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.