In the heavily outsourced world of fashion, the design of garments often happens deep inside secretive brand headquarters in the United States. Meanwhile, the physical construction occurs thousands of miles away, frequently at subcontracted factories with substandard working conditions. At the headquarters of Nanette Lepore in New York City, the process is far more open and intimate.
Last week, at the lauded womenswear designer’s fifth-floor studio in the Garment District, dozens of workers with a variety of highly specialized skills were busy tweaking and perfecting Lepore’s upcoming Fall 2014 runway show for this year’s Fashion Week, including a pattern-maker from Guangdong, China, a sample sewer from Marine Park, Brooklyn, and a print designer from Youngstown, Ohio. Here, it’s crystal clear just how integral the process of making actual things is to the often-rarified world of fashion design.
Nanette Lepore is well known for her commitment to New York City’s Garment District, and an afternoon spent in her studio makes it hard to imagine her clothes made any other way. Ideas rapidly went from sketches to patterns to full-fledged garments in hours, instead of the weeks or months it would take to receive a sample from China. New designs evolved or were shot down on the fly, harnessing the creative process in real time and relying on skilled production jobs that are a far cry from the dumbed-down assembly line garment work of our imaginations.
Only about seventy-five of the myriad designs flying around the studio on this one particular afternoon will make the cut into the show. After Fashion Week, the collection will be further edited, until finally just the very best, most memorable and wearable designs will go into production. Even then the work stays close by: over 80 percent of Lepore’s clothing is manufactured in New York City, much of it within ten blocks of her studio.
The theme of Lepore’s latest collection is “handcrafted,” an appropriate homage to the ecosystem of highly skilled professionals responsible for engineering her designs. Though we never see them on the runway or mentioned in the pages of magazines, these pattern-makers, sample sewers, cutters and the like help ensure not only that garments fit together perfectly but that they are functional and flattering to the human form. As they calculate where a seam needs to go or if a chosen fabric will drape properly, some of the faces photographed here will help determine which designs are truly ready for the lights and scrutiny of the runway.
Position: Designer, started the company in 1992
Your theme for this season is handcrafted. To what degree has handcrafting been lost in fashion?
It was the first thing to go in the US Garment Center [Midtown New York’s Garment District]. When I used to go in the factories in the old days, there would be a table of ladies like Sue, our hand sewer. She’s such a rarity… Now you can’t even find someone to sew on a snap. It’s crazy. But there would be all these finishers and they would be sitting in front of heaps of garments. And that went over first because it wasn’t mechanized.