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Design Review: Volume 2, Issue 3 (October-November 1949)

The Industrial Fashion Designer

page 46

The Industrial Fashion Designer

Today the garment industries with all their affiliations represent a very important source of industrial employment in the civilised countries of the world. I have, unfortunately, no reliable figures at my disposal and do not wish to quote estimated figures, but it can be stated without exaggeration that the number of men and women who gain their living directly or indirectly in the readymade garment industry amounts to many millions.

In spite of an approximately equal number of men and women in those countries, the latter are by far the bigger consumers of their products. The number of consumers grows in the same proportion as the quality of the product improves. The writer of this article, being a designer of ladies' garments, will have to consider the subject from this angle.


Men are used to identifying female clothing with vanity and I shall not discuss whether this point of view is justified or not. Let us agree, that if the great development of the ladies' garment industry is the result of feminine vanity, then we must treat vanity with due respect and with the seriousness this weakness deserves.

Made To Last

Until about 50 years ago the manufacture of ladies' dresses, coats and costumes was in the hands of seamstresses and dressmakers. Every garment was made to measure and a great deal of time, labour and material was involved in the making of every single garment. The products were made to last for at least one generation and were expensive. There existed something like fashions, but the changes were slow and not imperative.

Fit All Figures

At the beginning of this century the ready-made garments made their entry and were generally not well received. A ready-made garment meant an ill-fitting and inferior garment, and was not accepted by the public of means, taste and refinement. The leading manufacturers were forced to improve their products and as most of them were well-organised bodies they soon adapted themselves to the demand. From then onward the garments these factories turned out were steadily improving, and finally conquered the world market.

The most prominent centres of the industry were in chronological order: Vienna, Berlin, London, Amsterdam, Brussels, later New York and San Francisco. Strangely enough, Paris never played a prominent part among the clothing manufacturing cities. The factories all over Europe and America produced highly-specialised products; specialised in regard to price, material size and design. The big American stores pride themselves on being able to serve in their clothing departments every figure, purse and taste; and this is no sales talk, but a fact.

The Fashion Designer

This brings us to the topic with which your journal is mainly concerned: design. Who creates fashions and is fashion designing really creative work? Here again I must treat the subject from my own personal angle. My experience is gained exclusively in the manufacture page 47
Products were made to last for at least one generation

Products were made to last for at least one generation

of relatively high-priced garments: the so-called model trade. I shall concentrate on this end of the trade, not because it is economically more important, but on account of the fact that it is more important from the point of view of creative design. The words “fashion designer” have a rather ambiguous usage. In the home of ready-made garment industries they call “designer” the man who establishes the design of the model to be made. His fashion sketch is not expected to be an attractive or glamorous picture, but a precise indication of the line and idea of the new model.

This sketch is handed over to the pattern-maker, who makes his exact paper pattern and passes this on to the cutter, who transfers the pattern to the material and cuts it out.

In this country these operations had to be simplified, and our so-called designer is designer, pattern-maker and cutter in one person. In this article I propose to consider the designer in the classical sense of the word, as the man whose tools are paper and pencil and nothing else.

Diplomatic Secrets

The Mecca of the Continental, British and American designer was and is— Paris. Before putting the first line on paper for next season's designs, he will have to see in Paris what the “Couture” suggests, indicates or dictates. The “Couture” or Model Mouses of Paris are a strictly organised body subsidised by the French Government; its members are subject to very minutely controlled regulations. The secrets of the coming “collection” are as carefully kept as the secrets of a Foreign Office, and all measures are taken in order to prevent leakages.

The openings of the “Couture” are announced as important economic and social events. The first showings are held for the buyers of foreign wholesale houses and foreign designers. After these the private customers are invited to view the new models. French wholesale buyers and designers are strictly excluded in order to prevent the “Trade” copying the models and competing with the Couture. For the same reason all visitors to the Couture shows oblige themselves not to sell any of the ordered models to French firms. Nobody is admitted to the showings without a buyer's ticket (carte d'acheteur) obtainable through one of the registered Paris Fashion Agents. The card shows no name but only a number, by which the purchases are entered.

In recent years US buyers and designers obtained the privilege of a preview two days before the official opening. This was in order to make it possible for them to catch up with a few days' delay, in the longer time of transport, of their report to the States. For a few years now the carte d'acheteur has not been sufficient to gain admission to the shows of the great couturiers like Robert Piguet, Balenciaga. Marcel Rochas, Christian Dior, Jean Dessès, Charles Montaigne, etc. To be admitted one has to sign an obligation to purchase at least one model. This means that admission costs something like 100,000 francs.

The salons of the prominent couture-houses are in premises which used to be the residences of the French aristocracy of the 17th and 18th centuries, adapted in the most luxurious and breath-taking way to form an impressive background to the crowd of mannequins who show very gracefully, but very quickly, the couturier's ideas of the coming fashion. At Montaigne's, for instance, the walls and doors of a big square hall are hidden behind heavy grey satin curtains. and in the centre of the hall a beautifully sculptured composition sprays water of exotic scent on to a flower display at the base of the fountain.

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Keep Your Eye on the Ball

This is the working-ground of the poor foreign designer who must disregard all fragrance, colour, luxury and feminine grace and beauty and concentrate on the gowns and coats shown. This concentration must be acquired by practice, as what one sees may not be registered elsewhere than in ones memory. The use of drawing paper and pencil brings a serious warning the first time; the second time very polite but definite expulsion.

After the show the designers grab their hats and coats and rush to a close-by café, spread out their sketch-books and sketch feverishly all they can remember of the models seen. Fortunately there is co-operation among the designers. They compare their sketches and one can always add a number of details one missed and pass on ideas in return. One Couture-day in Paris means to a steady working designer the viewing of three collections of approximately 80 models each, and keeps his mind off all the remaining charms of Paris. After three or four days of hard work, the designers leave Paris and it is now that their proper designing work begins.

Plans and Specifications for S.A.

The result of the busy days in Paris are a confusing amount of impressions and masses of stenographic sketches and notes. One illustration to this article shows you a page out of a designer's sketch book which forms an eloquent report to the trained eye. Most of the new ideas must be dropped as unripe or not applicable for the special market the designer represents. To make the right choice and use the right ideas is a matter of intuition and fashionsense. It unfortunately happens that some designers are influenced by an idea which one or more couturiers have followed up very consistently, but is ultimately declined by the public.

An error like this may spoil a whole season's business and the reputation of the designer. It is just as big a mistake to be too timid and not recognise a radical change of line and consequently make a range of models, which are not up to date. The arrival of a new idea always arouses protest and it is impossible for the designer to follow preconceived ideas and let himself be guided by logical or economic principles.

The New Look

Some time ago a clever fashion advertiser invented the slogan: the new look. This meant longer and wider skirts. The first reaction of women all over the world was: “My skirts are going to remain short, in spite of the new look.” The designer with fashion sense did not take any notice of this general feminine protest and designed the new skirts longer and fuller. We all saw that a lady's skirt only remained short until she bought a new frock; this new frock had a longer and fuller skirt.

When making his own range of models the industrial designer must make his decisions and be guided by nothing else than his intuition, his fashion sense and taste. A thorough study of his Paris sketches and notes follows, whereby a contact with the available materials and accessories is essential. In this productive period one has to endeavour to forget the mass of separate impressions and so arrive at a new—his own—conception of the models to be created.

This is achieved by studying the sketches, discarding some and accepting others, varying them, adding new ideas and much more, until sketches result which are quite personal, although they show some traces of the new idea. The final result will represent the designer's so-called “handwriting”. Some international buyers, with long years of practice, have an amazing ability in recognising the handwriting of the maker.

Fine Art Applied

We see that there is a very strong creative element in fashion designing in spite of the fact that new ideas are inspired by only a few men and women who have the talent and authority to change or modify the feminine silhouette. Artists probably will not accept fashion designers as fellow-artists and yet they have one thing in common; they both endeavour to find their self-expression in the beauty of their work.

[Now we understand Churchill's “never was so much owed by so many to so few.” The editorial staff wish to express their delight in “change or modify the feminine silhouette,” a phrase whose manifold implications only a poet could have invented.—Editor.]