Cleaning the Latest Fashions Safely

Everett Childers |

When one thinks of haute couture, one thinks of the emaciated models who never smile and walk like they have a displaced hip as they show off world-famous designers’ creations. But there’s more to it than what’s depicted on television and in the glossy magazines. Look beyond the fashion-model stereotype and the weird clothes — not many people can buy these garments.
The haute-est couture is made to order for specific customers from expensive fabrics and sewn with extreme attention to detail, often using time-consuming, hand-executed techniques. In fact, the term haute couture means “high sewing.” The word “fashion,” on the other hand, is defined as something that’s popular in a culture at any given time, parallel to the definition of “fad.” Fashions are what most drycleaners should be concerned about.
Milan, New York and Paris host the world’s biggest high-fashion shows, and cities such as London, Berlin, Tokyo, Miami, Hong Kong, São Paulo, Sydney, Barcelona have substantial numbers of designers who stage annual runway presentations of couture and ready-to-wear collections.
Couture garments can be a bit bizarre. Some are intended to be worn only once and consist of rare textiles or leathers adorned with glitter, sequins, beads, pearls, hair, fur and feathers.
When making individual garments, designers perform little testing of dyes, weaves, fabrics and trims; indeed, the garments may not have been intended to be serviced. They also might contain unusual tailoring, linings, interfacings and other details.
Runway garments often feature brocades, hand-woven wools, Italian silks, French ribbons, organza, silk-lined burlap, Jersey knits, Irish linen, Scottish paisley, painted chiffon and whatever else the designers can imagine and conjure. The common thread, pun intended? These garments need to be treated gently; normal drycleaning processes will likely result in damage.
Ready-to-wear and mass-market trends tend to stick around for a while longer, slowly losing popularity over time. Mass-market fashions are made in quantity and can be reproduced quickly if the buying public likes the designs.
But the “latest” may feature unusual colors, bias cuts, and size and tailoring idiosyncrasies such as wide-legged trousers or skinny jeans. In the mass market, the trend is generally a preference for a particular piece of clothing rather than a whole new design.
As the online encyclopedia Wikipedia says, fashions vary considerably within a society according to age, social class, generation, occupation, sexual orientation, ethnicity and geography, in addition to the changes in trends that occur over time. If, for example, an older person dresses in young-people fashions, he or she may look ridiculous in the eyes of both age groups.
The terms “fashionista” and “fashion victim” refer to two types of people who follow the current fashions slavishly — one as sort of the enforcer of the trend, and the other as its hapless, unfortunate buyer.
Fashions come and go. Where are your poodle skirts, bell-bottoms and leisure suits today? Fashion is also influenced by the economy. In bad economic times, skirts and dresses get longer — get ready to see lots of floor-length garments in the next few years.
When cleaning designer and couture garments, test the fibers, fabrics, dyes and trims thoroughly to see if the garment is serviceable. If any component is not serviceable, you probably should not accept the garment. Whatever fiber makes up most of the garment is probably okay to clean, but there might be vinyl or some type of coating on it that needs to be tested with the method you plan to use to clean it.
The weave may be loose or delicate, and you will have to restrict agitation in your cleaning procedures. Dyes may not be stable to the process, and may bleed profusely. One component of the dye may be defective and produce a color change you can’t restore. Trims always cause problems; inspect and test them thoroughly.
If the garment can’t be cleaned using normal drycleaning or wetcleaning methods, you may have to attempt hand-cleaning or spot-cleaning. And speaking of spot-cleaning, when you perform stain removal on a designer garment, you must blend the entire area so that a clean area isn’t obvious next to a soiled one. This can often be accomplished by feathering the two areas so the eye can’t differentiate between them.
If testing confirms that the garment can be cleaned in the machine, it will probably need to be hand-prespotted, allowed to dry, and placed in a mesh bag prior to drycleaning to reduce agitation. Use a short cycle — it’s mostly a rinse that’s necessary.
You can program the drycleaning machine to turn once or twice and rest for a minute while the solvent circulates through the garment. You may also wish to reduce drying times and temperatures to prevent shrinkage and streaks.
Before attempting spot-cleaning or immersion on these fragile and expensive garments, of course, one should have extraordinary textile-cleaning skills. And even if you have these, you may also want to get a signed release from the customer.
You may have the choice of wetcleaning the garment. Dyes used to be more stable in drycleaning, but today’s wetcleaning techniques and additives can help retain dyes and prevent shrinkage and distortion. Follow the same testing procedures, using the same detergent you plan to use on the garment. You want to make sure that the dyes won’t run in cleaning and that the hand of the garment won’t be affected adversely.
Follow tried-and-proven wetcleaning procedures, using light agitation, premixed solutions, gentle extraction and controlled drying to a moisture content of 20% to 25%. Then, hang the garments to dry completely.
Finishing designer and couture garments after wetcleaning takes extra skill. The garment’s hand or feel must be maintained alongside its original physical dimensions. The customer will notice immediately if the garment has shrunk even slightly — these garments are fitted to order.
On a high-end garment, packaging is also important. The customer is accustomed to dealing with expensive designer retailers and the kind of packaging they furnish. Naturally, such garments should be bagged individually in a superior-quality plastic bag, with lots of tissue and any other exclusive treatments you might see fit.
It takes years to learn the textile-care trade, and it can take even longer to be able to perform cleaning services on one-of-a-kind garments. This article won’t teach you everything you need to know about cleaning high-cost, fragile, antique and couture garments; it just points out the differences between them and “regular” garments.
If you do take on these tasks, however, price your work according to the amount of knowledge and time it takes to do an effective job of cleaning. Knowledge and skill should be compensated, because even the greatest skills may not produce the desired results, and you may then be asked to compensate the owner for the damage done.
The couture, holiday and party clothing you’ll be asked to service this month before or after an event will provide you with a wide variety of fibers, fabrics, dyes and trims. Your handling of these items will separate you from “ordinary” cleaners and can enhance your standing among buyers of finer clothing in the community.

About the author

Everett Childers

Childers & Associates

Industry Consultant and Educator

Longtime industry consultant and educator Everett Childers is the author of the Master Drycleaners Notebook.


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