We left off last week’s story with me riding my bike around in graduate school thinking about apparel design.
Three years later I know I’m in the wrong career. I’ve moved from one organization to the next and still I’m in the wrong place. “You’re the type of person who starts their own thing, so do that” friends would tell me. And then one day it occurs to me, “I’m an entrepreneur,” and then, “I’m a designer.” Yikes. So I start learning. I find a seasoned production manager to teach me how to produce apparel. The designs pour out. Those ideas, filed neatly away, find welcome relief on paper.
Because I am an outsider chiseling my way into the fashion industry, I come at the apparel problem free from the unwritten rules that seem to characterize women’s apparel. Why would I work with a skinny model figure for my designs when me and most of the people I know don’t look like that? Why would I design clothing that isn’t practical for movement or doesn’t have pockets just because that’s mostly what exists in women’s apparel? Why would I use materials that are too delicate or poor quality to serve my basic needs?
So I began designing and prototyping classic pieces, with modern twists, with features and fabrics that worked with the body for my basic daily activities – biking, walking, working, hanging out. And I expected to encounter a huge amount of difficulties making something higher quality, with better fabric, and smart twists on classic designs. If it was so doable, why weren’t apparel companies doing it, I reasoned? And then I was puzzled when achieving better quality, using better fabrics, and thinking through designs that would allow for movement, wasn’t the difficult part (to be sure, there is plenty that is extremely difficult about apparel aside from this.)
But this part was infinitely doable. My Harris Tweed Riding Jacket sample actually, seriously held up to my frenzied race to gather my belongings in the mornings, to being shoved into my bike bag, to the friction by riding to meetings, to my co-working space, to traveling with me on a wild U.S.-wide tour to bike shops early on when I mistakenly thought it was just biking woman who struggled with their clothing. Two years later it still looks as beautiful as the day I unwrapped it from it’s box. This Riding Jacket is much less a dainty blazer and much more a workhorse. My workhorse.
So it was possible. It was possible to make something better that could withstand an active, ambitious woman’s lifestyle. And I came to conclude that the reason people in the industry weren’t making clothing that fit the bill of what I wanted was that the people calling the shots thought it didn’t matter to women, that they didn’t value these things enough to pay for them. It was fascinating to learn that high performing, great quality fabrics for professional clothing weren’t marketed for womenswear. Very few womenswear companies were using Harris Tweed, arguably the best wool tweed around. Catalogues for performance wool were entirely geared towards men. And the resulting apparel companies like Parker Dusseau or Mission Workshop only made menswear.
Women’s apparel was left to pick over the garments made by the race to the bottom that was taking place in the apparel market in general. Clothing that is made cheaper and cheaper, poorer and poorer quality, construction, design, and materials. But this wasn’t always the case. The majority of women’s apparel companies may have overlooked utility and function but clothing used to be high quality. What happened?
Next week we look at what’s going on in the apparel industry that is contributing to the current predicament with women’s clothing: fast fashion and pollution, poor garment quality, offshoring of apparel jobs, shifts to ecommerce and FIT challenges.
Thank you very much for following along!
Go, fight, win!