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Calling All Fashion Students; How to Make it as a Designer


By Jackie Mallon

2 Aug 2016

You’re staring down the final year of your degree. Mentally, you fast forward to the graduation ceremony as you toss your cap in the air, filled with brio and possibility. Then you’ll be off and running, a hunter in a crowded pack. Yes, you’ve already heard there are too many graduates for the number of positions in the fashion industry but that truth, although scary, doesn’t deter you. You can’t wait to be on the scent of that first job. But as you look forward to that moment, you secretly wonder how you can prepare. How can you stand out?

Let’s backtrack slightly. Hopefully, you laid the initial groundwork, and enrolled in a prestigious school. “Brand name” recognition can open doors and add credibility to your resume. A good fashion school should offer in its curriculum the perfect blend of creativity and craft, and have cultivated links to industry thus providing solid internship avenues as well as opportunities to learn from both respected professionals-turned-educators and guest lecturers. Attending the best school might have meant you moved halfway across the country away from everyone you knew, but it was a necessary step. Here are some online resources for checking annual rankings for U.S. and international schools: fashion-schools.org, Fashionista.com and BusinessofFashion.com

True grit

Waxing lyrical about your “passion for fashion” makes you immediately irrelevant, the phrase now an empty cliché. Grit, however, is extremely relevant in today’s industry. It’s an old-fashion word that has been pulled out of a trunk and dusted off for the Millennial generation. It cannot be taught at school, especially in the current education system which tends to coddle students and can have educators bowing to the manipulations of parents on one hand and corporate on the other. But arguably, a graduate with a C average who possesses grit has more going for them than an A student with none. Grit is quietly dynamic, not obnoxiously confident. It is stealthy and focused; it is not entitled and offers little in the way of the instant gratification associated with the Instagram generation. Cultivate this elusive quality early and it can shape your entire career.

Value craft and creativity equally

Learn to draw. Although many fashion jobs have minimized hand drawing in favor of digital illustration especially in mass market companies, there isn’t a substitute for a beautiful sketch to evoke the dream of fashion, the aspiration of beauty that can get lost in the daily clamor for commercial gain. Illustration is the only language that can truly capture the unique creativity that lives inside your head. Employers hope to see a glimpse of that. On the job, a techpack will reduce your vision to a practical system of numbers and technical terminology, but in your portfolio an evocative sketch can elevate your ideas to heaven-spun vestments that will be remembered.

Learn to technically spec your garments thoroughly. Understand the power of detail and analyze garment construction obsessively: the finishings, the closures, the seam placement, the interior surprises. Students generally ignore the humble attributes of garments in favor of the grand gesture, the sweeping dramatic runway statement. Execution of your vision, or more importantly, someone else’s, depends on an understanding of the minutiae that cannot be left to chance.

Fashion programs are designed to mimic as effectively as possible the demands of working within a fashion company. Yet know that working in the fashion industry is nothing like school. Your learning curve will be steep in the first few years after graduation. No one cares about your GPA anymore. Listen, observe, aim to impress, and adapt smoothly to new ways of doing things, no matter how you were taught.

Do an internship during the summer vacation before final year; take another if you can during the Fall semester. And be aware, upon graduation you may have to accept yet another as entry level jobs are being increasingly filled by interns, leaving the earning pool shallow. Unfortunately it is commonplace that these will be unpaid. On the bright side, you will be immersed in the culture of a fashion company observing first hand the good, the bad, and the ugly of day-to-day operations.

Training by osmosis

What you learn as an intern will be invaluable, although difficult to quantify so you might not even notice it is happening. Try to sample the environment of different levels of the marketplace (e.g. mass market retailer; small contemporary brand; designer label) so that you can begin to refine your understanding of where you fit. Start to tailor your own career by not relying on your school to get you the perfect internship. Strike out on your own, locate the name of the head of HR and contact them. Prove yourself early and when an opening comes up, you’ll be considered––and if you’re overlooked, ask politely to be considered. When you do gain a paid position, the habits and vocabulary you’ve picked up during your internships will make them wonder how they managed without you. Which brings me to another point: your employer won’t train you. Many tend to expect assistants to pick everything up overnight by osmosis. Internships, therefore, might be all the training you’ll get.

Be true to yourself

This next guideline is becoming harder for graduates to enact as they leave school burdened with debt and under such heavy competition for jobs. All the same, it bears including: choose your first position wisely. Make sure it’s the area of the market in which you see yourself working five years from now. Don’t apply to Macy’s (even though they do pay well, and they pay their interns too) if you dream one day to make it to Valentino. Recognize that in the Venn diagram Valentino and Macy’s don’t touch. There is minimal trickle up effect in the industry: luxury companies will exclusively hire designers experienced in creating silhouettes, sourcing fabrics and understanding clients associated with the luxury market; mass market companies, while curious about the high-end allure of a resume that they might even invite that designer in for interview, will invariably opt to hire a designer used to the pace of moving units, skilled in designing for a particular demographic, and versed in the issues of price point.

It’s difficult for students fresh out of the gate and desperate to nail down employment to even notice this fork in the road as they come upon it yet those early choices can determine the future of their career. This is particularly important if you hope to work in Europe one day, which many students do. You will need the legal documents to work overseas which is an extra hurdle in the way of getting hired. An Italian design house, for example, will have no interest in sponsoring a work visa for a visa for a designer whose experience does not match their aesthetic or address the same level of the market.

Smarten up

Cluelessness in never adorable. Research the company you’re interviewing for and communicate enthusiasm and knowledge about their business, product, customer. The aura that you just want a job–-any job will do––will not get you hired. In your final year of school, you should already be networking on LinkedIn, reading FashionUnited.com, the Business of Fashion, WWD and other trade journals, noting names of head designers at your favorite companies, strategizing a plan of attack. All those internship connections you made can lead to other connections. Research fashion recruiters; the company you wish to work for might be one of their clients. Recruiters, like schools, are not all the same. Some (but not all) have a solid reputation, often with international offices, and a high rate of success placing candidates. Some only work with senior level designers and won’t want to meet with you so early in your career. Some specialize in luxury, others in mass market. Only through research can you begin to understand which ones might best be suited to place you.

Finally, you might leave school with the highest grade point average, a beautiful portfolio, professional resume, and solid strategy for finding the job of your dreams, and still suffer a hopeless run of rejections and disappointments. One designer friend offers this simple addition to the above list: You have to be in the right place at the right time. That’s where grit comes in. You must bounce back after every blow and continue to show up.

By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

All images: Jackie Mallon

During the month of August FashionUnited will focus on Work in Fashion. For all reads on on the theme, click here.