Friday, November 30, 2012

Architecture & the Design Process: Fashion is Architecture


Coco Channel once stated "Fashion is Architecture. It is a matter of proportions".  One could rightly conclude from this statement that fashion and architecture share many things in common.  If one observes a stunning woman in the perfect evening dress or discerns a vibrant neighborhood featuring a magnificent building, it is obvious that fashion and architecture have much in common - proportions, form, scale, and the like. What is not as obvious is that the process behind fashion and architecture also share much in common.  In fact the process behind all design professions is remarkably similar. As I describe the process of design for the fashion designer, I could as easily be describing the process of design for the architect.
After watching the reality television show Project Runway for the first time, I became intrigued with the process of design followed by these aspiring fashion designers. Each show starts with a challenge.  Usually top model and producer Heidi Klum challenges the designers to design some sort of garment, often for a unique client. There are always restrictions and are often unusual requirements. At the same time there is an expectation that the designers will express their point of view. The design process begins with the designers processing and organizing this information. 

Multiple sketches are then generated to work out various concepts. Form, proportion, scale, material, and construction techniques are all visually explored and refined on paper. Self critiquing is a vital part of this process.  The first sketch may convey concepts that are maintained throughout the process but normally the designers produce several sketches before they are satisfied (or time runs out). Outside critiquing also a vital part of the design process. Tim Gunn, a noted fashion consultant, evaluates the designers' sketches and offers constructive criticism. Sometimes the designers heed his advice and sometimes they don't...usually to their detriment.

Construction is where it all comes together. This is where the sketches are transformed into a physical object, the garment. Proper selection of materials is of critical importance during this phase, as is proper detailing. No matter how well the designer thinks that everything is worked out in the drawings, there are always areas that were either not addressed or that simply did not work as well as planned. One of the characteristics of an exceptional designer is the ability to make the garment better during the construction process. Limited construction time and tight budgets are often par for the course in fashion design, with precious few exceptions. How the designer handles all of these issues determines, in large part, the success of the project.


The final product is the ultimate goal - a beautiful garment that can be proudly worn by the client.  This should be a source of great pride for the designer.  A design that originates in the mind of the designer, revealed through the pen on paper, and finally constructed in physical form!  What could be cooler than that?
 A Christian Sirano dress from Project Runway
Oh, there is one more thing.  Like it or not, people will have opinions about what the designer has created. Some will love it (listen to them) and some will not (ignore them). The designer must remain true to his or her point of view, even if everyone is not wild about it.  Otherwise we will end up with a world of mediocre garments!

Frank Gehry's Guggenheim at Bilbao
Architecture too begins in the mind and is revealed, then refined on paper. Self critiquing and outside critique also play a role. The design must satisfy the needs of the client as well as express the point of view of the architect. Construction of the design, within the constraints of time and budget are likewise a critical part of the process. To be sure, there are obvious differences between architecture and fashion design. The duration of the process and the complexity of the finished product differ greatly, but there are far more similarities.
Daniel Libeskind's Addition to the Denver Art Museum
Architects and fashion designers (indeed all types of designers), using this common process of design, are capable of creating stunning works! Garments, the finished product of the fashion designer, are typically thought of as commercial products. Buildings, the finished product of the architect, are typically thought of as being above merely commercial products.  But are they really?  We'll address that question in the next post, Cathedral of Commerce.