How to Become a Shoe Designer
Getting Started as a Shoe Designer
To the fashion novice, the shoe design industry is merely a branch on the much-larger fashion design tree. And while that may be true to some extent, it seems disingenuous to call a global market that will reach $195 billion by the end of 2015 just a “branch” on a tree. Luxury brands like Christian Louboutin, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton rake in millions of dollars in sales thanks to their pricy footwear, and apparel giants like Nike, Reebok and Adidas built the foundation of their companies on footwear and footwear design. This is not some little-known offshoot of the design industry; it is big business, and thus it can make some aspiring shoe designers see stars and dollar signs dancing in their heads. That said, the shoe design industry is shifting, and the market is declining as demand for cheaper, outsourced product rises and technology advancements, such as computer-aided design make it easier for the less skilled to find a foothold in the industry. This doesn’t mean that aspiring designers should be discouraged from becoming professional shoe designers, it just means that they should be fully aware of what they are getting themselves into when they try to break into one of the most competitive and cutthroat industries in the fashion world.
Not every shoe designer has to make a living working as a cog in a larger machine. As our experts will attest, it is possible to start a bootstrap shoe design operation and become successful. But they also caution that it is far from easy and requires hard work, dedication, business savvy, and skill. There is no right or wrong way to enter the shoe design industry. Some designers start as assistants or apprentices, others take menial jobs with big companies and try to work their way up; while others still just throw caution to the wind and set out to make a career of it on their own. There are so many different paths to travel to success in the shoe design industry that it is easy to understand why aspiring shoe designers can be confused or misinformed, or even scared when it comes to making a decision about their professional future. But there are also rewards at the end of the tunnel.
For one, fashion designers – including shoe designers – have the potential to make a lot of money. As of May 2012, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that fashion designers made an average annual salary of more than $60,000, with the top 10 percent of the industry earning upwards of $125,000. The industry may be declining and hyper-competitive, but those average salaries are well above the national averages for other occupations. Also, while shoe designers don’t often see their names in lights the same way actors or entertainers do, shoe design can be a glamorous industry and plenty of great designers have become internationally famous thanks to the power and draw of the fashion world. To aid aspiring shoe designers looking for concrete information and tips on how to get started in the industry, we asked a number of professionals to share their experiences and also created a handy visual to serve as an overview.
- Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM)
One of the premier fashion design schools in the country, it should be no surprise that FIDM has a footwear design program that is both popular and prestigious. The instructors are almost all professional shoe designers with worlds of experience to share, and the program spares no expense when it comes to resources and experiences. Students will get to travel to China, meet with footwear executives, and tour factories. They will also get a crash course in the basics of footwear design and will learn how to develop coherent footwear collections.
One of the few design academies specifically geared towards shoe design, PENSOLE has rapidly made a name for itself by attracting some of the best shoe designers in the country to the faculty and by initiating a “learn by doing” curriculum that forces students to learn the industry from a hands-on perspective. The school has also worked to develop partnerships with fashion education giants such as Parsons and Art Center College of Design so that students have a bulletproof foundation in design to go with the more unique and diverse aspects of the curriculum.
- University of Oregon
Considering that Nike’s headquarters are right down the road and that Nike founder Phil Knight is a major donor to the school, it should be no surprise that the University’s product design program is becoming one of the most popular in the country. Students get an education in both the material and theoretical aspects of product design, while also getting opportunities to learn the business side of things and work with some of the best resources the industry has to offer. The program is the perfect blend of traditional broad collegiate education and more specific design-focused education.
- Otis College of Art and Design
Otis is one of the most prestigious art and design schools in the country and its product design program is a shining example of why. The multidisciplinary field teaches all aspects of product design, includes computer-aided design education, as well as 2D and 3D design processes and makes a concerted effort to blend business, entrepreneurship and design in to one program that so that graduates not only have the college diploma on their resume but are also prepared to confront all paths to design success.
GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR
As always, networking is the name of the game. Any expert in a particular field will tell you that networking is the key to get ahead and get your foot in the door, but it is especially true in the hyper-competitive and fast-paced fashion industry. Many of our experts cautioned that in order to become a success in the fashion industry, you need to be willing to start at the bottom, and that means interning or apprenticing for a shoe designer or fashion designer. But in order to find even those jobs, you need to put yourself in front of people in the industry and you need to be willing to go out and meet as many potential employers as possible. They are the people that will not only help you get a leg up in the industry but will also be valuable resources to learn from so that you can hone your craft and become a better shoe designer as well.