If you: a) spent most of your childhood making clothes for your Barbie dolls instead of playing with your friends; b) read fashion magazines instead of your school books; and c) ran a boutique in your basement at age 10, you are destined to become a fashion designer. In other words, if you want to be the next Yves Saint Laurent, you should be utterly and completely obsessed with fashion.
However, the profession has numerous facets. As a fashion designer, you may either supervise a design team at a sportswear company or create a label under your own name. Although the first career may not seem as glamorous as the second, it will certainly reduce your stress levels. Creating your own label requires significant time, commitment, and effort. Not to mention living several years just above the poverty line.
Choosing a tactic
There are as many different ways to enter the fashion industry as there are design styles. Polo was founded on a small tie collection that Ralph Lauren sold to Bloomingdale’s. Helmut Lang decided to open his own clothing store when he was unable to find a suitable T-shirt. Michael Kors expanded his customer base by selling clothing in a trendy New York City boutique. The best foundation for a design career, according to the majority of people, is a degree in fine arts in fashion from a prestigious institution. In addition to teaching you the craft, a reputable institution will add credibility to your resume. Carol Mongo, Director of the Fashion Department at Parsons School of Design in Paris, explains, “We live in a brand-name society, and having a good school’s name behind you is incredibly beneficial.”
Applying to a university
There are many colleges that offer fashion programs, but only a few have the kind of reputation that can propel your career forward. Competition for admission to these schools is fierce, and they tend to be highly selective. You apply by submitting a portfolio of your design drawings. Carol Mongo states, “We cannot teach you how to be creative; you must bring your creativity to us and allow us to guide you.” Before applying, she advises students to gain some sewing experience. Drawing is also an essential skill for a designer, as it is how ideas are communicated. To create an impressive portfolio, it is advisable to have sketching experience; art classes will help you understand form and proportion. However, you do not need to be an expert artist to be admitted to school. “The most important quality we look for in our students is genuine enthusiasm and passion for fashion,” explains Mongo. “If you have great ideas but are unable to draw, you can always find a way around it. You could, for instance, place your designs on a model and photograph it.”
What will school do for you?
Most fashion programs last between three and four years. During that time, you will study drawing, color composition, and form in fine arts courses. In addition, you will study patternmaking, draping, and cutting techniques. One of the greatest benefits of design schools is their close collaboration with the industry. For instance, Parsons has “designer critic projects” in which successful designers such as Donna Karan and Michael Kors collaborate directly with graduating students. Students with ambition also have the opportunity to win prestigious awards and grants, which bring them notoriety and financial support. The fashion show at the end of the semester in which graduating students display their collections is a very important event. Many influential fashion industry members attend these shows to scout new talent. It is also an opportunity to be extremely outrageous and garner media attention. Hussein Chalayan, for instance, gained instant notoriety when he displayed rotting clothing that he had buried in his backyard for his Saint Martins graduation show.
“Let’s face it,” says Carol Mongo of Parsons, “school is not for everyone. If you want a job in the fashion industry but not a career as a designer, you probably do not need to attend school.” Apply for an internship at a fashion house and work your way up if you wish to become a seamstress or patternmaker. However, there are numerous examples of famous designers who began their careers as untrained interns. Men’s wear designer Hedi Slimane, for instance, had a degree in journalism when he began working with fellow men’s wear designer José Levy. Nicolas Ghesquière of Balenciaga is another brilliantly successful designer who began his career as an assistant to Jean-Paul Gaultier. Typically, you apply for an internship by sending a portfolio to an interested fashion house. However, it would be prudent to contact them beforehand to determine exactly what they require. It is also important to note that competition is fierce, and obtaining an internship without a degree is extremely difficult unless you have personal connections.
There are also designers, such as Luella Bartley, who began their own businesses after working as stylists for a number of years, thereby acquiring an industry network and a keen marketing sense.
Understanding the company
Unfortunately, it is not sufficient for a designer to be creative; business acumen is also required. As fashion becomes increasingly corporate-driven, it is essential to be aware of the business climate and understand the underlying mechanics. By regularly reading trade publications such as “Women’s Wear Daily,” you will obtain a wealth of useful information. If you want to run your own business, you must be highly organized and familiar with the fundamentals of economics. A number of fashion schools are currently expanding their business curriculum. “Our students must be intelligent enough to negotiate contracts and choose business partners,” says Carol Mongo. Many of today’s most successful designers, such as Calvin Klein and Tom Ford, are involved in every aspect of the business, from licensing strategies to ad campaigns to designing the clothes themselves.