How to Become an Accessory Designer

Some say that nuances and accessories are what really makes an outfit. Accessory designers will probably agree with this statement. These are the people who come up with ideas for things like jewelry, scarves, hats, gloves, socks, bags and purses, shoes, sunglasses, and less common items like canes and other decorations.

Their work is similar to that of other types of fashion designers: They need to come up with an idea, sketch it –whether by hand or digitally, create a first draft, review it, and then have a sample made in order to test it out and perfect it. But accessory designers need more than just the knowledge on how to envision and create a piece, they must also understand what fashion is all about: Industry trends, clients’ wants and needs, supply and demand, and the financials behind their designs.

As a profession that can give you lots of room for creativity, it is also a demanding field, just like any industry where you will have a lot of competition. If you decide to become an accessory designer, be ready for ups and downs, having some of your designs rejected and others becoming “the next big thing”.

“Accessory Designer” is a very broad term. Like we already mentioned, there are many types of accessories, so you will need to choose which ones you’d like to start out with. Many large companies produce lines that include every type of accessory imaginable. The smaller businesses, and probably if you choose to work for yourself that’s what you will begin as, will carry only one or two niche items at first and might expand into other markets later.

This infographic gives a quick glimpse at what the industry looks like for accessory designers.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Amy Olson

Kuhfs – Owner

Quick Look Bio

  • Name:
  • Location:
  • Years in the Industry:
  • Company:
  • Twitter:

My education and professional background is in Physical therapy. I stayed home to raise my two boys for the last 12 years. I have always been interested in fashion and accessories. About two years ago, I came up with the idea for Kuhfs. I was looking for a way to change the look of my tired old boots. I went into my closet and tied a scarf around my tall boots and knew it was an idea that may work. I played around with the design for 8 months, tweaking it until I got it just the way I wanted it. I started to wear my Kuhfs around town and my friends loved them. I commissioned my friends to test drive the product for me. We wore our Kuhfs out to dinner, to Bunco night, out for drinks with friends. People started to notice the Kuhfs and comment on how much they loved them.

An average day for me is broken up into sourcing fabric, working on new design ideas and then marketing and driving sales for the existing designs. I write down weekly goals and then tackle each of them during the week. One day of the week may be spent entirely on marketing. The next day may be sourcing fabric, and then the following day I may have meetings with manufacturers. I do dislike the business side of being a designer. Paperwork, inventory control, paying taxes and keeping track of the accounting. Basically, daily business tasks.

I wish I knew how many resources are out there for new designers or small labels. I live in a Northwest suburb of Chicago and was not aware of all of the resources at my fingertips in this city. From grants to small businesses that specialize in promoting and helping new designers. Coaches, mentors and organizations all willing to help you reach your goals, you just have to look for them and then reach out to them.

Advice

Get involved
My advice would be to get involved in the fashion community if you are not already. Attend shows, network, get your name out there. Sometimes accessory designers feel they are not as important as the clothing designers. This is not true.

Plan your work and work your plan
Creative types of people find it hard to work on the business side of being a designer. We want to create new designs and products but are usually not crazy about getting out there and selling our designs. Write down your goals daily, monthly and yearly. Write out a plan on how you are going to reach those goals so you stay focused and keep moving forward.

Formal education has its advantages
I do not have any formal training in design. I do think there are advantages to getting a formal degree in fashion and design simply because you will learn what goes into creating an accessory from idea to reality. You will know the terminology, the steps involved, the other people involved in creating your vision (pattern makers, cutters, sewing contractors, etc.). You will have a better understanding of the business and how to get your product from idea to reality. I have had to learn all of this on my own. I was intimidated because I did not know the industry terminology or what insiders were talking about. I have made a lot of mistakes along the way, but it is possible to live your dream.

Start small
If you have ideas for accessories, start small. Make them at home. Test the market to see if the public really likes your designs before you make a big investment. I started by first creating the product, then tested it on my friends, then I tested the public’s reaction by attending small craft fairs. As my product continued to sell, I attended larger craft fairs and then tradeshows. I got my proof of concept and then started to form a plan for larger distribution. I asked questions, attended events, made contacts, showed my designs to people, and asked for feedback.

Chelli Look

CHC (Chelli Harms Collection) – Owner

Quick Look Bio

  • Name:
  • Location:
  • Years in the Industry:
  • Company:
  • Twitter:
  • Chelli Look
  • Chicago, IL
  • 13
  • CHC (Chelli Harms Collection)
  • @chcnewlook

When I was in high school, I wasn’t able to locate the right bag. After seeing my older sister sew a messenger bag in one of her classes, I asked her for help in doing the same. She scoffed and told me to figure it out by myself (as any older sister would). And so I did; I sketched out what I envisioned, purchased the necessary materials, and used my mom’s old Singer to construct the bag I wanted. Within months, I was making bags for friends, family and teachers. It didn’t take long for this new passion to gain some drive and CHC (Chelli Harms Collection) was born. In 2008, I graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a Bachelor’s in Fashion Retail Management. After college, I continued to grow CHC on the side while working as a Retail Visual Manager for Guess and then later at Anthropologie. After getting some brick and mortar experience, I decided to take the leap and pursue CHC full-time in October of 2013.

In general, I start my mornings early (6am) and jump right into as much computer work as possible. This can be anything having to do with emails, blogs, social media or website updates. This tends to occupy a good chunk of my morning, and then I head to my studio where I work on product development or packaging. My later afternoon to evening, I get back into any extra computer work to be followed up on. My later evenings are spent planning/adjusting the next day and remainder of the week, as well as gathering inspiration and documenting new ideas.

What I like most about my job is that it challenges me daily, because it’s more than a job, it’s a lifestyle. Complacency is one of my ultimate fears, but as an artist/crafter/entrepreneur, I don’t even get the option of complacency (which I love). What I dislike about my job (at least currently) is that because I have taken on the entrepreneurial side, I don’t get as much time creating and designing as often as I would like. And I understand that this is only for a season, but it has helped me to learn exactly what I’m good at and exactly what I am greatly challenged by.

Advice

Self-care as a creator
It can be really easy to just make and produce, make and produce. But, just as you need to in any field, it’s important to make the time to step out of the chaos and give yourself space to breathe and be inspired.

You can learn everywhere
Do not underestimate the power of learning outside of the classroom. When it comes to such a creative field, bookwork will only teach you so much. Experience takes that learning to a completely new level. Don’t look for a door to get your foot into; make a door.

Deondra Jeree

Deondra Jereé, Inc. – Owner

Quick Look Bio

  • Name:
  • Location:
  • Years in the Industry:
  • Company:
  • Twitter:
I have a degree in Graphic Design and took some continuing education courses in Fashion Design. After college, I interned at Shecky’s Beauty Company and Handbag Designer 101.
My average work day is very busy and doesn’t usually end till about 10pm. My business is my first priority, and I dedicate all of my time to it. I’m always sketching new handbags, sourcing leather, doing interviews, checking emails, updating my fashion blog called “The Luxury Column”, as well as following up with my sales reps. I love the entire design process.

One of my biggest lessons learned, is that I started trying to work with a factory overseas because it was cheaper, but after I saw how they don’t follow directions, I quickly put a stop to everything and made my way back to the U.S. All of my manufacturing is done is the U.S. and is made to order.

Advice

Hard work is key
First, I will start by saying the keys to success are hard work and determination. Consult with someone in the Accessory Design field before starting. Like any other field, Accessory Design is very competitive, so be unique and stand out; think about what makes your product different, then go for it.

Get a formal education
It will be great to get some college education in Design, maybe Fashion Design, Accessory Design or even Graphic Design. I focused my graphic design career in Fashion Label and Graphic Design.

Networking is imperative
Network. Do your research and do more networking. If someone turns you down once, it doesn’t mean they’re going to turn you down a second or third time. Keep following up with whomever you’re trying to get in touch with –if it’s a showroom, a buyer, an agent, keep following up.

Jess Decelle

Fox & Brie – Owner

Quick Look Bio

  • Name:
  • Location:
  • Years in the Industry:
  • Company:
  • Twitter:

Even as a child, I knew I wanted to do my own thing, though it took around 25 years and 2 college degrees to realize what that even meant. I have a BA in Psychology and an MA in Advertising; both attempting to find something that felt right. I’ve worked as a graphic designer, photographer, librarian, dog-walker, and children’s entertainer…continually hunting for something to call my own. While attending grad school, I began making & selling odd little creations to help pay the bills and stumbled into menswear somewhere along the way. By graduation, Fox & Brie had grown into an actual business, and I had finally found something that was truly mine.

Each day is a new adventure, and I absolutely love that! One day I may spend 12 hours sewing in the studio, the next I may be traveling for a trunk show or market. There’s enough variety to keep things interesting, while still being stable enough to feel like I’m making progress.

I love that am able to work on my own terms. I’m free to follow my instincts, make decisions, and set my work schedule. At the same time, this knowledge keeps me working hard, because I know that success is dependent on drive. The downside to this is that sometimes things don’t work out the way you plan. You can spend hours working on new designs and getting your name out there, but that may not always amount to the results that you expect.

Advice

Use time wisely
There are only so many hours in the day, and you have to know how to use them wisely. Trust your instincts, and have people that you can rely on to help you make informed decisions. You can’t waste time worrying about insignificant details when there are 100 other things that need your attention.

Create an identity
No matter what you make, there are one hundred other people making the same basic thing or something similar. Aside from the quality and design of my actual product, I spend a lot of my energy on the Fox & Brie identity. Logo design, packaging, photography, business cards, website design—they all play an important part in setting my business apart from the masses. Keeping a consistent brand identity across all platforms is an important part of this job, and sadly it’s often the most overlooked.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become an Accessory Designer?


Just like many other professions within the fashion industry, there are no real hardline requirements for Accessory Designers wishing to enter the field. You have the option of being self-taught, an apprentice, getting a little college education, or getting a full college degree. The choice is really up to you, your budget, and your learning style.

There are, of course, pros and cons when it comes to every one of these options. Accessory design, for example, is a very technical profession. You need to know the ins and outs of design, draw and sketch well, learn to use digital design programs in some cases, and understand the whole production process, not just design, to be successful. Plus, you need to be business savvy, especially if you choose to work for yourself.

What does this mean? It means that formal education is probably a great choice, since you will get a well-rounded understanding of not only design but also the industry behind it. You will have the chance to meet people in the field and get to know other students while starting to grow your professional network.

This being said, education is never a cheap option, especially if you get a degree at a private university. So if you feel you can get everything you need out of self-teaching and picking up a couple of workshops or local college courses, this could also be a great and economically smart option.

WHAT IF I DO WANT A DEGREE IN ACCESSORY DESIGN?

  • California College of the Arts
    Located in San Francisco, a great place to begin your career in accessory design, the California College of the Arts offers degrees in Fashion Design and Jewelry and Metal Arts, as well as Textiles and Printmaking. As an aspiring accessory designer you can choose one degree or combine them for your education. Tuition is $41,592 per year.
  • Cleveland Institute of Art
    Another college that offers a number of specializations is the Cleveland Institute of Art in Ohio. Once again, you have the choice of studying Fashion Design, Jewelry and Metals, or focusing on Glass or Printmaking. Tuition is an average of $35,270 per year.
  • Massachusetts College of Art and Design
    Integrated within a variety of its programs, Accessory Design is offered at Massachusetts College of Art and Design located in Boston. Here you can study Jewelry and Metalsmithing, Fashion Design, Printmaking, and Fibers. All of which can lead you towards a career in Accessory Design. Tuition is $11,000 for Massachusetts residents, $19,900 for New England residents, and $29,700 for out-of-state.
  • Pratt Institute
    An option within the fashion capital of the US in New York, Pratt Institute gives you the option of studying Fashion Design at the School of Design or Fine Arts in Jewelry at the School of Art along with additional options such as Printmaking or a generic BFA. Annual tuition averages $42,866.
  • University of Cincinnati
    Another Ohio-based school, the University of Cincinnati, has a program in Fashion Design, which you can combine with a variety of minors, such as Business or Communications, giving you a great foundation for opening your own business after your studies. In-state tuition is $11,000 for full-time students and $26,334 for out-of-state.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

As we mentioned earlier, the fashion industry is competitive, so there are many designers trying to get in at the same time. This means that in order to get in, you’ll need to work extra hard as well to maintain your position within the industry.

Probably the most important thing you need to do in order to make it as an Accessory Designer is networking. This means getting to know other designers and other professionals within the industry. Your network should be diverse, have knowledge of what you do, and know what your design style is like.

When building your network, remember that you are not only getting to know people who might help you get a job or clients, but you are also marketing yourself. This means always maintaining your brand and looking the part. If you design belts, wear them! If your thing is jewelry, show it off with your outfits. Have a style, and let people know what it is you are selling as a designer. Have business cards and a web presence that corresponds to your style.

If your idea is to get a job as an accessory designer, you can start out with an internship or an apprenticeship. You won’t make much, if anything, but you will learn a lot and meet a lot of people, which is the most valuable part of doing work for free.

If you’d like to have your own business, start selling on sites such as Facebook and Etsy. Organize parties at home to sell the accessories you make. This way you’ll start growing your market little by little.

Very importantly, be patient. Don’t expect things to happen overnight. However, with hard work, you will have the opportunity to have a fulfilling and rewarding career, which can also be quite lucrative!