The fashion industry is a multi-headed beast that operates on many levels and can take an outsider years to understand. Here, fashion and textile designer Jenny Udale spills the beans on what makes the industry tick...
Fashion - it's all about clothes, right? Well, to a certain extent, but, as is the case with anything that seems straightforward from the outside, it's actually a little more complicated.
First things first: fashion is an industry like any other, but the end product is clothes. Like the electronics, food or music industries, the fashion market can be simplified into a number of categories, primarily in terms of sales outlets. So we think of supermarket, high street, independent designer, ready-to-wear (prt porter), luxury super brands (such as Gucci and Prada) and haute couture (for the elite few). There are also casual and sportswear brands that range from small labels to the massive super brands such as Levi's and Adidas.
So, fashion works in terms of sales outlets, but there's another important factor: the constantly changing product lines. The fashion year has two seasons, six months apart, with one collection for spring/summer and another for autumn/winter. But this doesn't necessarily mean fashion houses produce just two collections a year. As Jamie O'Hare, head designer at See by Chloe, tells us, his company creates six collections per year: "A pre-autumn, which is a small autumn drop delivered around May/June; our main autumn/winter collection delivered late summer; a cruise, which is our resort/holiday/evening collection delivered in November; and then spring/summer. We also now do two bag collections per year."
With each new collection comes a show. The endless round of shows and fashion weeks is the beating heart of the fashion industry, giving the big companies a chance to publicise their wares. Some will exhibit their collections at fashion trade shows. The main womenswear prt porter shows are held during fashion weeks in Paris, Milan, London and New York, and the haute couture shows are held in Paris. The menswear prªt porter shows take place during the men's fashion weeks in Milan, Paris and New York. There are also trade shows that are specific to other areas of fashion, including casual wear, jeans wear, underwear, accessories and childrenswear.
The prt porter and couture shows feature catwalk collections, and it's these that most people associate with high fashion. The catwalk is a great way of exhibiting a collection because a piece of clothing's true fit and drape is best demonstrated on the body in motion.
Designers can create a complete concept for a catwalk show through the design of the stage and the styling of the models. Buyers attending will make notes on what they might like to buy for their stores while publicity for the collection is generated through the press who will review it (hopefully positively!) for newspapers and magazines, as well as looking at which pieces they might use for photoshoots in future issues.
The headlines at these shows are usually grabbed by 'show pieces' - garments specifically designed to shock and attract maximum media attention. These pieces are often not sold because they may be too expensive to produce or just too outrageous and impractical to wear off the catwalk.
At the opposite end of the market - the high street - big retail chains don't need to get involved in catwalk shows because their shop windows do all their selling for them. But the high street stores also have other sales tricks up their sleeves. The bigger chains, such as Topshop and Gap, continually introduce new collections of clothes into their stores to keep customers returning during the course of a fashion season. They do this by subdividing the main collection into smaller ranges, or 'stories', staggering the release of these to their stores across the selling period. This makes it a lot easier to market merchandise than through a single, very large collection.
Designing a collection
But what about the general process of making clothes? Let's go back to the beginning. First and foremost, a designer will consider who they are designing for and for what season. They may also take into account current fashion trends and how these fit with their own personal style ideas. They will also think about colour and fabric.
Once these preliminaries have been decided upon, a fashion collection is designed and drawn up, a specification drawing is made for each garment, and fabric samples and trims are selected. From this, a paper pattern - a simple two-dimensional template - is cut for each garment and this pattern is used to cut the garment out in fabric, so it can be made up into a sample. Each sample is assessed on its individual merits and how it works in the collection as a whole. If it needs altering in any way, the sample may be tweaked in terms of fit, fabrication and detail, and a new sample made.
The choice of textiles, pattern and colour can be used to give a fashion collection a specific look. Good use of pattern and clever placement can create a very personal fashion collection with a strong brand image for a designer. Colour and pattern is very important within fashion design. When a customer enters a store, they tend to be drawn to the colour of a garment first. They may then go and touch the garment - all of this happens before a buying decision is made.
Branded for life
In addition to the clothes, the sales outlets, the prints and the fabrics, the fashion industry is very much about branding. Branding is central to the way the public perceives a fashion label. A fashion brand is made up of a mixture of elements, including a name, product, designer, quality, packaging, labelling and the inevitable 'X' factor of how it's perceived. Some elements of the mix are more important to certain brands. The best brands are those that have a strong identity that endures. This is achieved through consistent branding - the communication of a brand through all elements of a garment, including the ticketing, labelling and the venue where it's sold. Branding is integral because it's the part of a company that remains the same season to season.
All fashion brands have a label for identification, usually positioned in the back of the neck so they can be seen on the hanger in-store. There are numerous variations, and it's interesting to note how radically labels differ in the choice of font, colour, fabrication and even how they are stitched into the garment. For example, Maison Martin Margiela garments are easily identified when worn by the signature four white stitches on the back neck where the label has been sewn in. Garments also have a swing tag that's attached in the store; it has the designer's name on it and the size and style number of the product.
Designers with the finances to open their own boutique or store have the opportunity to present their clothes to the customer in their purest form. They can sell and display their garments in exactly the way they want. They can package their goods exclusively and train their staff to sell the collection perfectly. Stores that do this successfully offer the customer a total experience as soon as they walk in the store. Designers that sell collections in department stores may require point-of-sale graphics to promote their products to customers.
Having a website also gives a fashion company a strong and easily accessible presence in the fashion market. It provides information about the brand, including a profile of the designer, images of the recent collection and a list of stockists. The internet is fast becoming the most popular way to sell fashion to certain sectors of the market, and clothing companies are looking at how to best cash in on the trend.
Fashion companies go to great lengths to stay on top of current trends. Trend prediction is one way around this, a process used in many areas of design, especially within fashion and textiles. A trend company focuses on a specific market and tries to predict what's going to happen to that market area in the near or distant future. Justine Foxx of Global Colour Research says trend companies gather information from a wide variety of different sources. "They look at everything - things like social changes, the economy, arts, fashion, science, street culture, haute couture - they can all provide clues. The basis of trend prediction is intuition, but this must be supported by solid research." Packages are produced by the trend companies, which contain information on the specific trend areas, to sell to the fashion industry. They often contain colour palettes with reference to Pantone colours, while images - including catwalk shots and fashion illustrations to help visually describe future trends - are grouped to form moods for the different stories or ideas. Fabric swatches and yarns may also be included.
The internet is a great place to find trend information because it can be updated so quickly. Millions of other people can also get the same information which means a trend can spread quickly, but can also suffer from overexposure. Many trend websites are subscription only, so that their information remains exclusive to the subscribers. Worth Global Style Network, established in the UK in 1998, has offices in the major capitals of the world and is seen as the global online trend leader. There are also various trend magazines available. Graphic designers, many of them freelance, are involved in the design and layout of these trend packages, magazines and websites.
So, really, the fashion industry is a complex beast, requiring the involvement of many different individuals with various skills. And with so much going on, the opportunities it can throw up for graphic designers make it impossible to ignore.
Who does what in fashion?
The people involved in bringing a winning collection to a store near you
01 Fashion designers
Designers of menswear, womenswear and childrenswear create different ranges within each collection - for example, casual wear, jeans wear, evening wear, tailoring, swimwear, underwear, lingerie, knitwear, sportswear, showpieces and accessories.
Stylists are used to develop a look for a collection on the catwalk. They will accessorise the collection and co-ordinate hair and make-up ideas. Stylists also create specific looks for magazine photoshoots, call in garments from designers, choose locations and style up models.
Photographers are used to document fashion collections. They may cover catwalk shows, work creatively on editorial shoots or work more specifically with designers to create look books and other promotional information. Look books feature every garment and accessory in a designer's collection.
Usually garments and collections are recorded through the use of photography, but sometimes they are depicted with the use of fashion illustration. Fashion illustration is used in books, magazines, adverts and on websites and will express a different mood from photography.
Buyers work for fashion shops and it's their job to select what is to be sold in-store each season. They attend trade and catwalk shows to view the latest collections, they're aware of the latest fashion trends and try to predict what the customer will want to buy in six months' time.
06 Fashion PR
PR people work to promote a collection to the press, and ultimately to a wider audience. They have a major effect on the success of a designer and his/her collection.
07 Fabric designers
Fabric designers design and produce fabrics for fashion designers. They will create knitted, woven, printed, embroidered, beaded and other textiles.
08 Fashion agents
Many designers sell their collections through an agent, who has contacts with buyers and arrange appointments. Commission is based on orders placed.
09 Textile design agents
Textile agents represent groups of textile designers and take their designs to fabric trade shows and visit clients to sell samples. A printed sample, on average, sells for £325, but an agent will take a large cut of this cost to cover their expenses.