Ethics in clothing design

I think the better title for this is Designers dirty secrets. This topic comes up over and over. Excerpted from today’s mail:

I’m not a designer. I’m not coming to the clothing manufacturing business from a “fashion” perspective. I am not someone who went to design school. I want to be ethical, legal and forthright in communicating with a patternmaker and sewing contractor. But since I am not a designer, I need to show examples of products I like/dislike – since this is my starting point. But I don’t want people to think I am simply making a copycat product. There are a zillion camisoles out there, but if I’ve found a style I like and want to find a way to make it so it can be priced mid-tier (or made in USA, or matched with other products, or whatever my feature and selling points will be), and market the heck out of it, is it OK to show other company’s products to help in the communication/design/manufacturing process?

What is the right process for this? I’m too old and cranky to sit in class with a bunch of young students, so I hope you aren’t going to send me to design school. My guess is that you will tell me to save my $$$ to pay for a designer to draw up line sheets according to my specifications, but I’d like to make sure I’m communicating and operating legally and ethically. What has to come from “me” to make it “mine?” The branding/marketing of a company is part of it, but of course, the product is the purpose.

In answer to your first question, you are a product developer, there’s no sin in that. In fact, it’s more accurate and honest. For that reason, designers with a long history in the business describe themselves in just these terms. No, you don’t need to go to design school. Most people (over 50%) who succeed in this business have never been to design school. Many of us are on the fence about whether a school background (void of commercial experience) is a benefit. Depending on who I’ve been talking to that day, I go either way, the reason being that many grads have displaced confidence in their knowledge base and it is very dismaying when I can’t dissuade them from their course of action.

The reality is that most products today are like every other thing in the market. The dirty secret of design, particularly these days, is that people copy each other endlessly, often blatantly. I will stress at this point, it’s not us doing the copying but other designers -your competitors. Most of the time, people are copying very basic concepts, blanks, templates, not anything unique or proprietary. Accordingly, we are often approached by a client with photographs of existing products to illustrate their wants. I realize you know this, so what are the grey areas? You want to know how you can make it yours. What you are bringing to the product, what makes it “yours” is the particular flavor and envisioned translation of the concept. Yes, there’s a gizillion camisoles. Your thumb print can be defined as:

  • Your fabric selection
  • The market segment
  • Price points
  • Fit

Using the example of camisoles, say you found a photo of a camisole sold by wal-mart. You’d apply that style and translate into fabrications of your choosing. Secondly, that wal-mart camisole may only be available in children’s sizes but you want to make yours to fit plus sizes, or large breasted women, or appropriate for the gym (active wear) meaning it’d require further engineering with cups or shelf support, or for tall women, making it sufficiently different that it would be yours. The point being, you’ve taken a template and configured it to fit with your line. You’ve simply translated the look of it and paid to have a pattern made to adapt it specifically to your market.

Now, that doesn’t mean you should buy the product, take it apart and make a pattern from it even though others do that, I think that’s unethical regardless of how many people do that. If you did, it wouldn’t be yours no matter how you translated your final version. That is not to say you couldn’t use measures from the garment. Maybe that’s a grey area but I don’t think that is the same as taking a pattern they paid for and using it for yourself. If you have a particular item in mind, a pattern maker would find that a good starting point from which they’d incorporate the other fitting choices you’ve determined. Specializing the fit and fabrication to your market is what makes it yours.

Now, with regard to how you approach a professional with it, you’d go to someone who could sketch these up for you with the photographs. The alternative is worse. I’ve had designers who are either embarrassed, ashamed or dishonest who will try to describe the item -usually poorly- and then become very upset when the product doesn’t match their photograph or sample so I only find out about it after they’ve blown some money. If you have a photograph or sample, use that! That doesn’t mean you can’t translate a version of what it represents into a unique style to suit you. Rarely does anyone copy anything exactly line for line down to fabrication, fit and styling; they always put something of their own in there. There’s nothing wrong with that -provided it’s a basic template type product. In fact, since many DEs don’t know the technical names of garment design features, I’ll often suggest they find photos that represent their wishes. There’s nothing wrong with finding photos with X collar design and pairing that with another photo with X bodice and yet another photo showing X sleeves or whatever.

With regard to unique, not template styles, there’s some grey areas but I think it’s okay within certain parameters. For example, let’s say you’ve found an old photo or sketch of a vintage style, long defunct and want that recreated. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with resurrecting a vintage style with fabric and sizing updated to fit today’s consumer. I wish more people would do it. Still, many people don’t because it’s nigh impossible to find contractors who know how to sew that stuff up or can do it for a price you’d be willing to pay. Regarding copying to those of you making unique garments -truly unique ones. You rarely have anything to worry about because it’s too much work and too costly to copy you for an item of unknown demand.

Now, if you want items copied that are definitely unique but not vintage, it depends on your pattern maker. If you happen to find the original pattern maker who made that style for the other company, few of them will do copy it for you. If it’s definitely unique but they didn’t make it originally, from what I can tell, most pattern makers will copy it for you. Personally, I think that’s unethical regardless of who made it first. It strikes me as self serving if they won’t copy it if they made the original but will copy it if they didn’t -but then, I lose out in the jury of my peers. Personally, I don’t care who it was made for, a past client or not. If the item is sufficiently unique with design integrity, I won’t touch it. I don’t need the work that badly. That’s just me. Still, the reality is, I haven’t seen anything unique in a very long time.

Returning to the process of communication in product development, another alternative is to go direct to a pattern maker with the photos or product sample and start from there. Once you had samples, you’d hire an illustrator (some pattern makers can do it too) to make technical sketches and line sheets for you. A pattern maker is used to this, they will not look askance, they’re used to it. By the same token, I don’t recommend asking them to sign a confidentiality agreement if you’re knocking off someone else because they’ll either laugh you out of the room or they won’t respect you. I’m not saying you’d do this or intend to but it has been my experience that the “designers” most likely to demand NDAs are the ones most likely to be copying other people or using home patterns. It’s hard to respect someone who expects you to respect the intellectual property they’ve expropriated from someone else.

In summary, it would be okay to use photos of other company’s products to develop sketches in the communication and design process. You’d then use your sketches as a tool in your product development process.

Ethics in clothing design pt.2

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  1. Pam says:

    Thank you for this blog entry. I find it to be very much what I do and we always create our own patterns but do take inspiration from other places.


  2. sahara says:

    Wow! This is the best explanation for this process that I have ever heard.

    With my private sweater customers, I often have to work from photos, as knitting to them is complicated, and a photo helps them describe what they want, especially when it comes to stitch patterns. However, the problem lies when they bring me a photo of a garment that so and so celebrity has on, or a mag photo of a couture garment and want that. Then, I will tell them to save their money until they can go to the store and buy the original.

    In contrast DE’s, especially young ones, get intimidated, or think I won’t respect them if they use photos; so I sit and comically look at them make weird gestures, in describing to me what they want. Afterwards, I smile and tell them to bring me a pic.

  3. Saremy Duffy says:

    My client emailed me this link to your article and I find it spot on. I continually tell me clients (as I am a patterndrafter), to send photos, garments, drawings, anything to get the point across so that I can best help them. If they want to duplicate a garment exactly, it is very tricky. My point is always, Why? Why would you compete against someone who already has their garment out there and probably manufacturered overseas where my start-up clients can only use domestic factories because of the minimums. They will never be able to compete with the original maker of that garment. (And usually, most do not intend to but plan on adding their flavor, as you put it, or differentiate in the other areas you mention-by the end, they won’t even be in the same market anyway).

    In my estimate form, which acts as a contract as well, I specifically state that it is the client’s responsibility to researach any patents and by and large, it’s my patented clients who have me sign NDA’s but there are the occasional few who are fashion-based and do not want to be copied. I am always happy to sign something for them but in reality, a pattern drafter is quite capable of making any product on his/her own-why would I copy? So I try and have them focus their form more on aspects that have to do with privacy and non-disclosure. I have a small library of patterns that I have made over the years that I use for blocks- I do not use other clients patterns for a different client. It is completely unethical-not to mention that it would be very obvious with minimal research for either to discover.

    Thank you for a clear outline of this not-so-secret ‘secret’. I like to refer your site to many new clients.

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