Last week (February 2-9) was Fashion Week in New York, the World Cup of haute couture, when top clothing designers from around the world showcase their new collections for the fall 2007 season. And while designers and their models can make high fashion seem effortless on the showroom runways, success in the global fashion industry also depends on practical skills and hard work.
Young men and women from around the world come to New York to learn those skills at schools that teach design.
The air always seems charged in top designer Ruben Cruz' evening-wear class at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), one of the top Manhattan fashion schools where young designers learn their trade. Half smiling and his arms crossed, Cruz works his way among his 30 or so students as they prepare the dress patterns they have created and begin to pin them on the well-worn mannequins they've each been assigned.
"I want them to develop technical abilities and flair," he says. "To me, apparel design is art. Just like sculpture or music, or writing a novel. We're writing with fabric."
Nearby, Amy Azizo, one of the stars in this class, is snipping the paper pattern for the bodice she has just dropped upon her mannequin. It's a complicated task to do well, given the precision of the measurements she must work with. "After two years in pattern-making, you begin to get the hang of it somehow," she laughs.
Amy has loved fashionable clothes since she was a little girl. But since coming to New York, she's also become passionate about the fashion business.
"Fashion changes every minute and you always have to be up to pace and up to beat with everything," she says. "That's why I think New York is the place to be for a fashion designer. Because if you just walk in the streets, everyone's pacing everyone trying to get somewhere."
That pace, she says, is what fashion design is all about. "You always have to be on target with your designs and the trends. And what the customer wants out of you as a designer. You always have to be very prepared for what's about to come!"
In recent years, what is "about to come" is often a chic reworking of what "once was." Due in large part to the success of the blockbuster Hollywood movie "Dreamgirls," the bold 1960s fashion the film evokes is hot this season. That's the challenging theme Anzizo and her classmates have taken on as their semester-long design assignment.
Azizo predicts that the class will be sleeping by their sewing machines near the end of the semester. "But at the end it'll all be worthwhile." She plans to wear her creation at a friend's wedding.
Even if Alabama-born Jeremy Hardaway were not one of the few men in Anzizo's class, he would be hard to miss as an African American man sporting brass yellow hair, heavy gold eye shadow, and brightly colored clothes of a nearly phosphorescent hue. "I've been dealing in fashions since I was a little boy. I've always loved fashion," he says. "I have a passion for it. And why not come to the fashion capital, New York?"
Hardaway adds that, down South "we don't really have fashion and you can't really express yourself the way you want to, and I feel like my being here, is a way for me to come out!"
While fashion is a way for designers and consumers to express themselves, it is also a $680 billion a year global industry. So-called "money" and "creativity" issues are kept separate at many businesses. But at Parsons School For Design, another top New York fashion school, students like Hong Kong-born Daphne Woo are taught that the two issues belong together.
"When it comes to getting all this stuff made, designers have a lot of pressures as far as their production needs," Woo says. "You have certain vendors that you are waiting on things for. You have the stores you are trying to sell things to."
Woo says a collection that is praised by the critics may not sell well with the general public. "And you want to make sure that your collection is relevant."
Being practical can also assure the relevance that spells success for a designer. At just over a meter and a half tall, Parsons student Sathya Balakumar, 27, grew tired of searching for fashionable grown-up clothes in her size, or hand-altering clothes made for bigger people. Her ambition is to design and manufacture beautiful clothes for "petites" like her.
"Just because I am small doesn't mean I should be forced to wear frumpy clothes because it's not made for me," she says. "Looking put together, looking clean, looking trendy, being comfortable in the way you look, has everything to do with the right sort of tailoring. So my specialty is sizing because I'm a certain size!"
Every fashion designer knows that powerful non-rational factors also determine a product's relevance or appeal. Word of mouth and the desire to impress one's social group are huge factors. Indeed, much of the industry depends on advertisers' ability to sell a fantasy as something not only possible and desirable but necessary.