Friday, September 29, 2006

My Successful Chemise, 1957, Fad to Present Market Theory

In 1957, when working as a designer for a moderate dress house in Boston, I was inspired by the famous Balenciaga's "chemise" dress, and designed my own unique version with a bow on the back, for me to wear. It is a great story I have told hundreds of times since - "How fads are created, die, and sometimes reincarnated with a new name or form."

Before 1957, the only mass market styles that had sold for a couple of decades were all based on the "shirt-maker dress", with a tightly belted waist. When Balenciaga, Paris, designed the chemise (a term from 1920s of a straight hanging dress) I fell in love with it, and designed a version for myself. My boss was intrigued, and suggested I design one for our line of moderate-priced dresses - $11.75 wholesale, $22 retail. The one in the photo is an exact replica I did for a recent fashion show.

We sent it to the New York showroom, where buyers laughed at it, so it was put on a rack to come back to Boston. A buyer from J. L. Hudson's in Detroit saw it, and exclaimed: "Is this a chemise? I'll buy it for an ad – if you cut it." We put it back on the line, and sold very few, about 200. We decided to cut it – just to order - that is, not cutting the many extras to prepare for reorders. When it hit the stores – it astounded us all – it sold out so fast, and reordered so many tmes that we were completely producing only chemise dresses for two years. SECONDS IN TIMING AND I WOULDN'T HAVE HAD THIS GREAT SUCCESS - THE 2nd HOTTEST CHEMISE DRESS IN THE MARKET.

After two years, the chemise died. It took research and time to discover why. Every buyer said don't even mention the name chemise. "We're stuck with a whole bunch of them in inventory. Fortunately for us, our chemise dress sold out, but the "bad ones" were like bad apples and poisoned ours as well. Why were they bad? Most dress manufacturers saw the chemise as a "golden apple", took their shirtmaker dress patterns, let out the darts and let them "hang". They were horrible on the body. Ours was beautiful because I had "shaped" the chemise as a beautiful form, emulating Balenciaga's great sculpture in my unique styling. FADS DIE BECAUSE EVERYONE GETS IN ON THEM AND FLOODS THE MARKET WITH POOR VERSIONS.

It was years later that I began noticing the chemise in stores again, but never called the chemise. It was now called the SHIFT. It sells to this day as the shift dress, and has become a commodity item for women's house dresses, and occasionally higher styling. Interestingly, as I monitor technology as well as fashion, I saw a similar event replicated in robots, and more recently in the "dot,coms". It all comes down to "quality". When everyone gets into a big selling item and makes it, and does it, poorly, the item dies, and it's called a fad. But, those that continue to do it right, or study how to do it right, reincarnate the item, but it always becomes quieter, without any market hype. That is happening with robotics, and the dot,coms, today. In my engineering design papers I explain this as my "Chemise Theory". It's a fun story, and I've told it at many seminars.

Please, readers, let me know some comments, even if it's just to tell me you read it. Then I'll keep the stories coming. I have many to tell. Thanks

"Technical Design?" & Wall Between Design & Manufacturing

Kathleen at Fashion Incubator had an excellent blog today on the confusion of "what Technical Designers do". I said that I will only add more confusion, because the "concept of technical design" has become a "buzzword" for so many aspects of the industry, used by those who don't know very much about the technical aspects.

As the organizer for the Boston fashion Industry Meetup, I meet a few members who work as technical designers. Almost all of them work for retail chains in product development departments, who produce lots of design "samenesses" overseas. None of them truly know pattern making, but blindly follow a bunch of "specs" that I have found to be pretty silly to accomplish anything worthwhile. Measurements and CAD will never get beautiful "shape", which a really good pattern maker is able to do.

I have watched the apparel industry change over six decades. In the 1940s & 1950s, pattern makers for manufacturers in the Boston area were called "designers". The word "design" means "making a plan", so the concept of "technical" was assumed. A "pattern", to me, is an information system (IT, today)) for producing one or many same garment styles. Anyone who created were "sketchers", and pretty meaningless. It was the fashion schools in New York in the 50s and 60s that began the tremendous confusion. The teachers were all dressmakers that taught pattern making from their knowledge of home patterns, not production on factory floors. To this day I have yet to see any fashion school teach what I call "production pattern making" or "pattern engineering".

As the manufacturers left the northeast and went south, and then overseas, the great apprenticeship system for learning production pattern making died. And then the schools, with teachers who didn't know it, produced a wave of pattern makers that could only follow rules that were established before them. When I first went to work in New York fashion rooms in the 1950s, I was shocked that none knew anything about production in patterns or stitching. ( I started as a stitcher in factories as a teenager in the 1940s.)

In one of my National Science Foundation grants on engineering design (1988, "Apparel-Textile Codification & Image Communication technology"), I drew a graphic I called the "Wall Between Design and Manufacturing", to show the critical problems, and "fighting conflicts" between the socalled "fashion designers" in the New York showrooms and the production pattern makers at the manufacturers factory. I said I would, and I did, put up this graphic here above.

How do we answer this problem of less and less expert knowledge on pattern making for production, and more and more confusion of terms for DEs, such as "technical design". I don't know. Maybe we need to talk more about the "future"? How can we change the way things are to something better? Kathleen is certainly helping with her book and this blog. Thanks. How about you readers? Have any ideas? Please make some comments, or ask some questions.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

My Famous Suede Evening Gown #2

Some are asking me: What made this gown famous? (yesterday's post) Besides the great selling record, and some famous people who bought it, there are a couple of other events. In the late 1980s & early 1990s I won a series of engineering design grants from National Science Foundation, and began being accepted at engineering design conferences along with university professors all over the world. I explained the gown in all of my papers.
At one of them: American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Design & Manufacturing Conference at the University of Illinois, Chicago, 1991, I showed the gown and explained it. This group of mechanical engineers from many industries (auto, Kodak, Boeing, etc.) all stood up and cheered me for what I accomplished in this gown, and aked for some graphics that showed some ways they could use the production information.
In January, 2004, MIT asked me to represent the American fashion apparel industry in a workshop, comparing design practices between industries. Again I showed the suede gown to explain my intense creativity in engineering production systems. They all loved it, and the vice president of Ford automobile refered to it as he gave his presentation.
In other words, the gown is famous in many different circles, from national agencies to industies to some universities' mechanical engineering departments.

Keep the questions coming! Thanks.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

My Famous Suede Evening Gown

This gown, in a very soft lambskin suede, has probably become the greatest highlight of my career: as a creative haute couture design, as an elegant FASHION SOLUTION IN ENGINEERING DESIGN and PRODUCTION, and as a very financially successful fashion business product. As you can see. I am most proud of the engineering design solution, and it has a fascinating story that has helped many young designers in recent years through mentoring them.

It was one piece from my 1971 suede and leather collection, that I had been selling successfully to many top designer stores, e.g. Neiman Marcus, Bonwit Teller, Bloomingdales, Bullocks Wilshire, Saks Fifth Ave,, and many others along with smaller boutiques. The original purpose for designing the gown, was to show my uniqueness as a publicity promotion. No one had done a gown in suede before me, and I never dreamed it would sell. I first showed it to the Bonwit Teller buyer, and she almost bowed, calling me a great artist! It became a great selling success, and was in their Christmas catalog.

It was good that I had someone from the fashion world to advise me. With my background of being poor, and learning by stitching in the moderate price garment factories, I calculated the price by the ACTUAL costs. This woman told me no, I had to up the price to what it should be in the market for this kind of garment.

If you note the way the pieces were cut, in swirling circles with the 3-D body shaping within them, that no production system that had ever been designed could do it. So, I had to CREATE a totally new production system to accommodate the way these pieces were cut. There are some interesting methods I designed for the matching of notches in order to have the suede pieces OVERLAP at the seams, but the most unique creation was how I set it up at the machine for the stitchers, My pattern would have letters and numbers, which the cutters would mark on the wrong side. They would bundle the sections of the gown as you see in the drawing above, and I drew these pictures for the stitchers at their machines. All my stitchers had such great fun, calling it “sew by numbers”. But the greatest accomplishment was that it took them only 15 minutes to sew together the shell of the gown. And because I could not sell it that cheap, I made 60% PROFIT on each one!!

I do hope there will be some young designers who see this blog, and will ask me questions. I want you all to realize that “production systems” and “pattern engineering” can be CREATED as well as the garments themselves. Engineering design is my greatest joy. I hope to help many others through my mentoring.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Over the past 25 years since I sold my high fashion design & manufacturing business, I taught occasionally some evening classes in fashion, one called “Fashion As A Business”, & another “Fashion/Pattern Design”, Most students were women in their 30s & 40s, who had gone to work after college in fields such as real estate, computers, administration, education, biology & health – none of which tapped their human ability & NEED TO CREATE. Fashion clothing & crafts offered them this opportunity, not only to create and build something with their hands, but also – they believed – to continue to make a good income. Some were satisfied to keep their fashion creativity as a part-time hobby, while many others dreamed of starting a fashion business.

Unfortunately, most would fail they did not accept the necessity today for developing pattern & production engineering skills, nor for learning business concepts in marketing & production. No fashion school in the country truly teaches these important skills. Many are still coming to see me today, almost demanding that I should find them the pattern & production engineers, & even salespeople to do everything for them, so they can JUST CREATE! There are so very few that have learned these skills in engineering, or that want to sell for any beginners’ fashions. However, a few over the years have been persistent and realized they can learn & CREATE the technical & engineering solutions for their own creative designs. Some of these have become my protégés, and I’m very proud of them.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

I. ENGINEERING DESIGN, 3. Engineering a pattern “rub-off”.

Diane made a comment on my first post (Sept. 2), when I was still baffled by blogging. She said: “Claire McCardell learned pattern making by taking apart RTW and sewing it back together. I'm doing the same. If there is a better way I'd love to see it!” I replied that there IS a better way that I designed in the 1980s. Today I will explain it, but words may not give the best understanding, but I will try. I have always done this by a demonstration that students could visually follow. Perhaps I’ll have pictures later.

When Claire McCardell was designing, every designer, pattern maker and manufacturer copied another’s pattern design by ripping apart the garment. This would always make for a loss of quality information, especially if the garment had been worn with the fabric stretched out in places. My method is similar to draping a technical pattern on the dress form, and I call it “RUB-OFFS”.

1. Prepare a piece of muslin fabric that would accommodate the area, plus some extra, of the first pattern piece you want of the garment. Accurately draw four-inch squares, making sure the lengthwise ones are parallel to the selvage.
2. Get the entire pattern area to copy (rub-off) as flat as possible – over an ironing board is good. Study the grain lines in the garment and start by pinning one grainline of the muslin to the grainline on the garment. Carefully smooth the other grainlines until reaching the “edges” or “seams” of the pattern area of the garment.
3. Clip and cut away excess in order to get an accurate edge. You can use a dark color wax chalk to mark the seam edges in some areas but a sharp pencil is good for accuracy. You can also use the wax chalk to rub-off some pockets or other details.
4. The most important observation is to study any easing or stretching that was done by the maker of the garment, and include it. A dart (shaping within one pattern piece) needs to be put in exactly as in the garment. If you make sure of plenty of notches on each seam of the area, you can have accuracy as you rub-off the matching seam in the next area.
5. Once you have rubbed off all lines, details, etc.. then take out the pins. After every pattern piece is rubbed off, then “true the pattern pieces, by making sure the lines are smooth, and all notches are matching, unless you know the reason why, such as ease or stretching.

For anyone who reads this I would really like to know if it is understandable. Please comment and let me know, so I can see how I might improve it.

Thanks for reading

Friday, September 15, 2006

I. ENGINEERING DESIGN, 2. Improving Engineering Education

A forum, “Literacy in Technology”, that will take place September 21, 2006 at the Museum of Science in Boston, sparked today’s post. The Boston Globe, one of the sponsors for the event, doesn’t go as far as I do with engineering as American culture, but says: “In today’s human-made world, technology and engineering are a part of everything we touch. The National Center for Technology Literacy (NCTL) at the Museum of Science is designed to work with educators, government and industry leadersTO INTEGRATE ENGINEERING AS A NEW DISCIPLINE AS EARLY AS ELEMENTARY SCHOOL and continue it through high school, college and beyond.” Bernard M. Gordon, who is funding the Center with $20 million, says: “Engineering education has become too specialized … graduates can’t see the big picture. [And] American students are shifting away from engineering.” From my experiences for a decade working on engineering design grants in fashion from the National Science Foundation, I learned that these are some sad truths.

I am attending the forum to offer to play a part repeating some creative seminars I did in the 1990s, “HAT ENGINEERING PROJECT” for 140 seventh grade students , and later 40 third grade students. The motivation for math and geometry to understand the 2-D & 3-D translations in pattern engineering of hats – WAS AMAZING! Interesting, especially for the boys, was that I started with the 2-D & 3-D translations in a few sports balls, e.g. basketball, volley ball and baseball. When you make it a big picture, such as some fun history of hats, the relationship to the shapes of boats and airplanes, how 2-D flats (patterns) and 3-D fashion shapes need the x, y, z, coordinates for doing the engineering in computers (for 7th graders only), they loved the experiences of learning about engineering. Of course, they also loved creating and designing their own hats, which I call “engineering design”. If I get some response of interest, I could post some of the things I did in the Hat Engineering Project.

In yesterday’s post I talked about the sad decline of the fashion industry in America, BECAUSE DESIGNERS LACKED ENGINEERING PRINCIPLES IN THEIR EDUCATION. The fashion apparel industry desperately needs, not just technical designers who follow outdated rules, but creative designers who can also design and engineer their fashions to enable efficient production. To present engineering design principles related to fashion, at an early age, especially for girls, could truly help the future of fashion in America, as well as help motivate engineering as more fun and fulfilling as a career path.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

I. ENGINEERING DESIGN: A. American Culture; 1. Engineering design in the fashion industry.

As we become more global and multicultural, we learn about all the cultures of the world. I asked what is America’s culture? We have given many things to the world, but I believe they all boil down to fundamentally two concepts: ENGINEERING and CAPITALISM. My simple definition of engineering is “the planning for building or producing a product or a system”. Designing by itself is “the planning for the realization of an idea, whether an original idea or the implementation of an existing idea.” Together, engineering design, involves the planning, building or producing of an innovative idea into a product or a system, within specific industries.
The fashion clothing industry has undergone both revolutionary and evolutionary changes in the 19th and 20th centuries. I would call every beginning of each part of the industry, engineering design. An interesting validation of clothing engineering is in the history of jeans, an American icon. When they were first designed they were engineered for rugged wearability by western cowboys. After many evolutionary changes, they are now the highest fashion in their shape and fit for all consumers, all over the world - & durability of little importance.
Since the early 90’s the fashion industry has become associated with the entertainment industry of fashion shows and Paris couture. The result is glamorizing market presentations, making designers appear romantically like movie stars, & their fashions created for art’s sake. Fashion schools all over the world promote this glamour to get a flood of students with stars in their eyes to attend. A few years after graduation and after a few frustrating business attempts, 95% fade away and change industries in order to make an income. Their education never included “engineering” for patterns & production, that would have prepared them for jobs that desperately need to be filled, nor business training to prepare them for entrepreneurship.
For most of the 20th century – before fashion school glamour – there was an “apprenticeship system”, primarily in Boston (first half of 20th century), where the apparel industry first started. The pattern engineers who shaped & planned patterns for production, e.g., cutting, stitching & pressing, were called “designers”. Those who first stitched in the industry were tailors & dressmakers, who learned their trade by apprenticeship – as I did in the 1940’s as a teenager. Ideas were a “dime a dozen”, copied from Paris, and engineered on each manufacturer’s own basic bodies (called slopers). For more apparel industry history, see

Saturday, September 02, 2006

A. Glossary

The glossary is for the purpose of simplification, and for communicating what I truly mean with as little misinterpretation as possible. There are such wide diversities of meanings today with arguments about who’s right, when words only serve the purpose of communicating one’s meaning. Some humor on Pluto as a “planet” in the Boston Globe yesterday, from the father of a 6-year-old. She asked him: “If you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a sheep have? He answered, “Well, five, I guess”, and she replied, “No, silly, a sheep has four legs. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one!”

B. Engineering Design

Engineering design is the most important conideration in this blog, and encompasses all the technical aspects of the fashion industry, pattern making/engineering, production, etc.