Dumbing Down American Design, Part 1


In a special four-part Dumbing Down American Design miniseries, EcoSalon takes a closer look at American design and considers different perspectives from leaders in the design and fashion world.

Has our quest for convenience forever altered fashion?

If we are to invest in sustainable design, doesn’t it start with the designer knowing something about fit? The pattern maker knowing something about quality pattern making? The retailer knowing something about which clothes to purchase based on construction versus fad? And ultimately, as consumers driving demand, what is our responsibility?

Over the next four weeks, we’ll provide insight into these questions.

New York Times fashion critic, Cathy Horyn, has initiated many conversations about the changing fashion world. In a recent article, Horyn speaks about the death of one era, where garments are made and sold in New York city’s Garment District, and the birth of a newer one, where “the shift of technical skill, and gradually even design and merchandising,” are moving to other countries, namely China.

Horyn cites this dominance, as well as “the gradual decline of technical expertise in the face of apparent consumer indifference about fit and quality,” as two major problems primed to diminish, if not altogether destroy, stateside design traditions permanently. (Horyn’s lengthy transcript with Cindy Ferrara, veteran production specialist-turned-manager of product development and production at Danskin, is worth the read here and serves as the inspiration for  this series.)

When it comes to meaningful mass design, has the U.S. lost its edge?

One need not look any further than the average American for the answer; so content are we with fast fashion, ill-fitting clothing and spandex.

East German-born Tina Schenk, founder of Werkstatt, a sample room and pattern development studio in New York City’s garment district, says her diverse client base that includes the likes of Calvin Klein, Alexander Wang and Thakoon, as well as newer labels like eco-label Restore Clothing, came out of a need for quality pattern making and samples here in the U.S.

“What I found is that the further away you went with development, the bigger the support system of technical designers and production people had to be in order to deal with all of the communication going back and forth,” says Schenk. “The further you went away, the longer the lead times got as well, which took away time you could actually spend refining the designs. And very often what you got back from the overseas factories wasn’t reflective of what you had asked for, even with these  hundreds of emails going back and forth.”

Schenk adds that many companies, operating under the pressure of intense production schedules, will typically just settle for the resulting poor fit and construction.

“Quality design development takes great care. You have to take your time in order to pay attention to every detail, and time is money,” says Schenk. “The is a lot of pressure from retailers to produce things at a certain price and I think that producers started cutting corners to give in to these demands.”

She also points out the pressure that colleges, graduate schools and media place on the design world.

“In the age of ‘Project Runway‘ everyone wants to be a designer and there is a lack of respect for the people who can bring these designs into fruition, especially by the younger people coming fresh out of fashion school,” observes Schenk. “There aren’t many people who still want to learn the craft, and those who do have to go to college for it and graduate with a lot of theoretical knowledge, but without a solid foundation that an apprenticeship could provide.”

How will upcoming and experienced designers alike better the design world enough to give Americans an appreciation for what they wear – perhaps even an education?

“I think that producers have to start taking responsibility and show consumers what a well-made garment is,” Schenk says. “People will know a good garment when they see it, they will know good fit once they put it on and realize how wonderful it makes them feel. And once you know what it feels like, it is hard to go back.”

It may be that the proverbial squeaky wheel gets the grease, but in the case of the fashion consumer, Schenk believes responsibility starts with designers.

“I am not sure who said it, but there is a saying that if you ask for only the best, you will receive only the best,” she says. “I would add to this: if you don’t know what is the best, you won’t know what to ask for.”

Image: photographerpandora

Amy DuFault

Amy DuFault is a conscious lifestyle writer, consultant and fashion instigator. She resides in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.