Students beware: bad influences

Wednesday, 18 March 2015
So accustomed to hearing references to Kimye and Rihanna, I find my heart skips a little when a student drops a lesser-known name while discussing their research and influences. Bill Gibb was one such name I was astounded to hear from an Associate-level student last quarter.

A student’s influences reflect how unique they want to be. It is imperative to their burgeoning identity that they expand their range beyond what the media sloppily serves up. If their knowledge is gleaned from the E Entertainment Channel, they will be settling for fashion with a small F. Yet, according to influential fashion figure Li Edelkoort, we may already be too late. “Fashion with a big F is no longer there,” she declared during the recent release of her industry-rocking Anti_Fashion manifesto in which she proclaims the death of fashion as we know it, describing what remains as “a ridiculous and pathetic parody of what it has been.” If that’s not a challenge to young designers, and indeed educators, to rear up and create a new order, I don’t know what it is.

The old saying “Think outside the box” has lost any meaning from overuse, but redefined for a new generation it might be “Think beyond the screen.”

So, students, when all your favorite Streetstyle and Instagram pages start to look like one glossy catalogue of styling tips, and your Pinterest is just a collage of regurgitated images without source or meaning; when you defend Kanye West’s collection for Adidas as “new” and find yourself only sketching gowns because all you see are red carpets, the time has come to pull up the drawbridge. Retreat, regroup, research.

In his bestselling book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield emphasizes the importance of Defining the Enemy, that villain that prevents you from achieving greatness, succeeding in your creativity, accomplishing your dreams. In this case, it’s not the usual suspects that Pressfield describes––self-sabotage, self-deception, self-corruption... I have the list right here and this is just the K section: Kanye, the Kardashians, Kelly Osbourne, even the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton gets a mention; it’s a veritable rogue’s gallery of impostors passing themselves off as style icons. Be snobby about who you allow in to your party.

The current female figures in popular culture all look the same: they boast flowing tresses and an impressive tail; their garments tend to be a size too small allowing them all to expose the same erogenous zones. It is the job of an inquisitive designer to reject what society has become used to seeing and present an alternative. In 1996, Alexander McQueen’s “bumster” redirected our gaze, ushering in a decade of low-rise trousers, (and unfortunately spawning the phrase “muffin top”). Christian Dior’s New Look half a century earlier, which was coined after Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief exclaimed, “It’s such a new look!,” overturned the austere wartime silhouette and influenced global fashion well into the fifties. From crinolines and bustles to S-bend corsets and hip-narrowing girdles, designers have always played with shape. I wonder will this go down in the annals as the era in which surgeons were more responsible for changing the female shape by cutting and injecting directly into the skin than fashion designers who merely cut into fabric?

Like fruit flies at a picnic, this generation of students lands on an image, reflexively presses the “Like” button, then zooms off again to another morsel that glints from the side column. They touch the surface of everything but persuading them to stay a while and read about the sewing and cutting techniques behind the image that gained their “Like” or the design philosophies behind their favorite collections is what keeps us educators in jobs. Like doctors entering specialty training, design students must embark on their fellowship, that period of deep professional research for the day when they will practice. This should involve returning to publications, books with pictures and words but no hyperlinks, GIFs or memes. Who knows what nourishment is to be found between those yellowed pages of a 70s Vogue or inside that photography tome? In an age of three-second search results, a well-stocked design school’s library can be the Nutribullet to balance out the mindless junk-filled binges.

At this point in life, I worry there are too many good books and not enough time to read them all, whereas years ago as a design student I worried there were too many designers and not enough time to learn about them all. Throughout my career I set about building my own personal comprehensive designer data bank. In an ironic twist this week, returning from a book store empty-handed, I popped into a vintage clothing store and discovered a dress by a designer I’d never heard of before: Andrea Jovine. Made of black ponte knit and body-con in that 80s way, with a motif of oversized grommets at the neckline, it looked modern the way vintage Moschino now looks modern. I asked the sales clerk about the designer but she provided very little other than “It’s a great dress!” A brief Google search and several conversations later (with colleagues who worked in the New York garment industry in the 90s), and I am informed on the history of my dress. There is no end to our days as a design student.

In conjunction with Edelkoort’s pronouncements, I believe we have reached a critical point. Here are some indicators: a student referred to Ziggy Stardust as “she” because they were confusing the original Bowie incarnation with Kate Moss dressed up to look like him on her various Vogue covers. (Is it a wishful thinking to imagine I will ever hear one of them mention Bowie’s legendary costumer, Kansai Yamamoto?) Another student referred to a wool tweed as a print failing to understand that it is tweed’s unique weave that creates its patterned appearance. When I informed a freshly enrolled student that their flat sketch did not accurately represent their design, they demonstrated their best Real Housewives of Atlanta neckroll and asked “Are you coming for me, Miss Mallon?”

However all is not lost. I have also had a Bachelor’s student create a beautiful collection based on their father’s deterioration from Alzheimer's; through another student, I have been enlightened on the mathematical theory of the fourth dimension and what it can bring to patterncutting. And when all else fails, I can slip away in my mind to that wonderful halcyon day when a student spoke to me about Bill Gibb.

By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.​