Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Local fashion gets international exposure

It was founder and director of SA Fashion Week Lucilla Booyzens who used the phrase "The Business of Fashion" as her marketing message for fashion in South Africa. The message was clear. No matter how creative a young designer is, he or she cannot possibly hope to make it in the tough world of fashion if they don't have a sound business plan and know how to merchandise their work.

South African designer Spero Villioti has worked in haute couture for many years and a few years ago started up an Elite Design Academy for budding fashion designers to learn the craft of "high dressmaking". However Spero and his wife Vanessa decided that they needed an exchange programme in addition to the three-year course at their design academy, to help their students to have a more global approach. Spero and Vanessa liked the Parsons School of Design model and approached Parsons about giving Spero's students exposure to an international market via an informal exchange.

The Parsons School of Design, in New York's Fashion District, is of course where Project Runway was shot during summer school. There was an attempt to film it in California for one season but the series stayed in New York thereafter as it worked for TV better, says John Jay, one of the lecturers at the school who has been teaching Spero's students for the past three years.

Both John Jay and fellow lecturer Jean Larkin's programmes are extremely condensed. John, who takes the afternoon class after Jean's morning session, says he only has two days to teach a programme that would normally take a week. With only three hours in each class he says that his South African students are just as focused as their counterparts in New York and that he sees progress in their work. High praise indeed.

John Jay with his pupils, teaching them about the business of fashion.

It's fashion boot camp and the students sweat bullets, but the payoffs are massive. Students get a certificate from Parsons and the discipline and knowledge they acquire give them a huge advantage.

What's involved in the courses? John teaches his pupils "model drawing", which differs markedly from life drawing. It's not an art class, there is a formula to model drawing and everything is very idealised (for example, the people in the sketches would be extremely elongated and unrealistically skinny). The student has to capture a pose and make sure there is movement in the sketch.

Interestingly, model drawing has evolved over the decades. If you look back to Dior's New Look the physiques, poses and physiognomy of the models (the "orchid women") were remarkably different from today's, which are longer and leaner.

The requirements of a fashionable look and silhouette changes dramatically from generation to generation. The student needs to start off with an inspiration for his or her design, but has to understand history and always go back to the same departure point. There is also the question of fabrication: is it the right weight for the garment? So practical concerns also need to be taken into consideration.

Not only do the students study model drawing but they are introduced to new projects which throw them out of their comfort zone. They have to undertake projects which are the opposite of their own personal style and be made to go in another direction from their normal way of doing things. They have to learn to be more practical and are given a fictional person that they have to create a profile of, along the lines of a real-life client. So the profile they create of their "client" has to be accurate, not fictional or unbelievable. This profile is supported with technical drawings (called "flats") of an entire collection, and every detail and proportion has to be in proportion with no guesswork.

In John and Jean's courses students learn to make not just couture work, but the full gamut of clothing from menswear to children and ladieswear, and even knitwear. There are a lot more options for students to gain experience.

What about the counter-exchange programme? Will students from New York come out to Spero's Hyde Park studio? John Jay says that NY kids could learn about couture techniques, that specialisation which is evident in Spero's dresses.

He says he is impressed by Spero's students' progress over the past three years. "Design does not know borders," he adds.

Will anyone from the Parsons School be in South Africa to see South African fashion? Africa Fashion Week will be showing at the end of June, but sadly John Jay will be teaching summer school in New York. Maybe next time ....

1 comment:

Kittie Howard said...

Until I saw the Project Runway show I hadn't realized how much was involved in being a designer. Really complex! Last year, I bought a pair of slacks in D.C. by a SA designer. And my most favorite dress ever, I bought in Johannesburg. Oh, but that dress went everywhere, never wrinkled, and looked great in the evening or at morning coffee. I think SA designers pay more attention to how the body moves so the outfit moves with the skin. Lovely post!!