This is coming from a girl who’s been working in the fashion industry. I have about 3 years of experience, worked in New York as well as Milan. I’ve seen lots of ins & outs of the industry; on one side that can be incredibly beautiful, but yet on the other side can be incredibly cruel. Want to be a fashion designer? About to graduate soon? Or thinking about majoring in it? Take a look of my list before you embark in this field.
-You will work LONG hours in a fashion design major. And you will definitely work long hours if you want to start your own line. If you would like an easy route, best to study fashion merchandising, & be a buyer / salesperson. I studied fashion design, and I remember my classmates & I would be up all hours of the night sewing, pressing, cutting, & making patterns. There were a few instances where we had to stay up ALL night working on our projects. I think the most I went was 2 days without sleep! It felt like we were working in a sweatshop for free. And if you do want to start your own line, in the beginning most likely you’re going to be the one making all the patterns, draping, & putting all the garments together. (Unless you can afford to have people help you) I will mention it again later but you REALLY need to love clothes to stay in this business.
-You need to do an internship before you get in. And best done while you’re still in school. In this tough market & job economy, it is virtually impossible these days to get an entry level job without something on your resume. And that something is your internship, the foot in the door. You only need to do an internship a few days a week; the other days you can have a different job (one that actually pays) or search for other freelance opportunities. Don’t focus on the ‘I’m not getting paid’, focus more on the fact that you’re making connections, gaining experience, getting a reference, & something else you can add to your resume. (The money is what your other job is for) Tip: Never intern more than 15 hours a week. I have seen instances where companies want people to intern for them full time. Which is illegal. And when you do intern, you will find that they will ask you to stay longer hours. Usually they’re fixated on finishing their priorities; not whether you’re actually getting a paycheck. Be polite, just say, ‘I need to go to class / to my other job’ & they won’t push you further.
-And when do you do the actual internship; work as hard as you would any job. This is your chance; & this is their chance to see how you would perform as an employee. I’ve known lots of people who started out as interns, & were promoted to full time jobs. Don’t think, ‘oh they’re not paying me so I can be late’. No. Usually the most dedicated, hardworking people, get hired.
-The job is probably not glamorous when you first start out. In the beginning, you might be changing closet hangers, steaming garments, cleaning showrooms, packing / unpacking for trunk shows, etc. Just bear in mind that this is not your WHOLE job, & once you get past it, you could be trusted with higher responsibilities. It all depends upon your performance.
-Don’t expect to get famous after you graduate from college. A lot of people have this misconception when they’re in school. I remember when I first got into design school, I took some classes in Fine Arts as well. There too, were students thought they would open galleries once they graduated school. It does happen on rare occasion, i.e. to someone like Zac Posen. But that is rare. Think about it; there are students from ALL over the world that want to study fashion. I also have a friend who embarked upon running her own line of shoes, that she designed & sold herself. After a few years, she went out of business & had to sell off all her shoes. Best to take my next tip if you do want to start your own business.
-If you do want to start your own business, start first by working for someone else. Many of the great designers usually started working as an apprentice for someone else. Like how Yves Saint Laurent started his career working for Christian Dior, before starting his own brand & clothing line. The knowledge & experience you learn is invaluable; & it’s something that no one else can teach you. If you do end up working for someone special, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity chance, & it probably won’t come again.
-Have thick skin & be resilient. And this is really important. This is not a field for very sensitive people, or those who are weak hearted. More than once I’ve been told ‘You’re not a designer.’ And I don’t listen to that because I know who I am & I love what I do. And I think the most painful things are when one gets fired / laid off, or simply screwed over by coworkers or your boss. Yes it hurts, but when you lose your job, especially when you are laid off, don’t take it personally. In any field, these are business decisions, not personal. You most likely will find coworkers / bosses who will willing throw people under the bus & get them fired for it. I think that hurts the most. The most important thing you must learn (if you haven’t already) is to be defensive, & keep in mind that being screwed over happens to everyone at some point in their lives, not only fashion. And there isn’t always a logical reason behind it. Who can explain why people get their hearts broken? Just keep in mind that you are not alone, & it hasn’t only happened to you. To survive, you must learn how to bounce back.
-Think twice about getting a Master’s degree. In all honesty, Masters degrees in fashion (unless you want to teach) are pretty much useless. The only other time I can think of when it is useful, is if you are coming from a different field / major & would like to add it to your background. i.e. if you studied fashion merchandising, & have changed your mind & would like to pursue fashion design instead, then MAYBE a Masters is worth pursuing. Usually people with a Masters degree expect a higher salary; sometimes a higher salary that companies don’t want to pay.
-Be prepared to work under stressful, high pressure situations. Frankly speaking, the fashion industry is not known to be a kind place. More than once I’ve had bosses who had constant temper tantrums & threw things. If you have great difficulty working well with stress, or easily get anxiety, then maybe fashion is not a field for you.
-You absolutely must love clothes & be able to take them seriously. I’ve known people in college who couldn’t understand the seriousness of clothing (“It’s just a pair of pants!”) & ended up changing fields. Not that I blame them. To most people, they’re just clothes; but to stay in this field you have to understand that every piece represents income & revenue. It does seem silly sometimes, that at work we get into long discussions about frivolous things like buttons, zippers, etc. But as frivolous as they seem, they are still important & clothes are incomplete without them. If it’s something you can relate to & comprehend, then I would say go for it. If it’s something that you can’t wrap your mind around, then I wouldn’t.
-If you want to work in high end, you must be willing to suffer for fashion. That is, if you want to work for someone who shows at fashion week. I’ve been told more than once that in high end companies, they work LONG hours. And I mean LONG, for the whole month before fashion week. A lady who once worked at Marc Jacobs told me sometimes they would stay in the office til 3am!! A designer at Vivienne Tam told me sometimes they sleep in the office every night right before fashion week. Glamorous? Yes. Unless you’re willing to make that kind of commitment, then best to stay away from high end fashion.
-You’re going to be expected to work overtime. And not get paid for it. Like doctors, & lawyers, salaried employees are not entitled to overtime. The only exception if is you manage to find a job that pays hourly. If you do work overtime, they are required to pay you time & a half.
-There will be times that you will have to design things that are ugly. There’s an understanding among designers, buyers, & sellers that sometimes that we just have to design / sell things that are just plain flat out ugly. Why? Because they sell. And what sells keeps you in business. And most people working in fashion are aware of that.
-A good 80%, to 90% of the American fashion industry knocks off clothes. Seriously. Most fashion companies do, & they’ve been doing that for a long time. There are very few people that are truly original. There are always people, whether they be merchandisers, or designers, they will go on shopping trips, bring back clothes, only to give them to design / production to knock them off. I remember I did some freelance at Express, & saw their storage room for what we call store-bought samples. High end bags & shoes from Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, all the way down to Zara. All to be copied & knocked off.
The only people who don’t really knock off, are people who work in high end. And keep in mind what I wrote about high end above. There are 2 ends of the spectrum, the high end (where they have high design aesthetic but work endless hours), or mass market (where the hours are more 9-5pm, but you will probably be making knock offs of knock offs), & it’s up to you to decide where in the industry you feel you belong.
-If you want to be a designer, you need to know Photoshop & Illustrator, as well as know how to make flats on the computer. A big bulk of design jobs are based on this. Better start honing your computer skills!
-As you get more experience in the field, there are always people younger than you, who can do your job for less money. And you have to bear that in mind, and this not only applies to fashion; this happens in many other fields as well. Tip: always mentions something on your resume that makes you different than everybody else; something that gives you an edge, that makes you irreplaceable.
-Employers have become extremely picky about who they hire. It’s just the nature of the business, & the job market these days. And it’s been that way for several years now. I remember 10 years ago, it used to be like, ‘Oh you can do Photoshop? Just a little bit? Come, please help us!’ Times have changed. It used to be an employee market, nowadays it’s an employer market. And quite often they want you give you a project / test before they actually hire you (& mind you it’s almost always unpaid). They do it, well, because they can, & they want to see that you can go in & hit the ground running. There have been many instances where I was 90% what they were looking for, not 100%, so I didn’t get the job. Didn’t get the job? Keep the project & put it in your portfolio, & you can pass it off as something you did for a job. (Well you did, didn’t you?)
-Don’t be a doormat. Not just in fashion, but in life as well. I’m not saying you should go in & fight with people; but people are called doormats for a reason; it’s because they get walked all over. I remember a coworker years ago, who would almost cry at the thought when they would ask him to stay overtime; because he wanted to go home & spend time with his kids. But, he didn’t have the balls to speak up. Don’t be that guy. Keep in mind that usually aggressive people reap the most rewards. As much as I don’t like to say it, but passive people usually don’t get very far in life.
-You CAN get into Fashion Week. Ah, fashion week, the event that everyone looks forward to twice a year. And unfortunately for the big designers, they are by invitation only. However, if you show up in line waiting to get in, & there is room, they may let you in. The point is that they want to fill the room; & if you go at the right time you might be able to get in & see a real fashion show. I remember some of my friends managed to get in & see one of Zac Posen’s fashion shows several years ago. I was late & didn’t make it. Also there are smaller designers that have shows where you can buy tickets to. It’s not always about the name; sometimes it’s amazing just to see fresh new talent!
I hope I’ve given you some insight into the industry. Have a question? Feel free to drop a line!