Category Archives: Education

More educational engagement, better results

Hello to my readers!

It has been a very long time since I have posted in Fashion|Academic. Indeed, my readers deserve much better! Yet there is a reason for the sparseness of my posts. First, after teaching fashion for two and a half years as an adjunct at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas of Puerto Rico, I have applied for, and been accepted to, a PhD in History at the University of Guelph in Canada. It was my utmost desire to return to school and complete my graduate education. Most importantly, the lack of scholarship about King Malcolm III, otherwise known as Malcolm Canmore,[1] propelled me to do a thesis about him. Thus, I have left behind my days in fashion to embrace life as an academic and as a Scottish medievalist.

Or have I?

While completing the major and minor seminars for my first year of PhD, I began wondering about the efficiency of my undergraduate teaching. Had I made a difference to my students when they took my fashion illustration courses? Would I made a difference to undergraduate history students when I teach the subject? How can professors, and educators in general, make a difference? After the death of Professor Louise Wilson, I realized the impact her educational (and rather legendary!) techniques had not just on her students, but on British fashion in general. The outpours of grieving students and alumni who praised her no-nonsense and straightforward teaching approach signaled an effective educator keen on extracting the best from her students. When educators believe in their students, and they let their students know that they believe in them, students react positively to teaching. Yet Western education has become an ode to automated responses, memorization exercises, copy and paste assignments. We need to change our educational strategies: we need to aim to produce professionals with deep problem-solving, critical analysis, and visual and verbal communication skills. Fashion is not immune to a redevelopment of educational strategies.

 

So, how do we improve our teaching techniques to get the best out of our students? Engage with them. Know them. Know their strengths and weaknesses. Creating an effective relationship with each one of your students will enhance their educational experience and, in turn, the quality of their output.

Fashion, unlike other subjects, cannot be memorized and regurgitated on a multiple-choice exam. That is one of the advantages art and design disciplines have over other liberal arts: they can only be taught effectively through practical, critical-thinking and problem-solving exercises. Through the use of critical thinking exercises, fashion teachers can engage with their students in a more direct manner.

Take fashion illustration, for example. There are multiple textbooks that show how to make a nine- or ten-head figure, how to draw faces, hands, feet, accessories, clothes, different poses. In many schools, fashion illustration is taught by either copying from the textbook or by copying the instructor’s style. Neither educational tactic allows for the student to experiment on their own. It does not allow for students to develop their strengths and address their weaknesses. It does not teach them that fashion illustration is not a mere means for communicating a design— it is an art form in itself. It requires extensive research into poses, looks, materials and techniques to do a compelling visual rendition of the style, fit and attitude a certain design (and designer) wants to convey. Fashion illustration delves into anatomical knowledge, and drawing the human body without knowing how it moves in real life makes it impossible for students to understand how to draw certain poses, or how to improvise their own. In my view, drawing with a live model is paramount to teaching fashion illustration. In many cases, we have forsaken live model drawing for textbook copying, hindering the students’ ability to critically think and understand about how clothes are drawn correctly over a human body and how different mediums and techniques best serve to represent different attitudes, fabrics, and designs. By re-taking the live model approach, fashion illustration education is made more relevant to students.

One of the biggest differences between the American and the British education style lies in the emphasis on primary research. At undergraduate level, I rarely did any primary research: students relied solely on trend forecasting publications such as Here & There and WGSN. Yet when I studied at Central Saint Martins, our course heavily relied on students doing primary research for their topics. Our sketchbooks became our best friends. Before, I only did the first designs I could think of and call it a collection. In London, I was using a full sketchbook for collection, drawing over a hundred sketches for one or two designs. The quality of my designs, and my ability to critically solve problems, improved dramatically. I used the same technique for my advanced fashion illustration classes: all students needed a sketchbook, and they would go to the library to do extensive research about how to best illustrate a given collection. They would come with piles of photocopied images from the fashion and from other art books. They would go to art stores and research which type of paper and of paints would be better for illustrating their collections. They became engaged with their illustrations; drawings were not a mere chore but an exercise on how to communicate ideas effectively through visual media.

By the end of the semester, the difference in their skills and presentations was astronomical.

I took time to see every single of my students’ ideas, suggest them different materials and techniques, and understand where they were coming from. I gave ample feedback. I knew that feedback was key to their success. But the process was not one-sided: students also learned about how I operated and what I wanted from them. They knew my standards were incredibly high: I believed in them. In the process, they learned that they could become fashion designers, even when they attended a relatively young fashion design program in Puerto Rico, where there is no fashion industry. As a school, we could not offer the amenities that came with attending Parsons, or Central Saint Martins, or London College of Fashion. But I could offer them the chance to develop their skills and ideas in par with what they did at more recognized fashion schools. And more importantly, they had the chance to believe in their talent.

 

Sometimes, educators do not know if they make any difference in their students’ lives. They sometimes do not know how to make that difference. Fashion is a very technical trade and fashion education is geared towards teaching students technical skills that employers search for. But we also need to teach them how to solve problems, how to think on their own feet, and how to do enough research to allow for innovation and creativity to flourish in their work. If educators decide that the way fashion education is imparted does not fulfill the intellectual development of their students, fashion education can improve. Students can improve.

It is up to us educators to find alternative methods of teaching that will engage our students better with the industry, producing innovators, not merely employees. An education where learning problem-solving skills through direct interaction with the professor will certainly improve the quality of the students’ academic experien

 

[1] Malcolm III (1058-1093) was the son of Duncan I and he killed King Macbeth (yes, the one from the ‘Scottish play’) in real life. He also was married to a saint: his second wife was Saint Margaret of Scotland and her life and miracles have certainly eclipsed Malcolm.

 

 

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Basic sewing skills for undergrads

Basting stitches, image from thechestofbooks.com

As the new academic semester is about to begin next week, I will teach a basic sewing class for my BFA students. This is a new challenge for me, as I have never taught sewing or patternmaking classes, but also for the students, most of whom do not know how to sew. One important aspect to remember when beginning to sew is to always check for your sewing machine: most problems arise from it being incorrectly threaded. Next, always have spare pieces of cloth near you. If you need to adjust your stitch length or your tension, for example, do it in the spare cloth BEFORE trying it out on the final fabric.

These are just part of the numerous tips for new sewers and sewing students.

Others are:

1. Always have spare needles with you!

2. Have enough thread handy and wind your bobbins with the colors you’ll use beforehand. You’ll save much-needed time later.

3. Always baste curved pattern pieces, such as sleeves, before sewing them together. You’ll be happy you did!

4. Buy gross quantities of pins.

5. Put a pice of masking tape (preferably blue) to the 5/8″ mark on your machine (this is especially important on industrial machines) because it’ll guide you better so you can make straighter seams.

Do you have any other sewing tips to share? Let me know!

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Of internships: the benefits of fashion internships are always two-sided.

Internships are essential for the fashion industry. They provide invaluable experience for students and great opportunities to establish career-long connections. Due to the nature of our industry, solid internship experience is obligatory for landing a job in fashion.

What is an internship?

An internship is a work opportunity, usually 6- to 12-months long, where a student learns the basics of any given industry and obtain professional, first-hand experience. Usually, internships are not paid, especially in fashion design.

Why should I work for free?

In Spanish we have a saying: “Hay que dar del ala para comer de la pechuga.” Essentially it means we must make small sacrifices in order to reap big rewards. Although many might frown upon working for free, seeing this as a type of exploitation, the reality is that there is no other way to enter the fashion industry without previous internship experience. A fashion student should aim at having at least 2-3 internships in the industry by their BA graduation, and the more experience you obtain, the better job prospects you can have.

Some argue that the student should start an internship as early as their first BA year, but I feel this is too precipitated. First year students lack essential skills needed to complete certain tasks; for example, they might not have a strong sewing background yet, or their industry knowledge might be too incomplete, or they might not understand fully how to do research and prepare a collection. It is from the second year onwards that students, after taking core courses that will give them the necessary skills to construct their own collections, have a greater maturity to understand and better assimilate the learning outcomes from any internship. However, that does not imply a student should not be involved in fashion-related events (such as working as a backstage dresser at a fashion show, or helping organize shows and exhibitions). Early involvement in fashion events prepares the student for the fashion industry environment and might facilitate making contacts with professionals and professors that can recommend you for internship opportunities. Volunteering for such type of work experience, which is mostly short-term and unpaid, paves the way for starting a career in any industry.

What if I already know basic skills (sewing, pattern cutting, research, drawing, etc.) and I am in in my first year of BA? Should I wait for second year to look for internships?

Not necessarily. If you acquired core skills before entering your BA then you are probably capable of completing an internship. You should acknowledge that you feel ready to do unpaid work while committing to your full-time (or part-time) studies.

I am ready for an internship. How do I get one?

There are many ways of obtaining an internship in the fashion industry. I recommend that you already have a good idea of who would you like to work with. This is your opportunity to research fashion companies, houses, ateliers and independent designers to see what type of market do you like designing for and what design aesthetic better suits yours. Also, keep in mind what skills would you like to learn or improve on. For example, if you are interested in designing knitwear, your internship should help you learn how to work with knitted fabric.

The best source of internship opportunities are professors or tutors. They are mostly well-connected in the industry and they will certainly help you and guide you towards obtaining an internship. Well-known fashion companies, such as Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta, Burberry, among others, are more difficult to enter into, but a professor might recommend you to any of these companies, increasing your chances of landing that internship.

That implies that building a good relationship with your professors/lecturers/tutors is fruitful beyond obtaining a good grade. It will help you gain the mentorship you need for making it in this business and it is the first point of contact you’ll have in the fashion industry.

How does the company or designer benefit from hiring interns?

You mean, beside the free labor? Companies and designers hire interns mainly because of this reason, but hiring and training interns takes a lot of time and effort for the employer. They are willing to invest in you because they believe you are an asset to the industry and to their interests.

On a more personal level, internships provide employers with fresh ideas and a close look at the most current state of socio-cultural affairs, a valuable source of ideas to develop into sellable clothes. I have committed into doing a fashion-related project recently, and I have four of my best students as interns so I can receive the help I need. But one of the most satisfying aspects of directing an internship is to mentor these students. They might not know it, because I have not told them, but I have learned from them: they have spotted any mistakes I might have made in the process, they suggest new ideas, they also give feedback on the project. I have learned patience and the importance of mentorship and I know that I have given an opportunity to four deserving students that they might not have had otherwise. They have provided me with unconditional loyalty and belief in the project, hard work, and fresh eyes through which I can see how the public will react to the project before it is made public.

Internships are a fantastic resource for both students and employers/designers. They prepare students for the arduous road into fashion design industry while providing the designer with valuable skills and newer, fresher ideas to put into fruition. Internships are, as we discovered, a two-way partnership where both can win if they decide to do so.

*Edited to reflect a question posted in the comment section:

“Do you need to be a student to do an internship?”

The short answer is no. You do not need to be a student to be an intern, though some employers prefer hiring students because they already have skill sets required to complete any tasks assigned. If you have experience in the industry, and if you know at least a basic knowledge of sewing, pattern cutting, grading, or other technical or software skill, you could get an internship. I would recommend ensuring that your CV or résumé reflects your skills and what you can offer to potential employers. This can help you secure an interview at a fashion company.

If you are still fresh to the fashion industry or you have recently decided to give the fashion world a try but have not yet developed strong technical skills, I do suggest you refrain from trying an internship at this point. It would be more beneficial to take courses to address any skill deficiencies. Now, technical courses will help you improve your skills but they also achieve something more important: build your network of fashion professionals. If you are willing to build positive relationships with your tutors and with fellow classmates, you will benefit by obtaining first-hand information on potential internships and jobs.

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Fashion Skills 2: Research and its application

Previously, I outlined the steps to produce effective fashion research. However, I return to the topic now because I find that students have difficulties doing research.

Research is the investigation of a certain topic or theme that you want to make a collection about. No topic is off-limits: Christopher Kane, for example, has produced collections inspired by ‘Planet of the Apes’ and ‘The Flintstones’. Gareth Pugh is usually inspired by dark topics and historical epochs. Alexander McQueen is usually dramatic, has a flair for historical themes, especially 19th century costume, and he is focused on sharp tailoring. Likewise, John Galliano’s collections are historically-driven, but his obsession with the French Revolution has produced a solid vocabulary of shapes and silhouettes that reverberate throughout all of his collections. Topics and themes are as varied as designers: everything is accepted as long as you can produce a coherent and exciting collection.

The latter point is the most important: your works needs cohesiveness in order to be a successful collection. How do you achieve this?

1. Choose what appeals to you: Some are inspired by history, others by art, others by literature or architecture. The best way to begin research is by choosing a topic you are passionate about. Again, there are no limits to your research topic!

2. Gather as much material as possible: The more material you have, the better your design will be. Poor research leads to a poor collection. In academia, you have to painstakingly research every aspect about your topic. Fashion (and other art- and design-related disciplines) is no different. What differs is the end result: in academia you achieve a good research paper; in fashion you achieve a good collection. TIP: Start designing as soon as you start researching. You will make better use of your research if you use it alongside your sketches.

3. Edit: This is the difficult part. You have to choose what exactly appeals to you from your chosen topic. Maybe you researched about circus acts but got more interested in acrobats than in animals, for example. This is also the time to make decisions about choice of fabrics, colors, silhouettes, and embellishments. Now, some people are very inspired by silhouettes and materials rather than topics and prefer to drape and choose their fabrics before designing. This is equally valid; the design process should fit around your thought process and your preferences.

4. Keep designing and design from the inside out: This proves to be so difficult for beginners! Students often forget that fashion requires engineering. You have to design how clothing will function: how the pattern is made, how will it be sewn, how much inches or centimeters will it measure, what embellishments to use and how much you’ll need of each, what type of zippers or other closures you will need. Those are all decisions that designers need to do. Remember: if you don’t know how your clothing will be made, you have not design a thing.

5. Select and polish: Are you happy with what you have designed? Do you know how will it be constructed and presented? Are you already thinking about styling, either for the runway or for a shoot? Now it’s the time to choose the best designs to construct your collection. Choose things that have visual coherence. If your silhouette, colors, fabrics and/or embellishments do not look like they belong in the same group, it is because they don’t.

Now, you can start your research without major worries!

Enjoy!

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Fashion Skills 1.2: I can draw better, but I still have problems with proportions!

For the second article in this series, I’ll address the most common problem fashion students have with drawing in general (and it is more common than the problem faced on Fashion Skills 1!): they can draw somewhat, but human proportions just elude them.

As I said in my previous post, human proportions equal to 7.5 times the size of the human head. The first thing you should do before starting to draw is to divide the paper you’re using into 7 segments of equal height and a last segment half the height of the other 7 segments. That accounts for the 7.5 heads. This will simplify your experience, making it less ominous. Now, number each line from 1 to 7.5. Remember when I recommended you practiced drawing from life? Well, if you followed suit, you should have now enough experience with life drawing in order to understand how body parts relate to one another. Let’s practice your newly-acquired skills and knowledge!

Line 1: Draw an oval, which is to become the human head, and have the thinnest part of the oval touch Iine 1. This is where the chin should be.

Line 2: Draw the neck and the upper part of the ribcage. The shoulders should begin at the middle of the second square and the axis of the breasts (where the nipples are) should touch Line 2.

Line 3: Draw the lower ribcage and the waist, the thinnest part of the body, should be in the lower half of the third square. The navel should touch Line 3 and so should the beginning of the hips. Align the elbow to where you placed to waist (they’re usually a bit higher than the level of the waist but since you’re beginning to draw, you’ll find it easier aligning them horizontally).

Line 4: The fourth square should contain the hip bones and the upper part of the femur. The groin should almost touch Line 4, but not quite! Make sure that it doesn’t touch it, though, or the torso will be too long. Also, towards the middle of the fourth square should be the widest part of the body: the hip joint.

Line 5: The fifth square contains the remainder of the femur bones, or the thighs.

Line 6: Place the knees at the middle of the sixth square (note: the middle of the square, not Line 6!). The second half of the sixth square should have the beginning for the tibia (shinbone) and fibula (calfbone). Remember that the fibula is slightly angled to the outside of the lower leg, giving it its wider appearence.

Line 7: Place the ankles in Line 7 and finish the tibia and fibula bones on the line. Make sure that the bones and the ankle connect perfectly (or you’ll have some bizarre drawing).

Line 7.5: Place your toes on the line and draw the feet coming from the ankle.

This is a rather simple rendition of the correct alignment of human proportions. Of course, if you want to make a 9-head fashion figure, your proportions will change. For the time being, stick to the 7.5 human proportion canon and learn it.

Now, if you find drawing the outline of the human figure too intimidating, you can always break down the figure into geometrical shapes and later refine your drawing to match it to a human body outline. For example, it’s easier to draw the head if you think of it as an egg that you add cheekbones and hair to. The limbs can be reproduced by simple lines and the joints by small circles. The feet can be done with an inverted triangle shape, to which you add circular toes. Later, fix the toes to a more irregular shape to make them more realistic. The hip is usually heart-shaped, so this can help you reproduce its form. After you’ve done your geometric figure and it’s perfectly proportioned, then you can work on the outline and on making it more human-looking.

Practicing is key: the more you draw, the better your drawings will be.

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Fashion skills 1: Help, I can’t draw!

A couple of days ago, a fashion student asked me how she could produce a fashion portfolio if she’s not very skilled at drawing. I told her, quite simply, that she had to practice endlessly her drawing skills and I suggested a list of fashion illustration books and also suggested she viewed the ‘How to do a Portfolio’ section of this blog. Every day I encounter more and more fashion students who need to develop their drawing skills. Design is a two-part discipline: there is the artistic/visual side, and there’s the engineering side. We will deal with the former in this, our first post of 2012.

First, if you’re planning on entering a fashion school or fashion design department you NEED to be able to draw well. I don’t mean senseless doodling (although that is quite useful at times), but to understand the notions of basic drawing principles. More importantly, after conquering basic drawing skills, you must be able to draw the human body effortlessly. Knowing the proportions of the human body is paramount in order to be a good designer. Sometimes, students forget that a designer works with, and for, the human body. If a student does not understand how the body works, how it moves and how the fabric moves when the body moves, (s)he cannot design properly. The student will find great issues when translating their idea to a tridimensional garment. Thus, human body proportions are at the core of fashion design.

Second, I will ask you the unthinkable: forget everything you think you know about fashion illustration, especially the notion that the human body measures 9 times its head. This is false and misleading, and it causes great trouble for beginners when they start designing and drawing. When students sketch a garment using the 9-head proportion without knowing real human dimensions, (s)he will have great difficulty converting their drawn version of the design to a tridimensional model. I see it all the time with my students! To avoid this, learn the following: The human body has from 7 to 7.5 heads and this is the proportion you should memorize to a ‘T’.

There are many techniques to help you achieve a proportioned human figure. The best thing to do, though, is to ask a friend of family member to pose for you for 5 minutes at a time so you can draw their pose using the 7.5 human canon. At first, you won’t finish your drawing, but after enough practice, you won’t even need the whole 5 minutes! Then, make things more complex by asking them to pose with elaborate clothing: a wedding dress, a prom dress, a frilly shirt or a printed outfit. Try different poses, and start drawing different people. Draw from what you see on TV while watching Glee, for example (imagine drawing Lea Michele while singing!), or just practice your people-watching skills by drawing girls that walk by you at the mall.

On this latter point, I advise you try the following exercise: Sit at the mall, near a womenswear clothing store. With your sketchbook ready (it shouldn’t be bigger than an 8.5” x 11” or A4 size), look at any of the people coming in or out of the store and observe what interesting clothing items they’re wearing. Choose whoever you feel has the coolest style, and draw them quickly while they enter or exit the store. [1] You’ll have to be lightning-fast: maybe you’ll have just a minute to do it! But because you have to be really quick, and you have to know your human canon by heart, your eye-hand coordinating skills will get developed fast.

Also try the following: While walking at the mall or on the street, ask people with stylish clothes you like to pose for a snapshot. Remember, always ask first! Then use those photos to recreate the human proportions and later draw the clothes.

All of these exercises will train your eye to remember details and proportions without having to look twice at the subject. Practice and perseverance are key! When you have dominion over the human proportions, you can try this next exercise they taught us at Central Saint Martins: take a photo from a fashion magazine (try choosing one where the model exposes most of her limbs; a model with a bikini is usually perfect) and cut out the model. Next, cut out the clothes and glue the photo to a white photocopier paper. Now you can make many copies of the same photo and draw over the figure. Think of it as a type of collage: this can be useful as a working sketch but also as a final illustration. You will have a perfectly proportioned body base to work with and you can see better how your final clothing item will look on a real person before you even make the pattern for it. It’s a win-win!

Good luck with your drawing!


[1] People usually don’t have a problem when you are drawing at public spaces, but you have to be careful nonetheless. Some people will not like you drawing them! So try to be discreet. On the other hand, if you wish to take a photograph of the person with their clothes, just like cool hunters do, always ask for permission first. Never take a photo of someone without asking, you could get into trouble!

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Pigeons and Peacocks: The London College of Fashion Magazine

Recently, I received my free copy of Pigeons and Peacocks (issue 4), the London College of Fashion magazine.

I was amazed at the quality and diversity of the work published.

The first editorial, Rumours, by Haley Louisa Brown, is simply exquisite: a hippie/gypsy fantasy of black-and-white proportions. A stunning draped white dress with long, romantic sleeves by Meadham Kirchhoff takes center stage in the first page of the magazine, setting the mood for the editorials to come. It is a nod to nostalgia. Nostalgia, as explained in the Editor’s Letter, ‘is what imbues ordinary objects, places, people and things with a mythical power they would never have naturally possessed’. The issue aims to rescue those things vintage, ethnic, antique and cherished and reclaim them, assigning them a new forum (the published magazine) imbedded with new significance.

The editor, John William, strives the perfect balance between linking a common theme, nostalgia, in both picture editorials and relevant articles, with self-promotion for LCF’s fashion students. The writing is not superfluous, and it reaches new heights by providing a space for academic discussion. Case in point, Alexa Gould-Kavet’s article, ‘The Demise of the Subcultural Identity: Towards a Postmodern Theory of The Hipster and Hipster Style’, reflects on the need for redefining what subculture means and how that affects understanding hipsters. All in all, contrary  to other subcultures, hipsters are not defined by ‘culture’, but by ‘taste’; the hipster subject rejects mainstream culture and embraces all that is ‘indie’, bohemian and/or different. Of course, if you go to Central Saint Martins, and to LCF itself, you’ll notice the abundance of these hipsters and they are easily identifiable by their dress: skinny pants, dishelved appearance, vintage clothes, red lipstick. They’ll raid vintage shops or Topshop. They all look the same.

On a lighter note, other editorials include Paint, by Saga Sig, featuning mostly painted dresses by Tanya Ling. The beautiful Babes of Benin, also by Sig, displays the talent of LCF’s students to the fullest with Sara Arsenén’s upside-down bra. This ‘bra’ completely redefines the object as an purely aesthetic one, denying its main function: to support the bust. Colorful, creative, and innovative, this editorial blends African conciousness and fashion sense with European fashion taste. This is accompanied by an article, ‘Black-sploitation? Opening the debate’, about the exploitation of the past, and in this case, of African cultural past.

I highly recommend this magazine, it was a pleasant and unexpected surprise. The quality and professionalism of the content is something fashion students should all aspire to. I think that, by subscribing to this magazine, many students will be more conscious of their environment and of the tools available to study fashion, trends and its cultural background. Well done!

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