Joining the pattern cutting team to develop the Autumn/Winter 2011–12 Vivienne Westwood Gold
Location: Westwood Studios, 9–11 Elcho Street, London
Duration: 4 months, November 2010–March 2011
The pattern cutting and sampling studio of British fashion icon Vivienne Westwood is located in a rebuilt former film studio in Battersea, London. I had the opportunity to join the team of pattern cutters in realising and developing the creative ideas of Vivienne and her husband, Andreas Kronthaler, for the Autumn/Winter 2011–12 Gold Label collection. Apart from me, the team consisted of two in-house pattern cutters, one freelance pattern cutter, and a senior pattern cutter, Iris, who joined the team for a number of weeks each season. What follows is a selection from my diary notes, written at the close of each workday.
I spend my first day in the Westwood studio alternating between looking through look books of the last ten collections and making some experiments with rectangular pieces of fabric on a half-scale dress-stand. The other pattern cutters and I are awaiting instructions from Vivienne and Andreas of where to begin work on the new collection; in the meantime, we play around with rectangular shapes, as Vivienne has long favoured this cutting principle. Most of my attempts go straight into the trash bin upon a second look; one or two of them may have some potential, but I see the whole day as a warm-up session. After lunch, Iris shows up with photos of some haute couture gowns from the fifties. Iris used to work full-time for Vivienne, designing and cutting patterns, but nowadays, she only comes in for two or three weeks per collection as a senior cutter, and she is the cutter who develops most of the new styles.
In the meantime, we play around with rectangular shapes, as Vivienne has long favoured this cutting principle
I was later told “they parachute her in from Germany every now and then to give a boost of creativity to the team.” The first step towards finding direction for the new collection turns out to be in recreating the dresses in the photos in toile fabric, as close to the original as possible. Iris begins working with a photo of a fifties Balenciaga evening dress.
After studying the photograph for a while, she starts drawing lines on large pieces of calico and pins the pieces together as a first tryout. She alternates between draping on a tailor’s dummy, drawing lines on the fabric at the cutting table, and looking at the dress while wearing it, herself, in front of the mirror in the corner of the room. It is a physical act where she works just as much with her own body as on the artificial body of the dress-stand: taking a step back to inspect the garment from a different angle, adjusting the volume, back in front of the mirror, another adjustment, and so on. Pattern paper is not used at this stage; everything is made straight on and out of the toile fabric. Later on, the dress will be taken apart, and the shapes of the different pieces will be transferred onto paper templates for further work on the details of the dress.
By the end of the day, she has a rough toile ready, and Andreas comes by to have a look, making some further adjustments. Another photo of Marlene Dietrich wearing a fifties dress goes to Jenny for her to recreate the dress, with emphasis on the corset construction.
The dress has a soft draping over the chest in a lightweight fabric, but Jenny is asked to use jersey fabric instead. She begins by working from a corset base that was used in an earlier collection; she drapes the jersey on top of the
corset, which is fixed to a dress-stand. I am a bit surprised by the classical look of the images that will to be the starting point of this collection. At first glance, the haute couture style
of the fifties is far from the style of the previous collections that I have been studying today. I soon find out that what interested Vivienne and Iris in these dresses was not so much the
style of the fifties as much as the dresses’ formal values. For example, the volume created a certain sleeve or line that was very straight in a place where one would typically have expected it
to be slightly curved. The design concept turns out to be the creation in itself. The shapes of the prototype garments in relation to the body of the fitting model develop into new shapes and
looks, and the different methods of cutting and draping that are applied at various stages in the process allow for different sorts of expressions.
What interested Vivienne and Iris in these dresses was not so much the style of the fifties as much as the dresses’ formal values
I am told that I will work on a jacket from
last season – a short boxy one made of rectangular pieces – and that I am to make a new version of it, though, this time, in the style of a school blazer. The sample of the jacket is in the
Conduit street showroom and will be sent to the studio later in the day. It arrives at 6:10 p.m., but Sandra, who knows where the pattern is, has already left for the day, so I decide to have a
go at it tomorrow morning.
At the fitting in the evening, we try on the new toile that I made during the day from the boxy jacket. Andreas says that it looks more like a pea coat than a blazer.
– Let’s make it a pea coat instead.
It is decided that I will make a new prototype that is even longer and with the kind of diagonal welt pockets that a traditional pea coat would have; the school blazer idea is dismissed just as quickly as it was introduced. As the prototype reminded us of a pea coat when we looked at it, the course was immediately changed towards what we were now seeing.
For today’s fitting, I help Iris, who, for the moment, has taken the position as fitting model so as to get into the new toile of the pea coat and button it correctly.
She puts her hands into the welt pockets and turns around so that we can see the coat from all angles. After a few moments of silence, Vivienne is the first to open her mouth:
– I could say something, but I am waiting for someone else to start.
I understand that this someone is probably me. Just as this strikes me, Vivienne looks at me:
– What do you think about it, Rickard? You must have an opinion on this.
I respond that I think the welts are in a good position and make for a nice silhouette when the pocketed hands pull the fabric of the jacket forward. Before I manage to finish my sentence, Vivienne stops me:
– Those welts are way too small compared to everything else on this coat. We definitely need bigger welts. Can we pin on a larger one to see what size we need?
I go for a piece of fabric and press it into the shape of a larger welt, which is pinned onto the coat. We have another look at it with Iris walking back and forth in the room; we adjust the size once again, and finally, everyone agrees that we have found the ideal position and size for the welt pocket on this jacket. Then, we proceed to the belt at the back of the jacket, and I am again asked for my opinion. As I am not entirely accustomed to the rituals, I feel unsure of what to say about it, but I understand that I am asked to state the reasons behind my work, so I explain that right now, the belt has the same length as the back piece but that I was considering making it even longer because the back part of the jacket drapes as result of the jacket’s square construction; perhaps a longer belt would exaggerate that drape. I detach the belt at one end and pin it back on the coat to somehow visualise my thoughts. Vivienne’s opinion about this is clear:
– To make that belt longer would be very selfish and unconscious, I would say. Vivienne instead pins the belt shorter, and we have another look at it. Now she seems more content, but she immediately shifts focus to the buttons that attach the belt:
– Is that the best way to do it? Should the belt go into the side seam instead?
To determine this, I am asked to unbutton the belt and pin it in such a way as to make it look like it goes into the seam. When inspecting the result, however, everyone immediately agrees that the button fastening was the better approach.
You see, Rickard, the reason I talk like this is that we have to see all the possible solutions. It’s a matter of elimination. We have to try out all possibilities.
– You see, Rickard, the reason I talk like this is that we have to see all the possible solutions. It’s a matter of elimination. We have to try out all possibilities.
The discussion involves both verbal communication and physical communication – i.e., moving things around – and both aspects seem equally important. The discussion deals with the garments at a formal level. It is about lengths, proportions, silhouettes, and how the body moves in the garments. Representational aspects seem to be of less importance at this stage. The decisions’ logic is evident in what we visually see in front of us and how the garments interact with the body inside them. This is also clear from Iris’s comments, made while looking at some of the other garments fitted:
– I like the idea of the circle in the front.
– What I am interested in with this top is that it is straight across the bust. I find that very interesting.
The fitting scheduled for yesterday was suddenly postponed until 3 p.m. today instead. The atmosphere in the cutting rooms gradually becomes tenser, and both Jenny and Barbara seem to withdraw – the way lecturers might when preparing to give a speech. Lucca drops by my table and tells me that Vivienne wants to make a coat out of the Balenciaga dress that Iris made the first version of and for which I have been making a pattern.
Though Vivienne is very keen on this idea, Andreas does not think that it will work out. Lucca tells me that the fitting scheduled for the afternoon will revolve around this coat and that maybe I should have a second look at it to see if I can come up with any new ideas. While I have lunch at the cutting table, Vivienne and Lucca turn up, and I am asked if I can show Vivienne the toile of the Balenciaga dress. Vivienne tells me that Andreas does not think that this dress will work out as a coat since it is held together with a strap across the back; he thinks that it would not look right in a heavy coat fabric. Vivienne is relieved when I show her that the strap is not gathering that much, and she brings the dress upstairs to try it on herself. Jenny takes the measurements of Maria, our fitting model, while I spread out the pattern pieces of the Balenciaga dress on my cutting table before the fitting starts so as to refresh my memory of what the pattern had been like. Andreas is nowhere to be seen; only Vivienne turns up, and she takes a look at the measurements that Jenny has taken down:
– So, she is neither long waisted, nor short waisted; she corresponds just perfectly to the measurements of a size 10, then. We try on the three different versions of the dress. The one that Iris originally made, the one with more volume in the sleeves and with a higher collar, and the jacket version with long sleeves that I made after Iris left.
– I still don’t know whether I like it or not. We have to put on the dress from before, one more time, because I do not remember what it was like. It turns out that the fitting of this style is primarily concerned with whether or not the wearer will be able to move her arm enough in the wide, but very low-cut, sleeves. The sleeves already open at the waist and are gathered with a piece of elastic tape just above the elbow. The elasticity is needed for the wearer to be able to move in these low cut sleeves. Vivienne asks Maria whether or not she finds the sleeve acceptable. Maria knows even less than I do about how to answer Vivienne. She says that she would personally like to be able to raise her arms enough to adjust her hair, adding that she also thinks that many women wouldn’t mind this if they really loved the dress.
– That is the wrong answer; you cannot speak for anyone but yourself, Vivienne responds.
Vivienne likes both the dresses, but she is not sure about the long sleeve dress that I made and asks me to make a coat version with a knitted underarm part of the sleeve that we will have a look at during the next fitting. The next garment is a box-shaped trench coat in heavy calico, which I made from a jacket pattern that was used the previous season.
– What I have done with this garment is to add a lining at the yoke and sleeves and then put in buttons and buttonholes to transform it from a dress into a trench coat.
Vivienne approves the trench coat rather quickly; the fitting model walks back and forth in the room and puts her hands in the pockets, and Vivienne nods.
– It looks good from the front; it looks nice from the back. Can you please turn your side against us, Maria? Yes, it looks good from the side as well.
Her attention then turns to a wrinkle extending from the shoulder downward. Though the dress version had the same wrinkle, Iris did not mind it and, thus, neither did Vivienne. Now, the question is whether it works on the trench coat or not. I cut the shoulder seam open from the neck, across the shoulder gusset and halfway to the sleeve, and the wrinkle disappears. At first, this seems to solve the problem, except that it appears that by cutting this seam open, the tension that held the box-shaped shoulder in place was released, causing the shoulder to collapse backward and the box shape to become less distinct. In the end, we decide that the trench coat is good as it is and that we should proceed and make a sample in woollen fabric. I hand the toile over to one of the machinists to close the cut I made in the coat, in case we need to see it again later.
Vivienne asks to see the pea coat again and, inexperienced as I am, I point out that at the last fitting, we thought that the positions of the pockets were fine as they were.
I don’t care what we said at the last fitting. What do we think of it today?
– I don’t care what we said at the last fitting. What do we think of it today?
What is approved one day may be reconsidered the next because the collection as a whole is developing in many directions, and the proportions or the position of a pocket do not relate only to the jacket and the body wearing it, but also to the choice of fabric and colours as well as to all of the other garments in the collection. The rectangular-cut skirt that Iris made, for which I later made the paper pattern, is tried on in a new toile version with hems and proper finishing.
It is approved, and the only change to be made is that the pockets should be added in the side seams. I cut an opening in the side seams just below the gathering at the waist; Maria puts her hands in the openings and walks back and forth in the room.
– Right, now we know that we shall have pockets. Is the pocket opening the right size as it is now?
– Yes, Vivienne. I think the pockets are the right size.
– I think so, too. Should we simply make it a stitched-in, loose pocket bag, then?
– Yes, I think so – a loose pocket bag attached to the waist seam. With all this fabric gathered in the waist, I think that is the only reasonable way to do it. – Yes, that’s the only reasonable way to do that pocket; let’s have a look at the next piece…
I go back to the square skirt and add pockets, stitch in buttons so that one is also able to wear it as a dress, and add reinforcement triangles so as to strengthen the weak points at the ends of both side vents. Since the dress is now fully approved by Vivienne, I have a closer look at the inside finishing, and I struggle a bit with how to finish the seam allowance on the inside of the heavily gathered waistband. Jenny and I discuss it back and forth for a bit. It would probably obstruct the gathering to just bind the seam allowance as it is. One solution could be to add extra fabric to the waistband, then fold it over the seam allowance and stitch it in place.
– You can ask Sandra; she is very good at knowing what would work or not work in production, says Jenny.
Finally, we agree that the best thing to do, probably, is to add extra fabric to both the body of the skirt and to the waistband, five centimetres each, and then bind them together. Just as we agree, Sandra turns up and confirms that, from her perspective, it is a good idea. She points out that it may also be able to support the volume created by the gathering. I spend the following hour changing the pattern of the waistband. It is a process of: check, fold, look, draw a line, punch a hole, check again, ask, try, redo, and check yet again.
I spend the hours before lunch altering the coat pattern, and after lunch, I cut it – this time in heavy calico. When I am halfway through, Lucca drops by and tells me Vivienne wants to come and have a look at the coat in about an hour and a half. I am quite pleased to hear that because I need some kind of direction if I am to take it further. Upon Vivienne’s arrival, it is immediately obvious that what I have done was not what she was hoping for.
– This sleeve does not look like the one on the dress. Can we see the dress first? What I like about the dress is the sleeves and the volume that they create. I don’t want you to just randomly insert gussets; you have to look closely at the dress and try to make the same thing for the coat. I would put the coat and the dress next to each other and see if I could figure out what to do. I am not a pattern cutter, and I keep saying that; I will try to help you, but sometimes, what I see as the solution is not the best way forward because my point of view is a different one. For example, the first time I made a jacket, I made the lining smaller because that seemed to make sense to me, Vivienne says. I pin the original dress to the left side of the stand and the coat version to the right side and keep looking at them in order to try to figure out exactly what it is that causes the difference between them. Maybe if I insert the gusset further down the sleeve as opposed to where the sleeve meets the body – i.e., where I have it now – or maybe if I just cut away some fabric under the sleeve. I take a couple of pictures to remember what it looks like, do some quick sketches, and then leave the studio for the weekend.
I put the dress up on one stand and the coat up on another, and I look at them. I pull the dummy sleeves outward and let them fall back to their natural positions, then look again. I take the gusset out from the right-hand sleeve of the coat and also decide to remove five centimetres of the sleeve’s width. Then, I stitch together the opening where the gusset was. Putting the coat back on the stand, I cut an opening for the gusset further down the sleeve, opposite of where Vivienne had suggested. Here, a cut is hidden under the folds of the fabric and will allow the same amount of movement as in my earlier tryout. Vivienne drops by with a half-scale stand for Barbara, on which she has made a new version of the dress that Barbara has been working on. I manage to get her attention for a few minutes.
– Rickard, I really don’t have much time at the moment.
She soon points out that I have cut the gusset opposite of where she had suggested.
– Yes, Vivienne, but I don’t think putting in a gusset were you suggested will do the job here. By putting the gusset here, it will be hidden between the wrinkles of the fabric.
– I see, maybe this is the right place after all, but the gusset looks ugly, and these points here are not right.
– I know – this is just the first version, and I am now making a new version that fixes these problems.
– Is the outer seam shaped here? I want this line to be straight, and I do not like this gathering down here; it is not nice.
Andreas is silent for a long time during the fitting before he says:
This skirt is so normal. I bet if we go downstairs to the archive, we probably already have it there somewhere.
– This skirt is so normal. I bet if we go downstairs to the archive, we probably already have it there somewhere.
Iris is working on a new skirt, and I ask her what the design brief said:
– To make something that was based on rectangles, with a lot of volume at the bottom – and tight at the waist.
– I quite like it when it comes to the bottom like that, higher.
– Yes, and also what the hem does to it; now it becomes even more extreme.
– Can you please walk for us, Jenny?
– I think the volume in the hem is quite alright. It still does, move.
Iris looks at the skirt in silence.
– Can you walk again, Jenny?
– That’s what we had before.
Iris pins the hem up another five centimetres and again asks Jenny to walk back and forth in the room.
– Not that bad, in a way, when it is standing out more in the hem like that. That is what the long dress does as well, not collapsing so much. But still bumping around…
Jenny again walks back and forth in the cutting room.
– It certainly is much better now than it was before.
– It is nice that it gives room for the knees to move and that it is not bumping around that much anymore.
– And it is not creating all that volume in the hem anymore, which I quite like.
– It could be maybe a bit shorter here.
Iris cuts off a couple of centimetres at the front of the skirt. She stands back to have a look and again asks Jenny to walk up and down the cutting room floor.
– That’s nice, actually.
– That’s very nice.
– Can you please walk again?
– I think it’s a bit better now. Let’s take it off for now.
The atmosphere in the studio is different from what it was in November. In November we were trying things out, now we are doing it for real. This time it is serious. We are running late, and as much of the pattern as possible must be sent to Italy immediately or else everything has to be sewn in-studio, and no one wants that. We are also working longer hours, and I notice that my diary entries are becoming briefer and less dense in character.
– Why should we move that point lower? Because that’s where the elbow is! And that makes a good silhouette. It’s not because of anything with the pattern! I don’t like funny patterns. I only want to make clothes for people to feel sexy in. Normal clothes are so much harder to make. It is not about the pattern, it is all about the body and what the garment does with the body. We have to get this coat and dress done. It’s just a circle but some girls like it. Do you know why? Because their legs looks beautiful in it.
– Making a lining like this is very hard; there is a lot to consider.
– Then you have to make it, Andreas – you are so good with such things.
– No, that will take me two hours; someone else has to do it.
I somehow know that that someone is me...
After a bit of pinning, checking, trying, and sewing, I have a lining that I consider both functional and appealing. I show it to Johannes, who is working at the table next to me.
– Sharp, he says.
Parallel to her work on the Gold Label, Brigitte, the head of couture, works on the Red Carpet collection – a capsule collection of cocktail dresses intended to be more accessible than the cutting edge Gold Label. As with the other diffusion lines, the Red Carpet collection is built on old Gold Label styles, and Brigitte has just brought two massive, heavy taffeta dresses out from the archive – one lilac and one yellow – in order to see if they can be used as a foundation for developing new styles. The dresses were originally made for the 1997 Viva la Bagatelle collection and are both made out of a single piece of fabric, long enough to be draped several times around the body and attached to a corset that holds the dress together. They are hand-stitched and appear to have been draped in the actual fabric, directly onto the corset; hence, there are no patterns for them in the archives. When Andreas sees the dresses hanging on the rail in Brigitte’s room, they suddenly go into the Gold Label process as opposed to that of the Red Carpet collection, and I am asked to recreate the lilac one in toile fabric by re-draping it exactly as it is, only this time, a pattern is supposed to be made for it so that it is reproducible. I begin at 3:30 p.m., and though I have my doubts at first as to whether or not this is even doable, it turns out to not be all that complex after all, as it is only a matter of following a path that someone else has already laid down. At 8 p.m., I consider myself to have a decent version of the dress draped on the stand. Andreas comes by and takes a look at the new version of the Viva la Bagatelle dress.
Yes, what was the idea? There is no idea; there is never an idea. As you know.
– So, you are trying that one now.
– Yes, what was the idea?
– There is no idea; there is never an idea. As you know.
There is no clear idea here, or, rather, the idea is an investigation – an investigation of shape, techniques, and expressions: this shape has potential – let’s use it. What if we take another material? What if we were to add five metres of fabric? Etc.
– Lucca, do you know what the theme of the collection is yet?
– It’s a bit of everything. A mix of different periods – there are some ethnic prints, and some... are a bit like a patchwork. I mean the theme is not patchwork, so don’t go on to make patchwork scarves...
Since I am running out of work, Brigitte hands a sketch to me from Andreas of two possible new versions of the cartwheel dress that Jenny has been making. He is asking for a version with a slimmer skirt than the original. I put together two different dresses – one with a skirt based on the full fabric width and a circle placed in the centre front, and one with twice the width and circular shapes in the sides.
A misinterpretation of the sketch, re-cut.
Should be narrower at the bottom, but at least we have three dresses now.
I rip off another metre of calico and steam it.
And yet another one.
Fourth prototype now.
Cuts out the pieces and then back to the machine again.
As it is now, this dress will never make it across the English Channel.
Mika, a freelance pattern cutter, asks me if I also find it difficult to work with such vague instructions. At the Westwood studio, no one tells you clearly what to do. Sketches exist, but they
are rare, and most of the time, they are made after the garment is finished – not before. The patternmakers are shape designers and are supposed to develop things further than instructed,
independently coming up with new possible avenues; what is tricky here, of course, is to know which avenue is the one running parallel to Vivienne’s often unarticulated direction.
At the Westwood studio, no one tells you clearly what to do. Sketches exist, but they
are rare, and most of the time, they are made after the garment is finished – not before.
Mika compares the environment with other studios that she’s worked in, where the cutters were given more detailed sketches and where the studio manager had a clearer role in managing the work. Johannes then
points out that, typically, a precise understanding of what Vivienne wants gradually emerges while working with her, and he says that depending on who the patternmakers are, the styles that
they develop have quite varied expressions.
One week left before the show. Right now, everything is a blur.
– Rickard, we have a new style in the collection. Do you remember the skirt that Iris made? The square one that was gathered at the waist. We are going to make a miniskirt out of it now.
I make a miniskirt from the long square skirt. Lucca and I rip the length of the original toile. First, thirty-five centimetres, then another five, then two more, and then one last centimetre before we are both satisfied. Lucca goes upstairs with it to show Vivienne. Trying to drape the gold dress but am constantly interrupted by questions because several of the styles I have been working on are now being made in the studio.
Lilac dress in tulle.
The train becomes three metres longer.
– Do you understand this dress?
– I think so.
– I think so, too.
– Don’t cut anything for nothing.
– What do you mean?
– I don’t know.
Exhausted. Struggling with completing the Viva la bagatelle dress.
I cut a train for the tulle Balenciaga coat; the pieces are so big that I have to work on the floor in the marketing office. That’s not a problem, though, as everyone working there already left for the day, and many hours ago.
Two more days of working before we have to leave for Paris, and things are still being cut everywhere. I make the interlining for the wrap dress, cutting it directly in the skin-coloured paper taffeta.
Three different dresses that I have been working on are being stitched simultaneously by three different machinists in three different rooms. I alternate between the rooms to give the machinists instructions of how to put everything together. Eventually, I find myself behind a sewing machine, stitching the skirt part of Barbara’s last dress while the corset part is being assembled at the machine behind me.
Over the past couple of days, people from the studio have left for the showroom in Paris at various times, each of them bringing a couple of the finished dresses. I am the last one to leave the studio, and a taxi takes me to King’s Cross station and the Eurostar train, with the wedding dress in a bag under one arm and three other dresses in another bag under the other.
Sitting on the floor backstage, I am levelling the different layers of tulle on the skirt part of the wedding dress. I cut, crawl two metres backward, put my head at floor level to check where to make the next cut, and then crawl back to the dress again. Barbara assists me by pointing out new places to make cuts and by holding the pieces straight so that I won’t accidentally make any messy cuts.
–When you are finished with the wedding dress, we need you to trim down the train on the black tulle dress as well, Brigitte tells me.
I end up cutting for the collection until the very last hour before the show.