What Does A Designer Look Like?

Vivienne Westwood, acknowledged as a fierce, creative force in fashion design.

When we discuss race and labor in terms of the fashion industrial complex, we often consider these questions in terms of industrial production — the sweatshop, for instance. (And when we do watch Made in LA next week, we’ll see just how important race is in this equation.) But how do questions of race and labor pervade all the levels of the fashion industrial complex? Whose labors –industrial, technical, creative, and intellectual– are scrutinized, questioned, or degraded, and whose are not? And, as we read about this unit, how do certain bodies and persons interact with those meanings and try to challenge, transform, or negotiate with them?

Consider the following quotes collected by a former student about Chloe Dao’s win in the second season of Project Runway:

In reference to my first comment (first entry above), yes Chloe is a traitor to her race, but also to fashion. Not only does she dates a Caucasian male, but she designs for the Caucasian body! Hell, she has a fat Caucasian body herself! Buttermilk butt and cancer-prone buttermilk boob. Here’s a chance for a prominent Asian female to stand in the spotlight and what does she give us? Rehashed satin evening gowns to go prancing to the prom. C’mon now. Where are the ao dai’s, the sarongs, the modified kimono’s? Let’s see some avante garde Asian influenced designs instead of run down oppressive Anglo-Saxon garb… or should I say, “garb-age”?

Comments posted after the Season 2 Finale: http://www.realitytvmagazine.com/blog/2006/03/08/project-runway-winner-is-chloe-dao-viewers-disagree-with-judges/#more-9680

I think Santino said it best, Chloe, while talented, is a great pattern maker but not a great designer. I am also surprised….why did nobody mention anything about the fact the Chloe had much more help than any of the other designers. Are we to believe all her other sisters did not “give her a hand” in designing the 12 dresses for the finale? Give me a break, we all say where she was when Tim Gunn visited her in Texas.

Comment posted on: http://www.rickey.org/?p=967

Thank you for being you. You make me happy. You make people laugh, make them think, make them question whether life is , whether it should be, a popularity contest. Chloe will always be a robotic pattern-maker (Tin Man – no heart) and Daniel is a whiny backstabber (Scarecrow – no brain) who will someday, if he is lucky, have the passion and creativity and COURAGE (The Lion!) you have in your heart. As one artist to another, I have the greatest respect for you. Best wishes to you!

You know Chloe pulled together variations of her greatest hits from her shop. If they cut her first she would have been forgotten. As it is they got the immigrants and asians vote.

Comments posted to Santino Rice’s blog: http://santinorice.com/blog/2006/03/turn-it-around-people.html

A pattern maker, hard at work also creating.

How does Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s work help us make sense of what is going on here? What does a designer look like? What does a patternmaker look like? What does a seamstress look like? How do we make sense of Asian Americans’ overwhelming presence in fashion design? Tu intimates that Asian American designers are often positioned differently in the industry because of their Asianness. At the intersection of culture and economy, Tu addresses “how Asianness has become a resource in this creative economy, and how the economic terrain has worked to shape what we know or claim as Asian American.”

In doing so, she wishes to demonstrate that aesthetic productions rely on labor, capital, and other material resources, and moreover, to show how processes of immaterial (creative, intellectual, etc.) labor mirror and are linked to other forms of work – industrial and entrepreneurial among them.

How does the fashion industry seek to delink garment manufacturing from design, and why? How is this a false dichotomy (one perpetuated in the comments about Dao)? How might this “high culture” distinction between art and craft be racialized in particular ways? How do Asian American designers disrupt this distinction?

How is some work –critical to the design process— nonetheless deemed “unskilled,” while other work is understood as “creative”? What differences in value accrue to each designation?

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12 thoughts on “What Does A Designer Look Like?

  1. I have never seen a Project Runway episode, but after watching the clip in class about Chloe’s designs, I had many mixed feelings about how the ‘designers’ are presented to the audience and what is considered important in their work. To me it did not seem that she was a serious designer since she wasnt providing sketches or a general idea, but I think that the comments about her designing for the caucasian body type versus upholding an asian cultural influence in her work show that people stereotype and expect certain outcomes from people of different races. I think that if a caucasian designer made a dress for an ‘asian body type’ or had stylistic asian elements incorporated, they would not be critized for not designing for the ‘caucasian body type’ and instead would be congradulated for bringing diversity into their work for incorporating traditional asian designs. I think that in shows such as Project Runway, the race and background of the designer is overly emphasized to create a more sympathetic or unsympathetic audience evaluation of their work.

    • I too have to say that I have never really seen nor been invested in the show Project Runway; however, I do find some of the comments posted about Chloe Dao to be utterly appalling. I find your comment “to me it did not seem that she was a serious designer since she wasn’t providing sketches or a general idea” do be a very thought provoking statement since initially I thought the same thing. However, now as I reflect, I wonder if Chloe’s race had anything to do with that high expectation of her having a well thought out theme or concept to her clothes. Had Chloe been a free thinking Caucasian hippie type designer would I and others have been so quick to judge her or him for not having a series of sketches? Is this want for Chloe to have a series of sketches for the competition related at all to the idea of Asians being the model minority? Asians have been projected in American culture as the model minority because of their overwhelming degree of academic, economic, and social success. Since Chloe is presented as this hard working Asian trying to win in the competition, it is expected of her to have everything organized and together since those traits are associated with success.

  2. I also was disappointed in the overwhelming responses to Chloe’s designs not being asian-inspired. I thought that she didn’t seem to know what she was doing, and didn’t even have an idea of where she was headed. I don’t know if you necessarily need to have sketches in order to have an idea of what you are doing, but the fact that she didn’t even have a theme in her head and wasn’t able to articulate it was troubling. It was interesting when looking online (I read some other comments online too after class) that so many more people were upset about her not sticking to her asian roots than her not being prepared. It shows the priorities that people have in design, and unfortunately illustrated to me that the fashion industry is still very raced and gendered.
    I also found it interesting that people were upset that she had her family helping her. It seemed to contradict the argument that Chloe wasn’t using her asian background in her designs. Stereotypically the media portrays a lot of asian families involved in business together, so it seems strange that people would get upset that she was using her family to help her.
    I think this all represented a direct and strong attachment between a designer and that designer’s background and lifestyle. People seem to want designers to show themselves through their clothing, which for me symbolized the personalization of fashion and clothing. Clothing is not something you just wear, but it represents where you came from and where you are going. For fans of Chloe, they obviously had an idea of what they wanted her to represent through her clothing (whether that be her ethnic/racial background or something else) and were upset when she didn’t do that for them.

  3. Interesting discussions brought up in the previous commentators but i am going to detour a bit.

    The tribal print trend re-emerged just a few years and from its onset, it was evident that it would be a trend followed by the masses, Soon Top Field designer were placing more and more hints of African tribal patterns and prints on major pieces.
    During the emergence of this trend , I started a blog to showcase the African tribal pattern, print, and fabric utilized by African and other minority designers. Unfortunately, I swayed from the focus of my blog and soon began exploring
    various designers , mainstream and not ,as well as artists that I discovered or supported.Fortunately, the tribal print popularity did not fade and experienced
    a wealthy period of popularity. At the forefront of these designs are “Caucasian” designers who are continuously praised for their innovative usage of west African prints and fabric. Yet as newly emerging ethnic groups took ownership of their native Materials and produce equally influential lines, there was less resounding praise directed their way. Only a few brands have had enough circulation to be well respected in their certain area but have not seen longevity in popularity.
    As the first individual argued, if a Caucasian person was designing for a different race other than theirs, would they be judged so harshly ? Though I did not like Chloe’s designs and do not feel that she was necessarily prepared to become a success story such as previous season winner Christian Siriano. The comments left on consecutive internet posting show that individuals stilll place their racial and ethnic notions unto those that are in certain fields.

  4. As yuliasorokina stated in a previous post, the expectations for Chloe to produce clothing that was representative of her culture / ethnicity were clearly racialized expectations that were expressed in post-colonial reaction to a contemporary fashion industry which, according to the commentator, has become oppressively ‘Anglo-Saxon.’ A more valid evaluation of Chloe’s design choices would entail a critique of her lack of ‘variety’ rather than her lack of ‘diversity,’ as she maintains no obligation as an Asian American to produce clothing honoring her culture, regardless of purported commercial or racial influence.

    However, the subsequent comments regarding Chloe being a great pattern maker but not a great designer carry severe implications, as these comments delineate between the designer and the pattern maker and establish the latter as a lesser role with less artistic merit. As Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu describes in the “Crossing the Assembly Line” chapter of her book Beautiful Generation, “designers sketch the original outline, but they frequently collaborate with pattern makers to translate image onto garment. This is the case in part because many designers do not know to sew…while pattern makers are technically a part of the production process – the title signifies the highest level a sewer can reach – they are crucial to the process of design.” (121). As is exemplified in this excerpt, Chloe’s prowess as a pattern maker may actually make her a more comprehensive designer as she possesses skills that are attributable to either discipline.

    Lastly, an additional component of the comments revolved around the possibility of Chloe’s family, in particular her sisters, aiding her in the design and construction of the twelve dresses for the finale for which she was judged and won. If this had occurred, I do not condone Chloe receiving aid from her family because the construction and design was her independent responsibility rather than a collaborative effort, as other contestants did not have the same privilege. However, it is important to acknowledge the familial history of fashion design that perpetuates in Asian culture for which the possibility of this collaborative effort may be attributed to. As Tu states, “in emphasizing these sources of inspiration, [Asian American] designers situated their informal education at the center of their work and highlighted its importance over and beyond that of any formal training they received…while Asian Americans are not the only designers who have leaned from their friends and families, they may have had to rely on this mode of knowledge sharing more than others.” (114).

  5. In agreement with the previous bloggers, I too believe that the statements made towards Chloe were very ignorant and blatantly disrespectful to her work ethic and finished product. After seeing the video Project Runway I will admit I was initially skeptical just like commentator about her lack of designs, vision for the finished products, and the time crunch she was under to complete her collection. Being a perpetual procrastinator myself I then thought it was unfair to make such a bold statement seeing as I am not a fashion designer and know nothing as to how long this process takes. Also just seeing one short clip gives a skewed view of her progress and the hard work and dedication she put in to finishing her collection.

    Another disrespectful statement was when Santino suggested that Chloe was only good at making patterns and not designing. This is insinuating that designing is more important in the fashion industry than making patterns. Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s “Crossing the Assembly Line” discusses how those who are in the design process doing the “behind the seams” work are often seen as unskilled because in the fashion industry only praises those who are thinking up the designs rather than those who are making those designs come to life. The artistic visionary is considered the designer when in reality many of these people cannot even sew! It is ironic that those doing the physical labor to make these creations possible are seen as less important, undervalued, and underpaid than those who do the mental work of imagining the piece. Shouldn’t these manufacturers and designers both receive credit in the form of recognition and monetary gain from the design process?

  6. I agree with the bloggers’ statements above, the comments made about Chloe were very ignorant and extremely disrespectful to her craft. I’m embarrassed to say that I’m a fan of the infamous Project Runway show. After viewing the clip for a second time, I still feel the same way. She was very unprepared for the final challenge, and it was very shocking to see her win. I can say this clip reinforced counter ideology about Asians. Stereotypically, Asians are projected as the intellectual organized being, and Chloe was the complete opposite. This might be the reason why people are criticizing her work ethic. If she were a Caucasian designer, would she receive the same heat? Would Santino comments even be relevant? His ignorance doesn’t take away from his talent, but it certainly does takes away from his character.

  7. While I am not a frequent viewer of Project Runway, the clips shown in class did peak my interest. I found the comments above with regards to Chloe Dao quite harsh and very one sided. It’s really frustrating when people believe that just because you are a member of a minority your whole life must be defined by it. Being a black woman myself, I understand the pressures to constantly look out for your own and help one another but I don’t think its fair to pressure a designer to only design for her ethnicity. Additionally, in response to the comment regarding the help Chloe probably received, I truly feel if she was a white female or male it would not have been said. I think after seeing her family and knowing a little about her family’s background in sewing the viewer just made that assumption, combined with the fact that she’s a woman and some people still have that ignorant impression that women need help and guidance.

  8. I have not had a lot of experience learning about the fashion industry, and before the readings from this week and before watching the clips I had no idea that the designers to which we give so much credit and attention often seem to be doing very little of the actual labor, like making the patterns, etc. The separation between the designing of garments and the actual creation of the patterns and finished products seems unfair and it is dismissive of the efforts of the workers. As it is discussed in the article, “Crossing the Assembly Line,” separating the physical labor of sewing and manufacturing from the creativity of the design gives the laborer the ability to be a productive worker, but does not “enable them to pursue creative interests or entrepreneurial profits,” (Tu, 42).

    There is a certain class distinction between the laborers and the designers in the fashion industry. Because sewing became more important in Asia as manufacturing moved out of the United States (Tu, 41), Asian designers disrupt the distinction between art and craft. They are pursuing the “creative interests.”

    The comments regarding Chloe Dao’s designing for a Caucasian body versus an Asian body were obviously racist and ignores the fact that, according to Tu, Asian designers like Dao show “the line that separates the skilled from the unskilled, the industrial from the creative, is far less rigid – it is porous and movable at least to this small group,” (Tu, 62). I think it is very common for the average person to see minority groups and expect them to do something specifically targeted towards the group to which they belong, and in the case of Dao, when she did not design clothes with an overtly Asian style, people ignored the other aspects of her work.

  9. The reading “Crossing the Assembly Line” allows us to better understand why labor is linked with race. “Crossing the Assembly Line” describes multiple scenarios and stories of young Asian American designers growing up with parents who work as garment manufacturers in a mass market. It is as if a there is a stigma that Asian American designers cannot move past because the media focuses heavily on their families history as mass market manufacturers. So to answer the question, what does a designer look like and what does a pattern maker look like, we as a culture are conditioned to see a pattern-maker as a “minority” and a designer as a “typical Caucasian”.

    When an Asian American designer does successfully surface, they are under pressure to cater to their culture and not break into any other forms of fashion design (as seen from the quote on Dao). They are certainly positioned differently in the design world. Their rise to success is created to imitate a “rags to riches” story: A young designer growing up in a working class family who takes the skills they learned as a child to create art.

  10. I have sporadically watched snippets of the episodes of Project Runway from various seasons but unfortunately I watched nothing of the one that we covered in class. I did notice, however, that when Tim Gunn was ‘drilling’ Chloe Dao at her house about the collection she was making, a majority of us in the classroom laughed at her spacey response and general lack-of-direction. That alone shows that we have a perception of who a designer is as a person: someone quick, creative, has sketchings all around the environment they are in, full of symbolic thoughts, etc. When that wasn’t the case with Chloe, she had a bad rep from commentators as those stated in the post to viewers of the show to fashion bloggers on the web. Predominant notions of what a designer looks like stems from what designers are presented in the media, the designers who are given the opportunity to showcase their talent. Whether or not it is biased in correlation to gender or race is not for me to factualize, but I will say that I have an instilled idea of what a designer should be and look like – however, not ignorant to the fact that designers don’t fit a mold…if anything, they are trying to differentiate themselves from the categories that other people group them into.

    So we get it, Chloe does not fit into what we think a designer is but does that make her any less credible? Because she makes clothes that do not appeal to our interest does it mean that every last person in the world thinks her designs are hideous? No and no. We are to consumed with the notion that because she is notorious for pattern-making that she should stick to what she’s good at. Going along with that, obviously some commentators on the web blogs about Project Runway feel that because she is Asian she should only design Asian inspired creations. It’s a very one-dimensional thought process that these people are sticking to but it makes one think if we create these stereotypes and if people feel the need to fulfill them in order to feel as if they are part of a group.

  11. Along with other commenters on this post, I agree that many of the statements posted about Chloe Dao were appalling. However, I went through a phase for a while in high school where I watched Project Runway, like, religiously. Maybe that is why I wasn’t really that shocked about Chloe not having many sketches, etc. for her line in the finale, as others were when they saw that clip. It seems to me that there are always a few designers who are less organized while they create and work more from their heads. Along with this, however, I was really intrigued by one of the earlier comments on this post that said: “I wonder if Chloe’s race had anything to do with that high expectation of her having a well thought out theme or concept to her clothes. Had Chloe been a free thinking Caucasian hippie type designer would I and others have been so quick to judge her or him for not having a series of sketches? Is this want for Chloe to have a series of sketches for the competition related at all to the idea of Asians being the model minority?…Since Chloe is presented as this hard working Asian trying to win in the competition, it is expected of her to have everything organized and together since those traits are associated with success.” I somewhat agree, and I believe that this could easily be part of why people seem to be a little bit perturbed by the fact that Chloe doesn’t seem organized, etc. in this clip and cannot describe exactly where she is going with her line. I also agree that the cause of this response in viewers is probably an unconscious and cultural one. Furthermore, it occurred to me that it could be connected/exacerbated by the fact that she, otherwise, seems to somewhat fit the traditional stereotypes that were brought up of asians in the fasion industry in class – she still lives with her family, is a good seamstress, etc.

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