Fashion 101: How to do Fashion Design Research

fashion research, fashion portfolio, how to make a fashion portfolio, fashion schools, how to get into fashion school

I’ve included a few samples of the research I’ve done for previous projects but keep in mind that everyone gets inspired by different imagery and these images are by no mens a guideline.

I’ve been asked this many times and I feel like it is time to stop avoiding the question. So here it is – my guide on doing research for a fashion collection.

Firstly, I need to stress that research is an ESSENTIAL part of the fashion design process. Whether you are a designing for a major luxury brand or you’re putting together a portfolio to apply to design school, research is not optional. No designer ever picked up a pen and designed a collection from an idea in their head. In fact, when students told me they had ideas in their head and that they knew what they were going to design, it was a sign of trouble. The idea in your head might be the start of something good, but you need to do RESEARCH to make it better. Think of a collection as an essay. Would you sit down and write a 5,000 word essay without having done any research? No. And you wouldn’t design a fashion collection that way, either.

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These images were collected as part of the research I was doing for an edgy company’s lingerie collection.

What should be included in fashion research?

Fashion research needs to be stuff that INSPIRES you. Most of it is visual but it does not have to be. A song, a smell, a poem, or even a taste could inspire you to design. Normally a research folder (or mood board or sketchbook – however you want to store it) will contain inspiring visuals of things like art, photography, textiles, historical fashion, architecture, nature, or industrial design.

I don’t like to force too many rules onto the research process but I do encourage people to stay away from recent fashion and magazines. If you want to be the next Alexander McQueen, please don’t show me a tear out of his last ad campaign. They just did that. You need to do something new. That said, looking at old fashion collections is fair game and a great place to be inspired. I usually suggest wait until something is five years old until you get “inspired” from it.

Another tip, which is inspired from something a London College of Fashion tutor taught, is to include research on something organic, a style of architecture, and an era of fashion in your research. This could be, for example, butterflies, ancient greek architecture, and the twenties. I found that these guidelines, which can obviously be modified to suit your ideas, ensured that people looked in more than one place for their research. If all of your research if from one collection that Valentino did twenty years ago – then what is going to inspire you to do something different to that?

It’s important to take research from a variety of sources, and I also like to suggest that some of it is somewhat contemporary. Unless you are designing costume, you might want to think about including a few modern ideas in your research.

Lastly, make sure there are some research elements that are going to help you design clothes. It is great to have hundreds of beautiful images of the beach, but you might want a few photos of a coat or a stylish woman or something to give you some ideas about what the clothes are actually going to look like.

As for format, the best thing is to document everything digitally but if you want to store garments or fabric swatches then find a safe place to keep them. My suggestion is to take photographs or scan everything, whether you keep it or not, as you may want to include it in a project and projects tend to be digital these days.

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Images from a large body of research I collected for a womenswear collection for a New York designer.

Where do I find research?

When it comes to visuals, the obvious places to look are books and places you visit on research trips, but really, you can find research anywhere. I like libraries and I like browsing in art or photography sections and allowing myself to be a bit random. Sometimes you find something beautiful in a book you just happened to pick up off the shelf. That said, you should also be researching the ideas that have already inspired you. For example, if you like the sixties, look at books with photos of sixties fashion and lifestyle.

A research trip can be to a foreign country where you visit markets, museums, and landmarks and get inspired by its culture and arts. It might also be a trip to the local vintage store where you take photos of a beautiful collar on a dress, or photos of people on the street. You may find your research any number of places, so be ready to document (nowadays I would just say take a good photo or scan) and file it.

The worst place to look for research is Google. If you don’t have a good idea, Google Images probably isn’t going to help you find one. The internet can be a great place to source things, but don’t start there. If you’ve found a picture in a book by  a great photographer and you want to do internet research to find more of his work – then go for it. But don’t google “great photography” and expect to find visuals that are going to inspire a legendary collection. Books and getting out into the world (the real world, not the digital world) are usually the best way to find research.

Here’s a list (which is not exhaustive) of some of the things you might look at to be inspired:

  • Fine art
  • Photography
  • Architecture
  • Graphic Design
  • Sculpture
  • Textiles
  • Industrial Design
  • Performance Arts
  • Costume History
  • Litterature and poetry
  • Music
  • Street style
  • Nature
  • People
  • Anything visually stimulating…
fashion research, fashion portfolio, how to make a fashion portfolio, fashion schools, how to get into fashion school

Research from another lingerie project, this one focused on cotton.

How do I present it?

Think about what you’ll be doing with your research in order to determine how it should be presented. If you are making a portfolio to apply to schools or jobs, then I suggest keeping your research in a loose file or digital folder and figuring out how to present it when you are putting together your final presentation. I also think it is easier to design from loose pages because you can re-arrange them depending on what you are working on. But if you are in a design studio and you want everything in front of you, then go ahead and made a mood board. If you are the type of person who likes to carry a sketchbook and document everything there, then it is fine to collect your research in one of those.

How much research do I need?

It is hard to put a number here because some people might get enough inspiration from eight images to design a collection, others might need one hundred. My guideline to students was 50 visual images, because you always edit it down.

  • Julia

    Thank you for this post!