How to Become a Fashion Designer

Remember those kits where you would cut out different outfits for a paper doll? They were a real blast when you were a kid, but for some people they were more then a toy. They sparked a passion for fashion design.

When we think of this industry, runway, glamor, red carpet, and Ugly Betty are what come to mind. Most fashion designers will tell you, however, that this is just the tip of the iceberg and a very small part of what the job looks like. While it is creative and fun, it is also unpredictable, a lot of work, crazy hours and often unstable, especially if you are in business for yourself. There are also many additional aspects to being a designer, such as dealing with clients, production, financial aspects, marketing and much more.

If you really love designing and feel you can handle the ups and downs this might just be the dream career for you. Here is a glimpse of what the industry looks like and what type of design you can get into.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Shelton Wilder

Designer of the Shemie

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I love all the creative parts of my job. Coming up with the Shemie campaigns for social media and the blog. I love interacting with customers. My career as a stylist is what brought me to create the Shemie. I saw the missing piece in everyone’s wardrobe, and I couldn’t find it in any store, so that’s how it was born.

I studied business marketing at the University of Georgia. I feel this degree helped me in my businesses, but I did not pursue any fashion degrees. I didn’t get formal training, and it would have been great, but I think my path of working in the industry is the best way to learn. I worked at Benetton when I was 16, and Lori and John Lecker taught me how to be the best sales person. Then I worked at Capitol as a stylist/buyer/manager, and I learned the industry. It was invaluable!

Starting a fashion line takes a lot of money. I was not fiscally savvy at the beginning and made many mistakes. I went through bankruptcy and had a tough time for a while. Also, people need to know that it is not the glamorous business that everyone thinks. It takes years to succeed, and I’m grateful that after I aired the second time on Shark Tank, a partner came along that believes in me and specializes in the things that are my weaknesses.

Advice

Persist and work hard
My suggestion to people trying to break into the fashion industry as a designer is to work in the industry and work very hard! Meet as many people as possible and never burn any bridges. Helping others is the best way to find out what your strengths and weaknesses are, so you can build on doing what you love most. My most important suggestion is to not give up. Stay persistent, there is no such thing as overnight success.

Brand yourself
In this day of social media, it’s never too early to start growing an Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, blog and YouTube following. Start creating your own brand, even outside of your work. You are special and unique and people will care about what you have to share.

Do what you are good at
Honestly, I do not like the manufacturing process. It is so difficult and frustrating! That’s why I partnered with Raj from ACF Global, and that’s all he does. My advice is to do what you are BEST at and find experts to do the rest.

Tamara Albu

Fashion Professor at Parsons, The New School for Design

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  • Tamara Albu
  • New York City, NY
  • More than I’d like to admit
  • Fashion Professor

After earning my master’s degree in Fashion Design and Illustration, I worked for several years in my native country, Romania. Then I came to New York where I worked as a designer in the garment industry.

The shift towards education in the design field happened gradually. As Associate Professor, among other courses, I have been teaching Fashion Portfolio and Fashion Illustration at Parsons The New School for Design for many years. During the summer, I usually teach an intensive course in Paris called European Fashion: Tradition and Innovation. Until recently I held a leading position as Director of Fashion Studies Program in the School of Fashion. My academic interests are focused on traditional and experimental design processes and textile and fashion sustainability.

I am glad to say that there are no typical workdays for me. My work is divided between teaching, meeting with students, evaluating projects, contributing to several committees and professional organizations, research, paint, going to fashion shows during the fashion week, maintaining professional exchanges with fellow professors from universities around the world, to name just a few from a multitude of undertakings. Each day might require a different combination of these tasks.

Advice

Get an internship
I always advise my students to extend their learning energy to interning for companies in the fashion field. The real life experience will give them the opportunity to understand and experience firsthand the field they are choosing for their future career. It will not only give them a glimpse into the real world of Fashion Industry but also facilitates building professional contacts and opportunities that may help them enter in the fashion realm.

Be true to your passion
It might sound cliché, but I cannot think of any other way to put it. Be informed, but at the same time true to yourself. Design with passion, let your creative mind be free. Give 100% of your talent and a hundred times more of hard work, determination and perseverance.

Cynthia Jamin

Girls Clothing

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  • Cynthia Jamin
  • Los Angeles, CA
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  • TwirlyGirl
  • Girls Clothing
  • TwirlyGirlshop

Owning my own business forces me to wear a lot of hats. Handling my customers always comes first.

Then my focus turns to production. After that I need to deal with logistics. Of course, I have employees and contractors, but being the owner, I know exactly what is going on with everyone. I also listen to what issues come up, review emails from customers, and take note of what could be done better.

I love creating new designs, shopping for fabrics, putting together the cuts for production. I love being creative and being connected to that energy. I’m always thinking of my customers when I create, so what I produce will appeal to their needs and desires. Some people may think that a designer should be following their vision alone. I don’t agree. I think there is a balance between what you want to design, and what your audience wants.

I think one should gain information from many sources. Talking to those who are doing what you want to do is super helpful and valuable. School opens the mind and allows you to explore many paths. I am mostly self-taught, though. I did go to a few classes at OTIS School of Design in Los Angeles, and I’ve never taken a business course, but I do think it would be helpful to explore how to run a business. There is so much information to be found on the internet now. You could teach yourself a multitude of things if you have the passion to find the information.

Advice

Meet the right people
Networking can be so crucial when breaking into any career. Find where that particular community hangs out, via Facebook groups, coffee shops, etc. Ask friends if they know anyone who is doing what you want to do.

Think of the needs of others
Hone your ideas so that you can find that balance between what you love to do and what people want and need. Take all the times that you feel discouraged and look at them with a different lens.

Nicole Giordano

Community and Support System for Emerging Fashion Designers

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  • Nicole Giordano
  • Global
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  • Founder, StartUp FASHION
  • Support new Fashion Designers
  • @startupfashion

I love helping designers build the lives they want. It’s not easy to succeed in this business, but success doesn’t have to be the cover of a major magazine and a fashion empire. My favorite part of what I do is helping designers to figure out what it is that they truly want and teaching them the steps to get there.

My job varies every single day. I spend time in our membership community advising designers, I work on business development and partnerships, marketing, PR, finance, you name it. This same thing is true for our members. Because the majority of them are new businesses, they are doing a lot of things themselves. One of the things that I hear from almost every emerging designer I know is how surprised they are that so little of their time is actually spent designing. The business side takes up 90% of their time.

I studied Textile Design at Philadelphia University. If you’re going to study fashion design, I would highly recommend taking electives or outside courses in business; classes like finance, marketing, sales, and operations. And vice-versa, if you plan to study business, then I would recommend taking a few courses at a design school to help polish your approach to design and deepen your understanding of the industry.

To be completely honest, I don’t believe that you need to go to school for any of these things if you don’t want to; at least not in the formal education way. I believe that you can be disciplined to educate yourself through books, blogs, online courses and workshops, seeking advice from others in the industry, and learning from your own experience.

Advice

Create a network
Meet and connect with fellow designers, mentors, advisers, and other people who are doing amazing things. These people will be your support system.

Be true to yourself
If you build a business based on your values and beliefs, and are never scared to share those values and beliefs, your customers will do most of your marketing for you. Keep an open mind and never be scared to alter the plan as you learn new things about yourself, your business, and your customers.

Read
My favorite business books include Start with Why, The E Myth Revisited, Contagious, Jab Jab Jab, Right Hook, and Raving Fans (just to name a few).

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Fashion Designer?


There are no set rules for what you need to study to become a fashion designer. Many of the most successful designers started out in a different industry or as interns and apprentices to others. This being said, it is recommended to take courses or a degree to get started in the industry.

Fashion design is extremely multifaceted, you need to know how to design, yes, but you also need to know how to cut and sew fabrics, know how to use CAT and Adobe software to create your designs digitally, need to understand the industry and the market, connect with your clients, and have a network in the fashion business.

So while all of these can be learned by doing, it is advisable to take at least technical courses, for example, to learn the technology behind digital design, as well as skills related to sewing and fabrics.

Meanwhile, it is also important to remember that a degree in fashion will not only teach you the various aspects of design, it will give you four years to practice and hone your skills while exploring the type of designer you want to become. On the other hand, it will help you build a network, which is potentially the most important part of the business.

WHAT IF I DO WANT A FASHION DEGREE?

Many schools offer programs in fashion design, these are some of the top ones both in the US and around the world.

  • Parsons, The New School for Design
    Located in New York, Parsons offers a number of programs, including associates degrees in fashion design and marketing, a BFA in fashion design, and masters level studies. All these take slightly different approaches. Due to it’s location, Parsons has the advantage of being in the heart of everything, giving students the opportunity to begin working within the fashion industry and to network. Tuition cost is at $1,390 per credit.
  • The Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT)
    FIT, also located in NYC, offers a wide range of programs, among them a BFA in fashion design but also such programs as textile design, jewelry design, and accessories design. They also offer master’s degrees in fashion. In-state tuition is $5,200, but if you are out-of-state it goes up to $27,362.
  • Pratt Institute
    Not so far from the other schools we just mentioned, Pratt’s main campus is located in Brooklyn and is ranked as one of the top schools in the US. The School of Design offers a BFA in fashion design. Tuition here is similar to Parsons, at $1,383 per credit.
  • Academy of Art University
    Another prime fashion location, AAU, is located in San Francisco, CA. Here you can get a BFA in fashion or fashion styling, a BA in fashion journalism, or an Associate of Arts in any of the above. It is also possible to take the next step to obtain a masters level degree at AAU. The estimate of expenses for an undergrad is $22,086 per year.

While all these colleges offer study abroad options to their students, if you’d like to get your fashion design degree outside of the US, here are a few top-ranked options around the world.

  • University of the Arts London, Central Saint Martin
    Located in another fashion capital of the world, London, CSM offers 10 different fashion BA concentrations, as well as master’s level studies. There are also pre-university integration courses offered here. International students pay tuition fees of 15,180 pounds per year.
  • Istituto Marangoni, Milan
    The cradle of fashion – Milan – and Istituto Maragoni offer a range of courses, starting from 1-year diplomas to 3-year BA degrees, to master’s level studies at the fashion school, with specializations that include business, design, styling, and branding among others. Courses are not only offered in Milan, but also in Paris, London and Shanghai. Tuition fees are 14,500 euros.
  • Bunka Fashion College, Tokyo
    Another important fashion industry market is Japan, and the Bunka Fashion College is world-renowned to be one of the best schools in Asia for fashion designers. With departments in fashion creation, technology, marketing and distribution, as well as accessories and textiles, Bunka covers all aspects of the career. Tuition currently stands at 650,000 yen (or US$5,600), but with enrollment and extra fees, the price is really double.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

Whether you have completed a degree in fashion design or not, you will need to get into the industry, one way or another.

In all of the interviews we have conducted with our experts, there is one piece of advice that is highlighted by every single one: be persistent. This is an extremely competitive industry where you will have to knock on many doors, but your effort can be rewarded by a truly satisfying and often very successful career.

You will need a portfolio of your work but also the guts to knock on doors. Aside from sheer networking, you may have to send “cold” e-mails or go door-to-door with your work. You may also want to do an internship in one of the leading companies in the industry, but this won’t necessarily be that easy to land either. So again, be prepared for perseverance.

And remember, the more contacts you have, the better. Use social media to position yourself. Go to events and parties, even if you might prefer to stay in and watch a movie on the couch. It is essential to live and breathe fashion in order to be successful in the industry!