The Graduate Portfolio as Taught by Dries Van Noten

Friday, 31 July 2015
OPINIONI begin most of my Final Portfolio classes by telling the students a personal story. When I graduated from Saint Martins I sent a small handmade book, sewn together, containing six pages of my portfolio for the attention of Mr Dries Van Noten at his studio in Antwerp. In the weeks that followed  I tried not to sit in my East London student flat and fret about why I hadn’t heard back from him. Eventually I scraped a fare to Italy, got a job with Moschino and my career began. Six months later, a letter with a Belgian postmark was forwarded to my Milan address. Dries Van Noten wanted to meet with me. I telephoned, a flight was arranged, and I was promptly on it with my portfolio stowed safely in the overhead bin. I had grown in confidence since college; I was legit now with a proper job, being paid for my design work, and Dries Van Noten had offered to fly me over for a meeting...

He was just as I expected him to be. Softly spoken and welcoming, nothing terribly fashiony about him. But when he turned the pages of my portfolio, he did so silently while I gawped at a rack of decadently embellished scarves. When he looked up, he expressed disappointment. He had been hoping to see more of the spirit of my little book. He was not interested in what I had been doing for Moschino or other companies. Rather than professional work, he wanted to see the more personal explorative style that I had established for my graduating portfolio. That work was instinctive and emotional––a mixture of photomontage, hand sewing and scrawling––born out of the reality of having no money for proper materials and an inability to draw conventional fashion figures.

I use this experience as the basis of my teaching. A graduate portfolio is the one opportunity for students to express what they are truly about, before industry and commerce condition them, and raw ambition twists them.

A formula is the antidote to a memorable graduate portfolio

There are many How To Make a Great Portfolio articles on line. This will not be one of them, because that would suggest there is a formula. A formula is the antidote to a memorable graduate portfolio, a surefire way to ensure the viewer’s eyes glaze over and they close the book before the end. I understand that students, grasping for definitive answers in an industry in flux, crave certainty and absolutes, but I cannot in good conscience provide them––not when it comes to something so important. Block out my voice, I would go as far as suggesting, in order to hear your own inner voice.

As a professor who teaches portfolio development, a designer who has had to create an extensive portfolio over the years to get hired, and a former design director who has hired graduates based on their portfolio, I have, however, managed to cobble together a map. This is the best direction I can offer. How you get to your destination is up to you, I ask only that you take the scenic route.

Primarily the portfolio must stand out from all the others. A unique point of view will help it do that. Digging deep and questioning why you even want to be responsible for putting more clothes on the market when the planet is buckling under the weight of so much banged-out, unnecessary, poorly designed rubbish is a good place to start. What is your voice? Why should it be heard?

The portfolio should demonstrate your command of the computer and not its hold over you

Computer skills are imperative, but the portfolio should demonstrate your command of the computer and not its hold over you. An overly computerized portfolio––glossy, flat, impersonal––puts the viewer at a distance. There isn’t that distance between us and clothing. It’s sits right on our skin and we feel it. For that reason, decent sized swatches are important, and samples of fabric techniques and textile experimentation are wonderful additions to the book. Do you embroider, crochet?––You developed a new primitive form of tweed in your basement using milk protein? We’d love to see it. Anything that brings us close to the experience of wearing the garments, feeling them.

Hand drawing is beautiful if you are gifted that way, and your portfolio should feature it proudly. Go old school with a beautifully illustrated design that fills the page but for a couple of swatches pinned beside it. Check out the timeless compositions of fashion illustrators from the past like Kenneth Paul Block or René Gruau. Gaudy Photoshopped backgrounds for your illustrations are distracting and unnecessary, and a curse of some schools. They will not get you a design job or compensate for the fact that your designs are weak.

If you are not blessed with a natural drawing ability, settle on a method of communicating that might involve a simpler stylized drawing style augmented with collage. Little tricks to cover the fact that you can’t draw heads, for example, are easy and can become part of your style. A pet peeve of mine is seeing a big blank oval where the head should be. It’s the equivalent of drawing a department store mannequin’s head; you have effectively robbed your design of all aspiration or fantasy. A floating question mark above the shoulders would say more.

Develop your flat sketching obsessively. Present both hand-drawn and digital flats, as you do not know which will be required when you show up for interview. I know of one company where hand flats are the norm on one floor but just ascend a flight of stairs within the same company, and all the flats are created on computer. Entry-level designers are often called upon to do the technical flat sketching that no one else has time for––a strange phenomenon as measurements and fit are critical above all else, but that’s the way it is. The more senior designers with too many corporate meetings and endless emails to attend to are forced to leave this task to the juniors. The state of samples returning from factories depends entirely on your accuracy and detail. It’s an opportunity to impress.

“I need 20 jackets by lunchtime!”

Design development is often lacking in student portfolios. Carry a sketchbook everywhere and include some of its pages. Show the process of building a collection; those avenues you travelled down even though you had to retrace your steps. They were not dead ends but necessary bridges. While it is easy to create a stunning illustration locked in your bedroom for hours listening to Grimes, you will rarely have this experience in the workplace. Maybe if you design gowns for Atelier Versace, Donatella will want to see the bling from every bugle bead represented in your illustrations, but this kind of luxury in fashion sketching is rare. When I worked for Giorgio Armani, it wasn’t uncommon to hear instruction such as, “I need 20 jackets by lunchtime!” Can you draw accurately, at speed, taking an idea and moving it forward in a coherent, logical, meaningful way? An employer will feel he is getting “more bang for his buck” in hiring you. It is also an opportunity to show how your unique design brain works. It’s a peek behind the curtain.

Solid research is the fuel for every step of the process. Do it relentlessly as you design. Research does not stop when designing starts; there is overlap. Design studios from Milan to Manhattan often have entire walls papered with research that accumulates throughout the season as concepts evolve. Do not base an entire collection on one image. That is a Hallmark card, not a concept. Be alert to the world around you. Use your own photos as inspiration. Find engaging ways way to showcase the originality of your research in your book.

Fashion is an industry in which your qualifications won’t secure you a job, and the prestige of the school you attended will only get you in the door. It’s your book that will get you hired. Whether you present your portfolio in a hand made leather valise or in the form of a broadsheet newspaper, the content should speak volumes.

I might never get over the fact that I disappointed Dries but, already months into my career, I learnt more from him about the importance of my graduate portfolio than I ever could have understood at school.

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.