Fashion Designer Basics

There’s an old “I Love Lucy” episode where the Ricardos and the Mertzes are in Paris.  Lucy, upon attending a Jacques Marcel runway show, decides she has to have a Marcel dress.  Ricky tells her no, that it too expensive.  She goes on a hunger strike and Ricky caves – until he finds out that Ethel has been sneaking her food.  In revenge, Ricky and Fred present their wives with dresses made from potato sacks and hats made from horse feedbags and tell them that they were made by Jacques Marcel.  The girls proudly wear them around Paris — until they run into the designer at a café and Ricky tells the truth.  Embarrassed, the women destroy the outfits.  The episode ends with Marcel copying the designs and using them in his next collection.

I mention this because the message in that episode is still as true today as it was fifty years ago:  some women will wear ANYTHING, so long as they think it’s designer.  They’re easily seduced by labels and blindly follow along without a second thought to appropriateness or appearances.

I certainly hope you’re not one of them.  For if you’re a long-time reader of this ezine, you know it’s not the name on the inside that marks you as being well-dressed; it’s how you present the clothes on the outside that delivers the final verdict.  That’s why some people can stop traffic in $40 worth of clothes from Walmart while others languish like wallflowers in $4,000 worth of designer apparel.  It’s also while some women who rely on a designer scarf or handbag to upgrade their sloppy ensembles look about as foolish as Lucy and Ethel did strutting around Paris in potato sacks and feedbags.

So how can you increase your designer savvy if you happen to like labels?  By studying the different design houses and finding the brands that work best for you.

Let’s start with a couple of definitions:

* COUTOUR (koo TOOR) is the French word for “sewing.” Couture clothes are those that are fitted and sewn specifically for a client, often requiring several fittings for an exacting fit. The clothes may be specifically designed for the client, such as a one-of-a-kind wedding dress or a one-of-a-kind red carpet ensemble, or they may be part of a designer’s couture collection, which are the pieces the designer shows that are available for custom fit.

Couture is also known as made-to-measure or bespoke (British).

* READY-TO-WEAR, or prêt-à-porter (prêt a poor TAY) is designer apparel that’s made ready-to-wear in standard sizes and sold through boutiques, better department stores, mail order, and online. While consumers can have pieces tailored to fit after purchase, customization is not included in the cost of ready-to-wear apparel. When people speak of designer brands, they’re most often referring to ready-to-wear.
So now that you know the difference between the two terms, let’s take a quick look at the design philosophies of different countries:

ITALIAN designers have a long history of producing fine leather goods — and of lovingly showcasing the human form.  If you have a dynamite figure and want your clothes to reflect that, Italian designers like Armani, Versace, Prada, Ferragamo, etc., can help you meet your goal.

FRENCH designers have been trendsetters for centuries and you’ll find both classic and avant-garde designs here.  Whether you seek the eternal chic of Chanel, Yves Saint Lauren, or Valentino – or something a bit more cutting edge from, say, Balenciaga or Christian Lacroix — you can find your fashion fix in Paris.

BRITISH designers have a long tradition of producing classic silhouettes in sumptuous fabrics with an eye towards fit and finish.  A visit to Savile Row will prove just how exacting their standards can be.  But it’s not all pomp and circumstance.  From the country that gave us both James Bond AND the mini-skirt, you can find updated classics by brands like Burberry or Julien Macdonald – or go totally wild with the likes of Vivienne Westwood or Zandra Rhodes.  The choice is yours.

AMERICAN designers made a name for themselves in the 1940’s with quality sportswear, and it’s a tradition that continues today with designers like Ralph Lauren and Anne Klein.  But we’re not just about leisure time.  From the “ladies who lunch” in Carolina Herrera and Oscar de la Renta to the ladies who work in Donna Karan and Michael Kors, to the “of the moment designs” by Marc Jacobs and Proenza Schouler, we have a little something for everyone.  Take your pick.

AUSTRALIAN designers, like American designers, tend to lean towards the comfortable but fashionable instead of just fashion for fashion’s sake.  Want contemporary style but comfortable clothes?  Try Lisa Ho, Saba, or Collette Dinnigan on for size.

As you can see, there’s a lot there — because not all designers create with the same person in mind.  Some houses excel in fine apparel, while others prefer contemporary or sportswear lines.  So don’t assume that just because your neighbor, friend, or sister bought a certain brand that you should buy that brand too.  Everyone’s different.  Every design house is different.  You need to buy based on how the designs suit YOU.  Not the other way around.

So if you intend to spend your hard-earned money on luxury brands, take a little time to find the designers who create with you in mind.  Don’t be swayed by the label on the inside; buy for the look it gives you on the outside.  Don’t by another Lucy in a potato sack; instead, be a connoisseur of style.

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Diana Pemberton-Sikes is a wardrobe and image consultant and author of “Wardrobe Magic,” an ebook that shows women how to transform their unruly closets into workable, wearable wardrobes. Visit her online at www.fashionforrealwomen.com .

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