The Fine Art of Fashion Design: It Starts With a Sketch

by Allison M. Malafronte, American Artist Magazine

Working for one of the most revered names in fashion would intimidate most designers. But Audrey Schilt, the creative director of collection at Ralph Lauren, has risen to the challenge and even learned a thing or two from the man renowned for his deft drawing ability. "Ralph has really taught me to edit my line," says Schilt, who trained at FIT and began her career as a fashion illustrator for Bergdorf Goodman. "When I begin a sketch now, I look at it as a composition. I'm looking at the shapes and the shapes within shapes," she says. "At the same time, my sketches are technically and proportionally accurate—very edited. Ralph has really taught me attention to detail without overdoing it. He tells me, 'Say it once. Sweep the line on the paper and let it be; don't draw and redraw the same lines. Say it simply.'"

Schilt's accurate simplicity is evident in all her designs, most notably in the clean lines of her aviator-themed sketches, one of which turned up in the Ralph Lauren Fall Collection 2005 ad campaign. Arriving at this collection, however, involved a more complex process, one that centered on Schilt's strength as a sketcher. "First Ralph had this idea of a 1930s aviator theme, but he wanted it updated, contemporary. So I began sketching all these concepts: taking a leather jacket and making it look more modern, taking the material from the aviator scarf and sketching a shirt and gown with the same feel—these sketches were so important in carrying Ralph's imagined idea to a visual reality. I had to conceptualize this theme, this girl, the clothing, all into one drawing."

For this collection, it was a success. But that is not always the case. As Schilt has learned, when designing for a big name in fashion, one not only has to have a skillful hand but also a strong backbone. "I'm working directly with a designer wh could change his mind on a dime, and I have to change with him," the artist admints. "I am probably doing dozens of sketches a day. I have two piles on my desk: an 'accepted' pile and a 'rejected' pile. At the end of the day, the rejected pile has about 40 sketches and the accepted pile has about five or six. That's how many drawings have to be done for every one that makes the collection." Luckly Schilt has a penchant for drawing, admitting that if she wasn't a designer she'd probably be a fine artist. "That's how much I love art," she says. "My office is filled with art books and art magazines that I am constantly referencing for inspiration."

Searching for inspiration is rarely a necessity at a label where the muse is, quire literally, delivered to you. To spark creativity for a collection, the Ralph Lauren design team assembles a "rig" of eclectic material—unusual textures and fabrics, clothing, and jewelry—from which Schilt spends a good part of her day sketching. Using Pismacolor colored pencils to draw multiple renderings of her rig-inspired visions. Schilt shows her sketches for Lauren, hoping they have captured the theme of a future collection. "He might say,'Oh, I love the feel of that girl, but I don't like her skirt.' So, then I go back and sketch and re-sketch until I 'get it,'" she reveals. "But that's what I love about working for Ralph Lauren. He's never satisfied—you feel like you're only as good as your last sketch, which forces you to constantly improve artistically."