As a larger sized lady who loves clothes and the founder of an alternative clothing company, I talk a lot of shit about the fashion industry. But my experience comes only from the point of view of a (largely disgruntled) consumer. What is actually involved in designing and manufacturing clothes? Carolita Johnson is a cartoonist, essayist, and all around lovely person who also works as a fit model. I met her a few months ago through our mutual favorite website, and she was gracious enough to answer my questions about how clothes are really made for the mass market. Read and learn!
WTS: So, how are garments produced? What steps lie between a designer's brain and what I see hanging on the rack in the store before me?
Carolita: It depends on who the designer is working for, herself or, say, DKNY.
If they work for themselves, they'll usually design a garment, make it themselves or have it made by a patternmaker/seamstress (one or both). Then they'll either try to sell it to a department store buyer based on that sample, or put it in a show and THEN try to sell it to a buyer, or maybe just begin stocking their own little boutique with the design without seeking anyone else's okay.
If they sell it to a buyer, they then have to re-fit the garment for "real" people, not just the small size that appeals to buyers on a hanger or model. In that case, they get someone like me to come in for a couple of hours, and make the garment fit properly. After that, based on corrections made, the patternmaker will "grade" the pattern into different sizes, which then get made up by a seamstress or a factory. Those garments will be the stuff you see in a boutique. Not very glamorous! It's also a long long process. Not the jet-setting thing most people imagine.
Buyers, to be more specific, are the ones who look at shows or press kits from designers, then decide what they want in their store or boutique. They're the ones who place an order with a designer, and they often also give input as to how long they'd like a garment to be, or how short. Sometimes they actually influence the design, depending how much power they have in their own milieu. A designer might, for example, add a lining to a sheer dress or blouse at the request of a buyer. Or make a dress shorter or tighter, if the buyer's clientele is shorter or more "bodycon" on the average. Sometimes they'll ask for a detail that will make the garment they're selling different from the same garment in other boutiques they don't buy for, so they'll have an exclusive.
WTS: So when you see a runway show, those are all basically just refined prototypes? And the garments don't actually go into production until much later, based on which buyers decide to buy which garments?
Carolita: They're the first avatar of a garment. They're the dream before reality hits. What you see in a fashion show is often not practical, sometimes not even wearable in real life. Once a buyer decides they want it, the designer has to refine it and re-fit so that it's wearable, and meets a certain price point. Sometimes half of what you see in a show never goes into production, because nobody wanted to buy it. So demand often determines what a designer's line is going to look like.
WTS: What, if any, differences are there between clothes you get at a place like Wal-Mart, clothes you get at a place like Macy's, and clothes you get at a place like Bergdorf's? Bergdorf's are nicer, of course, but are there any differences in how or where they are produced?
Carolita: Not that much, except for quality of fabric and manufacturing. For example, some of the very cheap blouses fitted on me that are sold in junior boutiques are a much better fit than a more expensive blouse from a more expensive designer. It all depends on the patternmaker.
Also, some patternmakers can be total virtuosos of their profession and have their work completely ruined by a bad factory. Thus you'll sometimes see a garment that was sold at, say, J.Crew, one year, that was great that year. But then the next year when they have it made at another factory, the fabric is not as nice, and the sewing is not as good. Same designer, same design, same store, but new factory. There are so many little things that can go wrong or right.
Also, yes, some high-end labels are manufactured more often in Milan than in China. A lot of woven/non-knit clothing is made in Bangladesh, it seems. Jeans are often made in Mexico -- I've gone to the Jordache factory there because they make Wranglers, too, as well as other labels.
In my experience the best knits are made in China. Things made in the USA are often very poor quality, believe it or not. Many designers only place small orders with USA manufacturers, saving their 300K orders (I mean 300,000 sweaters) for China.
WTS: Are there differences between how clothes in different size ranges are created? Or is it basically the same process with different patterns involved?
Carolita: Nope, it's all the same, just different fit models. We range from petite to 18W. There's a fit model for everyone!
WTS: How many fit models are involved in each garment line? Like, when the Gap has a boyfriend fit jean and a slim fit jean, is that 2 different fit models, one with a "boyfriend" body and one with a "slim" body? Or are all the styles fit on the same people?
Carolita: There is a different fit model for every different fit. I can't do "curvy," for example, because my body is more of the "slim" fit. There's a different model for curvy. There's also a different model for missy and juniors in the same size, because an older woman's bust and hips are usually lower than a junior's bust and hips. Also, the posture is often different. I notice that missy fits seem to be made for women who slump a little. Young people stand up straighter! Probably because they're less burdened.
WTS: What's your day like as a fit model? What exactly are you being paid to do? What kind of environments do you work in?
Carolita: Today is a slow day. In fact for the next few weeks I'll have more time on my hands, because of Chinese New Year, which closes down the factories (and everyone else who needs them) for about three weeks. But usually I go to a fitting, say, at 10:30, stay an hour or two, then go to another fitting. I usually have a half hour between fittings to give me time to get dressed, sign my voucher (proof that I worked for the client), wait for the elevator, get to my next appointment, and start all over again, till the end of the day. My fittings don't usually go past 6pm.
What I'm paid to do is arrive nice and neat and meticulately groomed, and equipped with everything I need for a fitting. When I used to do lingerie, that meant I had to wax and shave EVERYWHERE!! That's why the pay is good. But I got tired of lingerie, and also, the older you get the more you don't feel like doing it anymore, whatever your body looks like, I think. I don't love it, anyway!
What I actually do is try on a garment, stand there with a good posture (not too straight, not too slumped), and listen to the patternmaker as he/she goes over the "specs" of the garment, meaning the measurements. So, they'll say, "hips are 39 and a half, do they feel good?" and I'll respond, "you don't need 39 and a half for stretch," or "a little tight in this heavy linen with all the pockets and extra seams, they are uncomfortable." Or I'll say, hey, the crotch on these pants is giving me a wedgie! Then they'll measure the pants' "rise" (that's the space between your legs) or check the shape of it, and correct it.
I have to stand very still, but be very observant. I have to turn around so the patternmaker and/or designer can look at the garment I"m wearing as the measurements are read out. Designers and TD's (Technical Designers) will come up to me and pull on the garment, pin it up or down, stick their fingers into the waistline, get all up close and personal. Sometimes this is just one person, sometimes it's three or four.
Most people who have been doing it a long time will use a pencil to point to parts of the garment while they discuss design changes or questions, to avoid touching me, which I appreciate. (Sometimes by the end of the day, I'm so tired of being nudged and poked and pulled that all I want to do is go home and nap alone to decompress, which my BF has learned not to question!)
As for equipment, what I come prepared with is: a strapless bra, a lightweight, unlined bra, a thick hard bra, a black t-shirt, a black camisole top, a black pair of leggings, a long-sleeved t-shirt, a light sweater (for coat fittings), a pair of flats, a pair of heels, a pair of Spanx (for my party dress fittings, to avoid VPL, because I hate thongs), "chicken cutlets" -- the bra inserts to bump you up a size. That's just for the job.
For my own personal use, I have makeup (for retouching myself after pulling 25 sweaters on and off), hairspray, lint remover, emergency supplies (bandaids, disinfectants, menstrual supplies, stain remover, toothbrush, mouthwash, phone charger... As you may already be guessing, most fit models have aching backs from carrying all this stuff, so we mostly resort to rolling luggage. Rolling luggage is the mark of an experienced fit model. A tote is the mark of a short day with a client who already has everything you need on site because they have very specific needs in terms of shoes, etc.
When I'm lucky there's a fitting room with a little alcove or partition with a chair, where I can change. However, I do sometimes fit in a corner of someone's office, where everyone simply politely turns around while I change. (I'm not shy, but there is nothing less dignified than the human body making all the contortions it needs to go through to change one's clothing. I like my shred of dignity.) Other times, I change in a closet. One client sticks me in the storage room with the air conditioning system, it's very "Brazil," the movie. I keep fantasizing that Robert De Niro will come swooping in and smart-talk me.
WTS: What kinds of people do you work with? More men or women? What ethnicities and age groups? I guess I'm just fascinated by the question of who are these people who make all these clothes that don't fit me? :)
Carolita: For the mass-market clothing, I work with a lot of Chinese people, because they have a language advantage, working with Chinese factories. They're a lot of fun, and I've picked up a lot of Cantonese! Also, mostly women. Age range is anything from 20's to 40's. You don't see a lot of people over 50. (At least not over 50 and acknowledging it -- Seventh Ave is rough). One office I work at is like a beehive of 99% women, and I kind of like it. For the higher end stuff, I generally see a lot of people fresh out of elite design and business schools, and they're often European.
WTS: It must be really bizarre to have to maintain your body image in your job situation. I mean, on top of all the ape-face stuff, too! Wow. I would imagine you must have some black belt tricks for hanging onto / regenerating self esteem / not taking this shit personally, right?
Carolita: I am very very lucky, and I have always told people who want to model that if they're not genetically predisposed to have the advantage in modelling, they really oughtn't mess with their bodies. My metabolism has always been very fast, and my appetite has never favored carbs and sweets. So, before my metabolism slowed down in my old age (old for a model), I had to eat all the time just to keep my weight UP! It was very expensive because I'm very picky. In other words, I am not engaged in a constant battle to stay thin.
Here's a funny story. When I was modelling lingerie, my client decided they needed a bigger model, one size up. They asked me if I could put on weight, or if they had to start looking for a new model for the next season. They really liked me, and at the time they were my only gig, so I said, "yeah, it won't kill me to be a six instead of a four, and I might get more work out of it anyway." (Which I did.) Thus began six months of eating Krispy Kreme and blueberry pie for dessert every day. But I also had to begin going to the gym, so that the weight gain would be evenly distributed. Gaining weight at that time in that way was probably the healthiest thing that I ever did. I still can't believe I was skinnier than I am now. I consider myself a healthy slim.
I firmly believe that eating quality food in quality time is a must for anyone, whatever their natural weight. Feeling bad or anxious about the food you eat just puts a curse on every mouthful, I think. I eat until I'm not hungry, not till I'm full. I read while I eat. I indulge in the occasional hot dog or Godiva truffle, but I consider these things for special occasions. I really love meat and veggies. And I insist on a lunch break: I tell my booker that if she wants me to stay a size 6, she better fit in a lunch break.
And as for my self-image, yeah, it's always hard when people actually TRY to make me feel old and fat (yes, ME, even ME) sometimes. I just remind myself that I am good at what I do, and also remember that people see what they want to see. For everyone who thinks I'm ugly or old or fat (can you believe it?), there's someone who thinks I'm beautiful or way too skinny. I reserve the right to be the judge of myself, and usually when I look at myself in the mirror I decide that I have nothing to complain about, all things considered, which is good enough for me!
WTS: Are there any other really interesting questions that I haven't asked that you would like to answer?
How about, do they take pictures of you? And the answer would be "yes, but they don't photograph my face!" My face is totally irrelevant to the fit. Which I'm grateful for! There must be a couple thousand headless pictures of me by now. Scary to think about! And they're in computers all over the world! But it's very easy to tell what size, because the photo usually accompanies a whole list of technical comments attached to a spec sheet. The techs get used to looking at different bodies. Some recognize me by my necklace!
WTS: Share one funny memory about a fitting you were involved in, and then I'll let you go! With my undying gratitude!
Carolita: The funniest thing I ever head during a fitting was when a designer had spent forever trying to tweak a very unsuccessful skirt, then suddenly said, "I think this skirt wants to be a pantsuit." Don't ask me why but remembering that still makes me laugh.
WTS: I find so much of this process odd ... but it's great to hear how it works. Thanks again, Carolita, for the edumacation!