Katy Bowles charts her transition from an ambitious and classically-trained cutter, to an equally ambitious and evangelistic “technologist”, and explains why fashion industry professionals ignore the march of progress at their peril.
When I first heard the T. E. Lawrence quote aged ten, three words always stayed with me, “Make it Possible”, but I always wondered…”How?”
Unfortunately, no-one is on hand to tell you how successful individuals carved out their careers. It seems as though your only choice is to simply admire the pinnacle of their achievements and hope that one day you might follow in similar footsteps – watching and waiting until you achieve your own success. At sixteen, I threw this notion in the bin and made a ten-year plan – quite ambitious for a kid, I realise – but even then I understood that if I never set myself goals I ran the very real risk of never accomplish anything. So, I sat down and drew up a plan: what I wanted to be, where I wanted to work, what I wanted to earn and, most importantly, what I wanted to learn.
Initially, I started my professional journey as a pattern cutter and assistant designer at the factories in Yorkshire, before moving on to work at several Savile Row houses, completing my bespoke apprenticeships with Norton & Sons, Huntsman and Davies & Sons, as well as simultaneously completing my academic qualification as a Bachelor of Arts at The University of Leeds. I knew early on that I wanted to be a master cutter on the Row, but I also knew that achieving this could be nigh on impossible. Unlike today, where there are an abundance of us, back then there were no distinguished female cutters working, and only a small handful of us in training.
Always longing for additional experience, I intentionally applied to work in tailoring at the world’s finest department store and I took it upon myself to fit every cut, style, block and designer suit I could expose myself to. I fitted dozens of suits a week, whereas in the West End we might fit dozens a year. I managed to see the results of my labour in a matter of hours rather than months, and I made it my mission to fit every anthropometric figuration and body shape humanly possible.
This became the most edifying experience and the greatest learning curve I had ever been exposed to. American, Italian, Russian and Chinese drafting soon became second nature, until I could see a suit in Vogue and tell you every direct measure off the top of my head. I then applied this knowledge to my cutting in Savile Row, and to my work with my wonderfully diverse customers. I never disregarded additional experience as fruitless, even working within sales during University to teach me how consumers think and interact, their opinions on cuts and fits, what they expect from a label, and most importantly what sells.
It was during this period that I realised I didn’t want to be constrained to classic, systematic house styles. I decided that rapid progression and global exposure – rather than being restricted to one company, one ethos and one board for a decade – would be more fulfilling. In short, I wanted to know everything.
It was this thirst for knowledge that led me to complete a bespoke tailoring apprenticeship alongside my ongoing studies in the cutting room, in order to enhance my knowledge and skills within couture. Being able to correlate two and three-dimensional forms systematically seemed to deliver more clarity within my work.
Just under a decade passed before the vision was finally achieved, and I worked at various houses rising up the ranks from cutter to senior cutter, finally becoming head cutter, completely responsible for a bespoke house, dozens of my own customers and a seemingly endless workload. The responsibility and independence, as well as the immense pressures, are totally “make or break”, and those pressures define your apex ability to survive within the industry. But if you truly hone your skills and expertise the demands of the role become challenging and exciting rather than terrifying.
So why did I decide to become a technologist? Why the slight career adjustment?
Sometimes in life we set goals and dreams but neglect to plan for the eventuality of actually realising them. It was only when I established my own business in the west end that I began to feel as though I was becoming a little intellectually stagnant completing repetitive linear work day in and day out. I realised I wanted to keep achieving more, and I was tired of the narrow career spectrum. For a decade I’d research and researched and eventually exhausted the historical bespoke approach to pattern cutting, and I came to realise that I desperately did not want to be pigeonholed as a bespoke cutter, restricted to working on one street for the rest of my life.
I wanted to know both sides of the coin: hand crafted individual tailoring, and luxury, designer ready-to-wear. I wanted to become an expert all over again – this time in my field as a whole, rather than just a niche.
So I went back to University as a post-graduate and trained in Gerber technology and electronic pattern cutting. I educated myself in non-woven and fusible interlinings, industrial machinery, mechanical construction and processes, AQL control and ISO 9001 procedures, PLM systems, international factory management and establishment, international and global communication skills, database control and development, incremental grades, TQM, and technical QC. It is my firm belief that my background in traditional tailoring provided such a deep and solid foundation that these new concepts were easier to absorb and adapt to, but much of what I learned still represented a step change from what had gone before it.
A technologist has a demanding role. They work closely with product development – the buyers and designers who are contributing the technical, realistic and engineering approach to the development process. When a designer creates a two-dimensional representation of how their vision should manifest itself in reality, it is the technologist who makes it happen three dimensionally.
As Lawrence might have said, we “make it possible”.
To be a successful technologist in my field, a knowledge of pattern cutting is a must, and that kind of knowledge separates the strong from the weak. Being able to alter and manipulate blocks whilst maintaining consistency throughout seasonal collections is a huge responsibility, and the technologist works directly with the factory sample rooms to try and ensure that uniformity is always present within a brand. Expert understanding of the mechanics of garment construction whilst being competent enough to be diverse and understanding to the desires and needs of the modern designer is crucial. The role requires daily communication with factories and global production units whilst being responsible for the manufacture of thousands, sometimes millions, of garments each year.
Should something go wrong during manufacture it is our responsibility to fly out, get into the factory and put it right. Whether it is in Europe, America or the Far East, we are on hand with expert advice to ensure that no compromise is made to production times and industrial deadlines. Unlike a bespoke career, where I could fit a garment twice or sometimes three times, with designer manufacture the skill is to hit perfection first time. There are no re-bastes or re fits – no second attempts. This can be daunting or challenging depending on your perspective, but having the requisite experience and confidence to execute a decision is crucial.
It isn’t all pressure, though. International travelling, catwalk shows, and PR events are just one of the huge advantages of the position. In the past ten months alone I have visited twelve different countries, including Sweden, Italy and Bulgaria, encountering different cultures, fashions and creating life-long industry friendships. The career continuum is vast and limitless, and whatever your role within the fashion industry, it will sooner rather than later intersect with the precipitous pace of technology.
Being a technologist means retaining and nurturing the ability to be flexible – to innovate. And any individual with a passion for fashion, mathematics and intellectual challenges, would do well to explore the role of the technologist, no matter how traditional their field might seem.