Manifesto on the Why's of Fashion Design and its Paradoxes by Rachel Roff

8:50 PM

A few months ago, I was asked to address fashion and faith and show my Voltage collection at a church in Toronto next spring, so I spent some time reflecting on preliminary questions around spirituality and fashion design - topics not usually paired together. When internal disagreements rose up in the church around some of these very questions, the fashion show and Q&A portions were understandably cancelled. I learned a lot through defining my thoughts and appreciate the opportunity to address these questions, so I decided to name it and post it.

This is a manifesto on my Why’s of Fashion Design and its Paradoxes. These are observations I have named as truth here today in 2013. It is subject to change as all my views are, as I learn, dialogue and grow. I’m sure I am not the first to say most of these things. But I asked myself what I believe and came up with this.

When you design clothing, how does your faith enter into the process?

Designing clothing is one of the things that I get lost in and I am able to be alone with myself and just exist and create. In that sense it is spiritual for me because I feel very alive and authentic. I think mimicking our Creator by using our minds and talents to create is a very spiritual act, and it is very peaceful for me. It reminds me that I am a creation myself and that I was built to create with the gifts I find I was given.

Why should people care about what they wear?

Fashion is a way we communicate, and since everyone communicates something through their fashion choices, consciously or not, I think it is worth caring and being intentional about.

For me fashion is a big part of how I share my uniqueness. I get to do a small exercise in the creative part of my brain every morning. Some of my clothes I’ve made myself but most are thrifted. I love patterns and sometimes it will occur to me to put two patterns I’ve never worn together beside each other and the way they play off each other creates a new visual impact. I also like that I can choose to avoid the exercise and go with something basic that I know I will feel comfortable and confident in all day.

When I was a teenager, I defined myself on being different which made the whole high school experience easier and I was able to be more myself since I wasn’t always guarded, worried that people would realize that I was weird. I just was, and the way I dressed, everyone already knew that. I also found friends that expressed their differences and confidence through their fashion and accessories and felt like I belonged somewhere.


Most models are beautiful, and they are usually tiny. Do you design for everyone, or just beautiful people? Why or why not? What about obese people? Older people?

I love designing custom clothing made to fit just one person perfectly. Because I’m a one person design company, on the one hand, I design runway collections as a chance to share my vision for fashion, and then I build up custom work as people see my aesthetic and want something custom created. I really enjoy working with all shapes and ages for custom work and getting to create something beautiful in collaboration with customers. I really love creating unique wedding gowns for that reason as well.

For a runway show that unveils a fashion collection as part of an untouchable artistic expression, healthy but slim and tall women are appropriate because when models are approximately the same proportions, they become a blank canvas to communicate a vision. In no way do I think a woman who is a size 4 or even smaller is more beautiful than a larger woman. This specific kind of runway show is not about defining or defying our societal standards of beauty or about showing the unique beauty of each model. It's about uniformity for the sake of presentation of the garments themselves.

It depends on the goal of the show. If I am creating a collection for a show that is about community or a specific benefit, then I wouldn’t want models that all looked similar, I would want models that will communicate that vision of strength and individuality. I would want a variety of unique people who are part of the community to model, and let their personality shine through, by smiling and enjoying their part in the presentation.

In fashion shoots and editorials, when I am trying to create a specific aura and tell a visual story, I am inspired by models with unique features, women who are powerful and unique in their own way. They bring their own stories and personality and it is great to be able to use that individual beauty to communicate visually.

I absolutely think that having a diverse representation of women in fashion and beauty industries is important and lacking. It’s really valuable for young people to see reflections of themselves included in our society’s definition of beauty, which I think is slowly expanding (very slowly, I’ll admit). It is even more important though, for young people to see reflections of themselves in positions of intelligence, creativity and strength rather than beauty.

As a designer, what sort of advice would you give to people who can't afford your clothes, or very much of your clothes?

I can’t afford my clothing prices either! I find it so strange that some people are willing to pay so much for clothing, either in a mall or from a designer. Buying from a designer is definitely better since you know who and what you are supporting. But because I create each design myself and I put 6 hours minimum into a dress, to even make $10/hour not counting material costs, that dress is already out of my price range.

On the other hand though, what would the world be without art? Artists face the same kind of dichotomy - we all just want to create art, but in order to make it sustainable, there needs to be somewhere to put it, to display it, someone to value it and be willing to pay for it’s creation. So for me personally though I am not willing to pay much for clothing or art, I am really glad that some people are willing to and that they keep artists going. I feel this especially when I look back at history, since fashion and art can tell us so much about the direction and expressions of the time period.

My advice if you can’t afford it, is to buy it directly from a small designer and try to find young and new artists who are still building themselves up. Hopefully you will get a great deal on a completely unique piece and help them build up their experience. I also recommend trying to barter if you have a useful skill to offer in exchange for something custom!

Also, my tendency is always to buy second hand instead of new anyways. My recommendation would be to get creative even if you don’t normally see yourself that way. I think it’s a really valuable skill to know how to make slight alterations and use a sewing machine and it opens up your ability to buy second hand and tweak something really great but oversized to fit just right for you or add something unique to an otherwise plain design.

Some people might say that spending money on clothes is poor stewardship. What would you say?

Spending money on clothes is poor stewardship to a large extent. It is not good for the environment, it supports unsustainable systems, and it can be expensive and therefore tough on personal finances. And yet we all need clothes to wear. And we live in places where we have the luxury of being able to spend time considering what we will wear and how we will use it to express ourselves.

The best solution I have found that answers all of my concerns around stewardship is buying second hand, wearing great garments cast off by a system of excess.

I also am unsustainably clumsy and rough on my clothes. So for me it makes sense to buy low and more often since even if I bought something brand new that is intended to last long, I will inevitably spill something down the front.

What do you want people to think when they see your clothing?

When people see my designs, I want them to appreciate that they are seeing something unique. I mix and match patterns and colors until I find combinations that strike my eye as pleasing and I hope that other people have that experience too - surprising but striking combinations.

I want a woman to buy one of my garments because it caught her eye and it reflects a part of herself, because she will cherish it, and because she feels empowered and confident in her uniqueness when she wears it. I want my clothes to accent and highlight each person’s individuality.

What makes for beautiful clothing, here and now? I mean, people in Thailand or India or Senegal obviously have different, culturally conditioned, ideas about what makes for beautiful clothing. So what are your values for clothing?

I think there is a fine line between beauty being in the eye of the beholder vs. a universal aesthetic. There are some universal standards like color theory, that define what colors will be beautiful together. But there could be a use in which conflicting colors used in a new way create something not quite beautiful, but interesting and therefore valuable.

Mainly it's important to dress for your own body and uniqueness as opposed to following trends that might feel tacked on or unflattering even if they are considered beautiful because they are trendy.

Is great fashion for everyone, always?

I don’t think so, no!  There are so many situations where there is just no need for great fashion and it can be very freeing to think very little about it.  Just like great conscious fashion choices can highlight and be used to express what a person is about, it can detract from who they are as well. Janelle Monae wears a suit when she performs so the focus is on her music. The music should be the focus and she has chosen to highlight her music by muting her fashion choices. I think it is important to think about what we wear but sometimes that will lead us to choosing something very practical and mundane instead of great.

Do clothes make the man (woman)? Why or why not?

I am going to refer to this quote by Linda Grant, author of The Thoughtful Dresser, “Clothes are not everything, but you cannot have depths without surfaces. They communicate with what is within; between the two there is always a great dialogue.”

What about materials? What matters?

Materials are key - and also quite difficult to source sustainably. It is so important to be responsible and be conscious about not contributing to pollution, environmental degradation, dangerous work environments, abusive systems, and consumer excess. Because I have a small label made by hand, I can often use remnants and recycled fabrics and create with the excess. But it can be really challenging regardless to balance responsible fabric sourcing with attempting to keep costs and therefore final prices down. I’m on the board of a non-profit called Sol Inspirations that advocates for responsible fashion, and we try to connect designers who are outsourcing some of their work with local fabric and manufacturing sources, among other things. I think this is a baby step in the right direction. Being part of that organization challenges me to continue to find better practices and sources and be part of a growing movement towards responsible fashion, from environmental improvements, to challenging industry standards, to creating accountability and safety for people around the world.

What do you struggle with in your industry and in your business?

For me, fashion design is full of paradox.

Authenticity vs. Publicity: I want to be an authentic person in all situations but I sometimes feel pressure to attend networking events in order to keep up interest in my line and have the press promote it. Thankfully I’ve connected with a group of designers, artists, and friends in Minneapolis who are very genuine and focused on creating interesting art and fashion and hosting fun events that celebrate diversity of talent. I am showing a mini collection with that group as part of a developing event next year so that is one exciting answer to this paradox so far.

Creation vs. Consumption: I want to create - fashion design is my medium but in order to make it a sustainable endeavor I need to be able to sell what I make. That puts my work into a super oversaturated market, where I am adding to the consumer excess that already exists. And yet I feel like I must create, whether it is fashion or other mediums so I have created a small business around it, keep involved with Sol Inspirations, and try to keep myself on track using sustainable materials where possible and only creating a new collection once per year instead of per season. Focusing more on custom work where possible is a good way to solve some of the dilemma, but consumption sadly remains at the heart of it.

Expression vs. Superficiality: I want to use fashion to express myself, but there is a fine line between expressing myself and becoming too focused on appearances. It is important for me to not become wrapped up in vanity and external beauty in pursuit of self expression so this is a balance I am always working out.

Inclusion vs. Presentation: I discussed this at length above - I want to share my art with the world and have the focus be on the art, but the medium uses individual people as canvasses. Using people who differ from typical industry standards as part of the presentation implicitly draws the attention from the clothes and instead makes a statement about the wearer. Editorial shoots are probably the most fun and creative ways to work around this, where the goal is to create an overall feeling and story,  as opposed to presenting garments one after another on a runway. Stories are for everyone and I want to incorporate much more diversity in my work.

I think there will always been these paradoxes, but I’m interested to see how they will play out and hopefully lead me to new collaboration opportunities and challenges in the future.

Are there scriptural passages (or other spiritual writings) that inspire you?

Rilke’s book, Letters to a Young Poet inspire me in my work for sure. He writes about the importance of finding what you must do at your core and then organizing your life around it. He is talking about writing, but the same can be said of any activity or passion. I know I must attempt to create and share artistic pursuits made with my own hands… fashion design has been the most successful path of tactile and visual expression for me so far.

I am generally more deeply influenced by the evidence of God - through travel, spending time in the ocean, interactions with humans from many walks of life, and all the world’s beauty and magnitude - than I am by written word.

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