Art Term Tuesday: (Fashion) Designer

Katy Thompson, Associate Director of Education

I know, I know, it’s a WEDNESDAY; but, I have a really good excuse: it’s Fort Wayne’s own fashion designer Bill Blass‘ birthday! Born in Fort Wayne and educated at South Side, Blass went on to make his name in NYC and around the world designing and producing womenswear under his own label. The word designer, though, can refer to a myriad of creative roles: graphic designer, costume designer, video game designer, user experience and/or web designer, lighting designer, and much more. If it applies to all of these careers, what does it actually mean to be a designer, and, more specifically, a fashion designer?

Bill Blass designs. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Essentially, a designer is a generic term for anyone who plans or outlines the structure or form of something, before it is produced, in drawings (whether physically with pencil and paper or digitally with software). The designer is the creative force behind the thing, whether that’s a building, a website, or a dress. While the term historically referred to architects, today it encompasses art and craft thanks to the increased complexity of production methods and mass consumerism. Today, we divide designers into specific domains: landscape, urban, interior, industrial, furniture, fashion, and the like. No matter the specialty, all designers share skills and methods for making; they use design methods and thinking to approach problems systematically and create new solutions, always keeping in mind the target audience for their product.

For Bill Blass, his audience was the everyday woman who needed to go from work to play both comfortably and fashionably. In fashion, the art of design is the outcome of applied knowledge, aesthetic, and construction to both clothing and accessories. Influenced by culture and trends, designers are forward-thinking, constantly evolving and staying ahead (or directing) the newest styles. A balancing act of both form and function, fashion designers consider who will wear it (bespoke or mass market) and where (work, home, or play). Today, we recognize iconic styles and American fashion houses as brands: Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Levi Strauss, Kate Spade, Supreme, Guess, Tom Ford, and Diane von Furstenberg, to name a few; however, this wasn’t always the case.

Fashion designers create looks for individual customers (bespoke) and for mass production, often partnering with mass market lines like Target or UNIQLO. Bill Blass began his career designing for others. One of several sketchers or drafters, Blass’ designs were not his own but belonged to the fashion house, same for his fellow in-house designers. In fact, it wasn’t until the 19th century that Charles Frederick Worth first sewed his label into the garments he created. Before this clothing design was completed by anonymous seamstresses and styles filtered down from the royals at court; for example, when Parisian ladies-in-waiting started wearing a new hood design, it would transfer to the English courts and then slowly make its way through the social hierarchy. Today, it is leading fashion houses in Paris, Milan, New York City, and London that, through Fashion Week, sets the stage for that season’s fashion.

Bill Blass designs. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Blass eventually set up his own house, Bill Blass Limited, sketching and producing his designs under his own name. It was his name on the tag, not another designers. Most fashion designers begin with a sketch on paper. From there, they may drape fabric on a dress form (mannequin) or use a design app to visualize the final garment. They cut patterns out of muslin and then, once they have the vision cemented, create a sample garment. Designers will often show clients the sketch design, working to perfect it on paper before wasting expensive fabric resources to make a sample garment that doesn’t fit the individuals needs or vision. While royal courts held one or two dressmakers, much like court painters, in high esteem, today we are much more likely to mix-and-match our haute couture (high sewing; high quality, expensive fabric often sewn for a specific client) with ready-to-wear (prêt-à-porter; cross between haute couture and mass market because, while it isn’t made for a specific, individual client it is made with choice fabric and a high level of care) and mass market (cheaper and simpler fabrics, made on trend). Blass styled the working woman, making durable clothes that flattered but allowed the wearer to be on-the-go. Iconic pieces, he helped to steer American fashion into it’s own: a clean-cut and finished yet urban casual aesthetic.

Bill Blass designs. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Bill Blass: Fort Wayne’s Fashion Designer is now on exhibit at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art and the Fort Wayne History Center!

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