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business of fashion

The Design Process: The crux

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The Design Process: The crux

The Crux has become a staple item for the Starkweather collection, but where did the idea come from? 

The inspiration

My design process for Starkweather has always started by looking at images of explorers, and rural portraits, where people weren't concerned about fashion – they were concerned primarily with function - yet they still would find ways to add character and identity through their clothes. This manifested in distinctive layering, embellishment, color, pattern, and modification. 

It fascinated me how across many cultures, the chest and neck area are like canvases for decoration. This happens in cold and hot climates, alike. And subconsciously those shapes, centered around the neck and torso, became a focal point of my creative development for Starkweather.

Kicking Bear // Oglala Sioux

Kicking Bear // Oglala Sioux

Slick Rick ca 1988

Slick Rick ca 1988

A turkmen woman of the goklan tribe in jargalan, Bojnord // Nasrollah Kasraian

A turkmen woman of the goklan tribe in jargalan, Bojnord // Nasrollah Kasraian

ca 1900 // Sarte Woman, Uzbekistan

ca 1900 // Sarte Woman, Uzbekistan

Dogon Shaman, Mail

Dogon Shaman, Mail

Norway, Hardangerjoklen, ca 1908. // Anders Beer Wilse

Norway, Hardangerjoklen, ca 1908. // Anders Beer Wilse

How would all of these colorful, textural, unique designs apply to an environment like the one pictured above? It is in the imagination and through design that these cultures can collide...

It seemed natural, after a point, that that part of the outfit should not only take on it's own identity, but that there were real functional benefits to developing it that way...

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Re-imagined as the Crux...in it's purest form

With so many more ideas for the future, it is always a huge challenge to pare an idea down to its simplest form. This is the T-Crux: Starkweather's most essential interpretation of the crux concept. Essential, because it becomes a blank canvas for so many future ideas, and because it represents the core concept of adaptability. On one hand, it offers adaptability for the wearer to make it their own, and on the other hand, it offers adaptability in its own design. 

Fall I // Nude Cashmere Wool

Fall I // Nude Cashmere Wool

Fall II // Burnt Ochre Bouclé Wool

Fall II // Burnt Ochre Bouclé Wool

If you would like to learn more about the Starkweather layering system, click here.

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Starkweather and Barns

What does Starkweather have in common with barns?

One of my favorite books on Barns. An in depth study from Eric Sloane

One of my favorite books on Barns. An in depth study from Eric Sloane

Going back into documents from the early days of Starkweather, I dug up some great juice that has been absorbed into the DNA of the brand but that I rarely think of anymore. There are certain subjects that I have always been drawn to and that resurface across all areas of my work and projects, my own philosophies of living, and my design preferences as an aesthete and observer. I have collected hundreds of images, dozens of books and life experiences in locations that tie back to these themes. It’s that natural pull that guides our choices, designs our environments, and brings us close to people who share our affinities or who want to learn more about them from us. Some of those for me are space travel and future technologies, Native American culture and binary design, and American barns.

An image and concept description from the original Starkweather business plan.

An image and concept description from the original Starkweather business plan.

We were told in design school that, if we had our own businesses, designing would become about 10% of our job. And that has turned out to be 100% true. It has been almost six months since I picked up a pencil and paper to lay down a new design, as I have been completely focused on the design of my business.

Remembering where the garment design comes from is not on the top of my mind, because now I am seeing the garments as products and numbers rather than art or creations. This is strange and satisfying in its own way, but I miss the sensation of putting something down on paper and watching it come to life through the prototyping and sampling process. Then the moment of first seeing it in motion, on the body.

I miss digging through image libraries to find that graphic or rural portrait that informs the lines of a design or leads to the cross disciplinary (with biology, in this case) design of the crux. I miss the imagination I have when my brain is full of the visual references that fill up and mix up in my mind to create new compositions and arrangements that I can put down on paper, adding my own images to the world. And the curious dreams that I have after this research is done.

A page out of the book An Age of Barns, by Eric Sloane

A page out of the book An Age of Barns, by Eric Sloane

Sometimes it’s not the most fantastical, but the most pragmatic that blows my mind. The North American barn, for example, keeps me constantly in awe. Cross state lines, all over the country, cross generations, new and old, modernized and defunct, they all share one fundamental design principle: every structural decision is made with function in mind. This means that, if you close your eyes and picture a barn, what you'll see in your mind's eye is much like the image of a barn 200 years ago. The function has not changed, so the design has not changed. It is only optimized by scale and, advances in construction methods and building material. For hundreds of years we see it repeating itself in the way of the tried and true.

A second image and note from the original Starkweather business plan.

A second image and note from the original Starkweather business plan.

And while I haven’t looked at my books on American Barns for ages and that phase of my research has long been over, that sentiment still resonates with me fully.

This is what I hope for Starkweather, that the design of the business and the design of the garments will follow the path of the barn. That they will serve their function and be beautiful in their minimalism and enhance the landscape while also representing the hard work that takes place within those walls. That they will adapt to improvements in structural integrity, but outside of the pressures of trend and fad, and that they will stand the test of time.

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Instead of Fashion House Musical Chairs…

Why not repurpose the resources expended when putting a new designer at the head of an existing design company? The idea is to empower them by making the collection their own, even until they grow old and retire, much like for the designers who created these businesses. While the existence of the major luxury houses was made possible by Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Cristobal Balenciaga, their names now keep a kind of shadow over the design world. To take this approach would be a bigger gamble, maybe, and there might be some precious years in between where the decision makers, head hunters, chess players, don’t get it quite right (any designer at Paco Robanne since 1999) or it goes terribly wrong (John Galliano at Dior) later on, those seasons will either become undesired vintage, or the museum collection's rarest of all gems.

Dior by Raf Simons

Celine by Phoebe Philo

Louis Vuitton by Marc Jacobs

Hermès by Whoever’s-After-Lemaire?

Etc.


When I first made this suggestion to a friend, I was a bit more radical about it. (Ditch the Dior entirely and just call it Raf Simmons, for God’s sake) but the re-branding that would require is too momentous for any business, understandably. So simply change the label and change the attitude and expectations. Consumers will learn from us, if we show confidence, speak of longevity, and write reviews that show excitement and must-haveness.

And it really does get tiresome, the goings on back behind the scenes and in the board rooms and calculating the bottom line. If you consider the designer a commodity, they will feel it and want to leave. But, my theory is that if you treat the designer like the creative genius that he/she is (or that you must believe he/she to trust them at the helm in the first place) and give realistic goals and realistic critiques and surround them with a team who understand how to bring out the best in them and make the machine run smoothly, they will want to stay. And they will make you money. Premium salaries can be sedated a bit and drama and law suits can be avoided and this confusion that is a melting pot of lost identity, on the part of the designers and the brands, can instead begin to define new and pure distinguishing factors. Otherwise, once the lineage of all the houses begin to look the same, we'll just end up with more cross-referencing, more archive replicating, and more firing and more hiring (with ever elevating salaries and expenditures) if something doesn’t give.

Not to mention it is TOO much to have designers splitting their time between their own design businesses while also acting as the head designer or creative director for a major global brand. This can be 16 collections a year, give or take a couple of seasons, endless travel, and two teams to manage...it's just too much. The two can be one and the same: their own label, for all intents and purposes, and the major global brand.

Also, is it ridiculous to anyone else that the most common metaphor for this shuffling around is that of a children's game? Musical chairs is fun and all, but it's not an exciting spectator sport, especially when the game is rigged by those who have money on the outcome. 


The most important things needed for this change:

New Main Labels. (I’ve already taken the liberty of creating a few. I’ll send the invoice later, thank you.) (So, Check.)

A handful of Designers who have proven themselves over and over again no matter the name on the roof over their head (Check.)

Design houses that want consistency in their image and trust in the loyalty of their customer (Check.)


The closest thing towards this new system would be the dramatic and controversial revamp of the Yves Saint Laurent label, now Saint Laurent, under Hedi Slimane (I was recently trying to find it under the ‘Y’s on Style.com…oh yes, the name had a face lift). There are so many different ways this brand redesign can occur, and the right designer with the right team could work a magic in the fashion landscape if we just let them create without restricting them. Phoebe Philo or Alber Elbaz could be considered close in second, as the Céline label, for example, was all but dead until she made it the most forward and coveted (and expensive) collection of the fashion season. Why in the world is it not called Céline by Phoebe Philo? And even if it’s not on the label, and she is much less in the public eye than, say, Alexander Wang, she certainly has come to personify the look that she creates each season. 

If Ghesquiere had been able to make Balenciaga his own, the story might not have ended like this.


This does negate the prediction that the era of designer as celebrity coming to an end. But, for real, when the departure of a head designer from a luxury company is still making all the major headlines is this really going out of style?

Then again I could get behind that movement, too…We can talk about that later, though.

Either way, let's quit playing games. 



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Let's Talk About Sweat, Baby!

On a hot day in the city, those who know the hot weather and its exhaustive dehydrating effects behave differently than on other days. They walk more slowly, they hug the sides of buildings to receive their shade, they eat juicy fruits and they carry fans. They dress differently, too. A quick study of the attire of non-western populations in desert or tropical climates, except for where western sartorial codes have been adopted, will show people almost entirely covered in cotton or other plant fibers, either fitted and brightly printed, or soft light colors hanging away from the body.

In the west we tend to go by the philosophy the less fabric the better, which directly contradicts the methods of the more savvy communities who cover up for protection from the sun while assuring ventilation and breathability through silhouette and textile selection.

While the cotton tunic and loose pant combo is not suitable for most western men or women because our sartorial sensibility is so different, they serve to suggest how irrational our thinking is when it comes to dressing for hot weather. The less fabric the better philosophy can only get us so far. While the billowy tunic is not a global solution, we have the resources and high-tech capabilities so that we don’t need to fall back on low-tech solutions that aren’t right for us. What we need are innovators in textile and fashion design who will think like active wear designers in that our bodies have functions that we need to work with not fight against or try to hide and contain.  

In cities where we see all four seasons, the mentality is also very different because we don’t think of our environment as a hot or cold climate, it just happens to get very hot sometimes and very cold other times. So we have tiny little clothes for summer, and big puffy things for winter, and in between things that we try to adapt by looking at the weather and inferring, “maybe I should bring a sweater.” But just as down coats are better left on the ski slopes, mini short & crop top combos are better left on the beach, and if we thought more scientifically about our bodies, designing clothes thoughtfully for the weather, we could offer a much more balanced year round wardrobe.


I am not immune to miscalculated dressing, either. Today as I write this I am wearing a silk blouse with just a hint of a sleeve that puffs over my shoulders. It is a warm day, warmer than it’s been, and the sun is out. I was walking from one meeting to another, between 11 and 11:25. In that time, the sun is almost at the top of the sky, so neither side of the sidewalk offers refuge in the shade of the buildings. There was only the option of slowing down a bit so as not to break a sweat. That lasted all of a couple of blocks before I realized my pace had picked up, just out of habit, like your foot slowly pressing down on the gas pedal, and that I could feel the dampness of my back where the blouse was sticking between my shoulder blades.

 

I have sympathy for men everywhere who are required by society and corporate dress codes, to wear a suit all year round. I love the way men look in suits, and would never want that look to go away, but I understand the issue about finding the perfect undershirt, for example, to make it possible to maintain dryness and crispness all day, all year. And while the search for the perfect undershirt has a lot to do with the fit, so that it is snug and not sloppy, it is also about the temperature regulation and how it deals with sweat.

From: The Art of Manliness

From: The Art of Manliness

Men and women alike, we’ve all been in the situation where we get warm only to take off our jacket and reveal some awesome pit stains or spinal stripe of sweat down our back. Sweat is good, natural, healthy, but also socially taboo. Either we all learn to let it all hang out and embrace our moistness, or we accept that there is an issue with the way we cover our bodies. Other animals, on a hot day, must find us ridiculous. And think about all the clothes we’ve ruined by sweat stains that eventually become more and more difficult to erase from the memory of the fabric.

This might open a Pandora’s box of people jumping up with excitement that they have been granted the acceptance to spend their lives in athletic wear. In no way am I making that argument. I am suggesting not that we dress in clothes that exist for sweating in the form in which they exist today, but to problem solve as designers and find a way to make our clothes work more harmoniously with our bodies.

Next time you’re out in work or civilian clothes and your sweat glands start to go berserk, think about what you’re wearing, what’s working and what’s not, whether behavioral changes would help, or if it’s all about the apparel. Clothes that are made for the functions of the body, including sweat, not simply the movements of the body, will last longer and keep us more energized and more comfortable.

With problems like this to solve, and the technological capabilities to do so, the role of the designer has the potential to evolve past aesthetics without compromising those aesthetic values. This is our mission, should we choose to accept it.

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The Shot Callers of the Fashion Capitals

In each fashion capital there is an entity that orchestrates fashion weeks and upholds the standards of their country's position in the fashion world: The Council of Fashion Designers of America out of New York, the British Fashion Council out of London, In Milan the Camera Nazionale della moda Italiana, and in Paris, the Fédération Française de la couture, du prêt-à-porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode–That last one is quite a mouthful–And there's another chapter of the authority in Paris, The Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, which presides over the Haute Couture classifications and organization of Haute Couture Fashion Week. 

While they act more like men behind the green curtains, they are arguably the most important decision makers in fashion in the big picture sense. These organizations are responsible for the image that is projected on a national level through this multi-trillion dollar industry and maintaining their respective nations' status at the top of the fashion totem pole. This means creating programs for cultivating new businesses and catering to the long established houses to ensure they have what I consider the respect due to the the elders. 

When fashion comes down to the bottom line, the goal is to ensure that the major companies on a global scale, like Louis Vuitton to France or Ralph Lauren to the USA, continue to thrive, and that new companies continue to open and find success to keep the economy dynamic and growing.

There is a lot at stake here, far beyond the spectacle of fashion week parties and runway shows. And because of the major publicity tool it has become, has fashion week outgrown its own reason for being? Or has it just taken on a new role? 

These are questions for the fashion councils, answers to which we might be seeing in the next few years. Or maybe ten. (For an industry that moves fast, fashion sure can move slow).


Logistically, it is hard to imagine how fashion week ever ran, or how these cities developed the fashion identity we know today without these groups to coordinate the schedules and uphold the creative and qualitative standards of the city's official calendar. CFDA was founded in 1962, The Fédération Française in 1973 (Syndicat de la Haute Couture, however has been around since 1868), the BFC in 1983, and the CNMI in 1958. Then again, the fashion week we know today is far from the private, no cameras allowed showrooms of couture and the early days of ready-to-wear, and is almost nothing like fashion week as it existed even ten years ago. Recent phenomena in particular, such as the internet, then bloggers, then social media, made sure of that.

Evolution continues, but within the unchanging structure of fashion week there is a feeling that fashion week has become too much. Too formulaic. Too crowded. Too messy. Too scene-y. But is that feeling shared across the board by the decision makers? There is little pressure to change when the establishment is so powerful that any challengers are quickly dismissed. Maybe it's a question of changing leadership, fresh eyes, that will ignite some kind of transformation. Maybe it's a question of time, and change coming from the decision of individual designers to break the mold. Think of Oscar de la Renta, for example, reverting to a private showroom presentation rather than producing a full-on runway show.

The recent appointment of Ralph Toledano to replace Didier Grumbach at the Fédération Française creates an oportunity for change, much like the installment of Jane Reve to the Camera della Moda. While Grumbach is a champion of many modernizing efforts to the French fashion industry, and has arguably witnessed and participated in the major moments that have transformed the identity of French fashion, any person in one position for too long can lead to stasis. 

Ralph Toledano, president FFCPAP

Ralph Toledano, president FFCPAP

Didier Grumbach, former president FFCPAP

Didier Grumbach, former president FFCPAP

Jane Reeve, chief executive of the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana

Jane Reeve, chief executive of the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana


While Fashion Weeks are popping up in other cities all over the world from Berlin to Beijing, they have followed the same model and thus add to the content without contributing to the modernization of the system. And so the aforementioned capitols still represent the four pillars of identity that explain modern fashion: Paris, the original fashion capitol, is the hub of the Avant Garde and the no-expense-spared creative artistry; London, the hip and edgy side with a dose of traditionalism and Savile Row heritage; Milan, the home of timeless, understated luxury and family run businesses; New York, the sportswear and street-savvy mega brands. 

Across all boards, France remains the city where international designers come in to show on the official calendar, while London, Milan and New York are more nationalistic. I think, in particular, of the Belgian and Japanese designers who represent some of the most exciting moments on the Paris calendar. 

It remains the most exciting of all the cities for that reason, as well. The diversity and the creative richness being unmatched & leaving it appropriately as a climax at the end of the long month of running around the globe to runway shows and showrooms.

The barrier for entry in Paris feels higher than in any of the other cities, maybe because of the showmanship required to be considered for the official calendar. In all cities around the world there are off-calendar events, many multi-brand showrooms, and boot-strapping efforts to gain visibility from the traffic brought during fashion week. But until a company is recognized by their country's fashion council, they have to fight that much harder for visibility. And that recognition has to be earned.


Natalie Massenet, centre, chairman of the BFC. Caroline Rush, right, CEO of BFC   

Natalie Massenet, centre, chairman of the BFC. Caroline Rush, right, CEO of BFC
 

While the leaders of these organizations share similar job responsibilities, the structure in each city is quite different, as are the initiatives that they develop to further their country's fashion industry. Among many other things, New York is celebrated for their Fashion Fund and incubator, and also for their legislative efforts in Washington to pass the Innovative Design Protection and Piracy Prevention Act, while Paris has recently introduced the Designer's Apartment showroom and the Mode et Finance fund to influx cash into promising young designer businesses. 

Although the Didier Grumbachs and Steven Kolbs, along with their teams, are the drivers behind these programs and the authority behind so many decisions regarding the fashion world, they are surprisingly under the radar for the larger fashion community. A broader look at the boards, however, and some more familiar names appear at the top of the list. In London the Chairman of the BFC is Natalie Massenet of Net-a-Porter fame with Caroline Rush as Chief Executive, and in New York Diane Von Furstenberg is the president of the Board of Directors–and is arguably the most prominent face of the organization because of her celebrity–while Steven Kolb acts as CEO.

Steven Kolb, CEO at CFDA

Steven Kolb, CEO at CFDA

Diane Von Furstenberg, President of the Board of Directors, CFDA

Diane Von Furstenberg, President of the Board of Directors, CFDA

What it comes down to is that these people behind the scenes create the space in which fashion is presented and received and born and grows and finds community. The inner workings of individual companies will ultimately determine their longevity and their relevance, but the way the greater fashion community, and public at large, understand fashion, national identity, big brands versus emerging companies, rally behind young designers and anticipate big shows as we count the days off on the official calendars is through the context of these shot callers. 

Having a structure does limit the flexibility for change because there are more approvals to seek and more rules in place, but change will come, as change is inevitable. These organizations are vessels for change, and for communication. Maybe the hold up is that we don't know where to go next. And until that question is answered, we assimilate where we should innovate. We continue doing what we know. 

A good place to start is for the larger fashion community to recognize the importance of these organizations and to communicate through them. As a centralized force, their influence is wide and the community reactive when that influence is applied. Sometimes it's good for the man to operate quietly behind the green curtain, but sometimes we don't see the big picture until he comes out and talks to us face to face.

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Of Brands and Distributors

We are witnessing a shift at this time in the fashion industry, a rapprochement to the tech industry, opening up opportunities in distribution and marketing models that were not possible before the internet. From the fashion industry side, we've barely tapped into the potential of this alignment. The challenge is finding a way to introduce the concept of endless possibilities to the fashion community in terms of technological tools and innovations, and the endless possibilities of branding through design (back and front end) to the tech community getting their toes wet with fashion companies. 

Fashion companies are accustomed to the idea of "anything is possible" in terms of realizing a creative vision, but when it comes to compromise concerning industry pain points, there is a consensus that generally accepts things to remain the same. Why can't we imagine our businesses with the view that anything is possible– design our businesses with the same precision and care with which we design our garments? 

Emerging product based technology doesn't need fashion designers for the time being because the most important and relevant innovations are in the health and fitness realms where tech-y looking things are ok. The innovation in online platforms is mostly coming from the tech and business side and acting as distribution models or branding 'basics' by adopting an existing aesthetic identity and ameliorating the experience through technology/online. There is an available space here for brands with unique and distinctive creative identities to step in, answer to a lifestyle and also define the direction of that lifestyle by carrying it into the future. That being said, there has to be a point of entry, a place for the consumer to connect with the product from where they stand, but for the brand to take the consumer away from the predicted trajectory–the rote of the fashion cycle, for example–and into a better and more highly designed, curated, and cared for experience.

What is the difference between a brand and a distributor? 

A brand has to have a creative ethos & a specific customer they create products for a lifestyle. It's about the aesthetic and the narrative.

A distributor speaks to a specific lifestyle through its curated selection of products from a variety of wholesalers. It's about range and customer experience.

Naturally, a bridge of similarities exists between the two and the obstacle is the status quo of how products reach the end consumer. Technology offers the chance to create a model  the benefits of both: reinforcing the brand identity through the methods of lifestyle curation pioneered by distributors.

What can the brand do beyond the creative ethos to add value?

A distributor focuses on experience, and hierarchy amongst distributors is determined by the quality of service and the level of personalization. Distributors take on characteristics of a brand when they capitalize on consistency. The narrative power of the distributor is in the brands they use to help tell their story. Again, rather than existing as two separate entities, the benefits of each to the other can be realized in one hybrid business model.

If the brand could provide a service that became a powerful acquisition tool, the product can tell a narrative that strengthens the ethos of the distribution model. It's something like a perfect storm of design, experience, online, offline, service, and communication. Empowering the business to prioritize all of these things through the use of technology. In places where digital can be more effective than brick and mortar, for example, the online experience will differentiate itself from the offline experience and already create two different demographic appeals. 

That bridge between brand and distributor is as real as the bridge between fashion and technology, but we're still swinging across the divide one by one, and even then it's only a brave few. In many cases I believe the fashion brands of the future don't exist yet and what we know of the industry today will get stuck in it's own vicious cycle. We adventure and explore more easily with lighter loads, so if brands start experimenting while small and agile rather than follow the predetermined business model of fashion brands which seems more certain at the time, we'll see some exciting changes in the way consumers engage directly with brands to get their hands on beautiful things while sharing a beautiful experience.

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