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Profiles in Sewing: Denise Dickens

Combining functionality, fit, and artistry in outerwear design
Threads, Issue #209 June/July 2020
The designer in her studio, above. Denise loves to elevate outerwear garments, adding intriguing details such as the vintage crewelwork applied to a cashmere coat, right.

Her design story began with graphic design, which, when mixed with an early love of sewing, became something more. After years of struggling to find clothes, especially outerwear, that fit her style and body, Denise Dickens decided to take matters into her own hands. She saw a niche in the market and took the opportunity to establish her company, Outside Designworks, in 2002 (OutsideDesignworks.com). She creates garments that are specially designed to fit and flatter women whose bodies don’t fit the “normal” size range found in ready-to-wear garments. Her design sensibilities target baby boomers and middle-aged women who want stylish garments made from beautiful fabrics, that also function well and fit their body types. Men’s raincoats joined the roster in 2018. Denise offers garments ranging from waterproof hooded rain slickers to luxury coats, as well as waterproof accessories. Threads spoke with Denise to find out more about her designs and inspiration.

Threads: How did you discover your love of sewing and designing?

Denise Dickens: My grandmother was an early influence on how I approach my work. She was a stickler for completing a garment to the highest quality possible. My early design work always involved her as she could make anything I could imagine, with or without a pattern and often from several mashed together magazine pictures. I loved the trips to the fabric store to pick out just the right fabrics.

TH: Why did you decide to start your own clothing business?

DD: My children refer to me as a serial designer for the variety and assorted things and projects I have taken on in my career. I entered college on the path to become a college professor and writer. Along the way, I became excited about graphic design, which I learned on the job during grad school in the University of Kentucky print shop. Next stop, a graphic design studio that worked on projects for corporations. From there, I started a company with a partner that produced decorative flags and banners. I designed aprons for the staff to wear over their own clothing. Customers commented on these, and so I made them to sell as well. When we sold the business, I started designing private label products for a retail chain of wild bird stores. Looking around for work after this product development stint, I realized that my interview clothing was not suitable. I often couldn’t find what I wanted to wear, and I thought that others with a similar style might have the same problem. When the wholesale market tanked for me in 2008, I migrated to direct-to-consumer art-to-wear shows. Now my focus is on high-performance fabrics for waterproof, windproof, breathable rainwear, with about 15 percent of my business in luxury, non-waterproof wearables.

TH: What is it about fabrics that inspires you?

DD: Every fabric has its own hand, weave, and pattern that makes it interesting to work with in garment construction. I fall in love with a fabric and then seek to understand what is the best use for it.

Recently, a colleague gifted me with pieces of vintage crewelwork. They had belonged to her mother but had been sitting in her attic for a while. I took the pieces out periodically and tried to get the musty smell and dark stains out with limited success. Last year, I was looking to add embellishments to a few of my cashmere swing coats and decided to use the crewelwork as an appliqué on a few of these coats. It was time-consuming to apply but the results are stunning.

TH: What is your design process like?

DD: I begin with either the fabric or the silhouette. If it is the fabric that has captured my imagination, I drape it over my mannequin to see how it hangs—lengthwise grain first, but also cross-grain and bias. How the fabric drapes determines the sketching, editing, and sample-making process that follows.

Often, I design to fill a void in my outerwear offerings. If this is the case, I start with the silhouette and choose fabric that can carry out the function I’ve set out to achieve with the garment. Once the materials are sourced, I move to making samples. When the proportions are right, I grade the pattern and experiment with fabrics that are functionally correct and compatible in color and texture with one another.

Denise’s waterproof coats and accessories are designed for people who feel that their sense of style isn’t represented in ready-to-wear.

TH: How do your garments differ from ready-to-wear outerwear?

DD: I hope my clothing design shows my adherence to the expressions “form follows function” and “less is more.” My garments reflect their sense of purpose: The raincoats are waterproof and breathable, they have hoods and pockets. I give careful consideration to function when designing a garment. I like to use a raglan shoulder with a cashmere coat so the jacket underneath isn’t fighting for shoulder space. With a busy, stretch cotton print, I use concealed snaps that don’t interrupt the visual fl ow of a jacket. When I start the design process for a new garment, it takes a few samples to eliminate features that distract from the functionality and wearability of the piece.

TH: How do you gain inspiration for your designs?

DD: I am inspired by travel. Anything I see, hear, or touch brings me something new to consider. Sitting at a café in a busy city and watching people walk by, with the luxury of time, is pure pleasure. I travel widely for work, as four of the art-to-wear shows I participate in are held in different cities—Baltimore, Atlanta, St. Paul, and San Francisco. This travel gives me geographic apparel information from every city.

TH: What was your greatest challenge as an outerwear designer?

DD: I’ve spent years persuading PIBs (People In Black) that vivid prints in bold colors are as appropriate as black and white. I like to start small with just a pop of color through accessories. I can try to suggest a colorful ikat scarf, a neck knot with colors and black, or a lively print rainhat. People who rely on black for the majority of their wardrobe can be difficult to change. I think that rainwear may be a good start, because who doesn’t want to be seen on a rainy, foggy day or walking the dog or crossing a street in the dark?


Erica Redfern is Threads’ assistant editor.

Photos: Ashlee Nikole Keown


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