seven types of fashion designers

or, eight types of fashion designers.

People often ask designers about their inspirations, and how they begin their collections. The question “why do you design” isn’t so often asked but is also one I find interesting. As there are different movements in art, different genres of films and endless categorizations within music, so it is with fashion.

As a bit of a mental game, I have been thinking about how I would categorize modern designers. What I’ve come up with is 7 categories. [Amendment: added one more on the suggestion of Sarah Nicole Prickett.] Most designers overlap several categories, so of course this is somewhat simplified. The categories are based on what I think the most dominant contemporary design philosophies are.


Alexander McQueen. John Galliano. Jean Paul Gaultier. Vivienne Westwood. Yves Saint Laurent.

These designers treat fashion as theatre – drama or comedy. Their collections tell stories, each with a thrilling climax. Beyond that, their entire careers also read like narrative arcs. They are adventurers, besides being outstanding characters in their own right.


Donna Karan. Thierry Mugler. Gareth Pugh. Christian Lacroix. Valentino. Gianni Versace. Oscar de la Renta. Yohji Yamomoto. Olivier Theyskens. Alexander Wang. Rodarte.

These designers create for a muse, either real or imagined – dressing a distinctive protagonist. Their clothes appeal to people who cast themselves in their own lives – whether Mugler’s pop androids, Wang’s downtown slummers, or Valentino’s romantic heroines.


Tom Ford. Coco Chanel. Marc Jacobs. Halston. Victoria Beckham. Karl Lagerfeld. Betsey Johnson. Gwen Stefani.

These designers use themselves as their own muse. In addition to being talented in design, they are also always articulate communicators in multiple media. Because they also saturate visual, written and audio, their work has a way of seeping through the skin of fashion’s bubble to the larger population. They create vivid brands – though not always brands that outlive their creator.

This group is also adept at something else – personal transformation. Without exception, these are exceptional, rare human beings. They have to work hard to keep up with themselves, and they do.


Michael Kors. Ralph Lauren. Calvin Klein. Giorgio Armani. Phoebe Philo.

These are the zeitgeist sensors. They tap into what people want to, as Calvin Klein puts its, “be”. They design with a lifestyle in mind, not necessarily a realistic lifestyle, but the ones that most people want to live. They outfit humanity for its dearest dreams, whether we admit it or not.

Because they flatter universal human desire to be admired, they are brilliant at establishing international brands with longevity.


Margiela. Hussein Chalayan. Viktor & Rolf.

These designers are modern artists. Their work belongs in museums, their shows are statements. They approach disturbing subjects and push the boundaries of what a human body can physically adorn itself with. Their audience are all aficianados – most of them also creators in some capacity. You have to be somewhat literate in history and construction to appreciate a lot of their work, but the barriers to entry are part of what makes these designers so exceptional.


Schiaparelli. Jeremy Scott. Ann-Sofie Back. Walter van Bierendonck. Rudy Gernreich. Henry Holland. Rei Kawukubo.

These designers could also be included with the conceptualists, I think the distinction here is that the work tends to be fashion-referential and often cleverly so. They are the op-ed page of The Fashion Times – as such their work also tends to be of-the-moment and not always enduring. They also demand a bit of pop culture and design intelligence to adequately absorb them.


Christopher Kane. Vionnet. Mark Fast. Issey Miyake. Jeremy Laing.

I’ve already discussed technicians here – their starting point is the possibilities of materials. They are innovators, experimenters, the scientists of fashion. They influence the next generation of designers.


Mr. Pearl. Angela Missoni. Paul Smith. Christian Louboutin.

These designers focus on developing a narrow specialization. They maintain tradition and continuity in design and construction. Tailors are the purest form of artisans. Many menswear designers favour a design process based on tradition. Certain brands like Burberry and Hermes demand a designer who can treat the past with respect.

Of course this is just one way you could think of it. Does a particular type of designer resonate with you?

the technique trap

London’s fashion schools are internationally renowned for producing some of the most talented, famous modern fashion designers. Less often mentioned are the thousands of also-grads. The tons-to-watch every year produce some of the most fascinating fashion shows, full of earnest hopes and dreams and ambitions that often overwhelm the models who have to carry so much yearning. The visual onslaught is blinding in a way – it gets very difficult to sort out the strongest visions in a sea of potential.

Most striking to me as a North American is how education styles heavily influence the favoured approach of young designers. I went to a school that focused on justifying a market strategy – this was reflected in the type of grad collections we showed. Here, the emphasis is on innovation via technique. At the RCA, for example, they have two exhibitions throughout the year – one is called “Work-in-Progress” and displays a vast array of experimental swatches and effects. When you watch the final exits on the runway at the end of the final term, each collection is a riff on the techniques each student developed.

Having seen several grad shows and variations of  “Ones to Watch”, I can’t help but notice how the emphasis on technical effect overshadows any conceptual messages or narratives, obscures the personality of the designer, and most tragically, inhibits the currency and wearability of the garments.

I’ve discussed the differences between brand-driven designers and designer-technicians before. While technically focused designers often end up being influential to other designers, they almost always fail to develop a lasting legacy and the license-able name that goes with it. People don’t wear techniques – they wear fashion, and techniques alone don’t do what fashion needs to do – confer status. Technique-driven design is fascinating to hard-core fashion nerds, but it is not a route to riches. It is ironic that so many young hopefuls come to London to go to these star-making schools and yet the instruction they receive sends them down the path of obscurity.

I’ve illustrated this post with a few examples of great designer-technicians, both historical and current. At the top is Madame Grès, the Parisian couturier whose intricately pleated, sculptural designs defied ready-to-wear and consumed vast swathes of silk jersey.

Fortuny‘s legacy is set in the pleat technique that bears his name – despite the fact that he authored other textile innovations, most notably with printed velvet.

Madeleine Vionnet was a pioneering modernist in fashion. Just as modernism in architecture is more about exploiting the possibilities of modern materials than embellishment, Vionnet’s designs drew their essential qualities from the properties of fabric. She also worked with visual artists like Erte for prints and created more conventional work, but her legacy hangs on the bias for eternity.

Vionnet’s successor to the bias crown was New York couturier Charles Kleibacker, whose technical mastery resulted in seemingly seamless construction. The simplicity of his designs are so subtly tasteful, they do not loudly proclaim the way their creator revelled in the elemental nature of cloth. His understanding of the creative process informed his role as a professor and curator in later life.

Canadian-born, London-based designer and Central Saint Martins graduate Mark Fast is the most prominent modern technique-driven designer. His designs are based on the possibilities offered by knitting machinery – and the effects are often unusual and intricate up close. Taking a longer view though, the longevity of the machine-made aesthetic is, pardon the pun, a stretch.

Fast has the potential to switch to a brand-driven career – he’s handsome and personable, he’s got a great name, yet the Spring 2012 collection seemed like he is still struggling to escape the technique trap. Explorations into other techniques like crochet are distracting from the real challenge – defining the identity of the Fast female. A collaboration with leatherwear brand Danier earlier this year was a more promising move towards establishing a non-technical Fast philosophy that resonates with the zeitgeist.

Mary Katrantzou is a Greek-born, London-based, Central Saint Martins educated designer whose bold engineered prints have caught the gaze of the eyes that matter, and as she goes into subsequent seasons under the scrutiny of the fasherati she’s dealing with the same dilemma as Fast.

I saw the Spring 2012 line by recent CSM graduate Phoebe English at Ones to Watch, and was struck at the technical singularity of the entire presentation. Every single garment was made of distressed, cartridge-pleated canvas. The question I was left with was “why?” The garments were – as English put it – clumpy. I couldn’t sort out a story or an idea, beyond the sample-swatchiness of it all. Where does a designer take such a narrowly conceived collection? What is it for? It seemed like a one-off.

A bit of research revealed a surprise for me – English’s previous collections were also technique-driven – but each with a completely different technique! Her MA collection was an attention-grabbing, visceral exploration of the possibilities of human hair. As she told i-D, she is at the mercy of her chosen materials:

There were a few different original references, but most of my influences came directly from what my samples could do and how they actually worked. Then I began thinking about how I could engineer them to work as garments. As the dresses are so frenetic I wanted to use one universal tone to unify and control the composition of the collection. The looks behave in such a wild manner in places and the black was a device to balance and unify their frantic kinetic nature.

I can’t help but be curious about what a kind of career English will build by leaping from one wildly different, materials-based process to another, from season to season. In a way she personifies the current state of fashion education in London. In a world which continues to reward personalities like Alber Elbaz and zeitgeist sensors like Pheobe Philo, the technique trap suggests that the future of fashion design isn’t being taught in school.

drawing – my beauty icon

This was a great brief – using cosmetics, illustrate someone I consider a beauty icon. I chose Amelia Earhart – because she is adventure incarnate and a windswept, natural beauty. She symbolizes what I aspire to be, both in attitude and appearance. To learn about what I used to create the illustration, visit the Toronto Standard.

My current beauty rituals are a fashion-female’s take on rendering super-natural. It has taken me a while to get to this point, and I can confidently say I’ve never felt quite so attractive in my own skin as I do now.

I take cod liver oil supplements, drink lots of water, and eat a lot of fruit and vegetables. For skincare, I favour Clinique products – currently using the anti-blemish wash, the number 2 toner every 2 or 3 days, and the Age-Defense moisturizer. I exfoliate about once a week.

For makeup, every day I use YSL Touche Eclat under my eyes, Naturally Glossy mascara in black, and a dab of Clinique cream blush in peachy. Lips get a bit of M.A.C. conditioner. If I want a bit more punch, I add a smudge of M.A.C. eye pencil at the outer corners of my eyes and a swipe of lip stain.

I’ve been growing out my hair for over a year now and I’ve finally embraced the natural wave of it. I get it trimmed occasionally with an undefined edge, to keep split ends at a minimum while avoiding a cut look. I wash it every 3 or 4 days with Redken Fresh Curls shampoo and conditioner. I style it with a fingertip of Bumble & Bumble Brilliantine at the ends, and a shot of hairspray to keep it out of my eyes. On day 2 or 3, I spray on some Klorane dry shampoo to keep it going.

My philosophy now is that feeling beautiful is partly about knowing yourself, and partly about spending the time and money on what makes you feel good. Is it just vanity? I don’t think so. It is a powerful way to fortify self-confidence on a daily basis.

click click – 19-10-11

Welcome to click click, the sporadic review of what I find worth clicking on the internet.

These photos by Mike Brodie “Polaroid Kidd” capture the lives – and looks – of modern migrants.

Karma for your mama –

  • Vitamin Daily – asked me to share some of my London-on-a-pint-budget tips.
  • – features Canadian fashion bloggers wearing our favourite Canadian clobber. I chose Butikofer.
  • Another Garcon – my Paris fashion week friend, Jonathan, observed me sketching outside Balmain.
  • Top Fashion Style – dubs one of my tweets the top of the week.
  • Urban Updater“I just love to shop and love to share my fashion thoughts and ideas with you!”
  • MIGDALIA“My dolls can stand alone, their attitude allows them to be without support, without a man.”
  • Girls Are Made From Pepsi“Ummm…what it says on the tin.”

Paris runway sketches – Issey Miyake

It always seems like the further I get into a fashion week, the more abstract the sketches get. In these two cases, I barely added anything to the original live version.

The Issey Miyake invitation was a truly pleasant surprise. It was a hot dusty Sunday in the Tuileries and I had been walking around carrying a heavy bag all morning, so I took an hour and a half nap in those heavy metal chairs they have under the trees outside the tent. When I woke up, a crowd was surrounding me waiting to get into the show. I had ended up in a cluster of lovely ladies who work in the Issey Miyake showrooms all over Europe, and as I did my warm-up sketches they took an interest in me and gave me a bit of inside track into the company and the backstage happenings. The show was running very late.

The scene was pretty hot – lots of dress-upwomanship going on under the sun. I was snapped while sketching by Bill Cunningham, which I tried to appear oblivious to, while being quite chuffed. I never get asked to pose for street style – could care less, really – but to merit even an offhand snap by the godfather of street style photography was a pleasant moment. I like to think it was because I was sketching, but it could have just as easily been because I was wearing a white shirt.

Going from the bright scene outside to the the pitch inside the tent couldn’t have been more dramatic transition. Over a thousand souls inside a hot black tent on a scorching day created an airless atmosphere that was less than ideal for absorbing a collection properly. I managed to squeeze into a back-bench seat and squeeze out almost a dozen sketches from my squeezy-brush.

The show was appropriately light for spring, both in the sense that lights were used in the staging and the looks themselves appeared light and literally botanical. As the first collection under the creative control of designer, Yoshiyuki Miyamae, the sense of renewal came across.


style bloggers comment back

Meeting fellow fashion bloggers to talk shop is one of my favourite types of encounters, and not so long ago I had the opportunity to talk outfit blogging with some very erudite male style bloggers. The subject of reactions to outfit posts came up and I was interested to learn that in the male style blogging sphere, the nature of the commentary seems somewhat different than in the female style blogging sphere.

Curious about whether this impression was reflected in reality, I took a very unscientific poll of four of my favourite style bloggers, asking them about what type of comments they get and why they put their ensembles out there for review. Of course every style blog is different, so the answers are various. If you’re as interested as I am in the call-and-response nature of fashion, you’ll enjoy this.

Winston of Le Vrai Winston, “men like clothes too”.

Do you think that on male style blogs, the comments are mostly by males, and on female style blogs, the comments are mostly by females? If so, do you have any idea why that is? Do you think that gender plays any role in the nature of the community and the commentary?

I think that is the case and logically so. My blog attracts women as well as men, but far more of the latter than the former.

The chief ‘benefit’ for most visitors, if I am basing it on their feedback, is inspiration. That is why some women visit; they can look past the suits, ties and shoes at the colour and pattern use and obtain ideas or inspiration for their own looks. The men come to get ideas for purchasing and composition as well as colour and/or pattern use and quite often ask explicitly about one of the items in the ‘outfit.’

I would estimate that the vast majority of the anonymous negative comments have been made by males. I say this because of the particular style and point of attack; most of them are stag-like in nature, rather than ridiculing, and therefore have a competitive, male tone to them that precludes female construction.

I think that overall, females are far more pleasant on average than males although it does depend on the age group. Middle aged to older men tend to be more reasonable and appreciative, whereas younger men are more competitive and harbour jealousy and resentment. Some comments from an anonymous poster I thought to be a young man referred to my being a ‘faux aristocrat’ because I took photos on a ‘grand, Georgian London street’ to make people believe I lived there. The fact that I do live on that street is not material. What is interesting is how they construct their challenges. It is based on challenging someone on their class, which includes their name and their style.

Certain men, probably of certain political leanings, cannot stand my name and consider it pompous and pretentious and even ‘made up’ in much the same way that they dislike my apparent ‘lifestyle’ and aesthetic ideas. They spend time visiting and commenting on a blog owned by someone they probably wish to physically harm, devoting considerable thought to the challenges they choose to conjure. Their purpose in this regard is perplexing to many who choose to pursue a ‘live and let live’ existence.

What is the best comment or the best type of comment you enjoy receiving?

Believe it or not, the best type of comment I enjoy receiving is constructive criticism. It’s pleasant to read things like ‘Brilliant outfit!’ and ‘Wow. I really like this look’ but it’s better to receive someone elses ideas as I would usually consider them in future alongside my own. Some people write things like ‘Nice jacket but the trousers don’t really work as they distract from the palette’ and many recipients of such a comment might choose to ignore it but I think it is far more interesting to acknowledge it and think about it seriously.

Other comments I enjoy receiving? I think everyone enjoys comments praising physical attractiveness or comparisons with famous heartthrobs. These comments are very very few, but it’s nice when you get them.

What are your motivations for creating outfit posts that are open for comments – what do you enjoy about it?

My original motivation was borne of frustration. I was annoyed that people accused me of spending fortunes on ‘obviously expensive’ clothing when other people had to shop on the high street. I myself was a keen high street shopper and very rarely ventured into expensive boutiques or purchased designer clothing. My girlfriend told me I should set up a blog that shows where my clothing comes from, so that people can see what sort of looks are possible with high street shopping and that it’s not all about trendy fashion, that you can attain looks of longevity, style, maturity and elegance from the stores that used to be laughed at by the fashion elite.

Isabel of Hipster Musings, “THE REVOLUTION STARTS HERE AND NOW within each one of us”.

What is the best comment or the best type of comment you enjoy receiving?

My favourite comments are ones that include suggestion. For example, if I mention a movie I recently watched or a musician I’ve been listening too lately I love it when people ask me if I’ve heard of “so and so” because usually I look into their suggestion and find it quite pertinent!

What do you think the main motivations for making a comment on an outfit post – positive or negative – might be?

Comments are a marketplace for getting noticed, I think. If you can write something positive and funny, then the blog you are commenting on will hopefully leave a comment in return. Circle jerk validation, really.

Do you think that on female style blogs, the comments are mostly by females, and on male style blogs, the comments are mostly by males? If so, do you have any idea why that is? Do you think that gender plays any role in the nature of the community and the commentary?

Well I mostly read ladies fashion blogs because I am a lady and I get inspired by their outfits and see what I can try out with my own wardrobe. That said, I really like The Dandy Project because Izzy’s style is so creative and DIY and his spirit really comes through in his writing and projects. If a fashion blogger is interesting, it doesn’t matter what their gender is – I’ll read it.

What are your motivations for creating outfit posts open for comments – what do you enjoy about it?

I guess I just like being validated by comments. Obviously, the more positive comments I get the better I feel! It doesn’t necessarily make me feel better than wearing the outfit already made me feel, but I’m just glad to know that other people like what I’m wearing too! Not too many of my friends are into fashion, so it’s fun to connect with people who are.

Barima of Mode Parade, “sartorial and pop culture dissection column”.

Do you think that on male style blogs, the comments are mostly by males, and on female style blogs, the comments are mostly by females? If so, do you have any idea why that is? Do you think that gender plays any role in the nature of the community and the commentary?

I do think that to be the case; I still remember being surprised that women liked my content enough to comment on it, and the other men’s style blogs I frequent have a mostly male clientele, though on the more “charming middle aged man’s lifestyle” sites, I think the gender ratio is closer to 3:2 in favour of men. I am certain that the commentary on women’s style blogs is overwhelmingly female.

Frankly, I’ve long suspected a herd or in-crowd mentality to much of the feting that can go with outfit posts. I think that very few of us genuinely like each other’s looks or like to lead each other down the garden path, which is a terrible consequence of groupthink, as well as one of looking for a star to follow. And much of it can be so fickle in that if a post garners less commentary than normal, these seemingly regular commenters either missed it or lack the balls to say what turned them off on this occasion.

What is the best comment or the best type of comment you enjoy receiving?

For outfits, the kind that is either insightful about what makes the ensemble work for them or wants to know more about a particular piece. For the other content, either an appreciation of my writing or extra information about the subject at hand. I enjoy learning from my semi-regular readers, though I also appreciate the bonhomie of the more regular commenters.

What is the worst comment or worst type of comment you have to deal with?

This is more germane to the forums I appear on – the insecure neuroses of the Nitpick Doyens generate the worst stuff, really. Someone once described them as “cowboys who beleieve that they’ve a better idea of how the clothes fit than the person wearing them.” It’s arriviste expertise, really. I take on all constructive feedback, but there’s no chance that I’ll pay heed to someone calling me ugly or too youthful looking, or who has a cripplingly narrow frame of aesthetic reference or other things like that.

Do you have any advice for dealing with negative feedback?

Don’t take it personally. Discern whether it has any utility and then respond accordingly.

What are your motivations for creating outfit posts that are open for comments – what do you enjoy about it?

I’ve chosen not to centre Mode Parade around the outfit posts for various reasons, although I recognise that they do attract a little more notice than my “bubbling under” writing does. I freely admit that it’s a narcissistic endeavour, but I also thought that they might be a useful documentation of how my presentation changes over time. And as regards style, it allows me to demonstrate my personal tastes to leaven out the focus on my opinions.

Jentine of My Edit, “a life between peep toes and steel toes”.

Do you think that on female style blogs, the comments are mostly by females, and on male style blogs, the comments are mostly by males? If so, do you have any idea why that is? Do you think that gender plays any role in the nature of the community and the commentary?

I would guess that 99. 6% (yeah, I checked… or not) of the comments on my blog are from females. I actually don’t read any male fashion blogs so I have no idea of their commentors. I do write and post with a female audience in mind. I am sure there are some guys who read my blog but I imagine my blog readership is a giant girly slumber party with pillowfights and a cupcake buffet.

What is the best comment or the best type of comment you enjoy receiving?

I get pretty tickled pink when people tell me that I inspired them to get to a thrift store. Also, funny and random comments make my day. I’ve met some really cool ladies like Merl and Emily through rambly back and forth commenting. I really appreciate anyone who takes the time to comment on one of my posts but the whole ‘follow me and I’ll follow you?’ thing is tedious.

Do you have any advice for dealing with negative feedback?

I have incredibly thin skin and I have always had a hard time taking criticism (I know, not the best quality) so perhaps I am not the best to give advice on this. I would recommend wine though. In all seriousness now, I think when you put yourself on the internet, you have to be prepared for some negative feedback at times. I think it’s important to determine if the negative feedback is just useless trolling or if it’s meant as constructive criticism or if it’s just a difference in opinion. Sometimes anything negative gets labelled as ‘haters gonna hate’ but maybe people are just trying to tell you something and there is something to learn from the comments.

What are your motivations for creating outfit posts open for comments – what do you enjoy about it?

As much as we pretend that it’s just a nice bonus, there is a certain amount of validation that does come from the comments on an outfit post. Yes, it feels nice to get comments and I love getting a reaction to what I write. It is the easiest way to keep communication open with your readers. I have met some really top notch ladies through the comment section and it is the oddest and coolest thing that I now consider some of my online friends as some of my closest friends.

Paris runway sketch – Amaya Arzuaga

When making show requests in Paris, I gave out two mailing addresses in case for whatever reason, one didn’t work out. After going to the first address and finding nothing (like Charlie Brown on Valentine’s Day) I was ready to resign myself to a tourist’s-eye-view of fashion week. Luckily at the second address, I found a few chunky envelopes with my own name on them, including Amaya Arzuaga.

I had seen the Amaya Arzuaga show last season – the style is very technically interesting, sculptural treatment of fabrics with a lot of bounce and body. A terrific show to sketch, even if it’s not exactly obvious where anyone could wear these creations. I did see a couple of the PR girls wear a somewhat tricky multi-layered pegged skirt from a previous season.

Getting a good spot to sketch while carrying a standing ticket is the eternal challenge, but for some reason the show wasn’t well attended. So I ended up sitting in the front row, which felt strange considering I’m such a foreigner in Paris. The venue was beautiful, an airy, wooden, windowed space overlooking the Seine. The clothes were studies in undulating organza and stiff taffeta. Abstract pastel things that obscured the slight shapes of the models.

I did about 7 or 8 loose sketches in quick succession at the show, the image below is an example.  I take them back to the office and try different treatments out on the ones that didn’t turn out to warm up, and then a more considered splash of colour on the ones I think did work out. The result is a single finished drawing, above.



media – Cosmopolitan Australia November 2011

Not so long ago, I was discussing a fascinating fashion-and-female-centric topic with a very smart woman, Rachel Hills, on a beautiful afternoon in Soho Square. The result – I am quoted in an article in the current issue of Cosmopolitan Australia, adding counterpoint to the discussion of It Girls.

Both Rachel and I have given some thoughtful exploration of the It Girl phenomenon on our blogs in the past. Some further reading:



click click – 09-10-11

Welcome to click click, the sporadic review of what I find worth clicking on the internet.

I was asked to render, in cosmetics, someone I consider a beauty icon. I chose Amelia Earhart. Thanks Sarah Nicole Prickett for an ace assignment. She’s doing cool and unusual things at the new Toronto Standard site – also check out Who’s Afraid of Kanye West, and the Uniform Project.

Karmarama for internet buddies –

drawing – Rokit x The Science of Style

I was asked by Sabrina of The Science of Style to create an illustration based on a 1950s look she styled for the windows of Rokit Vintage on Brick Lane. This bubbly bobby-soxer is the result.

And here is the window – on the left is a lovely illustration by Abigail Daker. If you’re on Brick Lane, you can also see amazing work by Emma Block and Charlotte Hoyle.