Doing Fashion Design: Autoethnographic reflections in dialogue with architecture

Introduction: Fashion and architecture

It is clear that fashion and architecture have a number of things in common.The main function of both is to “protect and shelter, while providing a means of expressing identity – whether personal, political, religious or cultural” (Hodge et al. 2006, p. 11). This is why both are constantly torn between practical (technical) demands and symbolic and aesthetic (artistic) demands of expression. Fashion and architecture are both important anthropological artifacts that mark cultural, social, and economic conditions, stylistic preferences and new developments in technology and materials. Also the creative process shows similarities. Both fashion designers and architects start with a flat 2D sketch and have to shape their ideas into complex 3D forms, whether garments or buildings. Today, the process may be facilitated by 3D printers using so‐called ‘rapid prototype technology’, but the conceptual processes remain the same.

There are, however, also important differences. There is a difference in scale and in the relation to the human body. Fashion is designed for the individual human body to move around with; architecture designs spaces large enough for multiple bodies to move around in or to move in and out of. This makes the two fields of practice clearly complementary. The difference in scale is responsible for different ways of working. Fashion designers can make try‐outs directly on the human body, while an architect has to make smaller‐scale models, as there is no room for error when the building is actually constructed. At first sight it would also seem that fashion is a more ephemeral phenomenon, making use of soft and flowing fabrics to materialize an idea, while architecture tends towards the monumental, making use of less flexible and highly durable materials. Moreover, garments (even for lesser known designers) are usually made in larger quantities; though building patterns can also be repetitive, if a renowned architect designs a building there is often only one example of it in the world. Such differences are not absolute. Thus it is not uncommon for buildings to be planned for obsolescence: many modern buildings are not intended to last longer than forty or fifty years 5 (cf. Ibelings and Powerhouse Company 2012). And unique, non‐repetitive buildings are usually designed by a handful of ‘starchitects’: Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Oscar Niemeyer in the past; Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, Renzo Piano among the current ones; or rising stars such as Bjarke Ingels.

The relation between fashion and architecture has been a point of interest for many years. There was of course the “Skin+Bones” exhibit in Los Angeles and London, 2006‐2008 (see Hodge et al. 2006). But much earlier, in 1982, with an exhibition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called “Intimate Architecture: Contemporary Clothing Design”, curator Susan Sidlaukas (who also wrote the “Afterword” to the “Skin+Bones” catalogue) examined the formal aspects of the work of eight fashion designers from an architectural point of view. There are good reasons for this interest, as there has indeed been considerable mutual influence (e.g., Hussein Chalayan, Shigeru Ban). Thus fashion methods such as draping, wrapping, weaving and pleating have entered the practice of architecture, while a number of ways to describe fashion techniques and shapes go back to an architectural frame of reference, such as ‘structured or constructed garments,’ ‘sculptural,’ (in Sidlaukas’ terms) ‘architectonic’, or, indeed, ‘architectural’ design. (For some systematic in‐depth studies of the relationships, see Fausch et al. eds. 1994, Kinney 1999, Wigley 1995.)

Both fashion and architecture have long been topics of debate with respect to their status as art. Not surprisingly, the emergence of the discussion (from Charles Baudelaire, Thorstein Veblen and Georg Simmel, all the way to Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project and beyond) coincides with the intellectual debate on modernity (see also Evans & Breward eds. 2005, Vinken 2005). While industrial production and capitalist merchandizing were responsible for the phenomenon of fashion as a fast‐changing ‘product,’ architects, designers, and other artists (E.W. Godwin, William Morris, Oscar Wilde, Henry van de Velde, Adolf Loos, Frank Lloyd Wright – see Stern 1992) emphasized the need to think about design as a continuum of aesthetics and rationality. Architecture and fashion were regarded as equals by this cultural elite, which stressed the importance of the creative process. More about the integration of these creative processes and their relation to modernity will be said in my concluding chapter.

As inventories of available technologies show (e.g. Braddock & O’Mahoney 1998, Brossard 1997, Udale 2008), there are many ways in which the development and use of materials allows for mutual influences and parallel developments of techniques in fashion and architecture. New products, strengthening this tendency, emerge all the time. Technological innovation is a driving force behind the blurring of traditional borders, to the point where 6 clothing technologies can be said to incorporate properties for which only buildings used to be designed: e.g Uniqlo’s heat tech fabrics, Schoeller’s self‐cleaning ‘Nanosphere’ fabrics, UVrepellent ‘ColdBlack’ fabrics, and the like.

It was against this background that I situated my design and research plans. The goal of my project, therefore, was a well‐researched fashion design experiment (originally conceived as a single collection) which would further explore the tension between artistic and technical/technological demands, drawing inspiration from architectural methods/principles, and converting those to the specific functionality of clothing. With this collection and the research project, I hoped to achieve a new approach to fashion design, one that would be more theoretically based and inspired, one that would push the boundaries of what is regarded as fashion today, one that would also help me as a designer to create my own body of work. The central task before me was the drawing and developing of a collection that would experiment with the tension between innovative aesthetics, rational principles ofconstruction, and wearability, making creative use  of architectural principles (adapted to the functionality of clothing) and advanced technologies (without radically abandoning traditional methods). The collection should evoke the parallel between the making of clothes around the human body and the architect’s construction of a mantle around the (albeit self‐constructed) skeleton of a building, using the naked body as a starting point. It should re‐invent the idea of a ‘garment’ from an architectural point of view; i.e., patterns, colors, materials should be architecturally conceived. That is why the project was originally given the title Building garments.

Course Outline

  • Lecture 1: The autoethnography of creative design
  • Lecture 2: From medium to Shift
  • Lecture 3: The architexture of Howl
  • Lecture 4: Lines, color, and continuity in the design of Vacuum
  • Lecture 5: The old-school high-tech of Lowride
  • Lecture 6: The sensory poetics of pulse
  • Lecture 7: Incunabula
  • Lecture 8: Fast forward
  • Lecture 9: References


Alexandra Verschueren may be reached at:

  1. Lecture 1: The autoethnography of creative design (PDF)

  2. Lecture 2: From medium to Shift (PDF)

  3. Lecture 3: The architexture of Howl (PDF)

  4. Lecture 4: Lines, color, and continuity in the design of Vacuum (PDF)

  5. Lecture 5: The old-school high-tech of Lowride (PDF)

  6. Lecture 6: The sensory poetics of pulse (PDF)

  7. Lecture 7: Incunabula (PDF)

  8. Lecture 8: Fast forward (PDF)

  9. Lecture 9: References (PDF)

Alexandra Verschueren's Bio

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.