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People in fashion: Weaving magic on screen

Computers and fashion can be an uncomfortable mix, but Paul Vogel has cracked it. He weaves fabric designs on a keyboard and sells them to the likes of Calvin Klein. By James Sherwood

FASHION doesn't like computers. Imagine the impact of virtual supermodels on Naomi Campbell's P60. Or John Galliano's horror if you could fed the code words "belle epoque" or "Masai warrior" into a machine and it designed an entire Dior haute couture collection in seconds.

Textile designer Paul Vogel has cracked the complex fashion and computers equation: creative mind plus technology equals innovation. From a funky artist's studio in Clerkenwell, London, Vogel creates computer-aided fabric designs bought by Calvin Klein, Saks Fifth Avenue, Gap and Guess.

Vogel's first floor office is dominated by two computer screens, a CD player and a wall of pages from magazines. In one corner is a pile of phone book-thick portfolios filled with fabric designs on paper.

"You see how accurately a computer can simulate woven textiles," says Vogel. "In the past, a fabric design would be sent to a mill in India with written instructions for the colour of each thread. Can you imagine the margin for error? The clients who commission me know they are getting a perfect reproduction of pattern and colour. They don't have to wait for a fabric sample to be made up on a loom. They can have 10 colour ways."

Watching Vogel work, you understand why each design can take a day to complete. The colours have to be "mixed" on screen until Vogel is satisfied. He doesn't just push "enter" and 10 colourways come up. Vogel is really weaving fabric on screen.

"The computer doesn't do the work for you," says Vogel. "It took me at least five years to really master the program I bought (originally for pounds 15) and get through all the rubbish I didn't need. And you can't work on screen unless you have practical textile knowledge."

Vogel's textile experience got off to a stellar start when he won part of the best costume Oscar for The Last Emperor. "Before I did my textile design degree in Nottingham, I worked for a printing company in London who were contracted to make the extras' costumes for the film," he says.

"They had a budget of, like, $3m and bought five original kimonos from Sotheby's. The fabrics were scanned onto screens and we printed the extras' costumes from the blueprint. It was only when I got to college that I realised I was more interested in weaving than print."

Vogel's career, leading up to the formation of Paul Vogel Design in 1991, is an encouraging yarn for any student considering further education. "I wanted to go to the Royal College of Art after Nottingham and the best way for me to go about it was to get some practical experience in the industry. I was doing a placement for Oasis at the time and they recommended me to one of Italy's leading textile designers, Cecchi Lido." Vogel got the job, got the experience and stayed in Florence for two years. He is now a guest lecturer at the Royal but was destined never to be a student there.

"The director of Cecchi Lido was passionate about making fabric: the finishes, the feel of the cloth. I was more interested in colour and pattern. I started designing one or two sample pieces for them. The next season they asked for five. Then they asked for 25. I went to Premiere Vision [a trade show] in Paris for them and liaised with buyers. We designed fabrics for Benetton, for Armani, for Gaultier. For example, Gaultier would bring a fabric sample he'd found in Camden Market and ask us to create different colour ways and commission 200 metres of it for his collection. I see the Cecchi Lido people at Premiere Vision now and they still produce patterns I created for them."

Returning to London, Vogel didn't have a factory full of technicians who would weave his designs. So he went back to the computers he had worked on in college. "Oasis offered me studio space in exchange for designs, which suited me at the time. Nobody was freelancing with computer designs at that time. Basically, one of my prints was a best-seller so Oasis asked me to create different colour ways to reinvent it." Oasis led to French Connection, John Lewis, Warehouse, Miss Selfridge and Liberty.

"I've got to a stage now where I enjoy doing consultancy work making exclusive fabric designs for the fashion producers but I also sell my own designs at Premiere Vision to the people at Calvin Klein, Saks and Gap."

The breakthrough came a year and a half ago. "We'd sold about 10 or 12 designs (for an average of pounds 250) at the first fabric fair in Paris," he says. "The next year, the Calvin Klein reps came and bought an entire group of 30 designs. They said the colours were so perfect for them. Now they will send me an image like a 1920s fashion plate and ask me to work with those colours."

"I'll tell you what I love about Calvin Klein's people. They will send a fax saying, `You've done it again. The fabric looks fantastic.' It's great to only work with people I like and respect now. That's what everyone works towards."

Despite a global business, Vogel still works in his Clerkenwell studio with one design associate. "I could have five designers working on computer screens but then I'd just be managing people. I don't want that. We will probably get a loom and produce fabric swatches again. It would be nice to get back to the fabric. I think. But for the present, I do my own designs, my own accounts and I work for my own choice of nice clients. You can't ask for a better life."