Fashion Thinking: Creative Approaches to the Design Process

On occasion of her new book on fashion design education, Fashion Thinking:
 Creative Approaches to the Design Process (AVA, February 2013), Fiona Dieffenbacher--director 
exciting approaches to fashion education: 
by Fiona Dieffenbacher
The main question to be asked of fashion education today is “Are we training students to design 
clothes or to create fashion?” To be makers, creators, or both?” At Parsons The New School for
 Design we have re-approached our curriculum to address these questions, which has led to 
innovative, new pathways for our students to develop as designers.
In order to understand the difference between the spheres of making and creating fashion, we have 
focused on design thinking as a method of envisioning a reality that does not yet exist, and as a
 means for achieving innovation. Fashion thinking involves harnessing the vast array of skills 
at the designer’s disposal, while embracing the chaos of the process itself. This might include upending
 traditional approaches or reapporpriating them to unearth new ways of creating and making clothes.
“Fashion Thinking: Creative Approaches to the Design Process” highlights the work of nine 
students, documenting their responses to a variety of design briefs and their process: from idea to
 concept and design. These projects demonstrate that there are multiple entry points into that process
 and a million ways out. In between there are some consistent doors that each designer will go through
 (albeit in varying orders) and there are consistent tools they will utilize to accomplish the end result,
 but the rest is up for grabs. Emerging designers must learn to develop both their own personal 
philosophy of design and a particular way of working, which involves taking ownership of the process itself.
Traditionally, fashion design texts have tended to suggest a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the design 
process: research – sketch – flat-pattern – drape – fabrication – make. While this order works for
 many designers, and are essential building blocks of the design process, this does not work for all. At 
Parsons we have developed a curriculum that encourages a variety of approaches to design versus heralding a 
formulaic method. If we persist in training fashion students to design via a process that is rote and mundane,
 we have missed the point entirely.
Not everyone begins with a sketch; indeed some don’t sketch at all. Isabel Toledo is one such example, 
“I don’t start new things at the sketch pad or the drawing board. For me, fashion design begins at the 
sewing machine and the pattern-making table. I know that I am creating a design when I make things 
with my hands, giving them form and shape, often inventing new techniques to fold and manipulate cloth
 as I experiment with my designs and perfect them over time.”[1]
Dissatisfaction with a particular way of working can also lead to a breakthrough in the design process and
 this was true for Rei Kawakubo, two years before her first presentation in Paris in 1979. I decided to 
start from zero, from nothing, to do things that have not been done before, things with a strong image.
” Speaking of her decision, Harold Koda commented on her process, “…‘to start from zero’… has 
become a constant of her design process. Season after season, collection after collection, Kawakubo
 obliterates her past… Liberated from the rules of construction, she pursues her essentially intuitive and
 reactive solutions, which often result in forms that violate the very fundamentals of apparel.”[2]
In the BFA Fashion Design program here at Parsons, we have witnessed a distinct shift away from a
 right/wrong philosophy of teaching toward a more problem-based approach to learning. A student-centric
model now exists where the fundamentals of design, construction, digital and drawing are taught in tandem
 with a full roster of studio electives and liberal arts that students select from a wide variety of options open
 to them across our university, The New School. Students learn traditional techniques and immediately
 apply them within the context of their own approach to design. In doing so they begin to articulate their 
own aesthetic and visual vocabulary from the outset of their experience in the program. Additionally, students 
are now encouraged to develop a central body of work that is re-contextualized across their suite of electives, 
which informs their work in new ways.
There is no “right” way to approach design; there are no “wrong” turns. Everything matters. Designers are 
problem-solvers and problems present challenges that often lead to creative solutions that could not have
 been conceived of any other way. Within the unpredictability of the process ‘mistakes’ transform into 
new ideas, yielding fresh concepts that drive silhouette and form forward. Innovation happens on the heels 
of error in the midst of chaos and complexity.


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