What Is Fashion Design?

How Creative Direction and Sampling have Changed the Way Clothing is Designed Today

Key Takeaways

  1. Some of today’s most successful fashion designers have little to no formal training. These figures are known for their ability to re-contextualize and apply images from the past into new collections, but critics argue that this dilutes the true artistry of the business.
  2. Referential fashion is not a new concept as designers have always been inspired by other cultures and time periods in order to create their work. Bringing back archival designs is a shrewd business decision, but capitalizing off of social movements is misguided.
  3. Brand creators without formal training should take it upon themselves to learn digital design programs if they’re unable to draw, since the trend of “sampling” fashion looks may come to an end at any time. Designers that are able to adapt and grow their talents will ensure their own long-term success.

For traditionalists, 2021 may be one of the most dispiriting times in recent fashion history. Although the industry has made great strides in its move to support sustainable innovations and finally acknowledged the work of many BIPOC and queer designers, many of today’s brightest design stars have no formal training. While there’s never just one path to success, critics argue that their lack of drawing or conventional schooling experience means that the designer’s main role has been largely replaced by that of the creative director. By overseeing the specific image for brands, creative directors then relegate how designers should construct the garments and fabrics in order to meet their vision. Developing collections in this way has led to a noticeable shift in how clothing is designed. In many instances, brands are referencing archival collections or creating dupes for garments that have been produced by other designers, with little to no creative reinterpretation. Brand success is arguably dependent on the ability of the line to appropriate images well rather than create something new. Is this recent phenomenon the result of our society’s move towards Metamodernism, where all fashion and art references transcend time, or is this the beginning of creativity’s decline?

Louis Vuitton, Spring 2022

Many of today’s most celebrated brands are run by unconventional designers. Virgil Abloh, the Ghanian-American founder of the luxury label Off-White, and the men’s artistic director for Louis Vuitton instantly comes to mind. Abloh is one of the most divisive figures in fashion today, because of the way he creates his collections. His unconventional background informs all of his work. He has trained as a civil engineer and architect, before then working as Kanye West’s creative director, Abloh also continues to DJ regularly and founded the now-defunct label Pyrex 23. While Abloh’s proponents view his success as a milestone for black and brown designers that have been historically left out of the fashion system, there are entire diatribes (including one called “Everything Wrong with Virgil Abloh”) written against the man all over the internet. He’s come under fire recently for ripping off the designs of indie designers without giving them credit, and has received some unenthusiastic reviews for some of his most recent work which many have described as “reductive and unimaginative.” He credits the artist Marcel-Duchamp’s concept of “readymade” art or found object-turned artifact, as inspiration in his own design work.

Yet how much of Abloh’s success can be attributed to his social media presence as well as his associations with Kanye West? In an article published by Business of Fashion, Fraser Cooke, Nike’s senior director of influencer marketing says, “Virgil is an innovator and definitely a remixer and editor.” While there’s no doubt that Abloh is a master of pulling together images from various time periods and social movements (a practice dubbed ‘sampling’ much like the method utilized by artists in hip hop music), whether that should be comparable to sewing or pattern work is ultimately a question for the fashion consumer to answer. Louis Vuitton Moet Hennesy is wagering that it is on par with that skillset given their 60% stake in Off-White as of July 2021, according to Forbes. Like Abloh, the designer of 1017 Alyx and the creative director for Givenchy, Matthew Williams has ascended the ranks in fashion without any formal fashion training. Recently, his design work has come under fire due to allegations that he copied the braiding technique of late designer Ben Cho, whom he knew personally. Despite this backlash, Kendall Jenner wore Givenchy to the Met Gala and the brand continues to be popular with customers and celebrities alike. It’s become glaringly evident that Williams, a white man, has faced only a fraction of the negative publicity Abloh has received for his design method over the years. 

Givenchy, Spring 2022

At first loyal fans and now the fashion establishment itself, have embraced unorthodox brand creators. The Liberian-American designer Telfar Clemens—who founded his eponymous line without formal training in 2005—has managed to tread the precarious line between cult and critical darling. Since then, the designer’s been named a recipient of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2017, and his iconic shopping bag has been described as “the decade’s most important accessory.” The brand has become synonymous with disruption, given its accessible price point and collaborations with everyone from White Castle to Converse to Ugg. Clemens readily admits that his designs are an amalgamation of influences from Vivienne Westwood to Polo Ralph Lauren, which is to say, that his work is subversive because of its references. This in itself should not discredit its worthiness, since the construction of these garments is meant to be practical and functional. The notion that luxury fashion is attainable by only a select few has been turned upside down by the brand. Referential clothing may be having a moment, but fashion brands have been incorporating logos and using everyday brands in their work for the last decade (think Vetements’ earliest iterations). The concept is not new, it’s just gained traction with more of the moment brands.

In an article featured in Ultra, Sahar Khraibani posits that while the practice of using logos within different contexts was originally intended to be anticapitalism (when it was used in branded t-shirts in the ‘80s and ‘90s) when brands use it today the practice is “darkly capitalist.” The truth of the matter is clothing that is constructed and consumed within Capitalism will sometimes miss the mark completely, and reference movements that should not be commodified. A recent example of this is Dior’s Feminism slogan t-shirts that featured slogans from feminist essays, including Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”While some publications applauded Maria Grazia Chiuri’s decision, many more pointed out the hypocrisy of a major corporation capitalizing on this work by charging $700 for these shirts. Although Chiuri has a long design career and brings that experience into her work at Dior, it’s safe to say that referential fashion within collections is not going away. Many major brands including Balenciaga, Helmut Lang, and Versace have recently begun to dig into their own archives to bring back pieces from the past for consumers. While there’s nothing wrong with looking back, “...metafashion has its limits, reflecting the system’s status quo instead of imagining a new one.”( Vogue) Today’s dynamic designers should be able to cull images from the archives but also create new works. For those who are unable to draw, new design programs such as Digital Fashion Pro can simplify the process. It’s imperative that brand creators without formal training continue to learn and grow their skillset since the trend of relying on “sampling” alone can vanish at any time.