On the traditional fashion calendar, the runway show is the climactic date, the unveiling of several months’ creative work. The audience sees garments animated and a designer’s curtain call, but there’s a lot that they miss. Patternmakers like Shilo Byrd work with designers to develop their ideas and produce not just the items seen on the runway, but the blueprints factories will eventually use to produce them en masse. Byrd, along with colleague Jené Stefaniak, operates Shilo Byrd Studio, a ready-to-wear patternmaking and sample room that works with numerous New York City labels. We talked to Shilo about the role studios like hers play in the industry, the pros and cons of moving to a “see-now, buy-now” model, opportunities in the plus size market, and more. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
If I was talking to someone with no connection to the fashion industry and I said, “fashion designer,” they would know exactly what I was talking about. If I said “ready-to-wear patternmaker,” though, they might not know what that entails. Could you explain what you do at Shilo Byrd Studio?
I own, with a partner, a pattern and sample room that specifically serves the New York City ready-to-wear fashion industry. In plain language, we make the directions that the factories cut and sew by, and then we sew the prototype garment that walks the runway, goes for photography, and gets used for e-commerce. That’s a very simplistic way of explaining what we do. There’s a lot of other services we offer that go along with that that are quite nuanced. We do a lot of fit development, technical documentation — different ways of translating the designers’ ideas for factory production. Regardless of whether it’s domestic or overseas, the people that are handling that information aren’t usually native English readers, if English speakers at all. So, we create the documentation and the items that allow everyone to understand what’s happening so that those ideas can be brought to life.
Were you well aware that you would be with a language barrier when you got into this line of work?
Yes, definitely. After trade laws changed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, fashion manufacturing was no longer a job done by native English speakers pretty much anywhere in the world. Obviously, there are exceptions, like Saville Row, and most factories here in New York have a couple people who are native English speakers or at least very, very fluent English speakers. There’s basically an entire career, technical design, that’s all about surmounting the language and communication issue with the factory.
For the work you do with ready-to-wear designers, can you take us through the process from first contact to the runway?
The first thing we do is have a style intake meeting. We sit down with the designer and go through the style, every aspect of it — the silhouette, the proportion, the drape, the fabrication, if they have any specific construction methods they want used. Different construction methods are used at different levels of the market. Like, a luxury-level finish is really different than a contemporary finish or a mass market finish, and different finishes are more predominant in different types of product. Menswear uses a lot more flat fells and womenswear uses a lot more French seams. So, we go through and look at the style and figure out all the different details and make sure we really understand the concept as fully as possible. Our clients come to us with quite a range of design information. Some of them, it’s a really complete tech pack with explicit measurements for every single dimension of the garment. Some of them it’s the exact opposite, it’s a scribble on a piece of paper, or they’ll just show up, like, “Here’s a reference garment I found at a military surplus store and I want to change it in a hundred ways.” And we’ll just talk through it and figure out what their product goals are.
Then, we make the pattern. Patterns are made from blocks, the most simple patterns you can possibly make, which are developed from the measurements of live models, all of whom have different measurements. A lot of people work from dress forms, but we work from live models because we’ve found it saves us a lot of time in fittings and corrections. So, we select the block that’s closest in size to the client’s sample size, and then we make the pattern flat — rulers and pencils, it’s very much a draftsman position.
After that, it goes into toile sewing. A toile is a test garment. It’s a fully operable garment for fit and design testing purposes. It’s got closures, it’s got edges, but it doesn’t have top-stitching, it doesn’t have lining. If it’s got pockets, it’ll only have one pocket, because we don’t need to sew two to test it. After toile sewing, it’ll go to fitting. We book the model, hold a fitting with the designer, and then from there figure out all the different changes they want to make to the style. Fit amendments, design shifts, if they want to rework the style completely, take it in a different direction, whatever — that’s the stage where they get to tweak. Sometimes there are obvious fit things and sometimes it’s design stuff. At that point, we go back to the pattern and make adjustments to reflect those fit corrections, and the patternmaking process is essentially complete at that stage. That process can go rounds and rounds and rounds depending on how comprehensive the changes are. We’re pretty good at nailing fit and design, though, so we don’t tend to do rounds and rounds. And the longer we work with our clients, the more we know what they’re looking for. After that, it goes to sample sewing. Our business is probably 70% pattern development, 20% sample sewing, and 10% other stuff. We’ll take sample sewing — that’s fine, we’re happy to take people’s money — but if the client is a well-established designer, they’ll have their own in-house sample sewing team, or they’ll have their factory do it, because they’ll have a good deal with their factory and it’s a good way for the factory to make sure they really understand the style before it goes to production. A lot of the smaller designers we work with, people who are just getting started, we actually really encourage them to have their factory sew their samples. If you’re not making a ton of product and you don’t have well-established factory relationships, it’s really, really important that your factory knows what to sew and how to do it, and also that you know what your factory is capable of. If they can’t sew a sample of a button-up shirt well, maybe don’t use them.
Do you have a preference between working with a designer who comes in with a fleshed out tech pack versus one who comes in with more abstract sketches and ideas?
My preference is that they have a really strong idea of what they want and that they can communicate it. I don’t care how they communicate it. We’ve had people come in with what looked like incredible tech packs but they were impossible to read, and we’ve had people come in with essentially nothing but a really clear, articulate explanation of what they were looking for. The most important thing is very clear product goals in mind and the ability to communicate them, however that may be.
More and more brands look to be moving towards a “see-now, buy-now” model. What’s to be gained from collapsing the gap between showing and selling, and what are the risks?
For designers, the big thing is that right now, their designs are getting ripped off. I walked into Forever21 three nights ago looking for a gift for my 14 year-old niece, and I was stunned to come face-to-face with a dress that I made the pattern for two months ago for a CFDA designer. They did a really bad job, but it’s definitely that dress, because it’s got some very specific design details, and I went through fittings on that dress. That dress isn’t going to go to market until August, at best. The designer had an interesting, unique concept, and fast fashion’s selling it first, and now that concept is old. The other thing is that fashion week is just not a trade event anymore. It’s absolutely a marketing event. A lot of fashion industry people are salty about that, they really want it to be an industry event, and it’s just not. As a result of the delayed calendar, designers are losing a lot of compulsion buys. With the calendar as it stands, consumers have six months to think it over, talk themselves out of it, find something else they want to buy.
From my perspective, it doesn’t change a ton. We have seasonal peaks and valleys, because my business is primarily womenswear and we serve the ready-to-wear market from luxury down to contemporary, and for the most part they all show on the fashion week calendar. So, if the calendar shifted, our busy periods would change. It’s a massive financial risk for the designers. If they’re going to sell the same time as they show, they’ll have to already have product made. In the industry, that’s called an immediate, and it’s incredibly risky. They have to pay for fabric, pay for sewing, and store garments that they aren’t sure will sell.
You tweeted recently about how the buy-now model could also be a positive for domestic manufacturing — could you explain that?
If a celebrity like Harry Styles wears a shirt and all of a sudden people want to buy it, and if that designer doesn’t have immediates made of it, what are they gonna do? They’re gonna go to a domestic factory. They can’t go to China, because that’s four weeks sewing and four weeks shipping. So, if they need it now, that means injections of money into small, domestic factories. People who can move quickly. We’ll see how that goes, though, because a lot of factories here aren’t that nimble. It’s not part of the culture of factories here. I’m sure somebody’ll do it, though — somebody’ll take the money.
The plus size market seems to finally be developing and picking up momentum. What would you tell designers who are reticent to fully enter that market?
There are rich plus women and they want to buy your clothes, not just your bags and shoes. There is a customer and they’re outrageously underserved.
So, if a designer came back and said “Well, that may be, but I’ve never designed for a plus customer before,” how would you tell them do it?
I would say take your legacy styles, take your best pant, your best pencil skirt, take your simplest dress shape, and develop those at plus and offer those. I’d also say employ a gorgeous size 16 fit model so they can see the fit in person and feel confident about the marketability of those styles.
There are retailing issues. I’ve heard brands saying that they’d do plus but there’s nowhere that they can sell them and keep their brand position intact. They don’t want to sell in the wrong market position for the brand that they’ve built. But I feel really confident that there’s a boutique somewhere, online or physically, that’ll sell high-end plus clothing.
Yeah, I would just encourage them to try it at their simplest styles, photograph it really beautifully with a great model, and see what happens. There are a number of voices in the fashion press that are really loudly advocating for plus representation, and those people are gonna help boost it. They want to see the product.
There’s so much competition in fashion and so few areas where people are like, “Give us this product!” that it’s crazy not to. It’s printing money. Maybe it’s just me in my New York City bubble, but it feels like Western culture is entering a different place of body diversity awareness and acceptance. My mother who lives in middle-of-nowhere, rural Washington State is, like, “I look great at my size,” which she’s never said in my entire life. It’s still terrible, of course, but I don’t think women are being told they need to change their figures quite as aggressively as they have in the past.
What is the misconception about the fashion industry that annoys you the most?
That’s it’s glamorous and that it’s easy. It’s not glamorous, and it’s not easy. It’s real work.
Can you tell me about your aspirations for the growth of your studio?
For a long time, we were really loosey-goosey about it, but we’ve had something exciting happen a bit accidentally. Last year, we found we were turning down swimwear again and again. People were reaching out for swimwear or for garments in associated categories. Intimates, yoga clothes, activewear — cut and sew knits as a general category. My training, as well my business partner Jené’s, is 100% wovens. So, we decided that we were going to find a freelancer to do cut and sew knits, specifically for lingerie and swim, and all of a sudden, it’s completely blown up. There are a handful of patternmaking studios in New York City that work at the very specific market level we work at, and nobody was doing intimates, swim, activewear. There are a couple factories that’ll do it in-house, but factory patternmaking tends not to be as nuanced as the work that happens in a dedicated patternmaking room. So, we ended up opening an intimates division. We now have five people working in that division. Knits has its own machinery, its completely its own animal. It’s brought us new relationships with clients, many of whom are also producing wovens.
It’s really expanded the company overall. It’s great being able to employ people who are really passionate about what they’re doing and really skilled at what they’re doing. It’s super satisfying to deliver something to a client and have them be really excited about it, and feel like we’re really competent and we’re going to see their product through.
So, now we’re doing the same thing again. We’re right on the verge of launching a denim division. We’ve hired two people that are going to be doing patternmaking and sample sewing for denim-specific products. Mainly heritage construction. Denim’s got its own culture and its own construction methods. It’s got its own machinery. The investment in machinery is going to be really intense, because you need not just a flat felling machine but this specific Union Special flat felling machine, and not just a buttonhole machine but a keyhole machine.
We believe strongly in specialists for special work. The people we’ve gathered to take the denim division forward are both super passionate about it, they own their own brands, and they’re excited to work on a larger scale. We’re gonna continue adding divisions as we grow. Chances are the next division after denim will be menswear-specific. Right now we do menswear, but it’s integrated into the normal tailored woven’s business.
Who knows where it goes from there? More and more categories. We moved into our current space in September and we’re already taking over another space in our building in a month and a half.
You’re in Greenpoint?
Yeah, Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It’s really great. We were deeper in Brooklyn in our old space, but here, there are three factories in the building, and they all serve different markets. If you time the trains right, we’re 15 minutes from the Garment District in midtown Manhattan. There’s a number of brands on our floor. I wouldn’t say it’s a mini-Garment District or anything, but there’s definitely a lot of community around here. Plenty of places to get a good coffee.
Very important. In general, what are your feelings about the health of industry in New York today?
I think it’s rebounding. People love to talk about how it’s so bad, and everything’s terrible, and this and that. I’m 37. When I was born in the late 1970s, 90% of American clothing was made in New York City. Now, it’s… I actually don’t know what the percentage is, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was less than 10%. That’s a tremendous loss of jobs, a tremendous loss of industry, and that’s worth lamenting. But that’s that. That’s done. I don’t see those trade laws changing anytime soon. I don’t see people accepting that $50 is a reasonable price to pay for a budget pair of pants now that we’re in the world of H&M.
But I do feel like it’s rebounding. New York is not going to make mass market products. The numbers don’t work. However, you can make a higher-end product here and you can make it really easily. You can walk down the street and buy wholesale zippers, and walk down the street and buy wholesale buttons, and walk down the street and be in a factory. That’s something that people complain about, because if you do it overseas, it’s all taken care of for you, but here, you can really keep your eyes on the work and make sure everything’s being done exactly as you want it. If you’re making a higher-end product, the numbers work.
There’s still a massive skilled workers gap. We struggle to find sewing all the time. Nobody sews. Nobody wants to sew.
Would that be a piece of advice you’d give to people coming up in the industry? Learn how to sew and be good at it?
We deal with educators a lot because we recruit pretty much all of our interns out of fashion design programs. One thing I would say to them is that patternmaking is a job option. Sample making is a job option. And they’re not bad pay. They pay better than design at the entry and mid-career level. For designers, there’s no income or salary ceiling, but most people aren’t going to be Hedi Slimane. That’s a lottery ticket. However, if you’re really good at sewing, you can graduate from fashion school and get a job sewing for $18 an hour straight away. That’s easy. And that’s not what a design job is going to pay. Not for awhile. Most educators just aren’t pushing those as options.