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The Plight of the Misunderstood Genius in Fashion

By Jackie Mallon

Dec 11, 2015

Fashion |OPINION

The relationship between intention and interpretation forms the foundation for all creative processes. Yet fashion design, unlike fine art or sculpture, relies heavily on the creator’s intention if the result is to be a success. Revered poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “To be great is to be misunderstood.” Stick to the written word, Sir, with all due respect, for that won’t wash in this industry.

During a recent Design for Specialty Markets class I was confronted with what happens when the relationship between intention and interpretation goes horribly awry. A student had produced a presentation of such beauty, the like of which I had rarely seen at Associates level before. It demonstrated such an elevated aesthetic, sensitivity of rendering, innovation of design, and, within the category of luxury lingerie, such offbeat styling: Pallid waify figures dressed in languid sporty shapes sprouting wispy layers of tulle in the most luscious watermelon. The softest grey and a burnished gold added to the unconventional color combo. The drawings showed smears of contrast lace appliquéd in unusual landmass shapes; feathers sprouting from the most unorthodox places implied that this bird was breaking free of the gilded cage of traditional lingerie’s straps, cups and boning. It eschewed overt femininity in favor of an androgynous allure as waistbands of lace boy shorts fell way low on the hip bone, and hands were nonchalantly shoved in pockets (in underwear––why, this is the future!) under negliges like gossamer sack dresses. Such atypical layering for this most sexed-up of specialty markets seemed fresh and, displayed across two large presentation boards, the proposal communicated confidence. La Perla goes grunge.

The discovery of untapped genius

Inwardly I congratulated the student on the audacity required to completely unravel conventional codes of seduction like this. Hungry for the discovery of untapped genius, I began to question her on some of the decisions behind it.

And my heart began to sink. She explained that her cat tipped her paint over onto her work and she had left it like that because it looked pretty (there go the eruptions of feathery watermelon). Her printer ink was fading; the grey was meant to be black and the gold was meant to be Kelly green (poof, away with the sensitive palette). She hadn’t managed to accurately size her garments on the computer to fit the croquis she had found online (nix the nonchalant fit and offbeat styling).

None of what was beautiful about the presentation had been intentionally created.

We were meant to be together

As creatives, we’ve all benefitted from “happy accidents” that lead to those brief enigmatic flirtations with greatness, but from which no long-term relationship can be formed. Intention is where the power of design resides. Harnessing it in yourself and understanding it around you means you can successfully tap into the DNA of an established brand and access otherwise classified information. It’s the form of telepathy that allows you to demonstrate you share a label’s vision despite being a rank outsider. It assures a potential employer that that you will contribute to their success and not go rogue. In this overly cautious industry still working to bounce back to pre-recession abundance, it whispers, We were meant to be together; you can’t do it without me.

Understanding the power of intention is key in today’s oversaturated marketplace, particularly here in the U.S. where the difference between one brand and the next has become almost indecipherable, each one vying for the same customer. Understanding the subtleties of a company’s aesthetic, what they believe makes them unique, ensures you stand out too.

Exposing the imposters

Intention is not only noble but integral to success in the fashion industry. Art Basel this is not, and interpretation is low on the priority list of this multimillion dollar industry. Fashion is an applied art as my old design professor wearily repeated, and fashion must be bought by multiple customers, not lone patrons, in order to justify its existence. Employers do not react well to a bait-and-switch situation (nor do professors, mind you) and the marketplace (buyers, showrooms, customers) likes to know what it’s getting. The alternative is a suspicion of dishonesty or incompetence. Leaving anything open to interpretation in this industry means misunderstandings occur between designer and manufacturer. Businesses watch profits trickle away on oversampling. Stores return deliveries, cancel future orders. Designers join the jobless masses.

Of course, the designs I encountered today would never have gotten near the sampling stage as detailed flat sketches, and a comprehensive tech pack would have exposed them for the imposters they were.

I sadly had to accept that this collaboration between a mismanaged computer, a restless cat, and a thirsty printer, although momentarily dazzling, was a mirage. But maybe this is part of what drives us teachers, in all fields: the desire to be floored by untapped genius, to strike gold.

Even if, more often than not, it turns out to be faded Kelly green.

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.