on judging fashion design

I have an abiding curiousity on how good design gets defined. We all think we know it when we see it, but really, what is a good fashion design and who has the authority to decide?

Having watched far too many seasons of Project Runway lately, I find the plight of the judges an interesting one, not to mention the online judging of the judging. Things can get heated and seem a little ridiculous. Both the Biddell-boosters and the Lucian-lovers accuse eachother of a lack of knowledge and taste. The odd angel of peace might suggest that it is different strokes for different folks, but is it really?

Being immersed within to the idea of fashion, I can not help but look at every outfit I see and get a visceral sense that what I am seeing is either right or not right. I seem have to developed this peculiar instinct a great deal and I am obviously not the only one. They call it taste – but what is it?

Paul Graham’s essay Taste for Makers expressed something I had struggled to articulate for a while.

Saying that taste is just personal preference is a good way to prevent disputes. The trouble is, it’s not true. You feel this when you start to design things.

As in any job, as you continue to design things, you’ll get better at it. Your tastes will change. And, like anyone who gets better at their job, you’ll know you’re getting better. If so, your old tastes were not merely different, but worse. Poof goes the axiom that taste can’t be wrong.

Relativism is fashionable at the moment, and that may hamper you from thinking about taste, even as yours grows. But if you come out of the closet and admit, at least to yourself, that there is such a thing as good and bad design, then you can start to study good design in detail.

It is interesting that he says that relativism is fashionable, because there are certain aspects of good fashion that have nothing to do with good design. Graham goes on to list the attributes of good design that are easy to define and hard to disagree with.

One tenet, “Good design is timeless”, shows where good fashion diverges from good design, which Graham describes this way:

Aiming at timelessness is also a way to evade the grip of fashion. Fashions almost by definition change with time, so if you can make something that will still look good far into the future, then its appeal must derive more from merit and less from fashion.

Recently I linked industrial designer Philip Starck’s talk at TED, where he discusses the purpose of design.

Because there is different types of design. The one, we can call it the cynical design, that means the design invented by Raymond Loewy in the ’50s, who said, what is ugly is a bad sale, La Laideur se vend mal, which is terrible. It means the design must be just a weapon for marketing, for producer to make product more sexy, like that, they sell more, it’s shit, it’s obsolete, it’s ridiculous. I call that the cynical design.

After, there is the narcissistic design; it’s a fantastic designer who designs only for other fantastic designers. [laughs]

After there is people like me, who try to deserve to exist, and who are ashamed to make this useless job, who try to do it in another way, and they try, I try, to not make the object for the object but for the result, for the profit for the human being, the person who will use it.

Watching Starck talk through the lens of fashion makes me laugh. Certainly good fashion can be both cynical and narcissistic, and not even useful. I think it is valuable to view fashion through the lens of other types of design, because at a basic level all great design has to serve the needs of human beings – but as the black sheep of human design disciplines, fashion’s first responsibility has nothing to do with deserving to exist. I think it has to do with timing.

When it comes to fashion, I think most people develop and exercise their taste on a garment-by-garment basis. It is up to those who have developed a credibility for their sense of taste – usually professional editors or designers – to evaluate entire collections and by extension the designers, though some of us like to stretch our taste muscle by trying. The spread of street-style has encouraged people to evaluate fashion by the composition of an outfit.

Still, I think there is a lot to be said for isolating a single garment as a taste test. After all, garments are the basic component of all fashion, and most people purchase their clothing one garment at a time. I am no math genius, but I am certain that the combination of every choice of garment, whether to wear or buy, with each choice weighted by the relative level of taste of the chooser, could probably be assembled into a reasonable equation that would make some sense of whatever good fashion is at the time.

Having had the privilege to work with designers as they develop and edit their collections, I often have the opportunity to discuss what makes a garment work or not. I have a little theory which I use to help me evaluate a garment which I think is both measurable and an indicator of taste. It is sort of an inverted triangle.

  1. The most basic and important attribute of a good design is feel. This means the fabric, and also to a certain extent the fit. No matter how beautiful or ingenious a design is, if the fabric is rough, stiff, or cheap-feeling, if the garment feels too heavy, awkward or challenging, it will most likely never make it out of the closet and will have failed as a fashion. I think the idea of “quality” is inherent in the feel of a garment. In a store, I always touch before I look. I think this is something that most people do reflexively. The amount of awful-feeling clothes out there shows how many designers ignore the basic senses of their customers.
  2. The next most important value is colour. The right or wrong colour can make or break a design – even if the garment feels terrific, the wrong colour will still keep it from being worn. Owning these first two attributes are enough to build a very successful company on – i.e. American Apparel or J.C. Penneys.
  3. Timing is the third most important value and the one aspect that is most dependent on taste to be properly identified. It is hard to really be able to tell definitively if a design looks “now” or not unless you have trained your eye and your sense of taste for a long period of time. Being able to design garments that have these first three attributes is a recipe for success. If a designer is a household name, you can be sure that they understand the power of feel, colour, and timing.
  4. The last item on my little checklist is the design of the garment. To me, it does not matter how clever or innovative a particular choice of seams and trims might be, unless it addresses the first three items on the list it is narcissism of limited value as either fashion or design. There are very few designers in the world who manage to master feel, colour, timing, and design, and the ones who do become legends.

How do you judge the value of a fashion design?  Is good fashion subjective?

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11 thoughts on “on judging fashion design”

  1. For me, I look at design concepts from four main categories: a) producibility (can it be manufactured?), b) product management (whose line it is?), c) product development (how much to produce it?), and d) commercial appeal (who will buy it? and how much will they spend?).

    After that business look-see, I then consider how refined the concept is. Those that have a lot of iteration left receive lower priority – the concept is just too changeable at this point.

    I then consider construction. If there are other fabric choices that speak to a specific market segment, I’m interested in whether the design can be executed in the “right” fabric. This could distort my original snapshot of how much iteration is required to make the concept market ready.

    Fit – I’m not so much concerned with this on the runway, per se. Yes, I need to understand the silhouette the designer is reaching for. But, I’m not looking for a flawlessly executed concept garment. That’s the technical part of the job that happens in the pattern room. If the designer has articulated the market, accurately, the patternmaker can get the information and fitting models to achieve the right fit.

    As a Consumer, though, I’m horrid. If I walk into Dillard’s to buy a pair of chinos, I want to know why it’s worth my $60. I turn the garment inside-out and look for “cheats” in the production. The more there are, the less likely I am to buy. If I see fair construction and fair fabric for the price point, I’ll then try them on for fit. Maybe 20% pass the first filter.

  2. JC how you describe your first filter as a consumer is how I imagine my first filter as well, which I described as feel. A garment with the right feel is a very persuasive thing.

    I also wanted to de-emphasize quality and fit as part of “feel” – they are there but the overcomplicate the essence of what I mean. For instance, AA doesn’t have fabulous quality – but their colours and fabrics are just right.

  3. To answer to your last questions, i will answer it simply; the value of a good design is how much are people willing to pay for it, just as for an art piece.
    for question two, yes, good design is subjective. Different people have different tastes and likings therefore what is good for me might not be for others. Having said that, i feel that famous designers have great influence on people on whats are great designs and at the same time propel the industry towards the direction they want.

  4. I think good design is objective and subjective. Dressing reminds me of language. Grammar has rules but the speaker decides what to say. We employ clothes like people employ words. And, not surprisingly, most people talk a lot of shit and gibberish.

    With a suit, everything breaks down to the fit. The louder the suit, the better the fit has to be. If it’s a grey pinstripe, then the fit – while still important — is less important than with a noisy suit.

    There’s a direct but limited relationship between how well a suit fits and how assholeish a suit is allowed to be. A complete asshole suit demands a perfect fit.

    I’ve loved and rejected many great asshole suits because the sleeves were a bit short and I’ve bought a lot of otherwise bad suits because the fit was right.

    It’s all fit.

  5. Angelyn, thanks for commenting. I am not sure that I agree with the idea that the value of a design is equal to the market value of a design, but it definitely worth considering.

    Ryan, I find it interesting that you say fit is less important with a quiet suit – it seems to me when fabric is loud the seams and fit are less noticeable, but then you are the more experienced voice here. I like how you compare sartorial choices to language, I think that is a pretty apt analogy.

  6. Fit is still important with a quiet suit – you just get more bang for your buck. Whereas you need a perfect fit to even wear a loud suit, a perfect fit with a sedate suit is a great thing. See what I mean?

    And I really enjoyed the Paul Graham essay you linked to. That fellow has it right.

  7. I’m glad you finally wrote about this; how long ago did we chat about this? I took notes but couldn’t find them. From the same essay, what resonated most with me was:

    Good design is hard…Whatever job people do, they naturally want to do better. Football players like to win games. CEOs like to increase earnings. It’s a matter of pride, and a real pleasure, to get better at your job. But if your job is to design things, and there is no such thing as beauty, then there is no way to get better at your job. If taste is just personal preference, then everyone’s is already perfect: you like whatever you like, and that’s it.

    Iow, so if good design boils down to personal taste preferences, it means there’s no way to get better at what you do. How depressing. Put in this context, we realize it isn’t true so how do you get better? Again, Paul Graham says you must copy; specifically, other than to copy what you like, you must:

    Be careful to copy what makes them good, rather than their flaws. It’s easy to be drawn into imitating flaws, because they’re easier to see, and of course easier to copy too. For example, most painters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries used brownish colors. They were imitating the great painters of the Renaissance, whose paintings by that time were brown with dirt. Those paintings have since been cleaned, revealing brilliant colors; their imitators are of course still brown.

  8. Kathleen, thanks for adding the link to the Copy What You Like essay. It adds another dimension.

    re: “if good design boils down to personal taste preferences”

    What I took from it is that good design boils down to good personal taste preferences. I think I mean taste has value too; and that good taste is a real thing, and it is something that is developed. So, personal taste is subjective, but good taste is not subjective.

  9. ok i love thinking about fashion but in my criteria i am well only 11 but i have what they say “a free mind ” becuse well i never get writers block always have something to write about always keep getting good ideas for like fashion ideas but the only thing is that i well can draw i mean i need to draw my ideas but i obiously have no way i mean i cant draw but i am telling i am great at it and i need someone like well i draw the disign and someone makes the outfir for me and we split the money or something oh i am also great at dancing and singing well i will become a great actor p.s. wonderfull digigns

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