To sew or not to sew?

Friday, 30 January 2015

OPINION It’s that time again when fashion students a few months shy of graduating struggle to divide their time between the creative task of assembling their final portfolio and the practical one of sewing their final collection. Without either, they cannot graduate.

In some schools, a percentage of the collection can be sewn by an outside professional provided the student can afford the extra expense, while other institutions prohibit any outsourcing whatsoever.

A final collection can be anything from six to ten looks, some looks may be three or four garments. That’s an average of 24 garments. A final portfolio is a book of work that represents the student’s ideas, artwork and illustrations, photographs of completed garments, experiments with textiles, and any publicity they may have received.

'In the fashion industry, a student’s qualifications will not gain them a job'

In the fashion industry, a student’s qualifications will not gain them a job. Graduating with a First Class Honours will not dazzle a future employer like it might for graduates in other fields. Furthermore, design students will not be hired on the strength of their sewing. They are hired primarily on the strength of the graduate portfolio. Companies generally look for entry level designers to function as mini ideas factories who also demonstrate proficiency in technical flat sketching. It is not inconceivable that a student graduates with a poor grade, is prohibited from presenting with their peers in the final year fashion show, yet gets hired shortly after solely on the contents of their book.

The Fashion School at Kent State, Ohio, is a Midwestern centre of excellence with satellite campuses in New York and Florence, and partnership study abroad programmes in Paris, Hong Kong and London. When I asked its director JR Campbell if the Bachelor students are able to seek outside help when sewing their final collections, he responded, “No. Not by any means for any element of their final collections. We expect them to be able to conceptualize, design, pattern make, construct, execute and promote/defend their work. They might not end up engaging in each of these activities in their future professional roles, but we believe it is crucial that they demonstrate the ability to do all, as the ‘making’ is an important component of the design knowledge.”

Certainly, lack of knowledge in garment construction would be detrimental to a student’s ability to problem solve on the job, or be innovative in design. In all graduate programmes, before the student reaches the stage of cutting into final fabric, they will have made their own patterns, and sewn prototypes in appropriate weight muslin, multiple times if necessary until approved. At that point, if they were communicating with outside professionals, it would mimic what happens in the industry when garments are handed over to sample rooms or factories for manufacture.

'A fashion student is essentially a jack of all trades'

A fashion student is essentially a jack of all trades––designer, patternmaker, technical assistant, machinist, merchandiser, marketer, all demanding roles that separate into rewarding careers in and of themselves upon graduation. But what if they’re master of none? What if they’re only a generalist who fulfills all the criteria to graduate but possesses a lacklustre portfolio that sinks below the glut of similar leather bound cases emerging from schools as far off as Milan’s Marangoni and Tokyo’s Bunka to end up on the same hiring manager’s desk? How do they carve out the time to give the portfolio its due attention?

Associates level student, Kibonen Nfi, from the Art Institute of New York City describes the pressure: “I am just in a daze. To come up with a great final portfolio requires tremendous work, thought has to be given to what we want our potential employers to have on their minds as they finish looking at our portfolios. From now till my final presentation is almost five months and I am having sleepless nights. Some outsourcing would be a lifesaver. I had my first chance to step foot on the sewing machine when I got to AI over a year ago so currently, when I design I dare not delve too much into complicated silhouettes and techniques. I do not equally venture into unusual textiles because I fear not being able to properly work with them. All of this crossing my mind affects the final result.” She concludes, however, “While I do not see in my future products that I personally sew hanging at Barney’s, I definitely see Barney’s picking up my line and carrying it.”

Many schools incorporate outsourcing primarily to allow students the opportunity to work with speciality fabrics they might not have the capacity to sew, such as leather or rubber, or to cover the execution of digital printing and embellishments. Lyn Caponera, Fashion Instructor at Parsons, the New School, describes their policy in the following terms, “The 33 percent of outsourcing the student may participate in is first an invaluable learning experience in industry practices. From finding and selecting the contractor, negotiating the price and deadlines along with all communication on the garment: spec sheets, construction choices, supervision on the quality of the sewing down to details of choice such as thread color and placement of buttonholes. It is a big responsibility as well as an opportunity in planning, management and communication.”

Sewing samples are required throughout the process. It must be evident which garments have been sewn by the student. Passing off someone else’s professional sewing as your own work is akin to plagiarism in a fashion-school setting so the question arises: What happens when a student abuses the rule and depends on professional help for more than the allocated percentage? “There are very few problems. Students do have integrity.” says Caponera. “We would take it on a case-by-case basis,” says JR Campbell, “but would likely not allow them to pass the course requirement, which would result in them having to retake the final course.”

'The act of creating something three-dimensional can feel like a more unique achievement for students than filling a book with drawings'

One of my students arrived for her first portfolio class last week, looked me in the eye and said, “Well, here we are, the moment of truth.” Students are only too aware of the importance of their portfolio, that sacred tome that has been referred to since freshman orientation. Yet they inevitably find themselves losing valuable hours ripping out and resewing, perfecting and tweaking, their final quarter disintegrating as fast as their seam allowances. The act of creating something three-dimensional––a beautifully inserted jacket sleeve, or a welt pocket that functions like a dream––can feel like a more unique achievement for students than filling a book with drawings. There may even be the allure of learning an artisanal, age-old craft that, despite ever-evolving technology, has changed little from our grandparents’ day.

This is an angle that Amanda Lovell, the Fashion Department Chair at the Art Institute of New York City, touches on when discussing their policy of no outsourcing except for buttonholes: “It’s an interesting subject and worth examining. As an industry professional, I often think that we are limiting their creativity by not allowing any outside help. Students will design what they know they can execute but perhaps not push beyond that. Sometimes I think there should be two tracks; one for the students who want to follow a technical/production path and another for those who want to major in design. I also worry about the removal of sewing skills and how this might affect efforts to rebuild homegrown manufacturing in our country. That scares me. Then as the Department Chair, I feel a responsibility to level the playing field for every student and ensure they have the same opportunities for success. Outside help would mean an extra financial burden and those who couldn’t afford it might feel they are losing out.”

So, collection versus portfolio becomes a tug of war with the student at the centre and an instructor pulling on either arm. One inevitably edges ahead, taking priority over the other, as stress rises and deadlines loom and time shortens and course requirements are dangled warningly. Do I dare confide to my students that while they can’t bring garments to interview, they can photograph them for their book and Photoshop away any sewing defects? Am I a disgrace to my profession if I ignore the fact that the zipper is still not inserted and advise them to gather the centre back seams into a bulldog clip and shoot it from the front? And do I dare add to their stress if I remind them it is the portfolio, and the portfolio alone, that will get them hired, help them pay off student loans, and embark upon a career? So to sew or not to sew? It depends on who you ask. There are various schools of thought and they don’t appear to be reaching one unanimous verdict any time soon.

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.