Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Designers – Born or Taught?

There's nothing like couture week in Paris to get one thinking about the nature of design and where designers come from. (As for the shows themselves, by the way, bear with me – I'll be looking back over the week as a whole. Not that there's any shortage of instant coverage to show you what individual shows actually looked like: bloggers seem to be virtually filing from the front row in real time – not for me! Apropos of which, at the ravishingly romantic Dior show I sat opposite the renowned Tavi, designer-dressed from head to toe and working her camera like mad.)

Christian Dior, of course, had no formal college training at all. It may seem ironic at a time when many of our colleges are over-producing 'designers' with huge prodigality, but some of our most successful fashion figures did not: Cristobal Balenciaga, Coco Chanel, Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, Gianni Versace: this list is random but it is not exactly a roll call of duffers. All were basically self-taught or learned on the job, either in their own fledgling company or by working for someone else. Many of them could neither draw nor cut.

What they all had was a vision and a belief in themselves - and a conviction that the two things could be brought together by determination, hard work and self discipline. You could say that these qualities are standard in anyone who makes it in business, including the creative. But what I find most interesting is that they, and other truly great designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, had a philosophy and a cultural knowledge that informed every thing they did and was so strong that their fashion statements – to use a very silly modern expression - have always been unlike any other. And, with the exception of Dior, who changed his shapes and proportions every season without radically altering his aesthetic, they were and still are steadfastly consistent. They didn't have a muse: they had a period, a civilisation to inspire them not only through visual stimuli but also through literature, music and history. They were aware of the past even if it didn't appear overtly in the work of their own present. In other words,they had – and have – a developed point of view that informs all their work whether skirts are high or low, colours bright or dark. So, you can always tell which garments they created and which ones they didn't, something that high street economics has almost removed for less-grounded, younger designers as part of the increasingly desperate need for something totally new each season to stimulate buying.

As Balenciaga said of his customers, a woman who can wear any and all designers knows nothing about fashion, or herself, at all. It is the same for designers. If they produce any or all styles they have no personal style at all.

And perhaps it doesn't matter. Maybe the past is irrelevant at a time when money is made by variety: opera singers giving us pop very badly or vice versa, or footballers dancing even more badly on television (no dancers playing football … yet). All of which is why, although I have a high regard for many fashion colleges, I just occasionally wonder if they have the right people teaching the right things or whether those things are so instinctive that they are beyond teaching. Certainly, I find it as hard to imagine any teacher telling Chanel how to design as I do Balenciaga in Big Brother.


  1. As with all industry process and profit have overtaken. It is not enough to be profitable you have to be lean, desired, marketed and be extremely profitable. The yields have to be great not good.

    Hard work and determination is not enough against commerce that is so dominating.

  2. Dear Mr McDowell,

    I believe that even though one can be trained in certain skills, it is a combination of innate talent, serious vocation and heroic commitment that make TRUE genius.

    Not one college on this planet can teach you any of the above.



  3. Fashion is ultimately subjective and what eventually gets sold from the catwalk, or from the shops, is largely down to the customers’ taste. It’s such a shame that more people aren’t able to distinguish the truly talented and original from those trying very hard to be different. An appreciation of quality of workmanship, fabrics and design is often overlooked in favour of branded merchandise and celebrity endorsements. Moreover, it doesn’t help that most of the items promoted by the media are featured because the press is paid in cash or kind to do so.

    I never cease to be amazed at the wealth of talent coming out of our world famous fashion colleges – many of the young designers already impressively able to express their individual style and personality through their work. The students live, eat and breathe fashion and have every intention of working solely in the industry they’re so passionate about. The desire to look beyond is largely self-motivated, with inspiration often drawing upon our natural curiosity for the world we live in – and a broader-based, more general education, especially in culture and the liberal arts, often comes with age and experience. However, sadly, these days, the focus of attention in almost every area of our lives is heavily biased towards all things material.

  4. I just found your blog, and I love it.
    It is everything I need to hear.

  5. Dear Colin,

    I am reading your blog while in the factory in Italy creating my collection for London Fashion Week. I always find your posts refreshing, motivating and thought provoking.

    Whether designers are born or taught, the beauty is in seeing a designer's point of view and their execution of technique. I can't wait for LFW and instead of focussing on the media circus (granted, it's important for business), it makes me happy to think that some journalists will be delving a little deeper.