Starting a clothing line -in Paris

When I attended Premiere Vision in Paris last month, there was an area set aside with 10 or 11 designers who’d won some kind of contest to be featured at the event. So of course I trotted over there to see what Parisian DEs were about, what they had to say, what their lines looked like and so on. Surely they have the up and up, the skinny on making it as fashion designers being all things French. In summary, the more things change, the more they stay the same. I could have been talking to any of you. Provenance has no bearing on success.

First of all, while tastefully designed and trendy, it was a poorly designed area. The designers had no control over this. Walking down the aisle, the focal point of each booth -the designer’s table- of alternating displays was blocked by a huge (trendy) sign measuring a meter or so wide by maybe 2.5 meters high. Looking head on, this poor girl below is hidden completely by the sign in front of her booth. There’s no way to make eye contact to connect with the designer visually.

While the signage created a problem for every other designer, for some it was just as well. They practically hid from us or completely ignored us, steadfastly refusing to make eye contact as they chatted with a companion in the booth. It’s kind of hard to ignore two bodies standing two feet in front of your table when the booth is only 10’X 15′ but they managed. Don’t ever do this. I don’t care if the person standing in your booth is a complete zero. Get off your butt and talk to them because other people walking by your booth who aren’t total zeros, will only see you’re ignoring the people standing there so how could they expect to get your attention either? They’ll just walk on by. In short, I felt completely at home. It was no different from what I’ve experienced here.

Like many DEs here, a few of the Parisian DEs felt basic business niceties -such as having business cards- were too corporate for their image, substituting creations of their own devices. None were inexpensive; all were over-sized cardstock full color print jobs. One of them was truly puzzled when I explained his 9″ x 4″ “calling card” wasn’t going to fit neatly stapled into my notebook without folding. I wasn’t the only person running around with a notebook stapling cards into it; it seemed to be fairly common there. When I visit a show, I staple one card per page and keep notes pertaining to that business there (you should do that in your booth too!). With his card, I had no room to write and his mouth became this big “O” when he figured it out. I felt completely at home. It was no different from what I’ve experienced here.

Line quality was all over the map; continuity was a problem (part 1, part 2). I’m surprised there wasn’t a better jurying process if only to prevent people from posing a danger to themselves. Between booths, it was questionable whether individual styles even belonged hanging on the same rack, much less being merchandise-able with other lines in the marketplace. You first have to be able to hang with yourself (part 1, part 2, part 3) before you can hang with anyone else. Some racks contained tailored coats to scrappy tees. There were too many orphans. I felt completely at home. It was no different from what I’ve experienced here.

As with designers here, product quality varied greatly. First I should say that with new designers, I expect a bit of mishandling. They’re stretching, testing the range of their capabilities and I admire their guts in attempting challenging projects. To me, errors are often charming, it’s quite endearing and I want to hug them. Where problems come into play is when designers overcompensate and negate these effects. This is definitely not charming. I didn’t get this vibe from any of the designers I talked to though. It’s difficult for me to offer advice in these situations because I want to support their growth without being critical. I felt completely at home. It was no different from what I’ve experienced here.

The topic of how to become successful with their clothing lines was also similar. One designer asked me something that kind of pained me in a wistful way. She wanted to know if I knew of any design contests she could enter in the U.S. that would help promote her line because it wasn’t moving. People, making it is rarely -if ever- a matter of luck. Chalking it off to luck is a way of abdicating your responsibilities in the matter, throwing it to the vagaries of fate. Most overnight success stories are twenty years in the making. That’s not saying you must put in twenty years before you make it but including the time you spent on education, you just might. Again, I felt completely at home. It was no different from what I’ve experienced here.

Regarding training and preparation, I was expecting another attitude with respect to skill and creativity. One designer said she actually had started a line before, found it difficult and regrouped by going back to design school and started over again. Paraphrasing, she said going to school was good but that it constrained her creativity. She said that before she went, she could do anything. After that she couldn’t and she felt her expression was limited and stifled. Stuart (our newest author) said something that expresses the reaction I had at the time:

I further assert that constraints generally make it easier to be creative, and this is as true in the arts as in engineering. Someone who insists that their creativity must not be “limited” by restriction …is a poser who isn’t going to get anything done.

This is another reason a coherent line is a good thing. The line imposes beneficial creative constraints. You have to create garments or accessories that meet the market objectives of the line, while complementing each other. Instead of starting with a blank piece of paper for each garment, the designs of all the garments must support (and constrain) each other. These constraints aid, rather than hinder, the experienced designer.

As before, I felt completely at home. It was no different from what I’ve experienced here.

In summary, which I gave at the beginning of this entry (you could have saved yourself the bother of reading this blather) the more things change, the more they stay the same. I could have been talking to any of you. Provenance has no bearing on success. Start up French designers don’t know anymore more than you do so you can stop gazing fondly over the seas, fawning in their direction. For what it’s worth, they’re looking at you with peripheral vision, hoping American Capitalism holds the secrets and potential to their greatest hopes.

Oh, and they find it just as impossible to get small quantities of high quality goods made there as you do here. Like I said ad nauseum, I felt completely at home. It was no different from what I’ve experienced here.

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  1. Jesica Milton says:

    What a great post Kathleen!
    I guess it’s a case of “the grass is always greener.” I agree with Stuart that constraints increase your creativity. Having guidelines presents you with a problem to solve, and as you mentioned eariler (last week?) problem solving IS creativity.

    When I started designing the line I’m working on now I started with two pieces that I had already made, that shared the same pattern block. Using your advice from the book I knew I had to design the collection to be cohesive with the pieces I already had (colors, silhouette, repeating details). It was a challenge, but I think that it helped me think outside of my regular box!

  2. kathleen says:

    Oh, one thing I forgot to mention was affectation. One guy (the one with the “calling card”) wouldn’t allow himself to be photographed without his hat, it was his shtick. You can’t tell from the photo but his hair was awful. Yes, I realize designers like to be artists and illustrate their creativity by doing strange things to their hair but he didn’t have the hair for it (at least not this kind of cut, should have been spikey or something) so it just looked exactly what it was -a transparent affectation, posing. None of you should be posing. Be yourselves. Don’t don a paint by number facade thinking you need one because it just looks fake.

    Fwiw, this guy will probably make it if he can get rid of lame if only due to his wife (and business partner). She is one of those people with a killer instinct, she’s all business and scary smart. While he had too many pieces (that’s the other thing I forgot to mention, it seemed the designers were showing every piece they’d ever made), there was plenty to pick from to create a cohesive collection. He had some interesting ideas and his products were well made.

  3. kharmin says:

    Hmmm, interesting that neither his hat nor his jacket fit very well, either ~ doesn’t give *me* much confidence in his sense of style!

    Terrific post, though ~ I just found you, and WILL be back ~ there was so much invaluable info in this one report, that I can’t resist!

  4. Zaz says:

    i have a feeling that is my own that when we start (or maybe when i started) i was a concentrate of energy that just bothered about her own taste, the first line i designed was all cohesive since i did not worry about the “outside” i just wanted to please myself and push my taste forward by putiing it into shape into knits.
    cohesion also comes from knowing what your “inner taste” goes for. it does not have ears to what the marker needs or your creative sense becomes “restricted” and you have to juggle with too many aspects and in the end you feel that you are stuck.
    i am guessing this is what happened to the girl that took up classes again, but the school is responsible in some way.
    let me say how because there are two options to what a school can do.
    1) it can have teachers that insist that you be yourself and promote your very quircky personal sense of style and they dismiss anything where you try to conform to others or use the overall “climate” of fashion sense.
    what these teachers of that school will do is give you the technique, the skills or just let you come up with solutions to your ideas, practical solutions while pushing your own self further.
    2) there is this other school where the teachers want to show you forcefully what it is that “works” generally and in there you will suffocate if you have something quircky (vivienne westwood always comes to mind in these instances). this school is definatly not for those out of the mold creating minds because they will be seen as failures.

    this is my personal opinion.

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