I had grown up around sewers -- my mother, grandmother and sisters -- so I had a general idea about how clothing was made.

Personal Information

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Philip Sawyer


Apparel Designer and Part-time Lecturer/Critic


Boston, MA






Wheaton College
B.A., Religious Philosophy (Asian), Art

Career Bio

The profession

Apparel design & manufacture, and international educational development work.

How I got here

I've designed and made things -- models of buildings, flying model aircraft, cars, to building renovations and repairs -- since I was 5 or 6 years old, adding every drafting course I could take through middle school and high school. I thought I would be an architect or product designer, but began college at a liberal arts school and wound up majoring in Asian Religious Philosophy and Art. Beginning my junior year, I had just returned from Europe, and was very unhappy with American men's clothing. I had grown up around sewers -- my mother, grandmother and sisters -- so I had a general idea about how clothing was made. While taking a sculpture course, and being bored out of my mind, I designed and had a tailor make a suit, after which I realized I might be able to learn how to do it, too. Not having other resources available, I found pattern books and took apart suits from Goodwill, re-cutting one that was too large to my size, and in that way beginning to learn about construction. Fast forward 4 years to getting married and moving to Boston. My wife's co-workers at Lord & Taylor all wanted to know where she got her clothing, and I began to get some private client work. A year later, we ended up moving to NYC, where I took a run at starting my own clothing business, and took some apparel courses at FIT. After 5 years, and some small amount of success, I wanted a more stable life and went back to school. To keep it brief, over the next 20 years I got a degree in International Business/Int'l Affairs, and worked as a non-profit auditor and accountant, design lab administrator for a display design and manufacturing business, and then a non-profit program director setting up medical and other educational programs/exchanges in Vietnam. Then I hit a wall. It was obvious to everyone that I needed to return to my first real love, clothing design. I was also realizing that my abilities were slowly but surely slipping away, which can be truly frightening. I relaunched my clothing business, this time focusing on women's wear, and have not looked back. Part of this process involved returning to the East coast, Providence in particular. After 4 years there, we returned to Boston, and a large artist community in Fort Point. I also was connected up with RISD's Continuing Education program about a year after moving to Providence, and have been the advisor to the Apparel Certificate program since then. That exposure in turn led to my being asked to teach for the RISD Apparel Department one year ago. Additionally, we never entirely lost our connection to S.E. Asia (my wife is also from there), and about 2 years ago, as a result of my wife's return to find some ethnic minority women repatriated from forced marriages and the sex trade, we began to develop a training program to help provide them with skills and work. That work is slowly expanding. Clearly, my specific educational path is not usual, however it has definitely prepared me for all that I have done over the last 35 years. One thing I've learned is that life is not a straight line, although one can try to force it into one. Instead, life comes together well while one is both doing what is necessary and pursuing natural abilities, talents, and curiosity about the world. I would dare to say that it might take longer to "succeed", but those people who refuse to simply do what is expedient or seems most practical are those who find the most success in life -- recognition for achievement, overall satisfaction, and don't want to "retire". As far as prerequisites, training and developing solid work habits are of course of great importance, but having an innate curiosity about the world, and one's field in particular; taking joy in one's work; a continual striving for excellence; an interest in others; and pushing to take risks and make mistakes -- financially, technically, and in every other way so one is always learning -- are of at least equal importance. Personal character and perseverance matters at least as much as formal training. And, of course, having people around who encourage and support you emotionally. Don't worry about, or waste time on people who are continually tearing you down, even if they mean well. Know yourself, set your own goals, and do it. Make your own road, if you must.

A typical day

Even before getting out of bed or fully waking up, I spend some time thinking about the day -- what needs to be done and how to go about it. Often, my answers to the previous day's questions come clear then. Then, I get up and get dressed, and eat breakfast, before jumping into the day's work. Most days I work alone, or with my wife. Sometimes with a sewer/samplemaker. I go to my studio, or to school. I might check email first, but only deal with something urgent or not until noon. It depends what comes across. Make phone calls if necessary. Then begin work on patterns, samples, design development, accounting, etc., so that I have a focused block of time, without which little gets accomplished. On days that I teach, I usually have to start my commute late morning, and use it to catch up on correspondence, news, etc. Around noon, or 1pm, I eat a little lunch, look at email again. If I'm teaching, I start my class and work with students, until around 6pm. If I'm at my studio, I also work until around 6, at which point I take a break to look at email again, going back to work after. Dinner is usually around 8:00 or 9:00, and bed around midnight.

The hardest parts

Juggling the various tasks of running a business, and teaching. Finding enough time for product development, sales, etc.

The best parts

The problem solving, and making. Working with others, and travel, are second.

The myths of the profession

It's mostly about drawing pretty pictures and coming up with cool designs. That's only the first half-step. Working out the designs, finding the right materials, selling the designs, are the bulk of the job.

The workplace

My studio is in a live/work loft space, in a building populated mostly with around 200 other artists. The city is essentially right outside my door, and I'm minutes from places that inspire me. Space is a bit tight, but adequate, light is very important. I could wear anything, especially teaching at a design school, but tend to dress in a way that "fits" but also requires little thought. What some might call a bit formal, but is actually the simplest approach.

Advice for someone thinking about going into the field

Be curious about the world, and become a voracious consumer of information and knowledge. Learn as much as you can, from books, from others, from existing objects -- then, do your work so that you are learning something new every day, that is, pushing yourself and making educated mistakes. Exclude nothing. It all matters. It will all have some sort of input into your work. Find mentors, and mentors who don't try and make you in their own mold.

Advice to my younger self

Take more risks early on. Get out more. Develop more contacts. But not at the expense of the focused time required to pay attention to yourself and do excellent work.