An Episode from the Life of a Designer

The final part of this essay is a short case study which is intended to demonstrate the kind of empirical analyses which might provide some answers to Davis' question:

What does the shortened hemline or double breasted suit mean to those, who, cautiously, are among the first in their social circle to adopt them? How do these meanings, elusive or inchoate as they may be, relate to the meanings that proceeded and will follow them in the fashion cycle. Why do some new meanings (read fashion) 'click' while other 'fizzle'?51

Part of my work as a designer with the MaxMara group has been on the 'Weekend by MaxMara' range. Weekend is MaxMara's relaxed cousin, an informal collection which uses 'classic' inspiration, that is to say our research usually focuses on reinventing or modifying categories of garment which have recognizable generic features, such as aran sweaters, duffel coats or safari jackets. The customer prioritizes an essential aspect of 'correctness',

50. Barnard, M., Fashion as Communication, London: Routledge, 1996, pp. 69-95.

51. Davis, F., Fashion, Culture and Identity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994, p. 113.

even bourgeois respectability, but with a slightly progressive, 'modern' interpretation. The look is hard to define, but easy to recognize and very widely understood; the collection sells around 500,000 garments per season worldwide. I have chosen to give Weekend as an example of my work, in this instance, because I wish to highlight the 'sub-catwalk' products that do not figure largely in academic works in fashion, rather than to talk about the more glamorous MaxMara line. Weekend is clearly not an avant-garde or couture collection, its commerciality is plain to see, and yet with coats retailing at around £400 it is not High Street either. The example I have chosen is intended to illustrate the creative and rational processes which lead to the development of a relatively simple fashionable garment, to indicate the great subtleties of meaning and its derivations, in a way that academic work on fashion has not fully recognized.

An important area for Weekend, especially in winter collections, is outerwear, where customers look for an informal, innovative solution alternative or in addition to the more formal sartorially constructed coats in the MaxMara line. These are generally known in Italy as 'giaccone' which translates literally as 'big jackets', the word 'cappotto' or 'coat' usually signifying the more formal outerwear garment. Since there is no equivalent word in English to 'giaccone', I will use the term 'jacket'.

Figures 5.1a and 5.1b show two of the many thousands of jackets that we, the design team, have produced. Jacket A is from the Autumn/Winter 1997 collection and Jacket B from the Autumn/Winter 2000 collection. A sold over 3,000 which is regarded as a fairly good figure, whilst B was eliminated, that is to say, the sample was presented to the agents, merchandisers and clients who diffuse the collection but it was rejected by them and never went into production. Yet the two jackets look so similar, that many might mistake one for the other, so what happened?

Jacket A was designed in the winter of 1996 when we had noticed that certain fashion-conscious individuals in New York, London, Paris and Milan, those who might be said to be 'ahead' in the sense that they seemed to anticipate trends, had begun to mix garments which would not normally be worn together, or from different 'dress codes' - for example, second-hand evening dresses in velvet or silky fabrics with chunky sweaters, delicate feminine blouses with jeans. We concluded that this appropriation of the inappropriate was a way of creating a 'frisson' in the way that exotic motifs are often plundered to the same end.

The crumpled-evening-dress-with-a-chunky-sweater-and trainers look was too radical and yet at the same time obviously destined to go downmarket very quickly, since it could be reproduced so cheaply. We decided to interpret the look in a 'richer' way. Velvets and taffetas in 'jewel' colours would be

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