How To Design Clothing On A Video Conference Call

How We’re Working is a bi-weekly series that highlights how our community is adapting their professional lives while working from home. This week, we’re talking to Universal Standard Director of Technical Design Fatima Ahmed. When COVID-19 hit, everything about her day-to-day changed. Suddenly, a job that relied on in-person fittings and a robust team effort looked totally different. Here, Fatima talks about how she’s meeting the challenges of this new normal to continue making clothes.

 

Fatima Ahmed, as told to Universal Standard Editorial Director Amanda Richards

 

I knew in high school I wanted to pursue fashion, but my parents were worried about career prospects. They insisted I study art so I would have something to fall back on — yes, really, an art degree was my backup plan. I studied at Central Connecticut State University. The school is well known for being a teacher’s college, but I was fortunate to have some great mentors within the art and theatre departments who knew I wanted to go into fashion and were able to help me create my own curriculum to send me in the right direction.

After school, my mother “made” me move in with my best friend in NYC so I wouldn’t waste any time getting my career started. I was able to land an unpaid internship (when that was still a thing) that eventually turned into a full-time designing job. Around this time, my friend and I were also working on starting our own collection.

Then the recession of 2008 happened and I was laid off. I took it as an opportunity to throw myself all in on my brand. Soon my friend quit her job and we dedicated ourselves to a startup just as the economy was falling apart. Our brand was very successful in the first few seasons, but then the effects of the recession started hitting the small boutiques who were buying our product. As more and more stores started going out of business, we had to make the decision between sacrificing the quality and integrity of our brand, or close. After almost four years, we closed our brand and made our way back to full-time employment. 

From there I worked for corporate brands, plus-size brands, contemporary brands; you name it! By the time I made it to Universal Standard, I had experience in almost every category, at almost every price point, in almost every size of womenswear.

Here, I’m the Director of Technical Design. In a nutshell, my job is to make sure our product fits consistently across all styles across sizes 00-40, which is no easy feat. My workday is filled with developing the technical packages for new styles and reviewing samples as they come in from all of our factories. In development, we get creative direction straight from Alex Waldman, the co-founder. Head of Design Ramon Martin works with her to flesh out the collections, and then I translate all of that to the factories by breaking down each style mathematically to how it should fit.

We have to keep in mind how we want the style to look on every body type and every size. We review all our first-round samples on our size 18 fit model. From there we size it down to our size-six fit model to review on both models simultaneously. Though we fit on our core sizes, we also do a review several times per year to see every single size on every single body.  We see samples on our sizes 3XL (34-36) and our 4XL (38-40), and because our size range is so large and bodies vary so much, their feedback is invaluable. There are, on average, three or four fit rounds. That means we’re reviewing the same style as many as eight times before we approve it for production. Sometimes, I have to do some mental gymnastics to figure out why we’re having issues with a certain style. Is it a fabric issue? Was the garment sewn incorrectly, or just poorly? Is there something that doesn’t add up with the pattern itself?

I use a lot of problem solving to get to the root of a fit problem. And so much of that problem solving depends on having the rest of the team around to look at something to make sure I’m not crazy. It always helps to have another set of eyes. Once a style is approved for production, it’s onto the next designs and we start all over again.

Obviously, working during the time of COVID-19 is  much different. First and foremost, I lost half of my team in a devastating round of layoffs. We all felt the impact of that. As a startup, our team of designers was already so lean — and because of that, we were also a close-knit group. It was a real sense of loss and mourning when we realized the last time we saw each other in the office would be the actual last time we would ever see each other in the office.

Beyond the camaraderie, I really depended on my team for support in getting the samples ready for fittings, as well as the distribution of work when sending out comments. Now, it’s me measuring all the samples before they go out. It’s me working on all the comments for every style in every category. It’s me working on new technical packages for new styles.

My apartment is full of boxes of samples, and sometimes, it’s overwhelming. But on the bright side, I know I have the support of the rest of the product team, and we’re all working creatively to keep things moving as we all figure out this new normal. A technical designer’s role is so hands on there’s almost no way it can be done with social distancing. The whole timeline for fitting and commenting has turned upside down. As I receive boxes upon boxes of samples from the factories, I have to sort through everything to figure out what is priority to fit and which samples need to go to which model. We have a size 18/20 dress form, and I pre-fit everything on the form before releasing the pieces to the model so I can have an idea of what issues to look for when the models get them. After the models receive the samples, we set up a Zoom fitting and go through the fit process all over again. This time on a real person who can actually tell me how it feels. And, because nothing can ever be easy, some of the samples will fit completely differently on model than on the form. I have to draw from my experience to estimate what the corrections will be, without cutting up or pinning the samples on the models. Then, when I get the samples back from the model, I take another look on the dress form and try to come up with a happy medium for how the fit should be corrected.

I won’t lie — sometimes the day ends with me crying on my living room floor as I’m surrounded by towering boxes and piles of samples. I would much prefer to be back in the office, because my one-bedroom apartment (which I used to think was huge by NYC standards) is suddenly turning into a glorified sample closet. 

Losing that separation of work life and home life has been tough. My home isn’t the sanctuary it once was, and I miss my office chair. My dining chairs aren’t nearly as comfortable. There are positives, though, despite the difficulties. The lack of a commute has saved me so much time, and I appreciate getting to sleep in a little and not cooking dinner so late. I’ve learned that I really value personal interactions. I have a daily morning meeting with the rest of the product team and it is such a great way to start my day. We don’t get to see each other in person, but we still make a point to talk every day. Most of the time we are actually working, but we still take the time to check in with each other and see how we’re doing. The team may be smaller, but we’re all still here for one another.

 This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.