wonder what Giorgio Armani, Betsey Johnson, Donna Karan, and Ralph Lauren do all the time? Work! Few other professions depend so much on keeping on top of fickle popular opinion and watching what competitors produce.
The life of a designer is intimately linked to tastes and sensibilities that change at a moment’s notice, and she must be able to capitalize on, or-even better-influence those opinions. Designers reflect society’s sensibilities through clothing design. “You have to know just about everything that’s been done before, so that you can recognize it when it becomes popular again,” wrote one respondent.
Fashion designers are involved in every phase of designing, showing, and producing all types of clothing, from bathing suits to evening gowns. Those with talent, vision, determination, and ambition can succeed in this difficult, demanding, and highly competitive industry.
Fashion design can be more glamorous than a 1940s Hollywood musical or drearier than a bank statement, but it’s always taxing. A designer’s day includes reading current fashion magazines, newspapers, and other media that reflect current trends and tastes. She looks at materials, attends fashion shows, and works with other designers on projects. A designer should be able to communicate her philosophy, vision, and capabilities clearly and comprehensively through sketches, discussions, and, occasionally, samples.
No matter what her personal style is, a designer must produce a creative, exciting, and profitable product line. As in most professions that produce superstars, it is easy for a competent but otherwise unremarkable designer to wallow in obscurity, designing small pieces of collections, generic lines (the plain white boxer short, for example), or specialties (cuffs, ruffles, etc.). The personality that raises itself above this level must be as large as the vision of the designer; perhaps that’s why the word “crazy” showed up in over 75 percent of our surveys as a plus in fashion design.
Paying Your Dues
Those entering the field should have a good eye for color, style, and shape, an ability to sketch, and some formal preparation in design. An excellent portfolio is a must for the job search. A two- or four-year degree in fashion design is helpful, as is knowledge of textiles and a familiarity with the quirks of a variety of fabrics, but no formal certification is required.
Candidates should have a working knowledge of business and marketing. Hours are long for a fashion designer and the initial pay is very limited. This is one of those hit-or-miss occupations where beginners work as someone’s assistant until, when they can muster up enough confidence in their abilities and sell that confidence to their superiors, they design a few pieces themselves. The superstar rise is an unlikely event, but it happens. Based on the number of “international star designers” in the last ten years and the number of people who have entered the profession, the estimated odds of becoming an internationally famous designer is roughly 160,000:1.
Fashion designers who become unhappy with the lifestyle (low pay, long hours, hard work, low chance of advancement) leave to do a variety of things. Some use their color and design skills to become interior designers, graphic designers, or fashion consultants. Over one quarter of those who leave remain in the clothing industry, either on the production end or on the institutional buying end. Another 10 percent enter the advertising or promotions industry.