Sunday, 3 November 2013

Elvis Jumpsuit

This is what I consider to be my most embarrassing design ever. It is now fondly referred to in-house as the ‘Elvis Jumpsuit’. It’s from my second collection, Spring 2008. It has been stricken from the public record and I am highlighting its existence for the sole purpose of illustrating a point: things change.  

There is a misconception, perhaps more in art and fashion than in other areas, that a person is supposed to enter into their field fully formed. They are expected to have a clear vision that they will sustain throughout their 40-50 year career and they should be able to tap in to their genius right out of the gate.  

It takes time to develop any talent into a real skill, whether it’s as an artist or designer. As I design the 14th Birds of North America collection, I feel more aware than ever of not only how much my judgement has improved over the years, but also of how much my design aesthetic has evolved.

Designers need time to learn, take risks, make mistakes, and be able to get back up and try again without going bankrupt. The way a designer proceeds after deciding to start a line of clothing plays a large part in determining how long they can financially afford to continue and this is the largest factor in allowing a designer to improve enough to have any kind of longevity.  

The fashion industry is an expensive place to make mistakes, and one of the biggest pitfalls for new lines is the temptation to put on a large fashion show. Fashion shows are highly appealing to new designers for many reasons. The process of starting and operating a line of clothing is so overwhelming that the prospect of one event that promises to propel you into the stratosphere of success can be irresistible. The ego boost and the powerful feeling of being ‘the designer’ backstage at a national fashion week is intoxicating and can be addictive.

The enormous downside to doing a big launch with a fashion show is that the designer has to put a lot of money up front, usually without the experience to judge the show’s actual value to the business. The cost of participating in a fashion week in Canada can easily consume the entirety of a label’s start-up capital.

After investing in a fashion show, new designers will often find it a struggle to support themselves while they develop their next collection. Smaller labels rarely get direct sales out of runway events, so there is little or no immediate financial gain to be had. They soon have to confront the impossibility of paying for fashion week appearances over and over, and since there is no other option, they silently slip out of the scene confused and feeling like their careers are over.

The first three years are the hardest for new designers, and that is already a long time to hang in financially even without the expensive burden of a show. A significant number of Canadian lines have started with a big launch only to disappear entirely a year to 18 months later. It takes several seasons of mailing out look books and making calls to stores for the buyers to believe that your line will even be around long enough to be worth investing in. On top of that, they have to actually like what you're doing and the clothes have to be well made, fit properly and sell once they are in the store - not a guarantee! Most people have to mine every personal financial resource possible to make it through the first few years.

 I can speak for most functioning independent designers when I say that we cannot afford to pay for regular fashion week appearances. We support ourselves, the continuation of our lines and our seasonal production exclusively through the sales of clothing we make the previous season.  

I feel very fortunate to have been able to sustain Birds of North America for the six years since I started. Even so, I often feel like I’ve only just begun to understand what I’m doing. More than anything, designers need time to evolve. Had I not survived those first few years, the ‘Elvis Jumpsuit’ might have been the unfortunate defining look of Birds of North America. Seeing these old photographs again reminds me that I have made some progress after all. No disrespect to The King!

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