Sunday, February 8, 2015

Musings and Things: Trials and Tribulations of a Lolita Fashion Designer

I was inspired to write this post after reading a status on Facebook from a new friend of mines and a fellow Lolita seamstress/designer, Chobi.

An interesting thing about our informal meeting is that we sat at the same table at the Rufflecon High Tea, not really knowing much of one another at the time. Number one, I was floored by her dress, her coordinate and dress making skills. Being a seamstress myself, I get really excited to see fantastic handmade work in person. She designed and made the most beautiful red jumperskirt with inlaid painting motifs from art history and ruching ruffles all around! At the time I shyly complimented her (I was very shy and nervous the entire time at Rufflecon, it was a bit overwhelming), and then at the beginning of the year I encountered her posting on Facebook and commented, and come to find out that she knew me at the time not by face but by the design work I did! I had no idea that my work was that well known, so I was very surprised, but very happy! I was so excited to connect with another awesome seamstress!

Anyway, I am getting somewhere with my rambling, I promise.

So yesterday I wrote up my wardrobe post entry and scheduled it to go live this past saturday afternoon. I came across a post that Chobi wrote on her Facebook page Saturday morning that resonated with me so much that I just had to write about it myself. 

In her terms: Redundancy, Exclusivity, and Sentimentality in Lolita Fashion.  

I literally loved everything she said word for word, but I should use my own, haha. And boy will I use many words. But seriously, her post really got me thinking about what it really means to be a lolita designer. In addition to Chobi, another friend and seamstress, Angel (Atelier Angel on Etsy, check her stuff!) had also shared her thoughts on some similar notions that I've been thinking about too in relation to this topic a little while back. Wavelengths merging and such I guess.

I. Redundancy - Hyper Creativity vs. Cookie Cut-and-Go Design

The dream of many Lolita Fashion Designers on the Indie scene is to be as acclaimed and respected (almost maybe worshipped, but that is an extreme) as the designers of the major Japanese brands. Even though we rarely see the faces behind the dresses we love from the biggest brands like Baby, the Stars Shine Bright and Angelic Pretty, the designers are still known widely and have made appearances at several events in the Western world. I admit, personally I would love it but I still like to maintain that sense of "behind the curtain", being quite behind the scenes instead of directly in the limelight. I appreciate my work being valued over myself in the flesh so to speak. This is why I am really flattered when people know my work before they know me - I must be doing something right?

But in being a designer, brand or independent, its hard not to, in Chobi's words, fall into the trap of creating pieces "without considering how to make them stand apart from the rest", in which if the designs basically directly copy that of other brands, follow the "lolita formula" of lace tossed here, hem ruffle, and a bow there, or overall just being too simple and "safe." Yes, when you want to keep producing good items it feels right to stick with what works, but isn't fashion, especially one so out there as Lolita, meant to be a gateway to push the envelope a little? 

There are lots of indie brands nowadays, and being the best of the best is even harder than it used to be. Not only are local designers in competition with each other, they also have Indie brands from China and Korea to reckon with in addition to the overlords of Japan. 

So do you go above and beyond to top them but all the while run the risk of creating something that no one would like? Do you attempt to create something you don't think you have the skill to achieve? Or is it better to play it safe and follow the trends and your capabilities?

For me personally, it's a little bit of it all. 

In the beginning, when I first started out I created pieces that were wearable, fit the mold of lolita trends or basically mimicked the styles of the largest brands. It was 2008 when I successfully created my first pieces and my end goal was very different back then. My skills were much lower and I was a lot less daring. I made things that I could wear to meetups and be comfortable yet confident. But I improved as years went on, and at the same time lolita brand dresses began to become more and more intricate as well. 

While I was busy with college, my touch slipped and I sewed less lolita (I was a Fashion Design student so all my sewing time went into school projects, most of which weren't lolita with maybe two exceptions), but I didn't stop learning more and more sewing skills, so soon enough I began doing a lot of firsts, like underbust with boning, more bustles, lace overlays, and such. I worked with more fabric types and trim variety that I hadn't dared touch before. It was invigorating. 

Now I'm seeking to keep that momentum. Sometimes I try to keep to trends with the intention that my work will be liked and understood, but I have to kick myself and push the envelope a little when I feel like I'm becoming to formulaic. You can't always throw a self-fabric ruffle on the hem of a dress and call it a day. You have to add that strip of braiding, that touch of metallic trim, that chantilly lace overlay, that shantung bustle, that Swarovski jewel detail! 

I do study what the brands do, and the indie designers too from across the spectrum. I do take details I like and make note of them in my sketch journals, but never blind cut and go, I always Russian roulette. It's what makes designing fun for me.

II. Exclusivity - One of a Kind vs. Many of it's Kind

That dress, the one you thought up one night while you slept or while singing in the shower. You immediately scribble out a journal sketch and as soon as you have a breath you are out there seeking out the materials to make it real. Or maybe the fabric may strike your fancy first? Whatever the order was, you make it, it's fantastic! You share it, everyone wants it! But it's your baby and the only one like it and you don't want to let it go.

And you struggle with the thought of making another one just like it.

It's something that comes up with just about every Lolita designer I know and I'm no different. Only recently have I've been capable of parting with the one of a kind items I've made (with the notion that I get so much life out of seeing others in the pieces I've created.) I struggle to make a dress the same way twice; actually I never have. Every piece of clothing I have ever made has been in fact one of it's kind and if someone asks for a direct reproduction, I have always refused. Usually because of lack of materials, but sometimes it's not that, I just don't want to do it.

I just get bored. Everything I make has to be a little different from the last. Technique may have its similarities, but fabric, trim, finishing - always different. I feel like my creativity stagnates if I make something more than once. I recycle patterns/bodies/silhouettes but you would never know if you looked at the dresses because the end result is still different.

For example, these dresses I made:

The overall silhouette is the same. I shortened the waist and lengthened the skirt on the first dress, as well as added the side lacing, but the general body is basically cut from the same pattern. And the kicker, the pink dress as a gold lace bustle back for that added touch of OTT while the red one is plain and simple. 

Another example that's a little different, my recent "Walking Museum" Collection:

Same print, same upper fabric, three totally different silhouettes and trim variations, all still one of their kind. 

The painting dresses were in fact popular and highly exclusive. I couldn't meet the demand of their full potential because this time I lacked the material to meet the demand. But if I did have the material to make say, three more pieces? I still don't think I would have it in me to make copies of each piece. I would have done three totally different concepts. 

Every designer wants to make pieces they know will sell. It really sucks to put a lot of work into a piece or a collection of pieces to only see them collect dust unnoticed and unwanted. You have to remain confident and if the customer base is there, they will buy. Hinting and previewing on social media also helps to bring the hype - it's vital to being successful in the indie designer market. 

When it comes to one of a kinds however, someone of a particular size is bound to get left out, and there is where the drama starts. In 99% of cases, a lolita dress is not going to be one size fits all. (This applies even more so to the Children's dresses I've designed for Lilith et Adaila.) You feel obligated to create your pieces in additional sizes but then you run the risk of losing that exclusive title, but you want to please your customers...

The struggle. 

Ultimately, one day I will have to become content with dropping the one of a kind special when expanding my business in all facets of what I do. It's about the bottom line and productivity when it comes to really making a living off of your craft opposed to having it be just a simple hobby. If your end game is being head designer of your own company, that is the reality ahead. If you want it to remain a hobby, then maintaining exclusivity is easy. 

However, you can mass produce while at the same time creating one of a kinds, but to be truly successful, you have to be a stand out in both realms! Your one of a kinds ahve to be show stopping pieces that can be differentiated from your mass produced, but your mass produced still have to hit the mark! Until I have the means for it, I'm happy with my diamond in the ruff pieces that a handful of ladies own. 

III. Sentimentality - Owning Pieces that Have Meaning 

I recently posted my Wardrobe Post for 2015, and after rereading the descriptions I made for each dress I owned, both handmade and brand, and after reading what Chobi said on the subject, I realized how each of my pieces aren't just willy nilly grab and go one, two, threes. I mean, they are just not allowed to be.

When I first became a lolita as I've said before, I could not afford brand, plain and simple. That was my main reason for making my own pieces. Raw sewing materials are ten times less than retail and even secondhand brand prices. 

But I did desire to own brand. There are simply things that cannot be replicated, like prints. I do not desire a single brand dress that is non-printed because no matter what I can make it myself.

My first two brand dresses were gifts. That makes them highly significant to me. They were also both long time dream dresses. Then I went to Japan and bought my first brand pieces with my own money in the stores and country they originated, which made the sheer experience of acquiring them better than I could have ever imagined. If I told my sixteen year old self that she would purchase her first brand dresses during her first trip to Japan, she would cry at the thought! All six of those dresses have a huge sentimental value to me just because of that. 

Which dress was literally the very first? Metamorphose Secret Library bought directly from the Shinjuku MaruiOne shop (read that full story here) and it was the best shopping experience I could ask for. I don't think I will ever part with any of the dresses I bought in Japan of I can help it.

That leaves me with the thought - though I may have many dream dresses, for the piece to be truly valuable? There has to be a more significant form of attachment to the piece. Most of my most highly desired dream dresses have elements that I just love on a higher level than that of anything else in the fashion. From themes, to motifs, to colors (especially uncommon colors like teal and purple), the look has to be just right to make it into the high ranking dream dress status. There are also dream dresses I want more than others and I won't ever just buy something because it's there. I love the hunt, the fleeting desire, the fantasy of it all. If it's just handed to me it's no fun! I wouldn't want to magically wish all the dream dresses into my closet. They will come to me when the time is right, and if not a dream is a dream. They are just dresses. Material items are not allowed to dictate my happiness. 

Automatically, all my handmades have a certain value above all my brand dresses since I literally made them of my blood sweat and tears - often quite literally. Even though I've sold some (my whole skirt collection) or retired a couple from my wardrobe (those being my Red Velveteen JSK and my Brown Toile JSK which were my first two JSKs ever made, are now ill fitting and worn out. They have been archived away), I made them and they will forever be special. 

My goal of 2015 is to have a handmade piece in my wardrobe for all of my brand ones. I won't be buying much brand this year and instead buy more raw materials to make my own stuff in addition to making pieces to sell. 

And that was a lot of words. If you read all that? Bless your soul. It took a lot out of me to remain coherent. I rambled, but this was meant more as a personal reflection after all.

Please share your thoughts in the comments! I would really like to read some more opinions on the subject.

Thank you for reading! 


  1. I'm so glad you took the time to write this up! <3 And I'm happy to have inspired you in part (you are seriously too sweet, too, omg).

    I think you hit the nail on the head with your points about competition on the marketplace. As much as indie seamstresses support each other- and the sense of camaraderie within that circle is amazing- the sad fact is that most buyers still prefer to give their money to the "big-name" established brands, and the pool of potential customers and potential sales for indie brands diminishes for it. We have to compete against corporations and even each other at times.
    And there is definitely still a stigma against Western and indie lolita in the community at large, after so many years of dubious quality, flaky seamstresses, and plain jane rote pieces in Spoonflower's print of the week. I think this current generation of indie designers is definitely turning the tides, but we still have a ways to go before we escape association with the morass of Etsy quilting-cotton-rectangle-skirts.
    My favorite thing about Western lolita brands is the way they can bring Western perspectives to clothing and ensembles that are still distinctly lolita- your Virgin of Guadeloupe dress, I Do Declare's pieces inspired by famous films, Atelier Angel's Renaissance set. Western designers can fill in the aesthetic and inspirational gaps that Asian designers might not ever be aware of. And really, the fashion itself is derived from Western history and costume and media- viewing it through a Western lens opens up so many more possibilities than trying to emulate exactly the same aesthetics that Asian brands have already established. Competition gets so much easier when your product is one of a kind.

    - chobi

    1. Of course! I'm glad you enjoyed reading my side of things! What you wrote really made an impact on me.

      Yes, I find us home seamstresses still have that bad stigma attached to our work due to all the mediocre things out there from other home lolita seamstresses. Not to belittle other peoples work, but we all have to be honest with ourselves, that the skill levels vary and to be truly successful you really have to be up to scruff. It's important to really set yourself apart from that if you want to maintain professionalism and get a good name out there. Etsy quilters cotton rectangle skirts is just not going to do.

      And totally agreed on that Western perspective point! I never thought of it that way.

      Thanks so much for commenting!!