Do you consider yourself to be a “fashion forward” sort of person? As Jackie Wickser, a fashion design instructor at the prestigious Otis College of Art and Design explains, the search for style involves both creativity and rulers.
Tell us a little bit about Otis College of Art and Design.
It’s one of the top five fashion design colleges in the United States. What’s great about our program is that we have designers from the industry come to the school and work with the students. The designers give what’s called “direction”. This is the concept or inspiration for the pieces the students will design For example, Bob Mackie’s direction was to design updated eveningwear for movie stars of the past. Cynthia Rowley’s direction was to marry “white trash” and Seville Row (a street in Great Britain renowned for exquisite tailoring). Once the garment is designed and chosen, it is brought into the studio classroom where very experienced technical staff helps them make it.
Last year, Otis invited Nike designer Edward Harbor to be a critic. He designs the specialized active wear for Olympians. Edward is a good example of artist and scientist rolled into one. He created a fabric made out of recycled plastic bottles with a specialized waffle design for aeration. A tank top was then cut from it and sewn together with sound waves (less chaffing than thread). Because of the design, the marathon runners wearing them finished the race with their shirts virtually dry. He lives in London and Nike has built a virtual reality fitting room to accommodate his location.
Sounds like the field is becoming very technical.
Absolutely. This same designer puts his running and skating suits into a wind tunnel to check that seams aren’t causing any resistance.
Did you start out as a designer?
Originally I studied fine art in college , and then I decided to go into fashion. After college I did some designing, but found I liked building the physical thing better. I’m more of a practical, technical person like my dad– he’s an engineer. I’ve worked in the industry 25 years now, mostly as a pattern maker for designers such as Katayone Adeli, Mark Eisen, and Koos Van Den Akker.
Will you describe your pattern making class?
I instruct a studio class for juniors in the California Apparel Mart. Basically, I teach fashion design students how to make the garments they create in their design classes. It’s a technical class; I teach them how to make the patterns, cut them, and sew them up. We have a black tie fashion show at the end of the year with these garments in which we raise about three-quarters of a million dollars for scholarships. It’s quite an affair.
What does it take to make a pattern for a design that has been sketched?
It takes an artistic sense, the ability to visualize in three dimensions, along with the nuts and bolts know-how of how to construct it. There are basically three ways to go about it. One of them is draping, that’s where you take a piece of muslin, or fabric and pin it in place over the dress form, thus creating the outer shell of your garment. Another method, which is highly mathematical, is drafting. This is a process that tailors use. They have formulas for each style of jacket or pant. They take a person’s measurements and plug them into this formula and it makes a flat pattern piece, e.g. a sleeve or a back. Then, the third method is called flat pattern. That’s where you take a basic bodice or skirt and you add fullness or other details to develop a style.
What skills would someone who was interested in fashion design need?
To be a fashion designer you need to be able to draw well. So while you’re still in high school, taking model-drawing classes at a junior college helps get one familiar with sketching the figure. Another area that will help a fashion designer get a jumpstart would be sewing. If you can learn how to construct garments, you’re better able to visualize how to design garments in the end.
What about math and science?
Math, sure. I do notice that a lot of students come into my class and don’t know how to read a ruler, believe it or not. They don’t know what an eighth of an inch is or half an inch. Measurement is the most basic math that you need in fashion. I’m sure that geometry helps, because we’re working with three-dimensional forms. Proportions also. There are certain proportions that are more aesthetic than others and these have to do with math too.
What kinds of courses do your students take?
In their foundation year, they’ll take basic art composition and color classes, along with their academic requirements. Then when they get into sophomore and junior years, they get more into the figure drawing and design classes that teach them specifically about designing garments. Studio classes teach sophomores about the basics of making clothes, juniors learn manufacturing techniques while seniors concentrate on the couture method.
Marketing and merchandising classes, too–designers have to know these subjects in order to effectively place their products.
What makes fashion design a desirable career?
Fashion designing is a very fun career; it’s very satisfying for people who are artistic. People will always need clothes, and there will always be manufacturers needing people to design them. We have five apparel markets each year. So, fashion designers have many deadlines, which make their work quite exciting, really.
Where do your students work after they graduate?
Students are placed with designers here in L.A. quite often, like BCBG, Laundry, Andrew Dibbon and Henry Duarte (He’s a really funky men’s wear designer). Some of our alumni design for DKNY, Niki, Abercrombie and Fitch, and Anne Klein. We had an alumni move to London and work for Vivian Tam.
Apart from those who work for ready to wear, there are some who want to go into costume design for movie studios, opera companies and theatres.
Do you have many boys in your classes?
Usually there are about three or four boys per class, but it’s mostly girls who are interested in designing.
Is it important for students who are interested in fashion to keep up with current events, or cultural things going on in the world?
Definitely. These events have an effect on the production costs of our designs. When the cost of petroleum rises, a designer will know that the cost of her fabric will also, as many fabrics are made with this product. Free trade agreements will most likely mean a shift in labor pricing. And even economic swings can cause our consumers to dress differently. Our world is so interlinked that any major movement on the other side of our planet is going to cause a ripple right here.
Where do designers get their inspiration?
Europeans have Avant Garde fashion shows prior to our seasons. These are the leaders who chose what cultural looks, colors, fabrics, and trends will be in vogue. The press prints it, and the rest of the manufacturers emulate it. They do, however, water it down so that it’s marketable to our customers. Designers can also be inspired by fabrications and trims. Quite often, designers shop vintage clothes shops for good ideas.
What advice would you give to a high school or middle school student who’s interested in going for a career in fashion design?
Notice what people in the street are wearing, especially younger people, because they are the ones that set the trends from the bottom up. The designer will pick up on those trends and spread it to the mass market Notice the details on clothes and consider how they were made. Try on hundreds of garments and analyze how they fit or feel when you have them on. How does a silhouette make the body appear? Soak up as much information as you can through this sort of research and make a habit of being aware of clothes.
What is the website for Otis?
Thank you very much.