Moda Uomo fall 2012 sketchbook

Moda Uomo was my first fashion week this year. It was also my first time in Milan, and I thought that perhaps the menswear week would be a little bit calmer and easier to penetrate than Moda Donna. Milan intimidates me, to be honest. It seems very corporate and not as indie-blogger-friendly as other cities, and my Italian is non-existent. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that these fears were, if not unfounded, unnecessary, as I picked up five invitations in Milan just for the trouble of asking.

My first show was Corneliani – the morning was chilly and we got off at the wrong bus stop so we hustled through frosty streets to get to the venue – a design museum. The runway was one of the longest I’ve ever seen and curved, with watery blue projections along the curved wall. The clothing was very clean and careful, grey clusters of grown-up wool suits and handsome, substantial bags.

I have to admit that during Frankie Morello, I was so distracted by the show I forgot to draw it. I love seeing showmanship (literally) on the runway – it’s too rare. Morello sent out punky clubbers bristling with nails and fur and cool downtown boys in beanies, which gradually relaxed into hippie-dudes with bindis and sarongs. For the finale the model’s sarong hung dangerously low until it was dropped with a flourish. Morello literally had the entire crowd leaning forward in their seats and practically salivating. Now that’s runway.

The John Varvatos show was another highlight. Inside a shabby church with chipped plaster and a faded painted angels on the walls and ceiling, they reproduced a bit of Central Park and sent down a series of exquisite New-York-style imaginary boyfriends. I loved drawing this show. The other fun part of this show was getting to sit with the team from Holt Renfrew and for the first time having the opportunity to introduce myself to a Canadian fashion inspiration, Barb Atkin. I was not expecting to see a familiar face in Milan, so this made me smile.

Iceberg had a modern-times backdrop and a bit of Charlie Chaplin rumpled flair. Bowler hats tipped-back, big cardigans and hands in pleated pants-pockets. As a proposal for menswear it was charming – but somehow it didn’t inspire my best work. Perhaps because I switched to markers from watercolours at this point, I was still getting a handle on a new medium.

The final show, Gazzarrini, was the show that was perhaps the most peculiar. It doesn’t take much in menswear to cross over from interesting to implausible. If I met someone wearing these clothes in real life, I would find this person a somewhat strange character. Pin curl pompadours, funnel necks, very high-waisted trousers, and a pop-o-flouro palette.

As usual, you can see the development of sketching over the course of the week – stiffer at Corneliani and very loose and abstract by Gazzarrini.

I did find my first menswear week to be much more chilled out than any womenswear week I’ve attended – perhaps giving a taste of what fashion weeks were like in the pre-blogger days. I saw only a small handful of street style photographers and met only a couple other bloggers – though of course the shows I attended were not the hottest tickets. It did feel like there was space for everyone that wanted to be there. And of course, the people-watching was wonderful – folks were well-dressed and well-groomed, and there were very few show-ponies.

live runway sketch – John Varvatos Fall 2012


My whirlwind tour of Italy  is concluded, and I’m sifting through a pile of sketches at my desk now. To place-hold while I catch up, here is the most successful live sketch, completed while the show was in session. John Varvatos presented a lineup of New York rock-star crush objects which seemed to inspire some of my better work.

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.

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.


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.



Fashion Fringe sketches

Thanks to Colin McDowell and the Design Museum, I had the lucky chance to sketch at the Fashion Fringe show. The live version is on the left – the more polished version is on the right. Click for big.

Fyodor Golan was the night’s award winner.

Heidi Leung, my personal favourite. (See a slide of the rough overlaid with the final here.)

Nabil El-Nayal, the crowd favourite.

photos from Cristina Sabaiduc 18-09-11

Cristina Sabaiduc‘s audacious London debut. This is an image of the rehearsal. You can see the magnetic garments clinging to the back wall there. Cristina dressed her models in these modular effects as they walked around the block. Check out her full collection here.

The video is off the hook.

CRISTINA SABAIDUC SS12 Motion from Cristina Sabaiduc on Vimeo.

My sketches and notes from the show are here.

This wonderful candid was captured by Lynsie Roberts. See more of Lynsie’s shots at her site.  Emma and I were absorbed in sketching by Cristina’s runway. Emma Block does brilliant illustration with a delightful collage technique.


five ways to end your fashion design career

Christobel Balenciaga chose when to retire, saying “it’s a dog’s life”. It is a rare designer who can exit so gracefully. From history, here are five more ways to drop out as a fashion designer.

1. Sell Out.

Halston had genuine talent, sublime taste, and a compelling personality. But his career ended prematurely, and he lived out the end of his days in gilded isolation, designer no more. How?

  1. Sell your company for an outrageous amount of money.
  2. Party like no party animal has ever partied before, because you can. After all, your glamourous lifestyle in no small part defines your brand.
  3. Be the “consummate professional” by refusing to delegate anything.
  4. Why be satisfied with mere millions of dollars? License your name until it loses its lustre. Forget you said “you’re only as good as the people you dress.”

2. Fade Out.

Christian Lacroix is an expert colourist who revels in embellishment, celebrating the history and craft of French couture with signature verve.  Lacroix’s star never manifested in a way that matched his considerable talent. Why?

  1. Start your career with a one-hit-wonder (the pouf skirt) which is a pure trend item. Little-girl inspired clothing at prices only rich old ladies can afford.
  2. Nurture an over-the-top design style which appeals only to a small niche and is difficult to translate into accessories or ready-to-wear.
  3. Earn the faith and support of businessmen who should know better. Launch a business which fails to profit, ever, over the course of a decade.
  4. Produce your final collection on a shoestring, destined never to be delivered anywhere, and receive applause for belonging to an era of fashion which was ending just as you began your career.

3. Fall Out.

Ossie Clark was a designer whose designs not only resonate with fashion, but were created using masterful techniques. Clark never managed, and maybe never even really tried, to translate design genius into an empire. How?

  1. Be impractical, especially when it comes to money. Disregard dull matters of business.
  2. Live in the present moment, fully. Hang with rock stars. Work manically. Party hedonistically.
  3. Get bailed out by a high-street shop. Chafe at the restrictions of designing for mass production.
  4. Be difficult. Meet your Waterloo in the form of a complex, unmanufacturable sleeve inspired by shells. Get fired.

4. Flame Out.

John Galliano is a devourer of inspiration who produced transgressive, hyperactive runway fantasies that resurrected that sleeping giant of a couture house, Christian Dior. But his career is ending in disgrace. How?

  1. Enter a five+ year design funk. Raising the bar on past transgressions using the same techniques you always have delivers diminishing returns.
  2. Deal with your fading fortunes by turning to drink and drugs. Surround yourself with famous, sympathetic sycophants who shrug off your dependencies as if they are adorable quirks.
  3. Drink alone in public places, and wait for provocation. And then say the most provocative, illegal things you can think of, because you deeply crave some kind of reaction, any reaction.
  4. Become a victim of modern surveillance culture, and receive career-destroying blowback beyond your wildest expectations.

5. Eat Out.

Rudi Gernreich was a true fashion innovator with a keen ability to cook publicity into his designs, pushing the envelope of modernity and taste. His various attempts to sell out never came to any lasting fruition. In a bizarre branding derailment, his final venture lent his name to a line of soup. How?

  1. Generate large amounts of publicity. Be better at spreading ideas than selling clothes.
  2. Stay resolutely West Coast. Location matters – even more so half a century ago than it does today.
  3. Design yourself into a corner – deconstruct swimwear to the point that it barely exists, push androgyny to the level where tension between gender conventions is a moot point.
  4. Never mind fashion, make soup. Soup is more nutritious than fashion.