The greatest thrill of being a fashion designer, many of them say, has nothing to do with dressing up supermodels for glamorous events and watching them walk down runways wearing the clothing you designed – though that is a plus and a sign of success. What makes the job truly exciting, several designers say, is watching an everyday person smile when they put on an outfit you created that makes them feel confident.
“As far as the most gratifying thing, it’s hearing and seeing people’s reactions to the clothes and hearing them say, ‘I feel comfortable,'” says fashion brand founder Franne Golde, an award-winning musician and songwriter who created a slenderizing product for women called “magic pant” and now sells multiple versions of that product in addition to women’s basics and loungewear.
“You can see when somebody tries something on and they feel good, it’s almost like they’re empowered,” she says. “You know, they look in the mirror, and they love what they see.”
Fashion designers make all types of attire from casual to formal, and they are sometimes involved in creating wearable gadgets like smartwatches or accessories like hats, handbags and shoes. They also sometimes produce costumes and wardrobes for plays and movies and can help create patterns for high-tech uniforms such as those worn by firefighters and astronauts.
How to Tell if a Job as a Fashion Designer Is a Good Fit
To excel as a fashion designer, a person must have clear artistic vision and an ability to differentiate objective criticism from subjective opinion, fashion industry experts say.
“You’re the right fit for this if you trust your instincts,” says Ashley Clark, founder of Soigné Luxury Accessories. “Fashion is a lot of going with your gut … You’ve got to be a really strong, self-aware, creative individual.”
Longtime fashion designer Bern Conrad, who has produced a significant amount of silk apparel, sportswear and knitwear over the course of his career and plans to launch a modern casual fashion line under his own name this fall, notes that a unique perspective and a distinctive identity are essential for a career as a designer.
“Design is all about getting to know who you are, because you have to express who you are, and you have to be able to convey that to your ultimate customer and client,” says Conrad, an alumnus of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, a prestigious school that has educated world-famous fashion designers such as Calvin Klein.
Fashion experts emphasize that an appreciation for beauty and strong visual observation abilities are a must for future fashion designers, but they note that having a good eye is not sufficient, since what counts most is the ability to conceptualize and manufacture clothing items that are somehow better than what is already out there.
One clue that you belong in the fashion industry, experts say, is if you enjoy sewing your own clothes or if you have created costumes for school plays. Some fashion designers explain that they discovered their calling, because they realized how much they enjoyed showcasing their personality through the way they dressed.
“I was always intrigued by the transformative power of fashion and the idea of self expression through clothing,” Nicole Ghosn, a senior designer at Marc Jacobs, wrote in an email.
“As a quiet and introverted teenager, I found it easier to express myself through what I wore. I spent countless hours watching the runway shows and obsessing over the looks I would want to create for myself and for others,” recalls Ghosn, an alumna of the Parsons School of Design at The New School in New York City, another top fashion design school and the alma mater of industry titans like Isaac Mizrahi.
Fashion designers warn that preparing for and beginning a fashion career is difficult since it is a highly competitive industry, so anyone who intends to enter this field must be hardworking and persistent. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that there will be 4% fewer fashion design jobs in 2029 than there were in 2019. The median salary among U.S. fashion designers in 2020 was $75,810, according to BLS figures, though the challenge of securing full-time work in the field is important to consider when assessing that figure.
Experts on fashion design warn that it is a technical field that requires precision, so a potential fashion designer should think about whether he or she would enjoy the mechanics of creating clothing or other fashion products.
“Your abilities and knowledge about tailoring and construction give you an advantage when you’re designing and visualizing fabric properties, silhouette, drape, and unusual construction methods in clothing,” Jennifer McGrew, a fashion and costume designer based in Utah, wrote in an email. “Individuals who are mainly just interested in pop culture’s ‘glamorous’ depictions of work in the fashion industry are kidding themselves. “
Steps to Becoming a Fashion Designer
- Consider attending a reputable fashion design school.
- Assemble an impressive and unique portfolio.
- Befriend your peers and seek more experienced mentors.
- Find a variety of challenging jobs.
- Save money and spend wisely if you intend to start a brand.
Consider Attending a Reputable Fashion Design School
It is possible to become a fashion designer without formal education in the field, but some experts suggest that, without attending a formal fashion design program affiliated with a well-known school, it is more challenging to break into the fashion industry.
“I’m the first to admit the road that I traveled to get to where I am was not painted in gold,” says Clark, a former NFL cheerleader, pageant queen and model who learned the fundamentals of fashion design on her own. “Going to fashion school would have alleviated a lot of hiccups along the way just in terms of even the most minor of things. I mean, I had to teach myself how to sew. I had to teach myself how to dye fabric.”
To gain the knowledge she needed for her dream career as a fashion designer, Clark read a lot about fashion, watched YouTube videos and attended master class courses taught by renowned designers.
Lucy Dunne, a professor and director with the apparel design program at the University of Minnesota College of Design, says fashion design programs generally teach students how to brainstorm, how to explain and sell their ideas through sketches or three-dimensional models, and how to execute their vision through two-dimensional patterns and three-dimensional garments.
While a fashion design degree can be extremely beneficial professionally, lacking one doesn’t make it impossible to break into the industry, experts note. Some of the most famous fashion designers, including Coco Chanel and Michael Kors, never finished – or didn’t attend – college or design school.
“The fashion industry does not require certification or licensing for the designer role,” Abby Lillethun, chairperson of the art and design department at Montclair State University in New Jersey, pointed out in an email. “The skills and knowledge base may be acquired through a combination of academic work and skill development from working in studios and on project teams in the industry. Also, sometimes an entrepreneurial individual finds success without formal training.”
Assemble an Impressive and Unique Portfolio
In order to become competitive for fashion design schools or internships, aspiring designers need to assemble an intriguing collection of their designs, experts say.
Conrad cautions against submitting a portfolio that isn’t true to who you are and that is based on what you think others want to see. “Just do who you are – what you want to be, who you want to be or are being,” he says.
Befriend Your Peers and Seek More Experienced Mentors
Fashion experts note that fashion is an industry where personal connections matter.
Dunne urges fashion design students to get to know their school faculty and classmates. She notes that fashion schools can offer great suggestions on where to find jobs, and she suggests relying on their fashion school alumni networks to get job leads after graduating.
According to Conrad, most early career fashion designers could use some guidance. He says a generous and experienced designer regularly offered him useful advice when he was starting out and urges anyone interested in fashion design to look for a skilled individual in the industry “who is open to share their experience and knowledge.”
Find a Variety of Challenging Jobs
Rowell Concepcion, owner of Binata Millinery in New York, urges early-career fashion designers who want to eventually start their own label to combine experience at a well-known and long-established brand with some time at an emerging brand.
Concepcion notes that a job at a high-end fashion company adds credibility to a designer’s resume, but he says that the struggle of starting a new brand is so intense that it forces people to develop grit.
If possible, Concepcion says, it is optimal for designers to get experience on the public relations or sales side of a fashion company so they can understand the business side of fashion.
Dunne emphasizes that taking a job at a new fashion company is a good way for potential fashion entrepreneurs to gauge whether they truly want to start their own venture. “You can’t really see what it’s actually like until you’re immersed in it,” she says. “It’s easier to be immersed in someone else’s risk than your own.”
Save Money and Spend Wisely if You Intend to Start a Brand
Concepcion recommends that designers who want to start their own label save 20% to 30% of their earnings so that they can eventually invest that money in a company. That’s a significant sacrifice, he acknowledges, but he notes that starting a fashion brand requires “a lot of capital.”
It’s best to direct most of the brand seed money to product development and testing, Concepcion says, noting that fashion shows are less critical to launching a fashion company than they used to be.
“You can get traction just on social media and building your own personal brand,” he says, noting that financing companies like Hilldun Corporation provide support to fashion designers and brands.