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Volume 26, Number 4 — April 2019

A Passion for Fashion: Inspiration & Training

Linda Stewart is most impressed by the designs of David Sassoon.
Linda Stewart is most impressed by the designs of David Sassoon. "I'd give most anything to learn from him," she says.
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By Angela Wampler | February 23, 2009

What inspired you to get into fashion design?

STEWART: I've never wanted to do anything else. I have a natural inclination to drawing and that is just the bend it took.

: My parents encouraged me to become whatever I wanted to be, no dream was too big nor any goal unachievable. They encouraged me to work hard and diligently at whatever task was at hand, and they never scorned creativity or creative expression. My creative expression began when I was a very young. My mom allowed me at three or four years old to pick out what I wanted to wear for the day and piece outfits together. Despite my mother's assured embarrassment from some of my fashion concoctions, I was allowed the freedom of expression. At that age I always went out of the house carrying a purse or with a strand of plastic beads or maybe a hat and, most of the time, all three.

When did you first begin making clothing?

: I started sewing for others when I was about 34.

WALLS: My mother taught me to sew and I began making clothes when I was 10. Linda Stewart started teaching me when I was 14; she taught me so much about design and about sewing before I went to college. I keep in touch with her from time to time, and I really admire her work. She is a very accomplished designer and has been recognized by some of the best in the fashion industry. I have learned and still could learn so much from her. I don't know if I will ever master the art of sewing.

Where did you go to school?

STEWART: I am self-taught. I did attend Susan Khalje's Bridal Couture School, a week-long, intensive program. It was actually the first sewing class I EVER attended. Even now, at age 61, I would love to go to Fashion Design School, but doubt it could ever happen. The more I learn (and I am constantly studying and learning), the more I realize how little I know. The master certification program that I developed for ASDP is for custom clothing sewers and designers. For people like me who had no formal training, it's a way to give us credentials and validate our skills.

: I graduated from Virginia Tech with two degrees, one in fashion design and one in merchandising management. I knew I wanted to be a fashion designer and I also knew I wanted to one day own a business in the fashion industry, so the two degrees went hand-in-hand — one is the creative side and one is the business aspect. Virginia Tech has a great fashion program. The teachers are well accredited and have studied under the most well-known names or schools in fashion. When I started in the major as a freshman, there were about 50 students and only three graduated with me. It was very intense and certainly not for the weak at heart. It took a lot of determination and hard work.

Did you train or apprentice with another designer? How was that?

STEWART: I have many mentors within ASDP who have helped me tremendously over the years, but no apprenticeships. I have been blessed to meet two of the world's greatest designers, Charles Kleibacker and David Sassoon, both of whom I greatly admire. I've taken classes on bias design with Charles and, in fact, saw him again in October in Chicago when I met Sassoon for the first time.

WALLS: I did have some great hands-on experience during college, but I never did an apprenticeship before landing my first job in the fashion industry. This is contrary to what I would recommend or to what most fashion designers do in the industry. When I graduated, there was a huge influx of designers trying to get a job — and not enough jobs. As a result, the fashion industry has become hugely competitive. For emerging designers, the credentials have to be there. Qualifications that employers look for are a degree from a prestigious fashion school, an internship with a well-known designer, and a design portfolio filled with quality, creativity, skill, and artistic ability. I was able to land my first gig with Adrienne Vittadini. She is an Italian fashion designer who became well-known in the 1980s and '90s; her label was sold in department stores like Neiman Marcus and Lord & Taylor. Since then, she has reinvented her label, stopped selling in department stores, and opened 35 of her own stores in America and a few overseas as well.

Who is your favorite and/or most influential designer, and why? What else influences your work?

I love to see what others have done, then to see how I can translate that into my own work. In addition to Kleibacker and Sassoon, other designers I especially like include Bill Blass, Bob Mackie, and Halston (born Roy Halston Frowick). One of my very favorites is Ralph Rucci. These designers focus on designing garments that flatter women. Their garments never take away from the beauty of the wearer; they only enhance. In the case of Bob Mackie, I love sparkle!! Nature is also a great influence.

WALLS: I have two favorite designers: Madeleine Vionnet and Coco Chanel [both deceased]. Vionnet introduced the bias cut dress, which women now know and love for the way it fits their bodies. She knew the figure and curves of a woman and designed figure-flattering designs to suit feminine shapes. She pushed the limits of her era and created a technique so unique for her day and that changed the face of fashion — truly inspirational. Chanel took a modernistic approach to fashion. Her design approach was inspired by menswear, which pushed the limits of fashion in a completely different way from the approach of Vionnet. Chanel is the only designer in the fashion industry named TIME Magazine's 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Both women were and are very accomplished in the fashion industry.

My biggest source of inspiration is God — the ultimate creator. It is so cool to see our world around us and know that everything from the birds, to the grass, to the bees, to our human bodies are not random or by chance, but the product of an intelligent designer. I get so much influence from nature and it is hard to pinpoint one thing in nature because there is so much to see and get inspiration from. One day the colors of some flowers on the side of the road may inspire me, the next day it may be the texture of a rose petal, and the following week it may be clouds in the sunset as I am driving. I have learned to always be open to the creative direction that I may receive in the simplest ways and in the everyday moments of life.

If you had the choice of all the designers in the world to work with/for, who would be your choice?

STEWART: Vionnet — she was the absolute master of the bias and even a day with her would be like a college education. Living today — I love the designs of David Sassoon. He's also just a nice guy, very approachable, and I'd give most anything to learn from him.

Chanel, because of her business mind and the clever ways that she invented and reinvented herself during the 20th Century. She understood style, not fashion. She once said, "Fashion passes, but style remains."

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The ribbon sleeves on this metallic jacket designed by Sarah Walls for her "Sarah Jane" line are a spin-off from a beaded-sleeve jacket that Walls designed, inspired by the abstract artist Christopher Martin.

Walls created this hip-hop dance outfit for a performance at Virginia Tech.