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Learn the Basics of Accessory Design

Accessory designers create the ornaments and accents that complete an outfit or fashion design. This work may include, but is certainly not limited to, shoes, hats, jewelry, handbags, hair accessories, and many other fashion items that aren't considered clothing. Often, the title of accessory designer (in the broadest terms) is someone who designs clothing accents, so choosing a specific area of focus early on in your career may be beneficial. As with clothing design, accessory designers can specialize in a particular category of design that includes a specific accessory type or demographic.

The fashion world is ever changing and multifaceted, making it necessary for accessory designers to have a thorough knowledge of the industry. They should also have the inherent or learned abilities to sketch, cutting and sewing skills, an understanding of color theory and a firm grasp of how to use certain computer software design programs. Accessory designers may work on a part-time or full-time basis, with many choosing self-employment and freelance. While a degree is not necessary to become a successful accessory designer, some artists choose to enroll in design classes to boost their chances of getting a job after graduation.

Although not required, an associate or bachelor’s degree in a related fashion field may be required by certain employers.  There are a few schools that offer a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in Accessory Design, specifically for prospective accessory designers.  In addition, earning a degree may give you a leg up on the competition when applying for a job. Although most designers start at the bottom, many who have proven skills and connections in the industry can make upwards of $100,000 per year. The median annual salary in 2013 was just over $63,000.  Most accessory designers are employed by apparel wholesalers who sell their merchandise to retailers. In this case, you will usually work with a team of other professionals, so the ability to work well with others, take criticism, and be open to suggestions is imperative for success. 

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Continuously Develop New Concepts & Techniques

If you want to become relevant and successful in the accessory design industry, it is important that you learn about, and work to continuously develop new concepts, methods, and techniques.

Many artists and industry insiders would argue that an outfit is not complete without the addition of a few expertly-conceived fashion accessories. Fashion has always carried a great deal of importance in society, and with new and innovative concepts and ideas, you can create highly-regarded and sellable designs to complement fashion. After all, your fashion concepts should serve as the underlying purpose behind each project or collection you present. Strong initial concepts can also help you develop proper styling for each finished piece; what works well with clothing items, hair, and makeup, artwork, and even any music that may accompany your designs in print or on the fashion runway. You should also possess a clear understanding of color theory, shapes, lines, texture, and movement to create work that complements the human form.

Actual design methods will vary for each individual artist, but most often, they should answer a few key questions. You should consider who you are designing for, how they will use each item, where they will be worn, and how you can execute each design properly. Accessory designers should also be prepared for extensive research, sketching, prototype production, and of course, the final presentation of their finished collections. The creative process is one that can greatly differ depending on the medium, the customer, and the purpose or functionality of each accessory.  It is not uncommon for accessory designers to work closely with fashion apparel designers and a team of other artists to come up with concepts that will refine their design. With a great deal of practice and studying, it is possible for an accessory designer to become successful in this competitive industry.

In addition, a great understanding of color theory and how it relates to fashion design is extremely important for anyone entering the accessory design industry. Color theory helps designers use their knowledge of space and color to solve unique spatial problems in their work, as well as create one-of-a-kind pieces that are visually stimulating. An accessory designer should be able to use color theory to explain color harmony, how colors interact, which are popular, what colors mean to different people, and then use the many varied color combinations to create each new design. 

As an accessory designer, technique is all about how you will ultimately fabricate each of your designs. In this demanding artistic field, accessory designers must possess a great deal of knowledge and skill, with standards that are constantly changing. At the very minimum, it is important that you can understand color theory, pattern making, fashion and flat sketching, and that you have basic cutting and sewing skills.

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Build a Strong Portfolio

To become a successful accessory designer, it is important that beginners do their best to build a strong portfolio, their own personal brand, and industry connections. The best way to showcase what you've accomplished to potential clients and industry experts is to build a strong portfolio. Whether you choose to present a digital portfolio, a standard print option, or highlight physical prototype pieces within your portfolio, you are much more likely to get work, sell your items or land an internship when your portfolio shows variety and your skill level. 

Because the fashion world is so high profile and demanding, it always helps to have a strong sense of your own personal brand when showcasing your work for all the world to see. Accessory designers have a unique opportunity within the fashion world to design pieces that show off your clients’ unique taste or brand, as well as confirm your own brand identity. Having a firm understanding of the importance of your reputation and how that is reflected by your brand can help you stay focused and on the right path to success. 

In fashion, trends come and go, often without much rhyme or reason. Therefore, making connections within the industry can ensure your work is seen and help your work stay relevant. If you are unsure of where to begin, try applying for an apprenticeship or internship to gain experience and make connections with fellow artists and industry insiders. Joining clubs, organizations, associations and using social media to show-off your talents are also great ways to introduce yourself as a professional.

Get to Know Our Experts

Amy Olson

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    Kuhfs
  • Where:
    Mt. Prospect, IL
  • Experience:
    2 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    CHC (Chelli Harms Collection)
  • Where:
    Chicago, IL
  • Experience:
    13 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    Deondra Jereé, Inc.
  • Where:
    New York, NY
  • Experience:
    2 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    Fox & Brie
  • Where:
    Austin, TX
  • Experience:
    8 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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.

    Accessory Designer Infographic