Tuesday, January 11, 2011

NYC Fashion Industry Trip (Part 1)

I talk too much, so this post is being split up into two different posts. Or possibly three. Part One:

Last March, I went to New York City with my school’s fashion program. I took a lot of pictures and a lot of notes so that I could later post it all to my blog. Now that the trip was almost a year ago, I think it’s time to finally finish what I started! Last year flew by at a ridiculous pace.

The purpose of the trip was to tour businesses and learn more about how the fashion industry works. In past years some students have used the trip as an excuse to drink all night and fall asleep during appointments, because, you know, spring break is like totally the best part of college. The group that I traveled with was small (15 of us, counting 3 teachers) and we were all pretty responsible. We all had a lot of fun together and nobody got drunk and invited random dudes back to their hotel room. (Getting drunk in New York is too expensive anyways!)

From what I’ve heard about most fashion schools, and what I’ve noticed with my school, is that the classes are pretty vague about telling us details about how the industry actually works. There is a lot of focus on home sewing techniques, marketing, and runway shows (which are fun!) but they are short of information on how to actually run a clothing line. The media also does a bad job at conveying how things are done. So, the trips that my school organizes are valuable to the students who are serious about working in fashion. Several students have even scored jobs and internships by introducing themselves to the business owners. (By the way, if anybody finds any mistakes in stuff that I describe in this post, please let me know! I don’t want to contribute to the misinformation problem.)

Following this introduction are pictures and descriptions of all the places that we visited, organized in the general order of our appointments. I probably won’t name all of the companies we toured, just for the sake of privacy. (The fashion industry is weird.) But if you want to look up a company that I haven’t named, send me an email for more information. I’m a nerd about both fashion design and fashion business practices, so I apologize in advance for any boring business talk! Or manufacturing talk…that’s another subject I’ve recently become obsessed with.

Echo started making high-end scarves 80 years ago. We visited their fancy showroom and their designers’ offices and workrooms. They now make a large variety of accessories, and also produce private label designs for lots of well-known brands. You can find their products in department stores like Macy’s and Nordstrom.

Note: all photos will be shown as thumbnails. Click on them to go to a bigger version hosted by my Flickr account.

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Pictures of one of the scarf pattern designers in her workshop, and a large room full of binders and fabric swatches.

Stands for Overseas Publishers Representatives. This is a book and magazine store that also represents trend forecasting services. We weren’t allowed to take any pictures. Looking through what they had for sale, it was easy to see how trends start and how the big retailers always seem to sell similar looking clothes. Who knew that color forecasting is a job? When you hear what the job description is, it’s easy to wonder if trend forecasting companies just make things up. If enough of the big brands trust the company’s trend forecast, the forecast becomes a reality! A lot of the books that were for sale looked like glossy magazines full of runway photos of whatever high end styles are supposed to trickle down into the mainstream in coming years. These books aren’t cheap, and neither are the subscriptions! Each book has a specialty- women’s high fashion, women’s bridal, accessories, children’s clothing, etc. It looked like the two most popular books were called Runway and Collezioni (from Italy). Other books were full of graphic designs for screen printed products like t-shirts and hoodies, or repeating designs to be printed, woven, or dyed into fabric.

They also carried the traditional fashion magazines you see at the grocery checkout line. And crazy looking Japanese fashion magazines. (I bought a Japanese issue of Nylon! Does that make me a hipster?) Plus coffee table books dedicated to specific fashions and lifestyles. (I tried to snap a picture that I thought a friend would enjoy, a book on the history of flight jackets, but the store clerk had psychic cell-phone detecting powers and looked up as soon as I was pointing my phone at the book) There was also a huge discount section full of $2 books. I bought a funny re-print of a Bloomingdales catalog from the 1800s (the corset section was crazy! And the vintage underwear ads!) a book on draping (with crazy-looking patterns to show how the drapes are done, which are really just brain puzzles) and a book about global clothing manufacturing. I expected the last book to discuss nothing but the benefits of paying garment factory workers half a cent a day, but it actually made the case that low wages don’t necessarily mean the lowest cost. Right now I am refraining from nerd-ing out and talking more about the book.

Tracy Reese
Tracy Reese is a designer that manufactures clothing under her own name and also in her collections Plenty and Frock. The clothes are trendy and have had a lot of press in various fashion magazines. We were given a small tour of their design rooms and showroom, and our guide told us a lot of details about the process of making prototypes and samples, showing at runway shows and trade shows, and then selling the designs to boutiques. I thought it was interesting that they make their samples into special sizes to fit the tall and thin runway models, and then show normal sized samples to the buyers at boutiques. They also sometimes show special outfits on the runway that aren’t actually going to be manufactured.

Tracy Reese went to fashion school at Parsons in New York, then worked at several other clothing lines before starting her own line in 1998. I checked out her website and found an awesome leopard/striped little black dress that I wish I had thought of myself! I also loved her red polka-dot shirtdress…then checked out the “Press” section and saw a picture of Taylor Swift wearing it. Uh oh, do I suddenly have the same clothing taste as Disney channel country stars? Wait, does Swift have anything to do with Disney or country music, or is she the one that just sings about boys? Whatever… (There’s also a picture of her in the same dress in the latest issue of Rolling Stone. Damn!)

I didn’t manage to get pictures in the Tracy Reese showroom, so here are some of my favorite current designs from her website. Since the fashion industry operates so far in advance, the designers that we visited did not want us to take any pictures of their samples that weren't yet in stores.

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Custom Fabric Flowers
Family owned and operated manufacturing shop that has been around since 1919.
Out itinerary said it best: “Through a delicate handmade process, along with hundreds of antique tools and dyes, M&S creates anything from a petal to a cascading garland of flowers and leaves using shading and hand painting to mimic nature. Their creations have embellished designs by Alexis Bittar, Betsey Johnson, Bill Blass, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Marc Jacobs, Tahari, Cynthia Rowley, Carmen Marc Volvo, Carolina Herrera, Rebecca Taylor, Badgley Mischka as well as being used by Disney, interior decorators, theatrical set and costume designers and display artists.”

Yep. Beautiful faux flowers. And crazy vintage machinery.

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Bring them any type of fabric and they will make a flower out of it. The picture on the right is all their leopard print flowers!

Their walls were covered in magazine pictures of celebrities wearing designs with the flower embellishments. The most memorable was a photo of Sarah Jessica Parker in a white dress that had a shoulder flower that had to be at least a foot in diameter. Those crazy Sex and the City stylists!

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The owner of the shop gave us a great tour. He even gave away some of his fabric scraps to us. I got a big piece of white patent leather covered in random hole punches, shown in one of the above pictures. I still need to make something cool out of that!

The shop owner also told us that his sales volume has been falling ever since overseas factories started to make the same product for cheaper. He said that there used to be hundreds of flower shops in New York, but that his was one of the few left. The overhead cost to run a factory in New York is insanely high, and of course US wages are much higher than other countries. Sadly, low Chinese prices and the cost of rent weren’t the only things that he was upset about. Apparently designers like to go to him to get samples made for cheap, and then they just send the samples straight to China to be mass-produced for a fraction of the price. This eats into his profit margin even more.

I think if people realized how many jobs have been lost in this country due to cheap imports, they might think twice about their quest for the lowest possible price.

Nah, we’re all just selfish bastards, aren’t we? Who am I kidding, I buy and sell cheap stuff too!

Out of all the places that we toured, Stoll knitting machines probably impressed me the most.

The pictures tell it all- they make and sell high-tech knitting machines that can do, well, pretty much anything you want. I didn’t even know that this type of thing was possible until seeing all their sample designs. Of course, the process isn't cheap. The knitwear designs take several days to program into the machines, and I don’t want to know how complicated the programming process is. Just like the custom flowers place, Stoll had pictures on their wall of the high-fashion designs that had been made with their machines.

Click on the pictures to see the close-ups. Sorry that some of them are blurry, I was using my phone camera and the lighting wasn’t always too great. Even with blurry pictures, you can still see how elaborate the designs are. They also gave each of us several brochures that showed even more designs and fabric textures that the knitting machines are capable of.


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Pictured above: their window display- mini sweaters! So cute! The other photos are the designs on the mannequins they had inside. Remember: none of this stuff was made with a sewing machine, only a knitting machine!

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More designs hanging on racks in another sample room. I could have spent hours looking at everything they had, thinking up ideas for things I could make. I love clothes with slashes and cut-outs and crazy layers, so I would have a lot of fun designing things for the machines. They can even make pants with pockets, all in the same knitting process! No sewing!


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Some pictures of the machines. The picture on the right is somebody operating one of the machines that knits seams together. Good quality sweaters are knitted together this way. A knitting machine knits out the pattern pieces separately, and then somebody feeds the loops together on another machine to make the seams. The other machines make seamless garments.

Stoll.com has more information and pictures, and if you can get past the pages that are written completely in German, a pattern database.

This post is only half done, so part 2 is coming soon!

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