drawing – Fashion Futures 2012 entries

This was a serendipitous opportunity – I happened to run into a flatmate of an acquaintance in Rome while I was on vacation, and a classmate of theirs referred me to an organization in London called Fashion Awareness Direct. FAD is a bit like the Passion For Fashion in Toronto (where I taught an illustration session in 2009/10) – offering free fashion education and career-building opportunities to young people. If you’re a fashion professional interested in mentoring, or a young person curious about pursuing a career in fashion, you should check out FAD.

I was invited to sit in and sketch on a jury day for their Fashion Futures 2012 competition. The entrants were presenting their creative process, their sketches and muslin toiles of their designs. To sketch their ideas, I took a look at the toiles and guessed how they would look on models, so these drawings are from imagination except for the linear details of the garments.

From top left to bottom right, the designer’s names are Jakita, Randa, Robin, Sophia and Hazar.


click click – 27-03-12

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

Paisley is another example of a culture-crossing textile – check out the Guardian slideshow here.

A cup of karma, toasting new internet friends –

  • Calgary Fashion – asks me a few questions about fashion blogging mistakes and advice.
  • The Mod Social“fashion in the digital era”
  • Fashionarium“helping independent fashion designers & illustrators turn their ideas into businesses”

drawing – Sunstar Barbie for Butikofer

I drew this version of Barbie for my fashion designer friend Adrienne. It was for a competition. I was very pleased with how the illustration turned out and it also met with the approval of Adrienne’s 3 year old daughter. Even though we both thought that Sunstar Barbie was brilliant, the judges didn’t agree and she didn’t get to go to the finals. You can read the whole story on Adrienne’s blog. I love how she describes her creative take:

Barbie gets a hard time, a lot of the time. From Moms. From Feminists. From Feminist Moms. You know, everybody loves to hate Barbie, give her flack about her unachievable proportions, her being a bad role model for little girls. She is often acquiring another career to appease her critics, to make her more of an independent woman who is in charge of her own destiny. So my gal, Sunstar Barbie, is the antithesis to the criticism. She’s all about being the unapologetic center of attention, the centre of the universe, actually. She’s rockin in the free world, strutting her stuff, a happy, fun, shiny star.

I would totally buy this Barbie for my daughters. I didn’t want my design to have anything to do with sexiness, or even beauty (in the Barbie sense). I guess. But this Barbie is a dynamic, individual of a woman that I want to know more about.

Adrienne’s Barbie idea definitely had a better shot than mine did in 2004 – I guess there’s only so much subversion you can get away with when it comes to Barbie.

inappropriation – why fashion is a cultural scavenger

When I read about this UN expert stating that Rodarte’s Fall 2012 “Australian” inspired collection was offensive, I was… confused. The designers had licensed the images from the artist, so it wasn’t like they had done anything illegal or hateful. I couldn’t imagine the Rodarte sisters in their studio plotting to nefariously decontextualize Aboriginal art. What is cultural appropriation, anyway? And why am I so culturally insensitive that I can’t even tell when appropriation is offensive? Is there something wrong with me?

I don’t like to jump to conclusions so these questions led to a long line of online inquiry… and at the end of a long weekend reading all sides of a relatively new and controversial subject, I still feel ambivalent about it. A lot of what is written about cultural appropriation on the internet is very difficult for a new initiate to the subject to get into – much of what is available is accusatory and angry and doesn’t offer any clear directives. It seems like this kind of rhetoric builds a barrier to understanding what exactly the issue is, because it took me quite a while to find a demystifying description, and I don’t think most people would take that kind of time.

To get my problem out of the way first – I think the reason why I am culturally insensitive is twofold. One – I enjoy offensive stuff. To me, fashion needs friction to be interesting. The edges where fashion offends are where new fashions form. As such, I tend to view stuff that others perceive as offensive with detached curiousity. Two – I’m white, atheist, and have been raised with many privileges within the world’s most dominant culture. I have no experience of belonging to a distinct race, religion or culture, so my ability to truly empathize is limited. I have to be deliberate to be conscientious.

So, why are the Rodarte sisters culturally insensitive? Many critics suggested that the designers should have known better in the aftermath of the 2010 M.A.C. collaboration controversy, where the names of the cosmetic colours referenced a town in Mexico most famous for systematic violence against women. In that case, they released an official apology and retraction, and M.A.C. pulled the line and donated projected revenues to appropriate charities. Like many followers of fashion, it was the first time I learned the story of Juarez.

In all of the coverage of the controversy, I didn’t find anyone who asked why the inspiration referenced was so dark. The collection itself was, in my opinion, one of Rodarte’s career highlights – I even created a paper doll inspired by it. To me, Rodarte’s design identity belongs in the same category as artists like Lana Del Rey – let’s call it American Decay. Sadness and dissolution are part of the beauty. The sisters take a lot of their inspiration and identity (even their name) from the southwestern United States where they grew up and are still located. The Mexican border is close to home, and their natural proclivity as narrative designers towards creating sad beauty explains why they were drawn to Juarez because of, not in spite of, its tragic story. The distressed Quinceañera dresses created an indelible impression and were well received.

All of these are reasons are why Rodarte Fall 2010 was a successful collection in a creative sense – it told a story that obviously resonated with the artists – and in turn, their audience. The risk of cultural insensitivity in this case was well worth the artistic result. The makeup collaboration however, is by its very nature a commercial endeavour. This is why it diminished its source material, instead of honouring it.

So why did the Fall 2012 “Australian” collection also diminish its subject? To the critical eye, the pretty dresses with their printed motifs seem innocuous, even boring. As far as collections go, it was less successful in creative terms. Why would the sisters choose to source such distant reference points that resulted in a predictable, dull collection? Why did they choose to use the idea of Australia, rather than visiting the country itself?

Fashion designers tend to resort to appropriation once they’ve exhausted their own autobiographical resources. Yves Saint Laurent launched into a long series of appropriations in the seventies as his creative faculties were in decline. After abandoning the Dior tradition of using abstract “lines” labeled with letters of the alphabet, YSL found success culture-mining local European street style, the world of art, and his own childhood in Morocco. After that, then what? In his case, it was Orientalism.

Fashion is ever-hungry for novelty. While many designers start out using their own experiences as launching points, the ability to turn that into something new and unusual on a relentless six-month schedule is creatively exhausting for even the best and brightest. While it may seem like cultural appropriation is the lazier way out – and it is in the sense that infusing novelty from a diffuse dominant culture is near-impossible – you just wouldn’t accuse fashion designers of being lazy if you knew one or tried to be one. It is one of the most demanding creative professions both in terms of time and money. Why did the Rodarte sisters not take a trip to Australia? They probably would have loved to – what is most likely is they didn’t have the time – and if industry gossip is true, they don’t have the budget either. Fashionable appropriation just isn’t as great a money-maker as it was when Pierre Berge launched Opium in 1977.

Cultural appropriation is a risk that fashion designers take – sometimes garnering success and acclaim, and sometimes provoking offense and controversy. In either scenario, they’re staying in the game, where the rules state that boring the media means getting ignored by the media. So if designers can’t co-opt other people’s culture, what else can they do?

Tom Ford is the ultimate example of a designer who has remained true to his autobiographical antecedents. When he’s criticized, it’s for always doing the same thing regardless of what label he works at or how many seasons he’s presented riffs on the same self-centered obsessions. Because he’s Tom Ford, he doesn’t apologize. Ford is not in fashion to push it forward, it it is more important for him to trust his creative instincts. Most independent designers don’t have the sheer power to be able to get away with this kind of obstinate consistency and stay relevant.

The other option for narrative-driven first-world fashion designers is mining the many subcultures within the dominant culture rather than citing indiginous and endangered cultures. There are a vast array of examples of wild style tribes available in the margins of the mainstream – but that doesn’t mean that controversy is avoided by doing so, and the aesthetic variety is limited to post-modernism.

Perhaps these are the reasons why in the last decade, in terms of design, the major trend is towards creativity via technique rather than subject.

I like a cultural free market, because I want fashion to be as fascinating as possible. I think that it’s good for designers to risk offense. Offending people and provoking criticism has positive consequences for cultural awareness, whether indirectly by publicizing examples of oppression or directly by questioning the modern validity of traditional cultural practices. The risk of so much dismal rehashing of stereotypes is worth it for allowing the shocking possibilities of irreverence and audacity.

why fashion bloggers are more like designers than critics

Now that the picture is coming into focus, it is clear we chose the wrong frame.

In the earlier days of fashion blogging (2005-2007) we chose media as our antecedent. We thought blogging was going to revolutionize the way fashion was covered. How? It could be faster. Or maybe more reflective of real people. Hopefully, it was going to be less beholden to corporate interests.

The fashion media itself reflected this naive narrative right back at us through a filter of cynicism. We were interlopers, seat-stealers. We were characterized as teenagers and wannabes, in breathless awe, incapable of critical thought, and too easily bought. The bloggers vs. critics narrative was born, and persists.

Everyone was wrong. The journalists were wrong – and so were we. Fashion criticism is under threat from the mismanaged collapse of an obsolete corporate business model combined with influence financial and otherwise from fashion’s heavyweights. Is it really endangered by a bunch of misunderstood kids? Come on.

It’s like comparing szezont a fazonnalFashion writers pride themselves in cultivating distance from their subject, gather vast amounts of experience and knowledge, and expressing their analysis through writing. Their role is, ideally, as objective as possible.

Opposite – fashion bloggers are subjective. In fact, they are often their own subjects, and as such are wholly inseparable from their subject of choice. Rather than analytical, they are expressive.

As individuals inextricable from their medium, fashion bloggers share much more in common with designers than most fashion writers. Designers and bloggers both tend to work under their own name, and often use their own image as muse. They both tend to be intensely visual, and rarely articulate with words. Some of the tropes of fashion blogging – like the mood board – are literally imitative of how designers work – assembling pictures rather than words to build a visual diagram of what they represent. The outfit post, the street style shot echo the visual standard of designer’s output – croquis, runway exit.

Great bloggers are brilliant at expressing themselves through images and words – just like the most successful designers are. Media is not used to translate reality in an informative way, instead it is used to bring their personality to life in the imaginations of an audience. For lack of a better phrase – brand building. A vivid ability to create an impression shows the individual has the raw material for making a creative career. As a blogger myself I find the entire process to be far more intuitive and artistic than it appears – it comes from inside you.

As such, many talented bloggers are using media in the same way designers do – to expressively establish a reputation for their work, whether the career is blogging itself or something else – photography, styling, illustration, modelling, editing and of course writing. This means both bloggers and designers are economically chained to their cultural contributions – a terrible environment for encouraging critical thought.

If designers and bloggers belong in the realm of fashion’s id, fashion criticism is the ego. Fashion goes on regardless of whether it gets analyzed or not. In fact, journalistic criticism is relatively new – Horyn herself dates her craft to 1993. So, it is a mature cultural development that requires a sophisticated audience and a handful of professionals with significant experience and a unique complement of skills. No wonder they’re so rare – and that’s also why few bloggers will ever play that field.

Fashion critics do understand the importance of putting a face to the words – there’s a reason why Suzy Menkes styles her hair that way. Still, Menkes uses her own image as a tool, not as a muse. Her focus is outward, and she has a major non-fashion-industry employer to bulwark against money pressure, and those distinctions are why her and her colleagues are cut from a different cloth than the fashion bloggers they’re often compared to.

The heirs for criticism are on their way, because Horyn, Givhan, Menkes and others established an audience for it. A few online voices are carrying on the tradition of covering the shows with candour, intelligence, spirit and wit, and their experience is building with time. Excellent fashion criticism may be as rare as ever, and the profession will be forced to adapt within a changing system, but it is not endangered.

click click – 12-03-12

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

I found these photos of the zoot suit riots after reading this fascinating pdf sent to me by Ryan at Just Goods.

  • Nothing Was Desirable – a review of the documentary “Punk in Africa” via The Grumpy Owl. Punk subculture is an incredibly robust continuum – not dead. Young punks worldwide write their own lyrics about their own politics and put their own spin on style. See also: Heavy Metal Islam.
  • Revolutionary Road – revolution and religion is youth driven, and though it lacks a pop soundtrack it is not so far removed in a practical sense from how secular trends emerge and function.
  • The Curious History of “Tribal” Prints – what we describe as indigenous is far more international than we realize.
  • The beleaguered art of fashion criticism – this non-story has been making the rounds. There is a bit of irony in that critics feel free to criticize bloggers without genuinely investigating the spectrum of blogging. The crux of great criticism is an intimate understanding of what is criticized… and fearlessness.
  • Dark secret behind fashion for celebrity front rows – flashing lights have turned away from the designers, and designers are the ones who are paying for it. In the fashion biz, folks who don’t need the money get paid and those who do, don’t. Read a poignant vignette of how this plays out by Eva at Dressful.

Karma for electric friends –

  • Barry Lorne Freedman“spending enough days at the beach to have an almost permanent tanline”
  • Men’s Flair – thanks Winston for the Modecast review and recommendation
  • dear fashion newb“This is a retraction for everything that I have said or will say on this blog.”
  • à l’allure garçonniere – “The intention is to give voice to feminist concerns about fashion, to deconstruct, and to celebrate how liberating and exciting fashion can be for people.”

modecast – second edition

Modecast, the internet chat show on which Barima and I speak of style under the influence,  is coming back for a second edition… TONIGHT 9pm GMT/TODAY 5pm EDTRSVP here for your email reminder and go get your refreshments for a silly Sunday night in.

Watch live streaming video from modecast at livestream.com

And here it is! Last night’s topics included:

Want to see Modecast’s inauspicious debut? The recording, such as it is, is here.

fashion queens

Princesses are ubiquitous. Queens are epic. Here are a few of my favourite fashion queens.

Pharoah Hatshepsut

Her story is a dramatic one. She is a woman who crowned herself king – and recorded her image as a man’s. Hatshepsut represents a very calculated, symbolic image-making. This is what fashion queens have in common.

Empress Theodora

Another amazing story of transformation. Theodora remains a thoroughly charismatic enigma, a woman who used acting, style and bravado to win power and awe.

Queen Elizabeth I

Another story of an unlikely candidate seizing and holding power. She used her clothes as literal armour of wealth, covered with pearls and jewels, and a literal halo of a ruff. At a time when both kings and queens liked to power dress, she overpowered.

Marie Antoinette

I have to include her in every survey post I do, because she is the crux of modern femininity, or maybe a warning for what can happen when fashion takes over. Her use of image was amazing, prescient, ill-timed, and indelible. She may be dead, but her style returns to fashion over and over again.

Empress Eugenie

The second empire restored the silhouette of Versailles with generous skirts and nipped in waists and tons of jewels. The romantic and super-feminine look was wielded with expert womanly wiles by Eugenie – another story of intrepid social climbing with style.

Queen Alexandra

Her story is a sadder one, she doesn’t seem as much an agent of her own destiny as the others. But she is notable fashion-wise for bringing big emphasis to a collar of pearls, thus establishing the iconography for 20th century female power.

Jacqueline Kennedy

Though not a queen, she was a modern, mortal queen – she dressed the part as if she had been born for it. In simple, spare strokes she wore the crown and the pearls with perfect modern sense.

Queen Rania

She is the most compelling modern fashion queen, an elemental beauty and aware of how she presents herself. She is a living queen who lives up to her role.

coming up March 11 – modecast second edition

Modecast, the internet chat show on which Barima and I speak of style under the influence,  is coming back for a second edition. RSVP here for your email reminder and go get your refreshments for a silly Sunday night in.

Sunday March 11 2012 – 9pm GMT/5pm EST

Want to see Modecast’s inauspicious debut? The recording, such as it is, is here.

drawing – instructional illustrations for Colette Patterns

It may seem, from this blog, that I spend most of my professional life sketching at fashion shows and making pretty paper dolls. The lens of blogging can be a bit misleading because I also do a lot of hidden gigs – especially technical drawing and consulting. Having less glamourous work to do allows me the privilege of being choosier with my more creative projects.


Even though technical illustration may seem less enviable, I genuinely enjoy all types of work I take on. This type of project calls on my sometimes under-utilized specializations – like knowledge of garment construction and ability to sew. These instructional drawings were created for Colette Patterns, a home-sewing pattern company (with loads of adorable styles) based in Portland Oregon and shipping worldwide.