Category Archives: Fashion Issues

Fashion and Technology – Additional Thoughts

I promise this is the last post from the CSA symposium I attended recently in Cincinnati. And this is really just for me to formalize my thoughts on the two days spent immersed in talk of fashion and technology.

I really like how CSA develops their symposiums around a theme. As a teacher I used to go to conferences on writing or history, and the presentations would be all over the place. With a theme, common threads start to emerge, and one starts to hear multiple opinions on the same topic. It makes for a more thoughtful experience.

One thing that so many of the presenters, especially the college professionals who work in design programs, pointed out, is that the great majority of fashion design students have zero sewing skills. I realize that a person does not HAVE to sew in order to create designs (much like Karl Lagerfeld), but it sure does help to know what can and cannot be accomplished with a sewing machine, the basic tool in making a garment.

So the starting point in most design programs is a basic sewing class. One teacher made the point that it is the attempted making of a welt pocket that separates the sheep from the goats. He estimated that half of his students do not make it past the welt pocket.

Why can’t Suzy and Johnny sew? According to my two new friends from Lipscomb University in Nashville, it is because so few high schools have home economics classes that teach sewing. They were particularly perturbed because Lipscomb Academy, which is closely associated with the university, recently did away with sewing class.  (I looked, and my alma mater does teach sewing in two classes called Apparel Development).

Another common thread came from the people in charge of collections. The big concern is the need for continued digitalization of collections both big and small. This refers to the placing online of searchable databases of an institution’s clothing collection and archives. While everyone who addressed this issue was pretty much in agreement that digital collections are highly useful for researchers and curators planning exhibitions, there are some major problems that prevent institutions from putting their collections online.

The first and the most daunting is that the process is very expensive. You may have read about the financial problems at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Some critics claim that a big part of the money drain was due to a huge push to digitalize their collections. That may be so, but the result is that the Met is in possession of a database that is widely used, maybe even over-used. Several presenters pointed out that they were tired of seeing the same old Met garments used in scholarly works.

Another problem is that digital problems quickly become obsolete. Some institutions that were early users of digital programs are now having to replicate their previous work due to low resolution of photographs and outdated computer systems.

These problems aside, if an institution wants their collection to be seen in today’s world, the best way to do it is online. As one presenter pointed out, a digital online presence is no longer a “nice thing”; it’s a near necessity.

It boggles my mind to think of all the great collections, and the holdings within. What if there was a universal database of not just the major museums, but of all clothing collections, even private ones. I’m always reading that an example of this or that major milestone in fashion no longer exists, but I’m betting that somewhere, in some avid collector’s closet, one does exist. I know I’m dreaming but part of the joy of being with people who are thinking about and working on solutions to these problems really opens the mind to the possibilities that the digital universe brings to us.

Several presenters talked about social media and blogging, and how these platforms have proved useful to fashion researchers and scholars. I’ve actually addressed this topic here, as the interactions I have with all of you greatly enrich my own understanding of fashion history. Having an audience for my writing is important, but so is getting feedback from readers. And the same is true of Instagram, where people are quick to point out something missed and to add to what the photo poster knows about an object.

There was also a lot of talk about 3-D printing and other technologies that are being developed. Interesting, but what really caught my attention was this maternity coat, designed by Chanjuan Chen and Kendra Lapolla at Kent State University. The pattern for the coat was developed using a computer program, and the placement of the pattern on the fabric was analyzed by computer which was able to fit the pieces onto the fabric with less than five percent waste. That five percent was then used to make the appliques, so there was essentially no waste in making the coat.

The embroidery was also made using a high tech embroidery machine. I really did think it was hand embroidered.

So, there you have it. I hope you enjoyed coming along with me to Cincinnati.

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Bonnie Cashin and Fashion Issues

It’s been sort of a slow two weeks in fashion stories, and I was worried there would not be enough material to do a Vintage Miscellany post. Turns out I was right, so next week will bring the regular post. But for this week, I want to focus on two items concerning American designer, Bonnie Cashin.  Yes, Bonnie has been in the news, but not in a way that would please her fans.

The first item stems from a post on Jonathan Walford’s blog. Raf Simons, who is now working at Calvin Klein, sent an orange cape down the runway that looked familiar to instagrammer @vrazdorskiy, who posted a side-by-side photo of Cashin’s cape and the one on the Calvin Klein runway. It doesn’t take a fashion expert to see that this is the same design, and if you were to play a “spot the differences” game, my guess is that you’d be stretching it to name three differences, mainly in color.

In response, Stephaine Lake, who wrote the book on Cashin and who owns Cashin’s person collection, started a new Instagram account, @cashincopy. We all know how important  Cashin’s work was, and how she continues to influence designers. But being inspired and issuing blatant copys are two different matters.

And here’s an ironic quote by Simons from this month’s Vanity Fair: “I’m not romantic about the past. Once it’s done it’s done. I’m romantic about the future.”

Well, so much for that.

The second story is one that Lake posted on Instagram, concerning a bag that Cashin designed for Coach in the early 1970s, called the Rural Free Delivery. In this case, the design was not copied, as it is Coach that is re-releasing the bag. What is interesting is how Coach is handling the history of the company, and how it is being misinterpreted by fashion writers.

The story in question is on the Glamour website, and is titled, “Coach Is Rereleasing a Bag From Its Archives.”  The writer states that the bag is from Cashin’s first collection with Coach, in 1972. Actually, Cashin first designed for Coach in 1962, which was when the first Coach items arrived on the market. The 1941 date is misleading, as while the company that eventually gave birth to Coach was started in 1941, Coach was a different division within that company.

So what’s the big deal about the date when a company was established? Coach itself uses 1941 in the name of their collection. But how long will it be before people selling vintage Coach bags on eBay start dating them to the 1940s and 50s?  In a rush to make Coach a “heritage” brand, the real story is diluted, and people are missing out on the authentic, and very interesting story.

The term “Cash and Carry” is an old grocery wholesale phrase, and it was extended in WWII to be a policy of the US selling supplies to countries as long as they paid cash and carried off the goods themselves. Bonnie Cashin adopted a pun on the phrase, Cashin-Carry, to describe her line of totes. I’ve never seen the term referred to as “Cashin Carries” as stated in the article. It completely misses the meaning of the pun.

And finally, Cashin was not a “creative director” at Coach. The term was not even in use at that time, and according to Lake, Cashin worked on a royalty basis. Her contract was not even with Coach; it was with the parent company, Gail Leather Products, a leather goods wholesaler. And besides, Cashin never “directed” any assistant designers, as she alone designed everything that carried her name.

It’s no secret where the writer got the “creative director” phrase, as Coach uses it on a page that introduces the bag.  But on the sales page itself, there is not even a mention of Cashin. There is a big deal made about “artist Keith Haring’s iconic illustrations” which are on a hangtag and the cloth lining. I’d love to have the job of “creative director” at Coach. You just dig into the archive, pay royalties to a deceased artist’s estate, and voilà! A brand new bag, or as Glamour put it, “new and improved”.

Thanks to Stephanie Lake for answering my question and clarifying the story for me.

 

 

 

 

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Patagonia’s Worn Wear Project

Yesterday the Patagonia Worn Wear rig made a stop at Warren Wilson College, which is located in nearby Swannanoa, NC, and I was able to drop in to see it in action.  The rig, seen above, is actually a mobile clothing repair shop, which is currently touring the country with stops at selected college campuses.  Tiny Warren Wilson was lucky to be chosen, as most of the schools on the tour are large universities.

The purpose of the tour is to raise awareness of how clothing repair is an important part of making the production of clothing more sustainable.  It seems like an oxymoron for a company like Patagonia, which is in the business of making and selling clothes, to advocate for people keeping their clothing longer.  But Patagonia is not the average clothing company.

Patagonia is a producer of outdoor clothing and supplies, and is not a “fashion” company.  But all clothing reflects to some degree what is in fashion, either through color, or the length of shorts, or the fit of a tee shirt.  As a maker of fleece jackets and down jackets, Patagonia does not rely so much on changing styles in order to sell their products.  Instead, they sell garments that are actually needed.  Even so, they are working toward educating people that need can be reduced through repairs.

I’ve written about Patagonia before as an example of a company that makes it easy for the consumer to know where and how its products are made.  If you go to their website, on the sales page of each product it shows the factories where the product was made, along with a description of the responsible practices of each.  It’s about as transparent as it gets in the clothing industry.

The Worn Wear team did on the spot repairs, but even more importantly, they wanted to talk with students (and even non-students like me) about the importance of taking care of one’s clothing to make it last longer.  They encouraged visitors to learn the skills necessary to make repairs to damaged clothes to extend their life.  And of course, behind the message is the starting point of buying good stuff to start with.

The rig itself is really interesting.  It’s made of completely recycled materials and it runs on biodiesel.  It’s beautifully constructed, and I imagine they get lots of attention on the highway.

This is Rudy, who guards the thread and keeps the staff on track.

There was even free swag.  Besides the organic fruit bar and a small guide to making repairs, there was a shelf of free books, all titles pertaining to environmental and human rights issues.  I picked up a copy of Patagonia’s latest report on these initiatives, and spent much of the evening reading about the many things that Patagonia is working toward.

Most interestingly, the book did not back away from the mistakes they have made in the past few years, and gave honest reports on two controversies, the use of down from force-fed geese, and the use of wool from a farm which PETA exposed as being inhumane.  In both cases Patagonia did their own investigations, and found they were in the wrong, and then took the necessary steps to correct the abuses.

It’s really refreshing when a group just owns its mistakes.   I can’t help but think that this would be a great policy for all.

Currently, a big issue is the discovery that microfibres that get into the water by way of laundry has become a major source of pollution in our oceans.  In order to better understand what effect Patagonia fleeces and other products have on this problem, the company conducted a research project in which all their projects were tested for microfibre shedding.  They are also funding continuing research in the area.

Cute dog mascots are always a plus!

The issue of sustainability is a tricky one.  Most of the programs by clothing companies I have read about are just green-washing, meant to look to be more environmentally friendly than they truly are.  Most, like turning in old clothes for a store credit, are just ways of getting one to shop more.  And as pointed out in an excellent article at Vestoj,  even the way sustainability issues are presented by the fashion press usually misses the point.

Thanks to Patagonia for hosting this tour of the traveling repair workshop.  If it happens to roll into a college near you, go and check it out.

 

 

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The Brown Building, Location of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

New York is so full of large, overwhelming buildings that it is easy to pass right by one without realizing its historic significance.  Such is the case with the Brown Building, which is part of the New York University campus and is located near the eastern edge of Greenwich Village.  Had I been there 104 years ago today, I would have been at the site of a tragedy, that of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.

It’s hard to imagine the scene where 146 died needlessly because there were few laws to ensure the safety of workers, and those that were in place were often ignored.  But all that changed as the fire raised awareness of the poor working conditions in the city’s many factories and sweatshops.  A public that had formerly been apathetic toward poor workers, and in many cases even antagonistic toward them, now clearly saw that changes had to be made.

It probably helped that the factory was located only a block from the affluent Washington Square neighborhood.  Many people were out and about on that Saturday afternoon and witnessed the tragedy firsthand.

I’m not going to retell the story of what happened that day, but I strongly recommend watching the American Experience  episode that not only tells the story, but also explains the significance of the aftermath.

I think it is interesting that the Brown Building is still in existence.  The fire gutted much of the factory which was located on the top three floors, but much of the structure was left unharmed.  At any rate, I can imagine that if this happened today the building would be razed.

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Word of the Week

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Sleeves

I’d like to report some good news from New York. After years of little besides sleeveless styles, this spring there is an abundance of short sleeves. It’s almost too much to believe that designers might actually be listening to older consumers. I first noticed all the sleeves on the designer floors of Saks,  but I’m betting there will be a trickle – down effect.

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