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Dressed to thrill in sweet wrappers

Lime will be out, magenta in. But will we want to wear bin-liners with crisp bags? Andy Walker looks at whether pupils can work with the same methods as designers. When you go to the store to buy clothes, how much of a choice do you get? Not as much as you might think. The fashion industry employs a small army of market analysts whose job is to predict accurately the shape and the colour of what you are going to want to wear in 18 months' time.

This is one of many discoveries I found in making a Channel 4 television series, Real Life Design, about toys, textiles, food and electronic controls. The fashion industry has a sort of "bible" of up-to-date colour predictions which most designers work to.

When Julie Ingham, a textile designer, sets off to Kew Gardens in search of ideas she's been told by her agent exactly what to look for. The bright yellows and acid-greens that everyone is wearing now will be out; soft mauves, magentas and purples will be in. She finds these delicate colours in profusion at the orchid house at Kew and transfers them from her sketch pad back at the workshop.

Every year textile manufacturers bring out new ranges of fabric design. The Courtaulds rep is showing her new themes to fashion designer Diane Hodge. Her designs have evocative titles like Refresh ("youthful, occasional wear"), Escape ("bright colours for high summer"), Essence ("yellows for an elegant tailored look") and Hydro ("shades of romantic blue"). These titles or "stories" are starting points for co-ordinating a collection of clothes and Diane Hodge may order them or design her own fabrics and get Courtaulds to print them for her. But what has all this got to do with what pupils in school are doing?

At Haberdashers' Aske's College in South London Year 8 pupils on a seven-week project are designing waistcoats and they start off with what they call a "mood board", an idea similar to the Courtaulds stories. Pupils collect colour photographs from magazines and decide which their key colours are going to be. They then add swatches of colour cut from the fabrics they plan to use to create the look and mood of the waistcoat. They can choose one of three themes: a smart design for spring, an endangered species or a wacky design using recycled materials.

One pupil is going for a fashionable blue and a straw colour in a design she calls "vanilla"; her mood board features a seaside postcard with the deep blues of sea and pale yellow sand. Another has chosen bright green and gold, the Jamaican colours "because I like them and because my dad likes them" and her board features fruit and flowers.

The students draw three versions of their chosen design. The Seven Dwarves (an endangered species?) and black plastic bin-liners decorated with crisp bags and sweet wrappers (wacky and recycled) are among the 20 or so designs. Teacher Sarah Lawrence, who did a fashion and textiles degree with an arts emphasis, says: "I get them to concentrate more on the decoration of the waistcoat, using printing, dyeing and applique to produce a patterned fabric, rather than the construction of the garment."

At Southlands High School in Chorley, Lancashire, the aim in Year 9 is to produce a wearable garment so boys make things like boxer shorts, jackets and pyjamas while the girls tend to go for dresses, skirts and tops. They have a half-year for this. They can either design the garment from their own measurements and make their own pattern or buy a commercial one. Whichever method they adopt, they can add their own decorations.

Teacher Sue Hamilton, who trained in textiles and tailoring in the traditional days of home economics, says: "I emphasise the importance of the construction and finish of the garment which teaches the skills pupils are going to need in Year l0." This year they're making hats: "You have to move with the times, " she says. When they've finished, they organise a fashion parade for the year below to give them some ideas.

Diane Hodge, a fashion designer who specialises in clothes for businesswomen, likes to draw a lot of ideas once she's chosen the fabrics and she urges students not to be afraid of the blank page. "Go for lots of ideas," she says. "Sketch out everything you fancy and if you don't like it tear it up and start again."

Ideas are at a premium in the fashion business and here pupils can score because good ideas are not the sole province of the professionals. Designers will raid every source they can lay hands on: famous paintings, shots, posters, nature, architecture, the list is endless and pupils can get access to the same sources.

Diane Hodge recently produced a print for blouses based on black-and-white photographs of New York. The shots of skyscrapers and the gritty detail of some of the older buildings, were photocopied and cut up and re-arranged before being handed to an artist who transferred the design to a silk screen. The resulting fabric, Manhattan, came in different shades of pinks, blues and greens and proved an attractive design from an unlikely source. It's what she calls a "conversation piece": people ask the wearer "where have I seen that before?" A good ice-breaker at parties.

Diane tends to follow the guidelines in the "bible", but some designers say they take no notice of it. Wayne Hemingway, who founded "Red or Dead" with his wife, says anyone can be a designer if they use their eyes. His recent collection, which I filmed at the London Fashion Week, featured designs from poster art of East European communist countries of the Thirties. Heavy reds against black, circles looking as though an earthquake had fractured them and shifted them half sideways. Some of his fabrics looked as though they'd walked straight off the page of the art book that had inspired them. Elongated profiles of past communist leaders on a dress, the winding gear of a colliery for a T-shirt but done in a subtle way so that unless you looked closely you wouldn't know you were wearing a picture of a coal-mine.

In a reasonably equipped textile workshop pupils can do a lot to produce their own prints and fabric designs. At Haberdashers' Aske's one girl uses tie and dye to obtain an effect like waves on the sea, although the result looks more like coral islands seen from an aircraft. Some sew on applique flowers and one pupil designs an embroidery of her initials on computer-aided design and stitches them with a computer-linked embroidery machine.

These are just some of the ways in which textiles, far from being the "soft option" of technology subjects, are a good medium for teaching how designers in industry work and all students can learn a lot of skills in the process.

Real Life Design is on Channel 4 from January 10 Andy Walker is an independent producer and director and made the series Real Life Design for Poseidon Film Distributors for Channel 4

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