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The Product Development Skills Digital Design Can’t Afford to Leave Behind

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated retailers’ shift to digital, and along with it, the entire product design and development process is getting a high-tech makeover. But even though next-gen design and project management tools promise streamlined communication, collaboration, fittings and approvals, there’s plenty to be said for the traditional skills involved in bringing garments to life. Rather than eschew one for the other, a well-rounded team needs to have a firm grasp on the fundamentals in order to get the most out of the latest software.

Sourcing Journal asked apparel design and production professionals and educators about their thoughts on the foundational skills that have been most valuable to them throughout their careers, what they wished they learned more of in school, as well as why the instruction and retention of these skills remain vital amid the rapid digital shift during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Name: Zoe Hong

Title: independent fashion design consultant and teacher

“This is a constant conversation people are having—do designers need to learn how to sew? Even though they don’t sew once they leave school, understanding how clothes are constructed helps you become a better designer. If there’s anything I wish I learned more of, it’s the technical aspect. I wish we had learned more about tech packs, more apparel manufacturing practices and how that system works. When I was going to school, that was more the beginning of when Adobe Illustrator was used a lot for flats in the industry, so schools were teaching it to match that demand. I think that there’s some confusion as to the purpose of fashion school…the thing with fashion school, I believe, is that it prepares you for the first few years of your career. If your eventual goal is to become the creative director of a fashion company, or the head designer, that’s great, but no school is going to teach you how to be a creative director. Eight, 10, 12 years down the line we shouldn’t be saying, ‘Oh, my school didn’t teach me that,’ because how can a four-year program teach everyone for the span of their whole career?”

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Name: Deborah Vandermar

Title: director of skills development and strategy consultant

Company: Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center (ISAIC)

“Draping is the skill I learned very early in my career during internships and apprenticeships in the U.S. and Europe. Draping is the skill that is lost in the 3D world. The 3D systems capture all the visual design elements and principles: silhouette, line, shape, color. What they do not deal with are the other aspects of the way we experience textiles: tactile texture, handle (the response of the textile to pressure) and drape. You cannot tell from an image how a garment pulls down on you. Is it light or heavy? You’re only going to be able to tell that by experience. Although the whole 3D creation process is amazing—being able to make a pattern, put it on an avatar, drape it, see the effect of the textile—especially since it is moving forward the whole sampling process during COVID-19, that whole idea of being able to work on a 3D model is only driven by the size and the depth of the textile library. If that library is weak, or empty or shallow, you’re only pulling off what you’re given.”


Name: Shilo Byrd

Title: freelance patternmaker and production consultant

“I’m very thankful for the hand drafting and hand draping skills that I learned at FIT, not just because of the rigor of the inception there, but because there’s a lot that you can learn about things that can potentially go wrong in product. Understanding how grain affects the drape and the final sew-up of a garment and how understanding of grain behavior can clarify production issues is something I learned in draping class, but it’s applied across the board. You wouldn’t learn that if you were following a draping textbook. Something else I was actually annoyed by as a student, but was appreciative of very quickly when I started working, was that the program we went through insisted that we memorize every single fashion industry acronym rigorously. I freelanced for the first five years of my career and was mostly working through an agency, so I had placements with different brands and licensees. When you know all the acronyms, you can talk the talk and you fit in quicker.”


Name: James Hamilton Butler

Title: director of AAS Fashion Design and associate professor of fashion

Company: Parsons School of Design

“One of the things that I make sure when developing our curriculum is that business ideology underpins what students do creatively. Ultimately, with digital taking priority, you still have to have that level of understanding research, trends, how a garment is produced and actually looking at it from a developmental perspective in terms of cost effectivity.

A lot of students have an idealistic dream of owning their own label, but have no idea how to see it as a business, rather than a creative practice. I didn’t get a fashion degree, but I majored in multimedia textiles and we were never taught how to put your work into the context of selling it, and I think that was missing and still probably is for a lot of creative degrees. Often a lot of creative fashion students will have to partner with someone in fashion management in order to make a sustainable business. Not so much in Manhattan, but in London, I would try to get students out into the field [where I’d say,] ‘this weekend I want you to go to a bar or café and just sit there and look at what people are wearing and talk to people.’ At Parsons, I’d ask students to document their journey and say, ‘I want to see five photographs before you get to class at 9 a.m.’ It’s a way to get students engaged in research from a holistic perspective instead of the internet.”


Name: Jodi Hartmann

Title: senior professional lecturer, fashion program

Company: Marist College

“Today, students need to be offered 3D technical skills from design, tech pack, fabric selection and fit because I don’t foresee the supply chain going back to the way it was. We teach Photoshop and Illustrator but we don’t typically teach them how to fit and select digitally. Until we return to work, how are you going to be able to fit something on a live model? You’re not. So you have to be able to fit it on a 3D form digitally. I used to travel to Southeast Asia six times a year, and that’s not going to happen anymore.

When I went to fashion school, there were not a lot of classes. There were basic construction techniques and I learned how to sew, how to make a pattern and put a garment together. That helped me, but beyond merchandise planning or buying, everything about product development I learned on the ground. The real-life skills are important today for students, and I wish I knew more about fitting, traveling to factories and negotiations—all things we teach our students today.”