There is no formal education or certification required to become a successful fashion designer, but that doesn't make the feat any easier. You will need to have a combination of drawing, sewing, and design skills, a knowledge of the fashion industry, and unparalleled perseverance. A few ideas to help you get started are outlined in this article.
Honing Your Fashion Design Skills
1. Develop your skills.
Successful fashion designers have a wide array of skills, including drawing, an eye for color and texture, an ability to visualize concepts in three dimensions, and the mechanical skills involved in sewing and cutting all types of fabrics.
• Get excellent sewing tuition if you haven't already learned this skill well. Being able to sew difficult fabric under challenging situations will stand you in excellent stead throughout your career but you need to work at it - it's a skill that doesn't come easily to many people.
• Understand how fabrics move, drape, breathe, react when worn, etc. Your in-depth knowledge of fabric is absolutely essential to using it properly when designing. Also know where to source materials from.
• Learn from existing designers, not just who they are, but their backgrounds, their signature style, the learning that they undertook, where they studied. Knowing this will help you to be a better designer yourself, as you can borrow and build on their ideas.
• Learn how to create storyboards and product ranges. Be good at researching trends through media, comparative shopping and trade shows.
• Start developing these skills at a young age. Be prepared to devote hours of time to perfecting your craft.
2. Learn more.
If you can, it makes good sense to get a diploma or degree in fashion design or a related program. You'll learn a great deal, make excellent early contacts and have ample opportunity to show off your skills in a less judgmental environment (although still be prepared to be critiqued!) Do one (or both) of the following:
• Get a degree in fashion design. Most programs are three or four years long. FIDM and Parsons are two of the most popular design schools in the United States. You will study drawing, color and composition, pattern-making, and draping. In addition to learning practical skills like these, you will also be working with industry professionals who may serve as important contacts in the future and who can give you first-hand advice and feedback on your work.
• Apply for an internship or apprenticeship. If school is not for you, or if you simply feel that real-world experience will be of more benefit to you, then find a fashion internship. You will need to have an impressive portfolio to apply and be willing to start at the bottom; interns are often given menial tasks like getting coffee. Again, the connections you make through your internship or apprenticeship will be vital as you pursue your career in fashion, and working with industry professionals will give you an opportunity to pick up important skills first-hand.
Working Out Which Fashion is Your Passion
1. Decide which designing field is your principal interest.
You may need to start at the bottom but you do need to have a goal in mind as to the type of designing you want to undertake lifelong. Are you interested most in haute couture, ready-to-wear, fitness/leisure gear, the mass market or niches such as eco wear? Each has advantages and disadvantages that you'll need to explore before reaching your final decision on which pathway to pursue. Within these major fields, you'll also need to decide on a few sub-set areas for your fashion design. You might wish to straddle a few but to begin with, don't over-extend yourself as it's better to perfect your designing within one area and then experiment when you've already got a good foothold in the industry. For example:
• Women's daywear, women's evening wear
• Men's daywear, men's evening wear
• Boys' wear and/or girls' wear; teenage wear
• Sportswear/fitness/leisure wear
• Outdoor, adventure, outerwear
• Costume design for theater, movies, the advertising industry and retailers
2. Plan some key pieces.
What is your absolute strength in designing? Perhaps you're a whizz at accesories or a genius with yoga pants. Your passion and skill are an important first part of the equation. Of course, the second part is matching this to what the market wants, which in fashion, is part convincing the market and part noticing what the market is demanding.
Deciding if the Fashion Industry is Ready for You
1. Assess your skills and personality honestly before pursuing a career in fashion design.
You may love clothes but clothing is only part of the story when undertaking fashion design. You'll also need excellent communication skills, a willingness to work very hard (often 24/7), a tough hide when criticized, an ability to cope with stress, openness to having many different clients and/or bosses, an acceptance that there will be loneliness or isolation on occasion (depending on how you set up your design business or career) and an ability to be a self-disciplined self-starter.
• Being a fashion designer is probably for you if: You want to devote your life to this career (it's your "vocation"), you don't mind uncertainty or insecurity, you are willing to stand up for what you believe in, you have distinct ideas about what is important in fashion, you listen to clients well, you know the fashion industry inside out and you live, eat and breathe fashion.
• Being a fashion designer is probably not for you if: You can't manage stress well, you don't like uncertainty or instability, you want a career without too many highs or lows, you need other people to praise your efforts, you need a lot of guidance, you hate being financially unstable and you have too many other interests in life.
Setting Yourself Up for Success
1. Get educated about the business side of fashion.
Being a successful fashion designer not only requires talent and creativity, it also requires a sound knowledge of the business and marketing aspects of the fashion world. Keep yourself updated on the happenings in the fashion industry by regularly reading trade journals like Women's Wear Daily and Daily News Record.
• Many fashion design programs include courses in marketing. Some programs/majors highlight marketing more than others, so be sure to do ample research on the coursework involved in the program you choose. If you've already undertaken a course but missed the marketing/financial side of things, consider doing short courses in these aspects of business.
• Learn beyond design. There is an entire supply chain involved in the fashion industry and you need to understand what each person's job is, so that you can see things from their perspective too, in order to make compromises, meet demands and understand where things get held up. Research what others do, such as buyers, merchandisers, pattern cutters, garment and fabric technologists, quality controllers, graders, sample machinists, sales people, PR and marketing people, fashion journalists, retailers, event organizers, fashion stylists and so forth.
• Know your customer. This skill is basic and essential and it's one a fashion designer must never lose sight of. Know how much your customers spend, what their lifestyles are, where they like to shop, how they like to shop and what they like and dislike. Know what are absolute needs and what are the things that only get bought when disposable incomes are less tight. If you have done marketing, you should have a solid understanding of how to work out customers' needs.
• Know your competitors. Always keep an eye on what other fashion designers in your area of interest are doing. At a minimum, keep up. Better still, surpass them while still meeting your customers' needs.
• Trade fairs are an excellent place to develop deeper understanding of how the fashion industry works and what will work for you in terms of meeting customer needs and staying competitive.
2. Look for fashion design jobs.
There are various ways to find work in the fashion industry as a designer and it depends on the type of designing you're interested in. In some cases, being versatile will help you a great deal, just so that you get the experience and then jump across to your real passion later. And in most cases, you'll need to be persistent and apply to many different places to get your foot in the door. For starters, some places to apply to include:
• Existing fashion houses and designers - look for internships, entry-level paid positions, assistants to designers, etc.
• Costume positions with movie studios, theaters, costume stores, etc.
• Online advertisements through various online job agencies.
• Word of mouth – use your college or fashion industry contacts to get you through the door. In an industry that values what people who already are well positioned have to say, this is a good way to get started.
3. If running your own design business, be prepared to be financially astute.
You may be exceptionally creative but be absolutely certain that if you run your own fashion label, you need to be business savvy. You do need to understand those numbers and the invoices that keep piling up on your table. If you really hate this stuff, there are good options, such as asking your accountant to take care of all things financial but it still pays to keep on top of the whole thing yourself. And if you really, really hate this side of it, look for work as a fashion designer with a fashion house instead of running your own label.
• What type of trader will you be? There are many possibilities, including sole trader, partnership, incorporated company, etc. Each has distinct advantages and disadvantages that you should discuss with your legal and financial advisers before proceeding. Be sure that you are covered for liability in all circumstances, especially if you're in a particularly litigious culture.
4. Be realistic.
You may need to be willing to move to match your market but that depends on how you work and sell. Being realistic means recognizing that it's pointless trying to sell a lot of haute couture to people who only want career clothing in a semi-rural town while it's no good trying to sell bikini to the Inuit. You'll need to focus on where your market is most likely to be and either work out whether it's best for you to live and work in that same area or how to get the distribution from your current area to the place where it's most likely to sell.
• Take into consideration the influences around you. As a creative person, part of your creative process is being around like people and sparking off their ideas and suggestions too. It's a lot harder to do this alone or working alongside people who aren't into your fashion approaches.
• Remember too that seasonality impacts fashion designing and may have an impact on the type of clothing you're producing and where you wish to sell it.
• Consider the power of online selling. Provided you use good quality three dimensional images that can be zoomed and turned, selling your fashion online to anywhere in the world is another realistic possibility nowadays. This allows you greater flexibility in where you'll live and design and can reduce the daily commute to zero. This may be ideal if you plan on staying a small fashion label. Even then however, you should still make allowances for traveling to major fashion shows.
• Living in a city with a thriving fashion industry makes good sense for many designers. According to the Global Language Monitor (GLM), the following cities were the top fashion capitals of the world in 2012, in descending order:
- London, England
- New York, US
- Barcelona, Spain
- Paris, France
- Mexico City
- Madrid, Spain
- Rome, Italy
- Sao Palo, Brazil
- Milan, Italy
- Los Angeles, US
- Berlin, Germany
Creating Your Fashion Portfolio
1. Assemble a portfolio of your work.
Your design portfolio will be vital when applying to design jobs and internships, as it is your chance to market yourself and your work. Your portfolio should display your best work, and highlight your skills and creativity. Use a high-quality binder to show that you take yourself seriously as a designer. Include the following in your portfolio:
• Hand-drawn sketches or photographs of these sketches
• Computer-drawn designs
• Mood or concept pages
• Color or textile presentation pages
• Any other pieces that fairly reflect what you're capable of doing and evolving into
• Wear your own fashions as much as possible. What better way to promote your clothing than to wear it? When people ask questions about it, be ready to explain everything in short, pithy ways that excite the listener.
• It helps to be creative with your designs by adding color.
• Be able to take insults. Nobody is perfect. Take advice from friends and family. Never give up, you can't quit your passion!
• If you're thinking of showing people your fashion drawings, think how you would look in your fashion drawings.
• Develop a good logo if running your own fashion label. It will define your style from the outset and so it needs to be good from the outset. It is worth getting a professional graphic designer on the job if you're no good at this yourself.
• Learn early on how to pack a decent lunch and snacks. Hours can be very long in fashion design and sometimes leaving your creativity zone may be impossible. Your brain needs good nutrition though, so by remembering to pack healthy lunches and snacks, you can grab something to sustain all that hard intellectual slog and physical running around without starving yourself silly.
• If you start your own fashion label, you need sound advice on everything from the beginning. Surround yourself by a trusted team of financial, legal and marketing advisers, paid according to what you need rather than having them on staff.
• Read widely. Find the biographies and true stories of fashion icons in the area of fashion that you're interested in. Learn all of the ins and outs of their experiences and see how you can use their experience to better your own. For example, if you want to shift into eco fashion, there are plenty of good trailblazer designers whose experiences have been documented, such as Toms founder Blake Mycoskie's book Start Something That Matters or any of Anita Roddick's books about the related but relevant beauty industry.
• Working as a designer can be a physically strenuous career. You will need to be willing to work unexpected long hours to meet deadlines.
• Designing for catwalks and high end fashion will bring you into direct contact with the challenging aspects of the industry, including using underweight models for fitting (thereby potentially making you complicit in encouraging unhealthy portrayals of women and men), cattiness from fellow designers and fashion industry elites and very difficult demands including tight deadlines. If you're not already an assertive person, it would be wise to spend time improving your skills in communicating and standing up for your principles.
• The fashion industry is extremely competitive; only pursue a career in fashion if it you are 100 percent devoted to the field. It also helps to grow a thick hide very early on and to learn to be discerning about criticism – most criticism is sour grapes and if you believe in yourself, you'll know when the criticism is spot on or just plain nasty.
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