This story first appeared in the June 18, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

NEW YORK — It’s the proverbial chicken or egg theory — fashion style. The question comes up time and time again: What came first, the fabric or the design? Depending on who you ask, it can be either.

Catherine Malandrino describes her collections as “works in constant progress,” adding, “each has a similar feeling with a different angle.” Consequently, her trips to Premiere Vision — the biannual European fabric fair in Paris — give her the chance to both fill in her seasonal theme with the right fabric as well as bump into a few surprises.

The feeling for the sketch shown here was a combination of the inspiration she felt early on for her spring collection and her discovery of an interesting fabric at Swiss textile firm Jakob Schlaepfer, a very creative mill, according to Malandrino. “I love the irregular knitting techniques used in this fabric,” she said of the mill’s black and brown open-work fabric. “It’s net-like, but not a net, and fit in perfectly with the idea I had for an extra-feminine and very sophisticated negligee.”

Although Peter Som says he already has an idea of what he wants when he goes to the fair, “I’ll then see things that are so amazing that they’ll inspire a piece.” Sometimes, he added, “I want the fabric to speak for itself.” For the sketch of the anorak and slim pants pictured here, for instance, Som said the look started with the fabric.

“What I want for spring are clean shapes that convey lightness,” he said. He also wants some of the pieces to have a sportif feeling, albeit with a more finished, elegant fabric. When he spotted the nylon taffeta he used here at the Italian mill Clerici Tessuto, Som said it fit the bill perfectly. “Taffeta is traditionally an evening fabric so the sophisticated connotation was there, but the nylon gave it a utilitarian edge that was less precious, which is what I wanted.”

For James Coviello, inspiration for his dress, sketched here, came from an embroidered tablecloth he found in a vintage store. “I wanted a fabric for this dress that was both lightweight and casual, as well as being a great price, since I was going to be sending it to Peru to be embroidered,” he stated.

Irish mill Ulster Weavers’ linen jacquard was perfect, he noted. “The quality was amazing for the price and it really matched the idea I had back when I found the tablecloth — pretty and feminine, but casual. The dress is going to wrinkle and be worn in a very casual way, yet there is still a very proper feeling about it.”

“I always go to Premiere Vision with something in mind,” offered Tracy Reese, who shops the fair for fabrics for her signature collection and the lower-priced Plenty. “But then I’ll see things that will excite me.” The highlight of Reese’s spring sketch is the vest. “It took me four years to find a synthetic leather for the Plenty line — we can’t afford real leather for that line — and I was so excited that someone finally made it.” Her’s is by Sinpel Srl, based in Italy. For the long tunic, Reese wanted a drapey feel, so she chose a paisley print from Komar, based in France, that she would put on a silk ground in place of the rayon one offered by the mill. For the pants, “I wanted something a bit firmer than silk,” she said. Although offered on a stretch cotton, Reese would opt to use a cotton voile instead.

“I try to internalize it, I ask myself, `How would I want it to feel?”‘ she explained. “Comfort continues to be important and I want what I do to translate into something that’s wearable.”

For other designers, however, the idea of designing based on a fabric introduces the threat of uniformity — what if another designer chooses the exact same material? “That’s something I definitely don’t want,” says Michael Soheil. “For me, fabric doesn’t lead design, it’s simply a canvas. And Premiere Vision serves as a base. I change, personalize or manipulate the selections I pick. I never use the fabric as is.”

Such was the case with a blended nylon tulle he spotted some seasons back. “It was very drapey,” he said. “And that’s hard to find, especially when it’s a heavier weight like this one was.” He fashioned the tulle into a top, adding salmon-colored ostrich feathers in the folds of the tulle.

For his sketch, Soheil used two very lightweight, airy fabrics, each with a distinct texture, that were juxtaposed against each other. “The whole idea behind the design was to mix silhouettes, and the two fabrics I chose were perfect for that,” he said.

While one-half of the skirt’s shape is fluid — which was complemented by the lighter, rayon fabric — the other is more fitted, thanks to the heavier, more textured cotton blend.

“I like the difference of the smoother fabric against the rougher one with slashes,” he said. “It’s two odd combinations that come together nicely.”

Benjamin Cho, meanwhile, chose the simplicity of a white cotton and linen blend to bring his idea for the dress, pictured here, alive. “I’m not really pattern-oriented,” he pointed out. “For me, decoration is more texture-based. I like to create different textures using string, ribbon, gathers or other techniques.”

While fabric may not always be the fuel that fires an idea, designers are constantly on the lookout for materials to use in new and very creative ways.”

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