Behind-The-Scenesters: Nicolas Caito
Designers design. Photographers photograph. Models model. That much—in broad strokes, at least—is clear. But what about the artists, technicians, and industry insiders, often unpublicized and underappreciated, who help to get clothes and accessories made and shown? Call them Behind-the-Scenesters: people who shape our experience of fashion but never take a bow on the catwalk or strike a pose for the camera. Without them—from patternmakers to production designers—the show wouldn’t go on. And in our recurring series, Style.com sits down with a few of these pros to find out, basically, what they do.
Maybe the best way to understand the role Nicolas Caito plays in the design process is to think about him as a secret weapon. A coterie of designers come to Caito (left) each season, bearing sketches of their most complex designs, and Caito turns their visions into runway reality. He’s a patternmaker—modeliste, in the jargon. That may sound technical, and it is, but one has only to see the way Caito makes, say, the ruffles on a gown seem as light as a soufflé to comprehend that there’s an art to what he does, as well. Designers such as Prabal Gurung seek him out for a reason. Here, Caito talks to Style.com about the art of the cut, his part in the creative process, and the designer he’s dying to work with.
So, Nicolas: In one sentence, what do you do?
I am basically the hands of the designer. The designer creates the sketch, and I help translate that sketch into reality, into volume. I deal with all the technical problems and create the prototype of a garment. The designer is the architect. I’m his engineer.
How did you get into doing what you do?
In France, where I’m from, this is the kind of job you start when you’re young. I didn’t. I was studying international trade, and then, I really don’t know how else to say it, one day this work became a calling to me. Maybe it’s in the blood—I’m from a family of tailors and cutters. But I hadn’t been into fashion at all, until then. I went to my uncle, who has a shop in Marseilles that sells luxury men’s goods, and he took me into the back, to train me. He showed me how to sew, how to alter a jacket. Then he sent me to Paris to work with Lanvin. I was to train for three months, and at the end Lanvin offered me an apprenticeship. I was there for eight years. Then I went to Hermès, when it was designed by [Martin] Margiela; I came to New York, to work at Bill Blass, and then returned to Paris to manage the sample room at Rochas, under Olivier Theyskens. Then, about five years ago now, I came back to New York to establish my own studio.
When you work with designers, you’re not creating all their samples, are you?
No, no. Designers only bring me a few pieces, the ones they think will be the most complicated to create.
Do you have a totally free hand in figuring out the construction, or does the designer come to you with a sense of how the garment should be made?
Usually, they have some idea of the construction. Not always, and then we discuss it. In either case, I want to know what kind of fabric they would like to use, and we’ll also talk about inspiration—understanding the references helps me to translate the sketch. Then I go back to the studio, and I work with my team to start creating on one half of the mannequin. That’s the half-muslin. We’re looking for the lines, figuring out the construction, balancing the pattern. Then we double the half-muslin, and have the sewer put it together, and that’s the full-muslin. The full-muslin is the first prototype the designer will see of that sketch. I bring it back, and then we have the meeting where the designer says, yes, I like that line; no, I want the neckline different, the hem shorter. For me, that’s the really interesting part of the process.
How involved are you in the creative direction? Are you offering feedback about the neckline and the hem? Or just taking notes?
At the fitting, I’ll address the technical aspects but I don’t comment on the design. When I’m creating the half-muslin, that’s when I’m involved in the interpretation—shortening a sleeve, for example, to bring in a balance.
Aren’t you ever tempted to speak up? I mean, what if something’s really bad?
The beauty of having this studio is that I get to work with many designers, many talented people. I am forced to adapt my eye to all of these different visions, and sometimes, of course, I am less inspired than others. But the culture of patternmaking is, essentially, you don’t ever say no. You go through the process, and the designer makes the decision, what’s good or not good.
So, you’ve created the full-muslin, the prototype. What happens then?
Then we go back and create the flat paper pattern. That’s where we’re translating the volumes into the pattern, which we’ll use to cut the real fabric. Sometimes it happens that the real fabric is so different from the muslin, we have to start again from scratch. More often, there’s some slight adjustment involved. Every fabric has its own way of moving.
There are instances where a designer makes a dress, say, in two different fabrics. Is that one pattern, or two?
If we’ve draped the original pattern assuming wool, and then the designer decides to make a version in chiffon, it’s a totally new pattern. These things happen, it’s part of the process, but I like to avoid as much redoing as possible, so I ask a lot of questions. Is there a print? Will there be embroideries?
Do you also create the patterns used for production of the garments?
Yes. We start the standardization of the patterns after fashion week: We take the size zero, from the runway, and bring it up to whatever size the designer works to. As you increase the sizing, the proportions change, which requires additional fittings; if you’re going from a size zero to a size twelve, it’s quite a process, in fact. We have to make sure we’re respecting the design—in the store, you should be seeing the closest thing to the runway sample as possible.
How do you decide who to work with?
Mainly, it’s a matter of: Can you pay me? [Laughs.] No, but it’s also, I have to make sure the designer and I can communicate, that I understand what he wants. The first season I work with someone, there’s a maximum of three patterns; I don’t want to get stuck in a collaboration that isn’t working.
Is there a designer you’d love to work with?
Hussein Chalayan. He seems to be very into the craftsmanship—in each collection, he’s bringing a lot of different technical ideas, like dresses that turn into a plane, and so on. It’s very intellectual, but I feel like his ideas come from his hands, if that makes sense, the same way my ideas come from my hands.