The past four weeks have seen designers from New York to Paris take their bows as the autumn/winter womenswear season played out across the fashion capitals. But right behind each of them is an entire atelier’s worth of pattern-cutters, making the forms that become the frocks that make up the trends.
And behind those pattern-cutters is a brigade that is even more influential: a band of travelling cutting technicians (think Edward Scissorhands). With a liberal snip here and an experimental tuck there, they create all manner of pleats, slits and folds. Bound to no brand, they hold international masterclasses, workshops and YouTube tutorials. And they are changing the way garments are made.
Julian Roberts, for example, a London-based scholar and designer, travels far and wide, often with the backing of the British Council (the UK’s international cultural relations body), to demonstrate his “Subtraction Cutting” technique live in front of as many as 150 people.
The workshops attract all levels of expertise – from fashion and textile students to, just recently, a retired dressmaker in her late sixties. Roberts also runs private tutorials for more established names such as British design duo Basso & Brooke, and the technical teams at COS and H&M, across Europe, Africa, South America and Australia.
Working in 2- and 3D, his method involves cutting and removing sections of the cloth to create openings within the garment. This can be seen in a simple dress made from two 3m lengths of cloth with four circular holes cut into it. By connecting the holes, which measure the circumference of hips, arms and neck, a tunnel is then formed for the body to pass through. It is a relatively quick process – and full of surprises.
“Sometimes it’s those who have never made a garment that turn out better ones than those who have been making them for years,” says Roberts. “Often, professionals are terrified of making mistakes. But for one or two sessions, I get them to step outside the box and let loose.”
As does Shingo Sato, who hails from Japan and cut his teeth at Azzedine Alaïa in Paris. For the past 25 years, Sato has lived in Milan where in 2002 he opened the TR Cutting School. Initially created for Japanese students, the private school now accepts a wider intake. This includes in-house designers at Armani, Escada and Versace; freelance patternmakers from Burberry and even architecture students. Sato describes his cutting system as an “intuitive, organic design process”. It pushes students to figure out tricky design combinations by alternating their vantage points. This leads to unforeseen twists and turns, and more of an avant-garde finish – most notably in the form of kimono-sleeved shirts and bustle details on skirts.
His innate Japanese aesthetic is so sought after that the Acne design team have already invited him to their studios in Stockholm to teach. Soon he will be heading to Mexico, Spain and Australia to do the same. And just in case anyone feels left out, Sato now runs virtual masterclasses on his Facebook page – instructing some 200 people worldwide in the past six months. “Thanks to the internet, people are sharing new pattern cutting techniques through blogs and other social networking platforms,” Sato says. “This is really promising and will influence future clothing trends.”
Timo Rissanen, assistant professor of fashion design and sustainability at Parsons The New School for Design, has been teaching a course called “Zero Waste Garment” since 2010, based on a philosophy that forces designers to think about problem-solving regarding fabric waste and dyes, and about how to make garments kinder to the environment.
“The current cutting system is such that we waste on average 15 per cent of the fabric used,” he says. “It’s just not economically viable, but it’s not really thought about much at all.”
However, Juliana Sissons, a freelance pattern-cutter who has worked for Alexander McQueen, is introducing new techniques like this to her fashion students at the University of Brighton, as well as developing her own pattern-cutting method “Shaping Through Fabric Manipulation”. This involves tucking, pleating or stretching the fabric in a specific area to distort it and ultimately dictate how shaping is done on the dressmaking stand.
In response to just this kind of work, next month the British Fashion Council will hold a “Creative Cutting Seminar” at London’s Somerset House. The event will include live cutting demonstrations from tailor Thomas Mahon of English Cut, along with a specially commissioned film featuring Shingo Sato and Julian Roberts.
“With creative pattern-cutting techniques, there are”, says Roberts, “as many new shapes to be discovered in the future as there are in the entire history of fashion.”