As an adult male at 5 feet 2 and 108 lbs, there isn’t a lot of good clothes made that would readily fit me. They’re also hard to find, cost a premium, and likely still need alterations to fit me properly. That’s why when my long time alterations seamstress retired in 2011, I made a life changing decision to solve my fashion challenges once and for all. I was going to make my own clothes! And while at it, I was going to design it, too! I had drafting skills. I was good at crafts and geometry. I had been a graphic designer in a recent past life. It was just a matter of putting it all together.
In the beginning…
I started my fashion adventure with an intro sewing class at Fabricville, then a series of do your own project classes at Atlantic Fabrics. There, an instructor helped students with whatever they were working on rather than classes for specific garments. I could focus on learning what I wanted in these personal project classes, while learning from others sewing a wide assortment of garments rather than all doing the same garment. It was an efficient way to power learn sewing!
Among the first things I learned was the world didn’t make patterns for guys my size, either. Worse, it had even less style selection for men! So after altering a few muslins by trial and error, I got a shell to fit and my own pattern on which to base future garments. I also did a lot of other things my way, analyzing and questioning why things were done in a certain way in sewing. Where I thought I could do better, I devised my own techniques and kept them if reality supported theory. More often than not, it did so I started thinking of myself as a “fashion engineer”, for, both, fashion design and sewing techniques. Let’s just say I’d have been a real problem child in a traditional sewing class!
From when I started, I have sewn a wide variety of garments that now make up more than half of my wardrobe, and then some. I have sewn well over 50 garments that I don’t bother counting them any more. They include:
- Shirts (dress shirts, casual shirts, long & short sleeves)
- Shorts (long and short leg styles)
- Coats, vests, jackets of various lengths, styles and weights, for various purposes and temperatures
- Running tights (long and short)
- One tie
- Toques, mittens, gloves
- One piece body suits
- Costumes and cosplays (Star Trek, Star Wars, Matrix)
- Bandanas, eye covers for sleeping
- Furniture skirts and covers
Work or play?
My sewing and fashion design is a labour of love. I have never sold any garments, though I have made some for gifts. I put too much into them to make money, and haven’t had the time to make many outside what I’ve wanted and needed. However, I am learning to make women’s clothes with female friends as sewing models because if I ever turn this into a business, it’ll be women’s fashion that’ll get me the required income. Check back with me at the end of the year for a women’s wardrobe portfolio look. As for menswear, I don’t think guys are much into my style, which looks great on a woman as you’ll see at the end. However, it isn’t a bad thing for a designer to have his own distinct style so I’m fine with that. So what’s that style?
With the effort needed to sew a garment, I had to make sure I would like it a lot so I would wear it often to make the sewing effort worth my while. Being a designer, developing a style was, and is still, by far, the funnest part of the garment making process for me. From my FIRST dress shirt in the photo at left, appropriately named in all caps, I had a style based on some core fashion philosophies that has generally stood the test of time since.
Comfort, fit and function
I didn’t care what any garment I made looked like. If it were not comfortable, didn’t fit right, and couldn’t do what it was designed to do, I wasn’t going to wear it for long. Sadly, I have examples from a limited choice of fabric in my early days that failed on function from excessive ironing time, as shown below. They were all very comfortable and fit well, though! 100% cotton twill just is just horrible to iron to a super sharp look!
As demand I have of function is practicality. If I can make something more practical while serving the same purpose, like those dress shirts for work that aren’t tucked in to allow me to wear pajama style pants with them, I will! Making pajama style pants is also a lot easier than fly zipper pants, cost less and last longer! I can also wear the shirt several times without wrinkling it due to it not being worn tucked in. Yet, the Mandarin collar gives it a formal look that I don’t look shabby or casual next to any colleagues wearing the traditional pointed collar shirts tucked in with fly zipper pants held up by a belt. In fact, given how well my garments fit me, I would argue I look sharper than they do! If that’s not practicality, I don’t know what is!
The only way people would recognize my fashion as being distinct from stuff others could buy is through how my garments look to them. There are a million ways one could achieve a memorable look with fashion, with many, if not most, inciting negative reactions. From the photos above, you could see a different cut of those shirts with a Mandarin collar, not worn tucked in, with uncommon colours, and even pants of uncommon colours to complement the dress shirts. They are not so subtly memorable (and some may not be to people’s liking), but I also have garments that are subtly distinct, like the TREK pajama top with epaulettes and cuffs at left. I didn’t care if it were sleepwear. Star Trek pajamas was going to look sharp like uniforms! I will cover the features I use most often to give my garments a distinct look below.
Long range visibility
Most people who will see me in my garments won’t be seeing them from up close. Rather, they might be across the room, the street or maybe even half way down the block. As a result, the distinct looks I go after are of the kind you could recognize from far away, unlike something like touches of fine embroidery details. The VAMPIRE HUNTING coat at right (named for all the silver on black) is an example of how some of my garments are distinctly visible from far away. You would know exactly what that jacket looked like from across the street. You wouldn’t need to get up close to know much more about it.
Uncommon tricolour combinations with contrast
One element that can help with memorable looks and long range visibility is colour contrast. As a designer, I liked colour schemes with contrast, rather than all pastel or all dark or light schemes. Colour schemes can be really hard to come up with, never mind then being able to find fabric of those colours. It’s not like printing where you just order up the colour on a press. The most practical way to identify colour schemes with contrast to use was to reference sport team colours, a natural thing for me to do being a sports fan. They tended to use colours similar enough to common colours in fabric, usually against white that’s easy to find, that were generally well-liked by the public. They were also generally masculine in feel that I wanted in my garments. If you knew the reference of the three dress shirt names above, you’d realize University of Florida Gators and Aston Villa Football Club as being two athletic sources of my inspiration. I also preferred uncommon colours in colour schemes, rather than French flag or Montreal Canadiens red, white and blue. Most people don’t see a lot of any of those colour schemes. However, I also have some of my own schemes like the EVERGREEN dress shirt below of earth brown, hunter green or evergreen tree shade of green, and white, and some other common schemes as shown below.
Big picture prints
Solid colours can get boring very quickly. The opposite of that for fabrics is prints. I’m not generally a fan of small print patterns, though I will use them from time to time. They’re neither memorable nor have long range visibility. What does, though, for prints are big picture prints. Unfortunately, they’re rare and you probably have to be creative for your sources, like the TRANSFORMERS outfit below I made from curtains, and SPIDER-MAN bathrobe from beach towels. The TOILE dress shirts were from a fabric called toile that has pictures on them as shown. The pictures aren’t bold to be very distinct from far away, but they’re a big print nonetheless.
Cuts are the shapes of the garment. One way to make something memorable is just to have a different cut to a common garment. The ELRIC (anime inspired) office coat is a different version of a vest with sleeves. The MATRIX duster coat, meanwhile, blows any longer trench coat cut out of the water! Even something not commonly worn like my new UNION (US Civil War) tunic top uniform look can go a long way to being memorable and getting some attention. All are functioning garments, not costumes, despite their inspiration sources. I have worn them all to work as well! I also create different cuts of patterns to combine pieces for a nicer look, like the SUPERNOVA running tights below where I made the legs out of one pattern piece, not two as usually done. It allows for one beautiful continuous image of this “space” print that I’d have hated to have separated into two pieces for the sake of a seam!
Similar to uncommon cuts, uncommon garments could be something like a common garments, but done in a different cut, it could become a different garment. Most fleece tops people find are in the form of vests. I, on the other hand, made entire fleece coats, and put applique on them for designs where I couldn’t get fleece of the print I want, like NFL team logos on the fleece coats below.
Mother Nature is about symmetry, where one side is a mirror of the other. I can’t compete so I don’t try, making asymmetry a trademark of my designs. Besides, you see enough symmetry all around anyway. That’s why one easy way, by concept, to make a garment memorable is to make it asymmetric in look. That is, the left side isn’t like the right side. It’s easy to conjure up, but harder to do because you have to have a different pattern arrangement on one side compared to the other. However, it also keeps you from having to be perfect to make some things symmetric. One feature of my style is to have buttons hidden behind a placket in the middle for a sharper look. On garments with that placket feature, which look symmetric, like those first dress shirts shown, they are actually not due to that placket being offset a bit from centre. Other times, I’m blatant about my asymmetry, like with garments with big prints above, or those below. The ANIMATRIX jacket has an asymmetric collar. The BJORN shorts were refashioned from an old T-shirt someone gave me that didn’t fit me, which I put on black so the focus would be on the icon of Bjorn Borg. The RETROPOP shorts used a strip of sample fabric that was all I had so I also offset it on the shorts, against black so there’d be only one thing to look at on the shorts for focus. That’s stuff I learned from graphic design to lead the viewer’s eye. 🙂
Symbolic / artistic features
Where my garments get really creative and fun is when they have symbolic features to them that I designed, rather than relying on a theme from fabrics.
- The BRAILLE Dress shirt has hearts placed like Braille dots. The Braille on the asymmetric strip says “Love”, because you might have heard that love was blind, and the blind read Braille. The cuffs have the letters “I” on the right hand with which I reach out to shake others’ hands, and “U” on the left, for the “I LOVE U cute factor” in the design.
- The NAM dress shirt has three red stripes of the South Viet Nam flag, from where I was born. The three red stripes are horizontal on the flag, but represent bloodlines of three subcultures in the country (North, South, Central) flowing from a heart common to the people. Those stripes on my dress shirt are on the side where my heart is, from my heart, for a reason. The V-yokes and cuff shapes are for V in Viet Nam. There are no right angles on that shirt so everything is technically a V. If you look carefully, you can also see I have buttons with three red stripes on them, found by fluke in Manhattan. I might be about concepts mostly, but I can sure do details when it counts!
- Finally, the ILLUSIONS dress shirt is just interesting to look at, but more interesting if you recognize the two faces in different colours (asymmetry, uncommon scheme) separating the cup in the middle from the famous faces and cup optical illusion.
Durability and clean finish
Beyond looks of the garments, given how long they take me to make, I make sure they are durable! For that, I serge all seams, which also finish their edges so they don’t fray, further contributing to their durability. With one thread to set the seam for serging, four to serge, one to seal the inside with the right colour thread and one to flatten the serged section, there are often seven threads on most of my seams! I have such confidence in them that when I make garments for relatives’ kids, I tell them if the kids rip it at the seams, I will replace it for free. Otherwise, too bad! 🙂
A Little Engineering
As said at the start, I do a lot of things “my way” in my fashion design and sewing. These are a few of the “engineering” features I came up with solve problems I saw with garments I were making in terms of their function.
- Slanted pant pocket bottoms – most pant pockets are flat at the bottom. Mine are slanted downward towards the side leg seams. That way, all the keys and change end up in one place due to gravity. That place is away from the front of my legs where they could distort the nice ironed look of the pants, and where they could chafe me most easily. The angled corner is also the pocket’s strongest point, stronger than any flat bottom pant pocket, to make my pockets more durable.
- Sleeve cuff magnetic card holders – I recently designed sleeve cuffs with pockets on the inside so they can’t be seen, on the underside of my wrists where a watch face would not be. In these little pockets the size of credit or pass cards, I hold such things so instead of having to pull out cards to get through a door, pay for something or get access to a printer, I just wave my hand over it like a magician. It’s the funnest thing to do!
- Pick pocket prevention pockets on underwear – When I traveled to Viet Nam a few years ago, I was worried about getting pick pocketed. To combat that, I sewed pockets onto my underwear so a thief would have to literally pull open and reach down my pants to get whatever I was carrying!
I’m not sure what to call this but a lot of my garments looks just as good on a woman as on me. In fact, I joke they look better because the model is probably better looking than me. To prove a point, I did a photoshoot with my friend Kaitlyn who happens to be able to fit into my clothes. She looked stunning in them, I have to say! Without someone to do shoots of me, it’s a bit odd the best pictures I have of my garments worn are those of a woman wearing them!