Fashion Designer

What Is a Fashion Designer?

Fashion designers apply design and art principals to clothing and apparel or accessories in ways that make clothing both functional and aesthetically beautiful.  Initially, designers will start by researching consumer tastes and trends in the fashion market. They will then draw and recommend or submit an initial concept for the design. They either sketch the concept or they place fabric over a mannequin to get an initial sense of what the design will look like and whether or not it will work well and look good as a finished product. 

Fashion designers rarely work alone because the process of designing a concept, physically applying the pattern to the article of clothing, constructing the finished product, and bringing it all together can often be too much for one person to handle. This is why, fashion designers usually work in teams with professional pattern-makers, professional sample-makers, and merchandisers to ensure that the design will look good and will sell well once it makes it to market. Most assume that fashion designers have any easy job and that fashion design education is all about learning design techniques and studying consumer behavior, but the industry is much more complicated. To be a successful fashion designer, you will need a well-rounded education and knowledge in areas like science, art history, math, and even business management, especially if you plan to be an independent fashion designer who doesn’t work for a mass apparel company. 

Today, the fashion design profession is growing in popularity, mainly because it is thought to be so glamorous. After all, it can be exciting to see celebrities or everyday citizens wearing clothing or patterns that you designed. But, it is also a competitive, arduous, detail-oriented, and difficult industry, and it takes a certain type of individual to succeed. Becoming a fashion designer is not for the faint of heart and will require plenty of patience and perseverance, but for those who make it, the rewards can be great.

Fashion Designer Job Description & Work Environment

Working as an independent, self-employed fashion designer can require incredibly long hours, persistence, tenacity, and a lot of patience.  According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about one in four designers were self-employed in 2014. There are different ways a self-employed fashion designer can earn a living too. Some fashion designers will sell their work to fashion houses or clothing manufacturers, while other fashion designers start their own labels. Other fashion designers work specifically with a specialty or department store designing individualized or customized clothing specifically for one store buyer. 

Branching out on your own as a fashion designer can be rather difficult. It can also a bit challenging to make a living unless you are experienced or extremely talented, or have built a good reputation because most of the fashion design jobs are with wholesalers or large clothing manufacturers like Gap, Inc. or Abercrombie & Fitch. These wholesalers design their clothing to either be sold in stores or to independent stores, catalogs and to online businesses. The designers who work with these manufacturers are usually referred to as “in-house” designers who work as part of a larger team that sees the clothing design and marketing process through from start to finish. There are more fashion design jobs available with manufacturers, and there is usually less responsibility required to be an in-house designer. But, there is also less recognition if and when a design becomes popular. 

Beyond being self-employed, most fashion designers work for apparel, piece goods, and notions merchant wholesalers, in apparel manufacturing, in management positions for companies, and in specialized design services.  In 2014, there were just over 23,000 working fashion designers. Most work full-time, with occasion overtime when deadlines lurk. Those who work freelance can work odd hours, especially when working under contract so that they can adjust their day to their client’s schedules.

Fashion Designer Education & Training Requirements

It is recommended, but not required to earn a bachelor’s degree in fashion design or fashion merchandising if you want to become a professional fashion designer. The extremely talented and extremely dedicated individuals can start at the bottom as an assistant fashion designer and work their way up without a formal degree, but most manufacturers, design firms, and apparel companies look for students with a bachelor’s degree in a fashion-related field.  In a degree program, students learn about art history, textiles and fabrics, graphic design, art and design, drawing, knitwear, fashion, and design strategies and techniques that include computer-aided design. Minoring in business or taking marketing classes can help aspiring designers understand the financial side of design as well. 

A formal degree program also allows aspiring designers to gain valuable experience before they enter the workforce, through internships or apprenticeships.  And, while earning a degree, students are advised on how to build a well-rounded portfolio of their design work that usually helps showcase their creative and artistic ability and progress to potential employers. Schools offering specific fashion design programs have increased as demand has increased. According to the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, there are more than 300 institutions that offer accredited degree programs in art and design, with many providing specific degree programs in fashion design or fashion merchandising. 

For those adventurous few, there are dozens of certificate, one- and two-year, and full degree study abroad programs in fashion design. Imagine rubbing elbows with professional designers in Italy or France?  Or, if you would rather study fashion in more than one country, there are multi-cultural fashion programs that take students everywhere from Paris and London to Milan and Florence. These programs are designed to give students an overview of fashion from other cultures and learn from people outside the mainstream of US fashion. 

In addition to a great education, there are a number of skills all fashion designers need in order to succeed in this competitive field. They include strong visualization skills and a good sense of business. A competitive spirit, a good eye for detail, a complete understanding of color, texture, fabric, etc., strong drawing skills, and creative and artistic abilities are all skills needed to excel in the world of fashion design.

Fashion Designer Salary & Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, fashion designers are some of the better-paid employees in the design industry, although entry-level fashion designers usually don’t earn very much in the beginning. In May of 2015, the BLS estimated that the median annual salary for fashion designers was $63,670, which is nearly $20,000 more than the median annual salary for the average professional working in the ‘arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media fields.’ The lowest 10 percent of fashion designers earned a median annual salary of less than $33,170, while the top 10 percent earned a median annual salary of more than $125,000.  Wages and earnings fluctuate depending on the employer and experience of the designer, geographic location (most designers live and work in New York and California), and education. Designers working at large manufacturing or apparel companies usually earn a greater and more stable salary than freelance designers, although some of the most talented freelance and independent designers can get very rich after they have established themselves in the industry.

Job Outlook

Despite the incredible demand and interest among young people, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the industry to grow only three percent from 2014 to 2024, which is slower than average for all occupations. Because apparel continues to be manufactured overseas, employment of fashion designers in the apparel manufacturing sector is projected to decline a whopping 47 percent in the same time period.  That said, employment of fashion designers in the wholesale apparel industry is expected to grow 17 percent between 2014 and 2024.  With the popularity of TV shows like Project Runway, retailers are selling more fashion-inspired apparel, which increases the demand for mass market and everyday wear clothing designed by fashion designers.Those designers with a degree in fashion design, industry experience, and a strong portfolio will have the best job prospects.  In addition, fashion designers may find it necessary to relocate to California or New York to find the best jobs.


FAST FACTS: Fashion Designers
2016 Median Pay

$65,170 per year
$31.33 per hour

Recommended Level of Education

Bachelor's degree

Number of Jobs in 2014


Expected % Change in Employment (2014-2024)

3% (Slower than average)

Expected 10 Year Employment Growth (2014-2024)


Source: BLS - Occupational Outlook Handbook

Fashion Designers Salaries by Industry


Motion Picture and Video Industries


Management of Companies and Enterprises


Cut and Sew Apparel Manufacturing


Wholesale Electronic Markets and Agents and Brokers


Employment Services

Source: BLS OES - Industry Profile
Mean Hourly Wage Mean Annual Wage

Top Paying Metropolitan Areas for Fashion Designers

  1. New York-Jersey City-White Plains, NY-NJ Metropolitan Division
  2. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale, CA Metropolitan Division
  3. Anaheim-Santa Ana-Irvine, CA Metropolitan Division
  4. Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA NECTA Division
  5. Seattle-Bellevue-Everett, WA Metropolitan Division
  6. Nassau County-Suffolk County, NY Metropolitan Division
  7. Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA
  8. San Diego-Carlsbad, CA
  9. Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA
  10. Kansas City, MO-KS
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics OES

Helpful Resources

Fashion Designer Jobs