On a recent weekend, I was feeling relatively slothful and ended up binge-watching the first season of Making the Cut on Amazon Prime. My understanding is that Making the Cut is basically a show where Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn decided to take their toys and go home (or at least to another platform) after leaving Project Runway. I haven’t seen Project Runway since college, so my memories of that show are vague but I think the main differences here is that this show has more of an international focus because it’s seeking fashion designers/entrepreneurs who will become the Next Big Global Brand. Or something.
And obviously, it also has a lot of Amazon-related tie-ins. Product placement in a show is always a bit sketchy but here I’m really not sure if it does the designers any favors to have the more accessible looks they create made available on Amazon. Buying clothes on Amazon is a notoriously huge gamble. Some people I know have been able to find nice stuff on there. Meanwhile, every piece of clothing I’ve ever bought on that site has been crap. I’m sure the intended effect of having these designers’ clothes available on Amazon (other than to give the designers more exposure) is to elevate Amazon’s reputation as a seller of clothing. Instead, I feel like the designers kind of suffer by the association, at least in my mind.
Anyway, that’s not why we’re here. We’re here because I want to talk about Making the Cut as an example of creative research.
Admittedly, the role of research in fashion design is not something I had considered before, mostly because fashion design is not something I think about much. But Making the Cut spends a surprising amount of time showing you just how much research can sometimes go into creating a particular look.
This was most apparent to me in the first season episode where the designers travel to Tokyo and are asked to create their own take on Japanese streetwear. Which is a thing, I guess. Anyway, after the designers receive their assignment, they are shown wandering the streets of Tokyo. Mostly, they are in search of inspiration. But a few, who are less familiar with Japanese fashion trends, also appear to be just trying to understand what Japanese streetwear even is so they can create clothes in this genre.
So now that I think about it, it makes total sense that some research would go into fashion design. For professional and creative reasons, designers need to cultivate a lot of professional knowledge about all different genres of clothing, sometimes even across cultures, not only to inspire them but also to be able to place their work in that larger conversation. In the Japanese streetwear episode, the designers are essentially finding ways to contribute to the conversation created by Japanese streetwear with their work.
Which means that that work is, in a way, a product of research. This is most apparent to me in how one designer bases her design in this episode in part on the uniforms of Japanese construction workers that she spotted on the street during her research, using the color of these uniforms and (it seems to me) taking some inspiration from their shape as well.
But how can this be? How can a piece of clothing be a product of research? There are no citations! There is no use of scholarly information! This would never pass peer review!
Obviously, the answer is that the design can be (and is) a product of research but that the research in question has different conventions than the types of research information literacy instructors almost always teach about.
Which once again proves how very limited our ideas about research can be and why they need to expand. In information literacy instruction, we tend to teach students the conventions of academic and scholarly research and cross our fingers that they’ll be able to transfer this knowledge to other research contexts throughout their lives. But the conventions of academic and scholarly research are unusually rigid and the skills needed to follow those conventions are not often needed in other contexts. Treating research as if it is one thing places severe limits on the value of what we teach.
Which is to say, maybe if the designer who used construction workers as inspiration had not been working under the artificial time constraints imposed by being in a reality competition show, she would have done more in-depth research, perhaps seeking out more conventional information sources on the internet or even in a library to learn more about Japanese streetwear. As a businesswoman, she might also have researched this fashion genre from a business perspective while considering whether to incorporate it into her work. Maybe in a business setting, there would have been some kind of report produced that did include the citation of useful sources.
But this less traditional research, undertaken specifically to enhance a creative work, probably still would have been part of her process. We need to find ways to teach students about research that captures these more creative and idiosyncratic approaches to research, including ones that do not make use of traditional or scholarly information sources. If we do that, students will have a much fuller and more realistic sense of what research actually is and what it looks like in different contexts.