How to be a fashion designer: sewing is not compulsory

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Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Courtesy of Wole

Oluwole Olosunde walks on the sidewalk of 38th Street in Manhattan with an entourage of about ten people. On this July afternoon, he dresses more for style than for the season. On the feet, high-top Adidas sneakers are adorned with perky teddy bear heads. And over a knit vest and long shorts, he wears a white lab coat.

The jacket is a reminder that, until this year, Olosunde, 25, led an unusual double life: an emergency room nurse by night and a fashion designer by day.

The downtown excursion is part of Olosunde’s one-day “How to Do It in the Garment District” course, which he started in May, offering a crash course in the fundamentals of design of a brand in the age of Instagram.

The big draw of the class is the ten-stop walking tour of Garment District fabric suppliers, trimmings shops, pattern makers and sampling experts. Along the way, Olosunde points out the durable zippers he prefers for jeans and where he found plenty of corduroy. “This whole area, and everything I’ve shown you so far, is a network,” he tells the students after stopping in front of an unremarkable building. Inside, her favorite seamstress has a studio on the seventh floor.

Osulunde’s students, mostly in their twenties, take his class seriously. (The entrance fee is $750, after all.) They usually have day jobs in media or retail and haven’t been trained as designers. Most make clothes at home, sewing from scratch or modifying pants and jackets with patches and embroidery. A few sell their wares in open-air markets or online. But almost everyone already has “a brand”, in today’s parlance, which means less of a business venture and more of a high-level elevator pitch and logo, usually formalized by an Instagram account instead. of an LLC registration.

Photo: Courtesy of Scarlett

The class is for self-taught designers who don’t have the perks of fashion school degrees or family ties. And while Olosunde is the teacher, Virgil Abloh could be seen as the textbook. Olosunde was inspired by the late designer’s circuitous journey to the highest levels of luxury after beginning his career studying architecture. “Now there are multidisciplinary designers who offer a unique perspective on fashion because they haven’t gone down that traditional route,” says Olosunde. “That’s what made Virgil so special.”

Olosunde was raised in Brooklyn by Nigerian immigrants. He learned to sew at a local tailor while studying for his nursing degree at the University at Buffalo. He worked at New York Presbyterian and managed to save tens of thousands of dollars, which he used to launch his line. For his own brand, Against Medical Advice, many of his designs, such as knit bomber jackets and vests, are printed with X-ray images of humans or embroidered with illustrations of chromosomes in striking color combinations.

Olosunde assures her students that they don’t even have to be able to sew or draw well to have a sampler made in the Garment District. A conversation and a point of reference may suffice instead.

One of the students from Olosunde, who goes by the name only Scarlett, received a different message when she studied fashion at Texas Tech University. “It was ‘You sew, and you do it very well, or there’s no other option for you,'” she says. Scarlett, 26, arrived from Miami the morning of class. She works in retail and as an artist’s assistant, and she started making pieces for her line, Mood Swing Studios, last year, including the multi-colored spray-dyed jumpsuit she door to class. “Right now, I’m just doing some samples and doing things for myself to try to get my vision out there by being on Instagram,” she says.

Scarlett
Photo: Courtesy of Scarlett

Meeluhn Blanc, 27, says she was too intimidated to venture into the Garment District before attending the Olosunde class. She sewed her first collection at home while working out at a gym, but needs help with more intricate pieces. “I thought there was a secret code to use,” she said.

Olosunde’s program ignores the role of parades and offers no advice on how to get noticed by vogue. Department stores only get a passing mention. Instead, he debates the merits of different brands of “blanks” — the plain T-shirts that serve as essential canvases for graphics and logos — and praises Telfar’s “Bag Security” build-to-order strategy. “He’s the God of the preorder,” Olosunde told the students.

Even though Olosunde’s business is still small-scale and direct-to-consumer, it creates compelling Instagram content. His account caught the attention of HBO and helped him land a spot in its 2021 streetwear design contest, The hype. (He was eliminated midway through the series.)

At the beginning of the program, he divides the students into groups and asks them to think about how they would reuse a thick crew-neck sweatshirt. He applauds a team that proposes to make a jacket out of it by adding a zipper on the front.

“I always think of ways to reuse things I love or silhouettes that already exist,” Olosunde tells them, citing his custom Dickies shorts as an example. “It’s sort of the manifestation of the Dickies collaboration before it even happened.”

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