The Details of Well Made Fashion

I began
interviewing fashion designers at the age of 50 for a magazine in NYC - something I lucked into when I sent in three submission ideas in response to an ad they posted on Craisglist. I really had no idea what I was getting into. All I knew after I finished my first interview was that I loved hearing people share their stories.  What they did really didn't matter to me.

I grew up in a very humble family with limited income. My dad was minister. The focus was always on being of service and helpng others. Fashion didn't exist in this world. I was aware of what people wore in the media, but not the depth or extent of the industry.  When young, most of my clothes were hand me downs or sewn by my mother. As I grew, I learned to sew out of necessity, even taking two years of sewing classes in high school. The class was about the basic skill set, not about fashion in a broader sense - quality fabrics, tailoring, palette and silhouettes.

When I became co-owner of local fashion magazine, I walked into my first Vancouver Fashion Week with eyewear from Costco, a haircut by my husband (NOT a hairstylist), and clothes from Zellers (a cheap chain store).  My lack of knowledge meant I didn't notice how different I looked from everyone else in the media tent.  I was just excited to be there, to have a chance to see and learn. 

Over time, with the help of Shannon Belsito (former stylist at Jac by JC), Sue Randhawa (owner of The Optical Boutique), Myles Laphen (hair) and many other wonderful mentors, I slowly learned about dressing and styling.  It would be 7-8 years before I gained confidence in my decisions about what I wanted to wear and how to wear it.  

There was one thing I did bring to the table that many others in the fashion media lacked. That was years of sewing for myself, as well of five years creating custom dance costumes from jazz pants up to tutus. During that time I sewed until I couldn't look at my machine any more and I actually worn out the gears. I assumed other media had this same knowledge of construction and fabrics. Not true. They knew the industry, the history, the who's who, the season's palette and silhouettes.  Incredible knowledge. I envied them, but slowly became proud of what I brought to the table.

My sewing skills meant I experienced runway shows differently. I was interested in each designer as an artist and was intrigued by the details - what fabrics they incorporated, their use of color and prints, how their patterns were drafted, the technical quality of their sewing and finishing.  I remember once watching a runway show where I found myself leaning way forward in my seat.  The show was feminine suiting out of exquisite fabric, white with a beautiful watercolor floral print I think.  But what caught my eye and left me in awe was the most unique invisible seams and darts in unexpected places. I was entranced.  

I have no idea if anyone else caught this, but I was intrigued. I had a backstage pass, so at the break leapt out of my seat and ran to find the designer. I asked her how she learned to draft in such a unique way. She smiled and pointed to an older Japanese man sitting quietly next to her and shared, “This expert Japanese drafter is my mentor.”  Just wow!  To this day I still see remember her show.

Another Vancouver designer floored me one year by showcasing beautiful male and female classic pieces from a luxury woven fabric, but he cut the fabrics on a bias. You just don't do that in a structured garment. Bias gives. Yet his skill set was so high, he did it without anyone understanding why the garments fit so beautifully. I was in awe, and for the next 10 years mentioned that collection every chance I could. Oh that I had been smart enough to snag piece for my closet before they sold out.

There have been other times the drafting, design, construction or use of color and prints has sent me over the moon. I even bought a jacket from a design student right off the runway. The pattern had been cut apart into sections, the silhouette altered, then recreated into pieces that buttoned together with waves of fabric. And then there is the beauty of a truly luxurious quality fabric. The way it hangs, molds around the body an flows when the model walks can be breathtaking. 

Unfortunately, the love of and ability to recognize quality fashion seems to be getting lost today. It was a conversation I had with my lovely Italian friend who is living in NYC.  She goes back to Italy every year and is finding it harder and harder to purchase a well made garment that is special and unique - not just a basic. Some of it is the high cost of a well-designed, well-made garment created in a quality fabric.  Some of it is cost saving measures such as the use of cheap production factories.  Also, there is a rising focus on styles that either show lot of skin, or are created from odd pieces, loud colors and/or mixed prints. I love that style too, but it does not define everything that fashion is.

When it comes to recognizing quality, take the time to slow down and really look.  Do the seams lay flat or are they puckered? Are the side seams hanging straight or do the skew around the body. Do print patterns match at the seams. Is the silhouette balanced?  If something stands out, was it meant to or is it a distraction because the proportions are off? What does the fabric look and feel like?  Is it the right fabric for this type of garment? A structured garment like a suit should fit one way.  A softer flowing garment another. I sometimes pick a softer garment by up the hanger it is on and move it around to see if it swings softly and freely.  

I think fashion should also be fun.  Not everything has to be high end or super expensive. It's perfectly fine to have a patchwork Asian inspired dress that isn't perfectly made and pair it with a rubber chicken purse. I have just that outfit. I love walking around in a fashionable crowd showing off my chicken purse. It always brings a laugh and opens to the door to new connections. Just don't make the mistake in thinking that is all fashion is, or that it represents quality. Funky and fun is just one aspect. The next time you see me I might be in a clean-lined asymmetrical linen shirt and pants or classically clad I all black.  I love mixing it up.  

In the end people should wear clothes that make them happy, bring a smile to their face and put a skip in their step.  They should feel good in what they are wearing. Period. Whether that is funky mixed prints thrown together look, or exotic fashions, or classic silhouettes, it your right to choose.   I still think if you truly love fashion it's good to get to know enough to appreciate at least a little of the basics - tailoring, fabrics, balanced silhouettes and how they all come together - as well as what a luxury natural fabric is. This foundation will help you recognize the designers who are true artists. Their incredible talent combined great training and a strong understanding of fashion's foundation allows them to break the rules in unique and fabulous ways. 

I get sad when I only get attention for my fun, flashy clothes. As a sewer, I love my well made, classic pieces with a more subtle aura absolutely as much.  Their tailoring and beautiful fabrics warm my soul. Flash, however, seems to be where the focus is for now. I am hoping like all things it is a trend and people will find their way back to a place where they can again appreciate the subtle beauty in the details of quality creations.  

To help
this happen, I feel we need sewing classes offered in  high school again. It would help future adults gain an appreciation of these skills from a young age. We need more adult sewing classes and a way to lure new sewers in. And we need access to quality fabrics in our local fabric stores. The last time I was in, I couldn't see many available and left discouraged.

Here's to fashion. Let it feel good to wear and give you joy. May you build a relationship with your clothing that works for you. May what you wear express who you are. And may your closet not be one note, because you are not one note.