November 15, 2012

Becoming a Fashion Designer


Author: Jay Calderin

Topic: Fashion

To say that the field of fashion design is highly competitive is a tremendous understatement. The fashion centers of New York, Paris, and Milan lead the industry, but are by no means the only places where a designer can pursue a career. Every major city now seems to have a regional pool of style makers, fashion design schools, and local fashion weeks. Do-it-yourself programs, classes, books, and magazines provide just enough of what someone might need to feel like an authentic fashionista. Reality television shows and unlimited access to information on the Internet also add to the mix of aspiring designers.

In the celebrity-driven culture that the fashion industry feeds, any inkling of talent will often be blown out of proportion. This exposure affords new designers with their coveted fifteen minutes of fame, but also robs them of the opportunity to fully develop their message and their craft. They are immediately tested by demanding consumers and media outlets moving at lightning speed. To survive depends on an understanding of how the system works and a healthy skepticism of their own press. In the long term, building a successful career as a fashion designer requires much more than making beautiful, well-constructed clothes. That's merely the price to play.

A good designer can create anything with sufficient research and a clear awareness of the design challenge being undertaken. A great designer does more. The Pareto principle describes a law of the vital few, where 80 percent of the effects result from 20 percent of the causes. In fashion, this small but essential core is the spark that sets things into motion. Visionary, unique, inspired, ahead of their time: Theirs are big shoes to fill, even when designers feel that they, too, have something to contribute.

The bad news is that when it comes to clothing the human body most everything has been done before. The good news is that it hasn't been done by each new designer. Why this should matter to anyone else is a tough question that demands a response full of meaning, purpose, and confidence; otherwise it just gets lost in the sea of options that flood the fashion marketplace every year. To truly grasp what one stands for both personally and as a designer will infuse one's work with passion and one's message with clarity.


The first step is for designers to establish—with absolute honesty—what they bring to the table.

Natural Talents

Everyone has gifts. Having a flair for fashion or an instinct for design is not always an indicator of a good fashion designer, nor is it a prerequisite. An inherent affinity for any number of other disciplines, such as math, science, or sports, may provide as good a base to build on as an art-related foundation. With or without an innate aptitude for fashion, curiosity, dedication, and the occasional leap of faith are markers of the potential for success in the field.

Learned Skills

Anyone can acquire proficiency in an activity, given enough time and effort. Fashion encompasses a vast range of specialties, each with its own techniques and set of skills. By honing these skills, designers establish a fluency and immediate recall in the workplace. Nothing beats actual experience. Through classes, workshops, and internships designers can build hand-to-eye coordination, learn to anticipate problems, and address the particular challenges of executing their ideas.

Interpersonal Intelligence

As designers gain a clear picture of what they want to accomplish, they must be actively listening and observing the nonverbal cues to the needs and desires of others. Such attention will better equip designers to manage relationships within a design team or with vendors, say, and to persuade others to make concessions in the name of collaboration.

Defining Success

Like any creative endeavor, fashion is demanding and regularly tests the resolve. Designers must understand their primary motivation for pursuing a career in fashion, whether fame, financial reward, critical success, or to fill a void in the market. A venture that needs to generate a profit as well as acclaim presents certain realities. A designer may want to be respected for artistic contributions to the field but can't avoid the bottom line. Prioritizing goals early on creates a touchstone for every stage of the design process.


Well-crafted questions will help fashion designers identify and quantify their existing talents and skills, as well as determine how they work with people, how they define success, and how they tap into their creativity. These questions can be exciting, thought provoking, and sometimes intimidating. Designers should approach their answers as baselines rather than as judgments of the validity of their path.

  • Why do I want to be a fashion designer?
  • What inspires me?
  • Do I have a grasp on fashion history?
  • What training do I have?
  • Do I know how garments are constructed?
  • Do I have an understanding of textiles?
  • What is my industry experience?
  • What specialized area of fashion interests me?
  • Have I committed to a professional career path?
  • What are my business skills?
  • Am I comfortable with technology?
  • Can I adhere to timelines?
  • Am I good with people?
  • Where do I plan on working?
  • Who are my industry role models?
  • Who are my industry role models?
  • When will I start my next project?
  • How will I maintain fit and quality standards?
  • When will I start my next project?
  • How will I maintain fit and quality standards?
  • How large a body of work have I built?
  • How do I plan to continue learning?

Armed with a better idea of the areas in which they are competent, fall short, or excel, designers must next take action to protect the environments that allow their innate gifts to flourish and expose themselves to a wide variety of places and situations that inspire and afford them opportunity. At each step, designers' understanding of who they are within the field of fashion will broaden.


Designers must decide which skills will become an integral part of their own design process and which will be better handled by individuals for whom it is second nature. In building a design team, designers should seek out and surround themselves with people whose skills complement their own, whether in the category of sewing techniques or business models, say. Always strive to attract the very best talent available. Good designers are also leaders who will not hesitate to hire someone who is better than they are in a particular arena. Well-balanced teams allow individual members to concentrate their efforts on their part of the process.

Designers should regularly update the biographies and/or résumés of the entire team. A good understanding not only of their backgrounds, but also both their professional and personal interests, allows designers to engage team members creatively in their vision. Individuals who function as an extension of the designer's skill set can be focused on specific components of any project, enabling them to take it further on behalf of the designer.

Classes, workshops, lectures, and special fashion events provide designers with numerous opportunities for connecting with experts and peers from whom to build a team. Designers must be prepared for each encounter: Know how to present an identity with enough detail to entice, and yet concisely so as not to bore. Observe behavior and listen carefully for valuable content. Discreetly and casually collect contact information and follow up once the encounter has been processed.


Designers can benefit enormously from finding a mentor. Learning can come from both established fashion professionals and from peers who are making strides in areas the designer wishes to engage. For anyone going to the trouble of reaching out for this kind of support, a level of humility and active listening are essential. Situations might arise in which the designer disagrees with the advice being shared. But competing to make one's point negates the full benefit of what a mentor may provide.

Hero worship is a different thing all together, because it is based on the myth surrounding a person rather than the facts. Those facts are simple: What decisions has a designer made, what were the results, and how have they stood the test of time? Historical and contemporary visionaries often become bigger than life within the context of one's daily experience. In fact, it is sum of their choices to which the designer responds and aspires.


Especially when starting out, designers must determine the tools and materials needed for their work. This inventory has a monetary value; but more important, it has a direct effect on how a designer will choose to execute an idea.

Money obviously allows for smoother and more seamless operations. The level of access to funding for any project can pose different types of challenges, yet a creative approach can find ways to stretch the effectiveness of any budget. Designers must constantly decide where they will make sacrifices and where they will not compromise.

The tools and materials required for all facets of any fashion challenge, from concept through construction and delivery, must be taken into account. Some are project specific, while others are a part of the overall needs of running a business. The list can be extensive and will continue to grow along with the scale of the business, but it begins with some fundamentals.Materials and tools should serve the needs of the overall design goal and the project in hand. A designer must avoid falling into the trap of acquiring tools without having a well-defined purpose for them. The right tool for the right job, however, is a smart investment, as it will often save time in the long run and will usually produce a polished result.


At every point, fashion designers must ask themselves who they are serving. Many new designers are misled by the fact that large fashion companies are often diversified and offer products to multiple audiences. This broad designer presence in the market is usually the result of a long period in business and the carefully planned development of individual offshoots. These branches of the business depend heavily on the success of the parent company. The Donna Karan brand is a good example of a company that worked diligently for many years to perfect the way it served its female customer before it began to offer menswear collections.

Designers must narrow the customer field or run the risk of not appealing to anyone. Instead of declaring their customer to be twenty to fifty years old, a designer might place the emphasis on the need and desires of the thirty-five-year-old woman. Serve that woman well and younger women who connect with the significance associated with the thirty-something lifestyle will be attracted, as will an older consumer who wishes to infuse her image with a younger message.

Once designers have identified the customers they want to address, they need to figure out how to reach them. The direction of research and development now turns outward. Designers must form a clear and detailed understanding of their target. Observations will be drawn from both demographic and behavioral patterns.


Demographic research produces raw data, including such details as age, location, income, profession, ethnicity, marital status, and number of children. This kind of information can be purchased from large companies that specialize in such research, but will come at a high price. The information can also be acquired on a smaller scale through more grassroots efforts that survey the designer's immediate community.


Although demographics generate a picture of the customer, it is merely an outline. For a more nuanced understanding of the designer's ideal target, the research needs to dig deeper. The designer should want to know what a woman does for fun, whether she prefers to cook or eat out, and any number of personal likes and dislikes that make her real in the designer's mind. No longer reduced to mere statistics, the customer can now be imagined as living in the designer's creations. All these considerations will be reflected in the designer's work, which will connect with the client in a meaningful way.


What is happening at any given moment at the city, national, and global levels plays a role in how a designer's work is received. Politics, the economy, and world events become factors in the perceived value of what a designer produces. Wartime and national tragedy have historically been powerful influences on the attitudes of those with purchasing power, both during and after hard times. Following both World Wars, society responded with a celebration of youth, as is evident in the flapper culture of the 1920s and the mod and hippie cultures of the 1960s. More recently, after 9/11 a strong focus on family and home life pervaded all sectors of design. The current downturn in the economy has led some designers to forgo opulence and excess, and others to embrace more optimistic neon colors.

Fashion designers must ask themselves whether they anticipate their ideas being accepted or rejected because of current events and the influence of these events on public opinion. Customers are only part of the equation. Also in play are how the designer's employees are affected and how the media will interpret a collection as it relates to the news of the day. Designers might even ask what kind of entertainment is being successfully served to the public. For instance, are they looking to escape into fantasy, the way audiences in the 1930s turned to Hollywood for a respite from the Great Depression?

Pop references and celebrity obsessions have also become a part of the cultural mix. Elinor Glyn coined the use of the word It as a euphemism for sex appeal and sass in her 1923 novel The Man and the Moment. Four years later, when the actress Clara Bow appeared in the film based on Glyn's novel, the author dubbed her the "It Girl." Since then every generation has had its It Girl. Today, It Girls, It Boys, and It Products come and go at a much faster rate. A fashion designer who gravitates toward popular culture now needs to ensure that the "it" factor of their designs is not "so five minutes ago."


A strong understanding of media outlets and their missions can lead to very fruitful relationships for the fashion designer. Every successful newspaper, magazine, television show, and website has carefully researched their audiences to present them with the message they want in the style they want it. Designers who wish to be a part of that message must often tailor their content to create a natural fit. They must also find the correct language to best capture the essence of their work.

Great attention must be paid to the documentation of the designer's body of work, both past and present. Storytellers in the media will be looking for ways to weave tales relevant to their readers or viewers. Personal histories also play an important role in the process. A family photograph of the designer as a child seated with his mother at a sewing machine might speak to the inevitability of this career path, but equally an image could reflect the odds the designer had to overcome to pursue her passion. Furthermore, any images, still or moving, that are associated with the work must not only be on message but also reflect the aesthetic standards of the media outlet.


Just as in the world of real estate, location is one of the most important factors to influence how successful an endeavor will be. When it comes to fashion, designers must display an understanding of the place (or the differences among the various locales) where they do business. Urban settings often produce a taste for dark, somber palettes and professional silhouettes. By the same token, customers living in an urban environment might also buy into more provocative, even experimental designs when expressing themselves in social settings. Weather, as it relates to certain regions, can help an aesthetic evolve. In warm tropical climates, bright colors and large-scale prints are integral to the culture influencing fashion trends.

Source: Form, Fit & Fashion

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