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Part 1: The Fashion Design Process from Idea to first sketch

Ever thought of starting a fashion label? Many have but as soon as they think about it, their heads become inundated with questions about the Fashion Design Process.

These can be general questions such as…
Do ideas come from inspiration or from materials?
What is the best way to go about designing a collection?

Fashion, by its very nature, is about current populism – and the fashion designer expresses the spirit of the times, or zeitgeist, in their work.

In an industry that is constantly changing, the designer is expected to reinvent the wheel seasonally. Due to the public’s demand for the new, and with ever-increasing pressure placed on them, designers have to dig deeper and search further for ways of interpreting new inspiration into their collections.

The role of the fashion designer could be compared to that of a magpie, obsessively collecting objects and always being on the hunt for new and exciting things to inspire them. This compulsion to source and collate material for use in the creative design process is essential for feeding the imagination.

So let’s take a look at the steps one takes to translate an idea into a finished product.

Step 1: The Brief

One of the easiest ways to start any creative design endeavour is to follow a Brief. These are usually set by a tutor at fashion school, by a company that is running a competition or by a client.

If you’re a solo designer, it’s worth considering setting yourself a Brief especially if designing is new to you. Your Brief should have very specific aims and objectives that should consider a number of things:

Occasion and Season: An awareness of when you are designing for, will impact your choice of fabrics and colours.

Muse: Many designers are inspired by a historical or modern muse. They will base their research on deciphering the lifestyle of this friend, celebrity or doyenne of style.

Customer: If you have compiled a target customer profile you can consider elements such as background, lifestyle, work and income.

Target Market: Consider using your market sector, such as mid, high-street or high-end price points to determine the direction you will take your design project.

Fabric and Material: Does your brand focus on the use of sustainable materials? If so, how will this dictate the direction your Brief goes?

Costing: This should be a large consideration, as the materials you may want to use will have a huge impact on the price points of your finished designs.

Practical Outcomes: What will your range consist of? Will you be designing separates, lingerie, suiting or accessories?

Poor, uninspiring research can only lead to imitation.

Step 2: Research

Ideas for designing new collections can come from many different random sources. All good design starts with research, as it enables you to investigate and to learn something new or discover something from the past. It’s comparable to a journey which involves visiting, reading and viewing; above all, research is about the recording of information.

However, in order to make sense of what you’re doing, there is a simple formula which you could follow by focussing on the two types of research for the design process:

  1. Gathering the materials, which forms the tangible, practical elements for your collection, such as fabrics, trims and fastenings; and
  2. Setting the concept, which is the visual inspiration for a design process. This will help you to develop an identity for your creative work.

Research, in order for it to work well for you, must be in-depth and broad, as this leads to innovation.

Read more on Design & Development in the BECOME A FASHION INSIDER Book.

What Should Your Design Process Research Entail?

We know that research is about the investigation and recording of information. For the fashion designer, this information can be broken down into separate categories that can provide the many-faceted components of a collection’s direction.

Structure & Shape

When you first embark on designing a collection, you should think about shape, as this informs the structure of an item. The shape of a three-dimensional object, such as a garment, shoe or accessory should be at the forefront of your mind and will determine how the item should be constructed. Without shape, there would be no silhouettes in fashion design.

A good example of this is the crinoline, common in the mid- to late-1800s. The crinoline was an underskirt with an infrastructure made from hoops of wire connected together with cotton tape.


Colour is such an important aspect to consider in the research and design process. Your palette choice can be based on something as simple as an inspiring painting or period in the history of art.

Colour can often be the starting point of a collection and can set the tone for the mood and season you are designing for. It’s important to gather primary and secondary colours so that you can mix a variety of combinations to play with.


Add another element to your products by considering their texture. This can be brought to life by the discovery of an amazing embossed fabric.

Explore further by looking at the surfaces of natural objects, such as shells or feathers, and emulate their texture through fabric manipulation. Through the incorporation of texture in your designs, you will provide visual stimulation for the consumer without the need to actually touch the object.


It is often said that “… the devil is in the detail” and it is true. Nothing should be left to chance when designing your collection.

The details you use are as important as the shape and construction methods you will employ, as these will attract the buyer to examine your collection more closely and could make or break their decision to place an order.

Your inspiration for the finer details can be garnered from the many different fashion inspiration sources you have researched. These can include but are not limited to nature and the organic – or perhaps extremely specific items such as the fastenings used on uniforms from the second world war.

Surface Decoration and Print

During your research period, you may discover items that are naturally patterned or decorated, and that lend themselves to be interpreted into textile and print development. Objects or images could be bejewelled, mirrored, decorative, repeated and can even provide an opportunity for a motif within a design concept.

Textile techniques, such as beading, embroidery, appliqué or trapunto could also be used to depict surface qualities derived from your reference material. In addition to this, the look and feel of fabric can be altered to reflect the mood of your source of inspiration; such as decorative and jewelled qualities translated from vintage native dress; or distressed, faded and aged, translated from barren land in a hot, dry southern hemisphere.

In order to effect change in the present, the past must be scrutiniSed.

Historical References

In fashion design, the exploration of historical dress can provide a treasure trove of information in regards to tailoring, shape and surface decoration.

Don’t limit yourself to clothing only, as historical influences can be found in any design discipline from many cultures. These can be as diverse as studying turn-of-the-century Chinese footwear to armour from the 19th century.

Cultural Influences

Influences can include an appreciation of the arts and literature from your own culture, to having a keen interest in the cultural proclivities of other countries. Both can provide you with a wealth of ideas that can be translated into a narrative to your collection, as well as diversifying into fabric, colour and print, and garment shapes. Art galleries and current exhibitions can influence your research and spark creativity into your designs.

Contemporary Trends

As a fashion designer, having an ability to develop an awareness of cultural trends and events is important.

Observing political climates, global changes and social trends will enable you to create clothes for a specific target market.

No one has time to track trends, that’s why Fashion Trend Forecasting platforms are available – but you must possess an ability to tune into the current climate. Future popular trends tend to start at the grassroots level, so look to the street for subtle changes in tastes and interests.

What Next?

Once you have decided what your research should contain, you will be ready to embark on the creation of a mind-map. This brainstorming activity is a useful technique to explore in the early stages of research and can help to generate many ideas that you can delve into more deeply.

Simply put, brainstorming requires you to list every word you can think of that relates to your Project Brief. Using a thesaurus, the internet, and a dictionary will be fine – but also use imagery which can be assigned to the words that you write down.

These images could potentially provide you with starting points for your collection and also ideas for a concept or theme. Allow your mind to wander in many different directions, as random thoughts and ideas could present new couplings and concepts for your designs.

Step 3: Choosing a Concept or Theme

Your theme choice needs to relate to the questions posed in your Brief.

It also needs to stimulate you creatively.

In the brainstorming process, you will have written words and collected images which will assist you in the collation of ideas into a concept or theme. Without a concept or theme, you may find yourself struggling with the design process and find it hard to create a collection with a common thread.

Explore your own personality and interests and try to fuse them into your work.

There are several different approaches to consider that could drive your theme choice:

Narrative: Consider creating a story with a central character, and base your collection around this.
Conceptual: This can be based on the exploration of a variety of unrelated visual sources that can be united in a common thread. This could result in the development of texture, shape and colours for your collection.
Abstract: Work with an unrelated description or word, such as ‘cubism’ for example, and translate it into a series of ideas. You could also use it to lead the exploration of your research and design process.

Sources of information should include primary and secondary research findings.

The primary sources include your own discoveries, such as objects you have discovered at a museum of which you’ve made drawings or taken photographs.

The secondary sources are discoveries you make through other people. These may be found in books, magazines or on the internet, and enable you to dig deeper into the background story of your primary findings.

It’s important to have a balance of both sources – and it’s good to remember that your drawing skills will be called upon for the former and your investigative skills for the latter.

Now you know what to do for the first phase of the Fashion Design Process, you are ready to take on the second.
Read what to do next: Part 2

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