CSU design students use innovative technology to preserve Mr. Blackwell patterns and create inspired textiles and garments

Students from digital textile design course examine historic textiles
Textile design students from the Department of Design and Merchandising look through the Blackwell Collection at the Avenir Museum for design inspiration.

If you’ve heard the name “Mr. Blackwell,” you probably associate him with his “Ten Worst Dressed Women List.” Richard Blackwell’s career as a biting fashion critic gained him world-acclaim and interviews in fashion magazines, radio, and news channels. But too often his wit overshadows his other major talent: innovative fashion designer.

Colorado State University’s Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising holds the world’s largest collection of garments, patterns, and business and advertising archives from the House of Blackwell. Now faculty, staff, and students from the Avenir Museum and the Department of Design and Merchandising are using 2D and 3D digital technologies to ensure the collection is preserved for generations to come.

An initial donation that leads to a lifelong partnership

Cates First Avenue, a dress shop in Cherry Creek owned by Lum and Montez Jenkins, carried the Blackwell line. As admirers of Blackwell’s timeless design and impeccable construction techniques, they also developed a personal collection of Blackwell garments. When their shop closed, they donated their collection to the Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising.

When Mr. Blackwell and his publicist, Harlan Boll, heard of this donation, they reached out to Linda Carlson, former curator of the Avenir Museum, and a friendship began. Through the years, this friendship grew, eventually leading Mr. Blackwell to donate his own garments and archival material to the Avenir Museum. The collection was used as a teaching tool for up-and-coming apparel design and production students, and Mr. Blackwell visited the university in 1996 to meet students and share his expertise.

The Blackwell Collection

Today, the Blackwell Collection includes garments from department stores across the country as well as the personal notes and materials donated by Mr. Blackwell himself. After the death of Mr. Blackwell (2008) and his long-time partner Robert Spencer (2014), a portion of their estate was gifted to the Avenir for the maintenance of the collection.

“We have scrapbooks that detail his career, a lot of fashion photographs, and advertisements,” said Megan Osborne, assistant curator and collections manager at the Avenir Museum. “We also have a lot of archival material about Mr. Blackwell, ‘the celebrity’ and the best/worst dressed lists which developed outside of his design career and in the end grew to overshadow it.”

Overall, the collection includes 345 Mr. Blackwell apparel pieces as well as close to 145 pattern pieces. These numbers do not include additional archival material such as scrapbooks, photos, advertisements, etc.

Many of the original pattern pieces are paper slopers (an original pattern from which many styles and sizes are based), many very large, hang from hooks as part of the collection. Since paper degrades over time, there is a push from faculty and staff to preserve this collection in a new way.

History meets technology

Blackwell and his collection have had a measured impact on students through the years. On one of Mr. Blackwell’s trips to CSU, he helped a young student with a draping assignment, and the experience was described as “life-changing.”

This young student so impacted by Blackwell’s visit was Kevin Kissell, now an assistant professor in the Department of Design and Merchandising. “Mr. Blackwell talked about his process in the design studio, embellishment, print, the idea of drapery and flow on a silhouette.  I remember I was working on a dress with a fishtail back and I didn’t want a seam on the center back and he said he’d come in and show me. It was clear he had a rich knowledge based in design.”

Because of Kissell’s interaction with Blackwell, he feels a deep personal connection to the preservation of his work and is spearheading the initiative to digitize his pattern pieces. The project began as a collaborative research project where students view the pattern pieces in existence and then digitize them so they can be stored long-term in a digital archive, where there is no fear of degradation.

Kevin Kissell holds up a garment from the Blackwell Collection
Kevin Kissell, assistant professor in design and merchandising, shares the Blackwell Collection with textile design students.

Mr. Blackwell: From Inspiration to Innovation is a digital learning initiative funded by a grant from the CSU Office of the Provost. It is an opportunity to teach and share technology with undergraduate and graduate students. Students and faculty were trained on both Lectra pattern making software (Modaris) as well as Lectra 3D to aid in the digital preservation.

The digital training to complete the project was initially delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but the additional timing has allowed for growth in the scope and impact of the project. Now, not only will pattern-making students learn the process of digitizing the collection, but textile design and draping students will have the opportunity to create work inspired by the project as well.

Student work celebrates 100 years of Mr. Blackwell

2022 marks the year that Mr. Blackwell would have celebrated his 100th birthday. This will also be the year that a large collection of collaborative student work inspired by his legacy and the impact he’s had on so many will be showcased by the Department of Design and Merchandising and the Avenir Museum.

In AM 341 – Digital Pattern Making, an additional 17 students trained on the software and the process for digitizing Mr. Blackwell’s pattern pieces.

In AM 342 – CAD Textile Design, students will develop print designs inspired by the Blackwell Collection, learning about print and experimenting with how technology can replicate his beading and embroidery styles. Each student will print out about three yards of fabric on the digital textile printers in the fabrication labs at the Nancy Richardson Design Center.

Then, the AM 340 – Draping students will construct garments from the fabrics designed by the textile design class and their silhouettes will be inspired by the timelessness of Mr. Blackwell’s work.

The work from the textile design and draping classes will be on exhibit at the end of the Spring 2022 semester. The pieces will be on display in the Design Exchange at the Nancy Richardson Design Center in the first week of May as a lead up to the Department of Design and Merchandising Fashion Show on May 6.

A larger exhibit sharing garments from the Blackwell Collection, student work, and the large-scale project to digitize and preserve the legacy of Mr. Blackwell will come to the Avenir Museum in the fall of 2022.

Mr. Blackwell’s legacy

Osborne and Kissell want students and visitors to the museum to understand Blackwell’s design philosophy and legacy. He wanted every woman to have access to beautiful clothes.

“During his career, Mr. Blackwell dressed movie stars and Broadway performers,” said Kissell, “but he was also the first fashion designer to collaborate with a retailer, creating a line for Lane Bryant. He did this to create accessible clothes for women – A) to create clothes for plus size women and B) he started this idea of collaboration which we see so much today.”

Thanks to the work of Kissell, Osborne, and the graduate and undergraduate students from the Department of Design and Merchandising, Blackwell’s legacy will continue to inspire future students.

The Avenir Museum is in the Department of Design and Merchandising, part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.