By Alexandra Verschueren


This article belongs to a series of texts exploring the potential of an autoethnographic method for academic reflection on processes of creative design. This contribution first counters a possible objection based on the individualistic nature of the approach which seemingly ignores social dimensions that have been captured by other authors from an outside perspective. Illustrating the counterarguments against the objection, the remainder of the text continues the author’s narrative of a dialogue between fashion and architecture by tracing the emergent reasoning and decision-making behind her collection Howl. The focus for this collection is shown to be on ‘texture.’

Key words: Design, Fashion, Architecture, Texture


In “The autoethnography of creative design” (Verschueren 2012) I made two potentially controversial claims. The first was that an autoethnographic approach could shed light on creative design processes in an innovative way. Such a claim is easily challenged. There are, indeed, many examples of quite successful analyses of the production of art and other cultural artefacts from an outside rather than process-internal perspective (e.g. Becker 1982, Bourdieu 1993, Crane 1992, Crane & Bovone 2006, Entwistle 2009). And it is true that much of this work emphasizes important social aspects that influence the creative process, such as the collective nature of creative work, the interaction and negotiation that is involved, the habits and conventions, the specializations and careers in the production of art, as well as the commercial and economic dimension. By contrast, an autoethnographic account may look like a post-hoc narrative of individual achievement, falsely emphasizing the myth of the individual creator. My first goal for this article is to argue that an autoethnography of creative design, written reflexively from inside the search for artistic innovation, does not at all have to support this myth and can open perspectives that may be complementary to the work of an ethnographer or social scientist.

My second claim was that my first autoethnographic exercise, telling the story of how my work as a designer moved from a student collection (Medium) to a more mature fashion product (the spring/summer collection Shift), clearly showed that the design process had to be seen as emergent rather than linear. Such a claim may be confusing when made in the context of a narrative which itself takes a linear form. Moreover, it raises the “So what?” question. Would anyone want to think about creativity as linear? If not, does it at all matter to state that it is not? My second goal for this article is to show that, in spite of first-sight appearances, the claim is not trivial.

Both goals will be approached through another exercise in autoethnography, reflecting on the design of a fall/winter collection of high-quality daywear, Howl.

The outside look and its limitations

It is true that forms of art and material culture have been seriously studied by anthropologists, ethnographers, and sociologists. For art and material culture in general, relevant references have already been given in the introduction above. This observation also counts for fashion. Sometimes, as in the work of the cultural anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, fashion seemed like an attractive subject because, in contrast to other fluctuating aspects of civilization, it seemed like an easily measurable cultural phenomenon. Indeed, Kroeber (1919), though acknowledging that material fashion objects left over from the past were probably not numerous enough for accurate calculations, believed that ideals of dress could be traced with great precision. But his own delineation of his topic is immediately a sign of the limitations one is confronted with when looking at fashion from the outside:

Twenty years ago the project of inquiring into the principles that guide fashion arose in my mind, and I went so far as to turn the leaves of volume after volume of a Parisian journal devoted to dress. But the difficulties were discouraging. Pivotal points seemed hard to find in the eternal flux. One might measure collars or sleeves or ruffles for some years, and then collars and sleeves and ruffles disappeared. (Kroeber 1919: 239)

In order to rescue the project years later, severe restrictions had to be imposed:

I decided to attempt only eight measurements, four of length and four of width, all referring to the figure or dress as a whole, and to disregard all superficial parts or trimmings. Strict comparability of data being essential, it was necessary to confine observations to clothing of a single type. Women’s full evening toilette was selected. This has served the same definite occasions for more than a century; does not therefore vary in purpose as does day dress, nor seasonally like street clothing. (Kroeber 1919: 239)

He then goes on to present changes (over a period of 75 years) in the width of skirts, the length of skirts, the diameter of the waist, the ‘length’ of waist (defined as the distance from the mouth to the middle of the minimum diameter of the waist), the décolletage, the width of the décolletage. His main observation was that changes in these basic measurements, though they are clearly visible, are usually gradual and slow, in contrast to “all the conspicuous externalities of dress” which create “a blurred but overwhelming impression of incalculably chaotic fluctuations, of reversals that are at once bewildering and meaningless, of a sort of lightning-like prestidigitation to which we bow in dumb recognition of its uncontrollability” (Kroeber 1919: 258). From this he concludes that the role of individual designers is rather restricted, as they simply contribute to more collective civilizational tendencies that go beyond their individual biographies. Put differently, a designer “might have possessed ten times the genius of a Poiret or Worth: he would yet have been compelled to curb it into the channels which they followed, or waste it on unworn and unregarded creations.” (Kroeber 1919: 261) Therefore, while Kroeber’s work illustrates how limited a look from the outside must be, he still manages to identify with great accuracy some of the restrictions to which a designer’s creative work is subjected. How a designer copes with such restrictions, however, cannot become clear from a strictly formal study of longer-term patterns of development.

Attempts to get closer to the creative processes themselves, have been undertaken by sociologists.  But the editors of a recent issue of Sociologie et Sociétés (Lévy & Quemain eds. 2011) complain that the work of early pioneers (such as Veblen in 1899, Simmel in 1905, and Bell in 1947) did not lead to a true tradition of ‘sociology of fashion,’ i.e. the study of not only patterns of consumption but also of work processes and structures underlying the genesis of innovation in a cultural industry of clothing. In their terminology, we only find an expanding field of ‘fashion studies’ with loosely defined goals and methodologies. Since the sociologists’ focus on production (albeit in response to market forces) comes closest to the goals of an autoethnographic approach to creative design, it is worth reviewing briefly a few of the studies that take this perspective.

A first study to look at is Bourdieu & Delsaut (1975), which approaches the Parisian world of haute couture as a ‘field of cultural production.’ As in much of Bourdieu’s work on other cultural phenomena, fashion is seen as a form of ‘symbolic capital’ which is used by consumers to mark their social position and which leads to hierarchies among producers. Thus Bourdieu & Delsaut concentrate on the relationship between dominant houses and their challengers, and they show that it is usually the challengers (those aspiring to a dominant position, and with the possibility of eventually attaining that goal) who set changes in motion (or, in their terms, “font le jeu”). They describe this dynamic as a change in continuity, since challengers are very often themselves the products of dominant houses:

[…] c’est le cas de Christian Dior et de Pierre Balmain quittant ensemble la maison Lelong – qui fermera en 1948 –, de Saint-Laurent qui part de chez Dior en 1962 ou de Laroche qui abandonne Dessès en 1958. D´autres précèdent en plusiers étapes, comme Cardin qui passe en 1946 de Paquin à Dior, pour quitter celui-ci en 1949 ou Givenchy qui va de Lelong à Piguet (1946), puis à Jacques Fath (1948), enfin à Schiaparelli (1949), qu’il abandonne en 1952 pour fonder sa propre maison. (Bourdieu & Delsaut 1975: 16)

More recent examples could easily be substituted for this list. Another aspect of the field of fashion which they present is the need for permanent innovation, which sets fashion apart from the other arts. In fact, the creation of seasonal products is the exact opposite of the work of a writer or other artist aspiring to the ever-lasting relevance of their products. Creating fashion is a constant struggle to avoid being ‘out of fashion,’ and the designer must regularly reinvent him/herself; the only ones who can afford standing still (for a while, and not too long) are those who have reached the pinnacle of dominance in the symbolic market of high fashion. The establishment of a brand, according to Bourdieu & Delsaut, is a form of magic in which the designer takes center stage, often as head of a company, not only responsible for the design of clothes, but also for their material production and for promotion. This “alchimie symbolique” requires that all aspects of the process are handled “à la façon de l’artiste” (Bourdieu & Delsaut 1975: 19), which is why the replacement of a designer, the problem of succession, is so tricky.

Very different types of sociological study were collected by Crane & Bovone (eds) (2006) in a special issue of the journal Poetics. One particularly relevant contribution is Bovone’s (2006) analysis of the relation between clothes and identity, looked at from the perspective of consumption and fashion production, specifically in the city of Milan. According to Bovone, clothes are produced for dressing identity. Rather than being ‘given,’ identity is something to be achieved, and ways of dressing contribute to that process. Bovone clearly shows the paradox that is involved: the fashion industry, pursuing its own economic interests (clearly related to the struggle for dominance described by Bourdieu & Delsaut), must put forward proposals for identity construction that are in tune with expectations, while consumers, pursuing their own interests (in terms of what Bourdieu would call symbolic capital), must appropriate those proposals. How the fashion industry’s ‘proposals’ are creatively produced, then, is further explored by Mora (2006), also with the Italian fashion system as example. Mora’s focus is on the collective nature of creative production, involving continuous negotiation at all levels that influence the creative process: the level of strategy (decisions pertaining to positioning in relation to a market or assumed consumer preferences), the technical level (involving materials and skilled labor), and the level of procedures ( i.e. the level at which the intertwining of design, production, and marketing must be decided). Thus she applies to fashion what Becker (1982) ascribed to art in general, namely its being the product of collective action, formed through the coordination of different (groups of) individuals. It is shown that the overall process is very much determined by a structural uncertainty arising from the fact that the goal and content of the product is innovation and that its ultimate value depends on the extent to which consumers’ volatile and unpredictable desire for novelty and change can be satisfied – an uncertainty that we can understand best by remembering Kroeber’s description of the limited confines within which innovation must take place. Mora provides us with a lucid account of the complex system of relationships between the many different agents involved: industrial companies (producers of textiles and clothes manufacturers), service providers (various types of professionals, from pattern makers to marketing specialists), and mass media. Creativity is shown to play a very ambiguous role in this complex system.

Perhaps the sociological study that comes closest to a description of creative processes involved, is Giusti’s (2011) detailed analysis of fashion design in terms of “travail en atelier.” On the basis of interviews and participant observation in a number of companies situated in the field of luxury fashion (in opposition to both ready-to-wear and haute couture), Giusti describes the ingredients of what she calls the genesis of innovation (sketches, fabrics and accessories, colors, so-called mood boards, toiles, patterns, technical drawings and fiches, prototypes, silhouettes, archives) and the ways in which these ingredients enter complex processes of interaction (such as try-outs, stylings, photo sessions, shows, press releases). Like Mora (2006), she stresses the negotiated and collective nature of creative fashion work, leading to what she calls ‘diffuse creativity.’  And she identifies three basic properties of “travail en atelier.” First of all, the overall coordination of the fashion design process is driven by concrete objects (the ‘ingredients’ mentioned above) and by deadlines. Timing is extremely important, probably more than for other forms of art (though it has been said that any artist’s response to the question “When will your next collection be finished?” would be “The day of the exhibit”). Second, fashion has a weak technological basis in the sense that available products and techniques do not have a direct relationship with the desired results, and designers constantly struggle with technical possibilities, requiring a serious amount of artistic workmanship. This is also related to the problem of aesthetic norms which show a form of conventionality (pointed out by Kroeber) which the designer must be able to deviate from in ways that can still meet approval, and to the important personal authority of the designer (pointed out by Bourdieu & Delsaut) which directly influences evaluation. Third, the technical core of the design process is at the same time systematically closed (as protection against the competition) and intrinsically open (dependent at the production end on wider tendencies reflected in textile markets and public tastes, and at the sales end on carefully planned openings to the wider world of potential buyers). Thus the point is to successfully integrate elements of the environment and to transform them into innovative design products.

In spite of their extremely interesting contributions to an understanding of how fashion design works, these examples of looking at fashion from the outside do not really penetrate creative design as such, which consists in processes of artistic reasoning within the constraints imposed by the phenomena described so accurately by Bourdieu & Delsaut, Crane & Bovone, Mora, Giusti, and many others. Such reasoning can only be described from inside the design experience, though the work of ethnographers who partially go through the motions themselves comes very close (as in the case on Nicewonger’s 2011 investigation of the institutionally embedded transfer and acquisition of design norms and practices inside a design school). That is why autoethnographic descriptions are not simply fragmentary snippets of autobiography, but necessary input for an understanding of what it means to design fashion. There are enough examples in other domains of the arts to illustrate the non-trivial nature of this contribution. Just think of O’Connor’s (2007) account of experiences as a glassblowing apprentice, or articles by artists or sociologists practicing art in Becker et al.’s (2006) book organized around the question of when an artistic work is finished. An even stronger example may be Sudnow’s (1978, 2001) ethnographic – and indeed autoethnographic – analysis of processes of acquiring and using the highly complex skills of a jazz pianist. So let me continue the account I started earlier of work as a fashion designer.

Linearity vs. emergence

Before continuing my narrative, I have to address the second point that could make my autoethnographic exercise questionable, i.e. the claim about the emergent nature of design. Other researchers have found it worthwhile to argue against views of creativity and innovation that would be either linear (or sequential) or random (based on trial and error). Van de Ven et al. (2008) do so in their discussion of innovation in organizations, proposing as an explanatory concept the notion of a non-linear dynamic system, a journey involving motivating and coordinating people to develop and implement ideas by engaging in transactions with others while making the adaptations needed to achieve desired outcomes. Though their topic of reflection seems far removed from the world of innovation in fashion design, Giusti (2011) applies Van de Ven et al.’s notion to creative design. She thinks it is important to do so for the simple reason that the processes, more often than not, derive their coherence and meaning from the narratives surrounding them, giving the false illusion of linearity. She adds:

La linéarité, selon cette perspective, n’est qu’une conséquence du regard rétrospectif des acteurs et l’analyse des procédés concrets selon lesquels s’opère l’innovation demeure donc opaque. (Giusti 2011: 153)

Some of the opacity was lifted by Giusti’s own account. But I think analyses from inside the design process are needed to reach further clarity.

Saying that others have stressed the non-linearity of innovation and creative processes is not enough as an argument for their emergent nature. A more theoretical argument can be derived from the opposition between Bourdieu’s notion of ‘field’ and Becker’s notion of ‘world,’ as explained by Becker in an epilogue to the 2008 anniversary edition of his 1982 book Art Worlds. Bourdieu, according to Becker, uses ‘field’ as a spatial metaphor to emphasize the limited resources available in any given activity domain: if space or resources are limited, competition is predictable, and power structures will determine the outcome, unless the struggle changes the power relationships (in which case roles may be reversed, but without changing the structure). The somewhat deterministic nature of this model would seem to support a more linear (and even predictable) ordering of steps taken in processes belonging to a given field. Becker’s notion of a ‘world’ emphasizes collaboration, without excluding conflict, amounting to an overall process that is much less structured in advance:

But the metaphor of world – which does not seem to be at all true of the metaphor of field – contains people, all sorts of people, who are in the middle of doing something that requires them to pay attention to each other, to take account consciously of the existence of others and to shape what they do in the light of what others do. In such a world, people do not respond automatically to mysterious external forces surrounding them. Instead, they develop their lines of activity gradually, seeing how others respond to what they do and adjusting what they do next in a way that meshes with what others have done and will probably do next. (Becker 2008: 375)

Applying this to art, Becker claims that every work of art involves such intricate interactions because it is necessary “to incorporate into our conception of art-making the people who are conventionally left out of such an analysis: the technicians, the money people, all the people I have called ‘support personnel’.” (Becker 2008: 384) Thus the emergent nature of design not only depends on the unpredictable non-linear operation of the designer’s mind, but on the fact that this operation takes place in constant interaction with a complex surrounding world with people who directly contribute to it. This is most certainly applicable to the world of fashion design, with all its organizational complexities (as described by Bourdieu himself, by Bovone, Mora, Giusti, and many others). Put differently, in relation to art in general:

The collective character of art worlds affects works of art because all the parties involved in making those works might do what they do differently, or not at all, and everyone has to deal with the consequences of everyone else’s choices. The result, the work at any stage of its development, is thus something no one – not even the one called the artist – meant to take just that form. (From the editors’ introduction to Becker et al. eds. 2006: 3)

Unpredictability was certainly a major property of the stages I went through when designing Shift (see Verschueren 2012). This was true because of a struggle with technicalities, but also because a reconceptualization of my original project forced itself upon me: trying to translate the architectural idea of layering into garments, I got stuck until I managed to conceive my confrontation with architecture as a dialogue rather than a point of comparison. While writing down that part of my journey as a designer, I was of course already struggling with the next episode in that dialogue – which is the topic of the rest of this article.

Another kind of outside look and its potential

When reconsidering architectural images that inspired me in the past, I was struck by the fact that almost always the structural impression of a building from the outside was the focus of attention. My first reflex was to do something different, i.e. to move inside and to work inside out as it were. I decided to abandon that idea – at least for the moment – because I also felt there was a potential in the look from the outside that I had certainly not fully explored. There were two aspects I could immediately think of. The first one was the actual physical interaction between the ‘shell’ of a building and its environment. The second was the visual experience of moving through a landscape with structures that are themselves motionless. This was definitely too much to deal with in one collection. So I decided to tackle these two topics separately, starting with the physical or tactile quality of building-environment interaction.

What determines the outside look and feel of a building most of all, through long periods of exposure to its environment, is its being ‘weathered.’ Intermittant exposure to sun, water, and wind may accentuate, enhance, and even change the outside texture of a building. The weather impact on wooden walls (as in Figure 1) is almost always visible. Sometimes effects are further emphasized by vegetation (as in the white-washed stucco as in Figure 2) or by efforts to ‘repair’ (as in the brick wall in Figure 3). Even the most modern granite-veneer buildings (as in Figure 4) soon show traces of natural elements like water running down from window sills [For an extensive look at architectural surfaces, see Juracek (2005)].

Figure 1. Weathered wood
Figure 1. Weathered wood
Figure 2. Weathered white-washed stucco
Figure 2. Weathered white-washed stucco
Figure 3. Erratically repaired brick wall
Figure 3. Erratically repaired brick wall
Figure 4. Polished granite veneer with traces of water
Figure 4. Polished granite veneer with traces of water

This look at the interaction of a building with its environment led directly to a focus on texture, even though texture is a property of inside spaces as well as of the outer shell [In relation to architecture, for instance, we must point at Maria Lorena Lehman’s efforts to promote variations in texture for the sake of ‘sensing architecture,’ i.e. to guide the occupants of a building through inside spaces with visual and tactile experiences that carry a meaning of their own. See here (consulted on 22 April 2012)].In architecture, texture primarily refers to the tactile and visual quality of the surface of materials (e.g. stone can be used in its natural irregular state, or it can be chiselled into a rough or smooth surface, or it can be polished) and to the way in which materials are put together in a structure (e.g. placing chiselled lines horizontally of vertically, making pieces protrude or recede, etc.). In relation to the arts in general, the Oxford English Dictionary defines texture as “the representation of the structure and minute moulding of a surface (esp. of the skin), as distinct from its colour.” But in fact this is a metaphorical derivation from the original meaning of texture, which is to be found in the world of cloth and garments, making the notion all the more interesting to re-approach fashion through architecture. The term is derived from Latin textus, meaning ‘that which is woven’ (i.e. textiles), and applied by extension to the weblike structure of a literary work (i.e. text). In terms of visual effects, it is applied to anything that exhibits a repetitive but broken or segmented pattern. Thus a photographic album of textures (from as early as Brodatz 1966 to recent versions available on the internet [For instance, see ,, or , amongst many other sites you find by googling ‘textures’] may include pictures of woven aluminum wire, reptile skins, leather, handmade paper, pressed cork, a grass lawn, straw screening, the bark of a tree, wooden planks, pebble fields, beach sand, a water surface, a block of marble, brick walls, ice crystals on a window, as well as raffia weave, handwoven rattan, and woven cloth. The term is even used by scientists to describe an aspect of cosmic structure, in particular the lack of symmetry in galaxies and galaxy clusters that makes the universe look rough rather than smooth (cf. Spergel & Turok 1992). On a much more abstract level, texture is also used to refer to the experiential quality (or aesthetics) of texts and textuality (Stockwell 2009): just like the notion combines tactile and visual qualities in the discussion of architecture (and in the description of design in the following pages), for Stockwell it combines structural properties of texts (that can be captured by textual description) with reading experiences (describably in terms of psychological or cognitive processes) into a holistic kind of ‘cognitive aesthetics.’

(Archi)texture in the material shaping of Howl

While struggling with ‘texture’ as a starting point, without having had the chance to become fully familiar with the background sketched above, the idea of focusing on the physical interaction between an architectural structure and its environment was soon combined with functional elements that could feed into garment options. Buildings are to be found in many different environments. And depending on the nature of the environment (city, suburbia, countryside) people may relate in different ways to the structures that protect them against sun, water, and wind, getting ‘weathered’ in the process. This also finds its expression in different ways of clothing. A choice had to be made to orient the design process. And as happens so often, I cannot say that I made the choice; rather, the choice came to me. Just when I was struggling with the many options, I bought a dog, a beagle puppy. Beagles are hunting dogs. And there was my inspiration. The first shapes that came to mind were those of a hunting jacket. All the work of translating a crude countryside structure into modern elegance and femininity would still have to be done. But, clearly, the anecdotal circumstances behind the design idea have a direct link with my later choice of the name of the new collection, Howl, and with the invitation I distributed for the showroom. Figure 5 shows the invitation, in which you will recognize the head of a sleeping puppy. By looking at it, you may feel the soft, furry, countryside texture.

Figure 5. Showroom invitation for Howl
Figure 5. Showroom invitation for Howl

Translating the crude countryside structure into modern elegance and femininity, with special emphasis on a textured look and feel, required considerable research into the appropriate textiles. There are of course useful guidebooks (such as Hallett & Johnston 2010 for natural fibres, or, for the more experimental new materials, Ternaux 2011), but nothing beats rummaging through a textile market such as Première Vision – something a designer has to do twice a year anyway. But such markets are too big, so that their usefulness increases when, on the basis of earlier experience, one can narrow down the search. Criteria for narrowing down a search are entirely related to the practical, circumstantial, processes of creative design, as described by Bourdieu & Delsaut (1975), Bovone (2006), Mora (2006), and Giusti (2011). By now, I had excellent experiences with Japanese manufacturers. Not only the quality of the textiles is outstanding. There are also many purely practical considerations such as: being able to get small samples, being allowed to buy small quantities, the certainty of being serviced on time even if you are not a big player in the market. I knew these conditions were fulfilled. Moreover, I ended up finding exactly what I needed. My choices for Howl were the following:

  • Wool fabrics for coats in navy and grey, 90% wool, 10% Nylon
  • Denim in black and indigo, 100% cotton, but back-brushed for softness on the inside
  • Fancy denim in blue-green  and red-green, 100% cotton, but with an outside that is brushed so that the texture changes in terms of softness and the mixture of colors
  • Vintage cotton shirting in pastel blue and pastel pink, 100% cotton, also brushed to reduce the stiffness of the fabric; normally this is used unbrushed, for men’s shirts only
  • Yarn-dyed chambray in lemon, 100% cotton; as a result of the yarn-dying, the fabric gets somewhat lighter with time
  • Vintage-like slow-woven sweat in wine en charcoal,  100% cotton; this is made in a very special way, as described below
  • Vintage-like slow-woven sweat rib in wine en charcoal, 100% cotton;  as is usual with ribbed textiles, this was used only for the finishing of sweatshirt, cardigans, sweatdresses
  • Cashmere jersey in white, navy, silvergrey, 90% cashmere, 10% tencel; an extremely soft jersey
  • Cotton fur in natural, 100% cotton; in fact supersoft fake fur
  • For pleated pieces, 100% polyester

Obviously, not all of the choices are rationally related to the design concept for this collection. In fashion, the introduction of novelty is necessarily combined with the build-up or continuation of a tradition, as was also observed by the sociologists whose work was reviewed above. Thus the decision to keep using polyester pleats, the production of which I described elsewhere (see Verschueren 2012, “The autoethnography of creative design”), was definitely inspired by the wish to hold on to and to further develop an emerging style. In particular, it allowed me to combine clearly visible texture with the architectural layering I had been exploring earlier (also in “The autoethnography of creative design”), as aptly noticed by Fanny Bouvry in her comments on the collection (Bouvry 2012), some of the pieces in which remind her of “la double peau de façade de certains édifices contemporains.” This observation applies in particular to the styles in Figures 6 and 7: the white beam top and beam skirt worn over a lemon standard shirt and a silvergrey Ana skirt (Figure 6), and the light blue beam top and beam skirt worn over a navy igu-igu top and Ana skirt (Figure 7).

Figure 6
Figure 7


Figures 6 and 7. Pleats and layering in Howl (pictures courtesy Shoji Fujii)

Apart from the fabric for the pleats which must be polyester for purely technical reasons (see Verschueren 2012 for a full description of the production process), only natural wool and cotton products were chosen (usually 100%, but at least 90%). More important for the concept behind Howl is the way in which these products are treated, as in the case of brushing that affects texture and color, reminiscent of weathered walls. Moreover, the combination of a rougher look with softness of touch fits the concept very well. For some of the chosen textile effects, see Figures 7, 8, 9, and 10.

Figure 11
Figure 8
Figure 10
Figure 9

Figures 8, 9, 10, and 11. Some of the chosen textile effects

I was particularly excited by the discovery of the slow-woven sweat fabrics, combining all I was looking for: purely natural ingredients, slow production processes and craftsmanship, a textured look, durability, and extreme softness. These ‘slow vintage’ materials are produced on an old type of weaving loom, called the ‘loopwheel,’ which was used in

Figure 12. Loopwheels producing vintage-like slow-woven sweat
Figure 12. Loopwheels producing vintage-like slow-woven sweat

Europe and the USA until the mid-1960s, which was imported into Japan at the end of the 19th century either from Germany or through The Netherlands, depending on who tells the story, but which is now used exclusively in Japan’s Wakayama prefecture, and on a very small scale. The reason why the loopwheel went out of use in the rest of the world is simply that it weaves very slowly. Each machine, rotating 24 times per minute, produces only 10 to 12 meters of cloth per day, good for no more than 8 or 9 sweatshirts. Demand for mass production replaced them everywhere with newer machines which, with a bigger diameter and rotating 240 times per minute, produce more in an hour than the loopwheel in a day. The advantages of the loopwheel are, however, considerable. As a result of the lower speed there is much less tension, so that a lot of air is as it were knitted in together with the yarn, creating not only a much softer fabric but a fabric that is also stronger and much more durable, keeping its characteristic softness, strength and quality over long periods of time.

For the actual shaping of Howl with the chosen materials, I started, as mentioned above, from the simple structure of a hunting jacket. Combining this crude pattern with the softly textured textiles and a modern, feminine, and elegant cut incorporating barely visible but large pockets, yielded the blue denim Kinako jacket, worn over a pale pink standard shirt and blue-green barn trousers, as in Figure 13.

Figure 13. Kinako jacket (picture courtesy Shoji Fujii)
Figure 13. Kinako jacket (picture courtesy Shoji Fujii)

Some of the other pieces belonging to the collection, subtly varying shapes and pattern elements in function of the possibilities of the different fabrics and of the different requirements for inside and outside wear, can be seen in Figures 14 to 22: the red-green glory dress (Figure 14), the blue denim howl dress (Figure 15), the pale blue morning shirt with blue-green fancy skirt (Figure 16), the charcoal purr cardigan with lemon morning shirt and blue-green fancy skirt (Figure 17), the wine purr sweatshirt with red-green fancy skirt (Figure 18), the wine purr cardigan over pale pink standard shirt with red-green barn trousers (Figure 19), the navy lodge coat over lemon standard shirt and red-green barn trousers (Figure 20), the charcoal purr sweatdress (Figure 21), and the wine purr cardigan over a wine purr sweatdress (Figure 22).

Figures 14 to 22. More Howl pieces (pictures courtesy Shoji Fujii)

Figure 14


Figure 19
Figure 15
Figure 20
Figure 16
Figure 21
Figure 17
Figure 22
Figure 18
















In retrospect, there is one major conclusion I can draw from the experience of designing Howl. The way in which any fashion design project is embedded in a social-economic context of manufacturing and craftsmanship, in precisely the way in which this has been described by a number of social scientists, from Becker and Bourdieu to Crane and Giusti, amongst many others, was completely confirmed. The erratic step-by-step emergence of a design project, if successful, acquires a form of artistic coherence that is not predictable at any moment in the course of the process. To use Bourdieu’s term, there is a form of magic at work that combines elementary sources of inspiration, some of which are consciously sought (as in my dialogue with architecture) while others simply hit you in the process (as the somewhat accidental focus on texture in the design of Howl), with possibilities and limitations of materials and skills, and always in a context of collaboration in which a designer depends on others – and on the affordability of their services.


Alexandra Verschueren is a fashion designer educated at the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts. In 2010 she won the Grand Prix du Jury L’Oréal Professionnel at the Festival International de Mode et de Photographie à Hyères. She obtained a Doctorate in the Arts in the field of fashion design from the University of Antwerp in 2015. She recently published in The Public Journal of Semiotics and in Design, Style, and Fashion. Past work experience includes design for Derek Lam, Bellerose, as well as her own label. She is now working as Senior Designer for Aritzia, living in Vancouver, Canada.



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1 Comment

  1. An account by an artist whose work has earned recognition of how she made her stunning stuff is a precious document. You show the courage to accept the of risk bias for the sake of providing a participant-observation in its ultimate guise. No need for us to worry about the two objections which are astutely rejected at the head of the report. But a third caution might be in order: When the interviewer and interviewee are the same person, some hard questions are likely skipped; that’s my excuse as a reader to intervene with more questions.
    I hope it will be a complement to ask if you could take the investigation further. The account so far talks about the influences of well-formed concepts but doesn’t look at what I might call, for a first try, quantitative issues. These are, to be sure, more recalcitrant to semiotic analysis. But we must never be too quick to take the Wittgenstein exit, assuming that whereof we cannot speak we must be silent. There may be ways to speak.
    Just before the first photo, you mention wanting a result that would be “modern, feminine, and elegant”, three values to express. My eyes tell me you achieved that, but I have no idea how you got there. Were these values clear before the work or did they emerge? Though you don’t say so, I wondered whether these values might actually be supervenient, more important, more urgent determinants than the textural and architectural references you relied on as your scaffolding. How do the values of elegance, modernity and femininity interact with the conceptual framework? What signifies them and how/why? Could it be that with your explanation of architexture you are describing the stimulus of the apple striking Newton’s head but not his route to the calculus? How are those expressive values, those feeling tones, represented to you mentally as you work, that is, were there models, images?
    “In art holistic elements are framed and manipulated so as to become concept-like; concept-like elements are transformed and inflected to convey holistic inflections.”
    Embodiment: Did you plan in any way how the clothes might represent the wearer and how the wearer might represent the clothes? Again, the photos say you got it right, but help me, I can’t begin to account for the relationship or what process lead you to the solution.
    Very strikingly in fashion design but also in other endeavors, the maker must make sensitive judgments about how much difference makes just the right differences. However autonomous one wants to feel, a community is involved, and you act from a theory of mind—of their minds. Differences (from what already has been done) must have some level of salience to be remarked and yet not so much as to defy comprehension. Affinities and contrasts are at risk.
    The wool is 10% nylon. could it have been 5% or 25%? Availability is only the first constraint. Is the affinity to pure wool a significance not to be risked beyond some (un)certain measure? Does the nylon inflect whatever the wool utters?

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