol If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Oh how the mighty have fallen. Well, every once in a while I read something on here that puts the spark back into me and that was this today. If only I could master pattern making. I refuse to do anything unless I myself create the patterns. And I suck at pattern making currently.

    I’m def cheering you on as you work on your own line. I can’t wait to see what you do.

  2. Kathleen says:

    Josh, there’s really nothing new under the sun, it’s combining things in different ways. Me, I’m not a designer, mostly because it doesn’t excite me, I don’t have the passion I’d need to sustain myself. Pattern cutting excites me. I’d design with the goal, the anticipation of difficult pattern work, rather the opposite I think. I think the whole issue of producing a line hinges more on making the whole thing work, balancing everything evenly, keeping money coming in, being able to pay your people consistently so they’ll stay with you for the long haul. I mean, isn’t that what all of this is about, what we’re trying to do? We can’t all be fashion-purists. We each have our focus, how we like to work, what inspires and motivates us, balanced with constraints. It remains to be seen how I’ll manage those.

    [amended]
    I’d hate for anyone to think I was defending Simons. He comes off as a tad elitist, which if you think about it, is still common today. In his defense tho, I’ll say he was younger then and hot headed. His career didn’t mature for another 10-20 years from the time of this writing.

  3. J C Sprowls says:

    My perception of this is that Simons is cautioning the designer to carefully weigh creativity against business sensibility. Of all the models I see, the most successful design enterprises (e.g. interior, architecture, apparel, furniture, etc) do just that – a “core” line and a “conceptual” line.

    Just a couple seasons ago, Claiborne introduced a conceptual line in order to reach the younger end of the market (e.g. 20-30). I don’t have access to the line sheets; but, what I’ve seen in Dillard’s (or, was it Penney’s?) was limited (i.e. 2 or 3 styles each of shirts and pants in several colorways). I wonder if creativity or the shareholders will win out in their recent re-org?

    Another thing I think might have interested Simons is, specifically, niche manufacturing. I speculate whether Consumers might eventually value limited production and regional brand recognition over “big box” in the years to come.

  4. massa says:

    It’s really ridiculous to finger-point and to rank the occupations (e.g. designer better than patternmaker vice versa) because people in fashion industry are dependent on each other. Also, it’s been said that fashion is dead or similar phrase in each period( 1900s or even before ~ now), and I’m tired of this kind of article. A few genius or talented people open the path and lead, so why not wait until the time to come. Am I too optimistic or an idealist? On my personal level, a problem is that people enter this industry considering fashion as an easy million-dollar job.

  5. sahara says:

    This is why I left the garment district, and started working as an artisan. No one’s interested in a designer as a patternmaker; you now have Micrografix Designer, WEB PDM, and Illustrator.

    The few times I freelance, all I have to do is put together “tech packs” to send overseas, based on the retailers instructions. What’s to design? You tear out magazine pics and cheapen the garment. No one goes on “inspiration travel” anymore.

    Most young women here in NYC don’t dress up, as the fierce outfits cost thousands, and they don’t have that kind of money. They express ourselves through shoes and bags (the way women in other states do through their cars), which is why Saks shoe dept will have its own zip code. When I go out, all I see is designer denim, $1000 handbags and shoes.

    At Macy’s I went from researching trends and coming up with sketches, to being told what sold for their private label lines last year, and let’s change the colorways. Once at a line planning meeting, I risked getting fired, for asking the dumb question, “don’t you think the customer will realize that they have the same sweater in their draw at home, only in a different colorway?”

    Apparently not, as no one keeps anything that long. With the rise of credit cards, the value towards clothing has changed. Maybe you’ll see a rise in consciousness, when everyone’s cards are maxed out.

  6. Diane says:

    Sahara is spot on. The value of clothing has changed, another disposable commodity from a cheap labor source. There was quite the discussion about this over at the On The Runway blog regarding Sarah Jessica Parker’s new line called Bitten. Supposedly catering to what women “need” rather than what they want. SJP and Steve and Barry (the retailer) think we want 14 dollar coats and 10 dollar knock off handbags.
    Apparently the “better” brands are made in the same factories as the cheap stuff, just a higher profit margin for the Brand.

    My Mom is still wearing polyester double knit from the 70s. Yikes! I wish the damn things would wear out. I’d love to buy her new clothes but I know she wouldn’t wear them because her old ones are still perfectly serviceable.

  7. allison says:

    To me this is just another sign of what is wrong with off-shoring and globalization. When we graduate and all we do on the job is put together tech-packs of knock offs, we miss everything!!!!!!! All of the other learning and skills that are required to create things new and different!! It has not all been done yet!!! But we need to have the process here that we built to keep moving forward with new and interesting things. Doesn’t it take 10 full time years to become an excellent pattern maker?? I thought that as a designer I needed to hone those skills on the job!! I thought I would acquire more skills, by learning from my designers on the job. I am so mad!!! about all of this!!! To the next level. The designer/manufacturer does not have the upper hand today, because we are getting phased out by retailers that will all deal direct w/ Communist China in a matter of 10 years tops (I am thinking). And a lot of us are having trouble just acquiring the skills and tricks of the trade from people that are not around anymore to pass on the torch. Maybe I am just a fool for choosing to educate my self in a field that is no longer going to exist in America in the next 10 years. I have been thinking a lot lately that I did not do my research well enough before buying into this fashion school lie.

  8. allison says:

    To me this is just another sign of what is wrong with off-shoring and globalization. When we graduate and all we do on the job is put together tech-packs of knock offs, we miss everything!!!!!!! All of the other learning and skills that are required to create things new and different!! It has not all been done yet!!! But we need to have the process here that we built to keep moving forward with new and interesting things. Doesn’t it take 10 full time years to become an excellent pattern maker?? I thought that as a designer I needed to hone those skills on the job!! I thought I would acquire more skills, by learning from my designers on the job. I am so mad!!! about all of this!!! To the next level. The designer/manufacturer does not have the upper hand today, because we are getting phased out by retailers that will all deal direct w/ Communist China in a matter of 10 years tops (I am thinking). And a lot of us are having trouble just acquiring the skills and tricks of the trade from people that are not around anymore to pass on the torch. Maybe I am just a fool for choosing to educate my self in a field that is no longer going to exist in America in the next 10 years. I have been thinking a lot lately that I did not do my research well enough before buying into this fashion school lie.

  9. passionflower says:

    It’s so true. Why is it that retailers like Barney’s,Neiman’s, Sak’s, act like frustrated designers “guiding” real, trained designers to change their concept or they won’t carry it? Instead of taking a risk and carrying the line because it’s genius and taking the time to understand and promote it.
    Then when it goes terribly wrong (no sales, interest etc) the designer gets dropped.
    Since when are they the rockstars of the fashion world? Since when do they know about subtle nuance and appreciation of design.

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