The Ultimate Guide to Adobe Illustrator for Fashion Design

Short on time and can’t read it all now?
Get the ultimate guide in your inbox.

I locked my fashion design dream in a cage and unknowingly threw away the key.

In 2004, I felt “all grown up” with a very expensive degree in my hands. I was over the moon to graduate.

And then I landed my first job…

As a receptionist.

I was excited to be employed and getting a paycheck.

But excitement turned to suffocation as I began to drown.

I couldn’t get my head above water.

I gasped for air under a sea of unfiled papers. Relentless ringing phones engulfed me like a school of piranhas. The bare white walled entryway I called my “office” smothered me with depression.

It was the least creative and most dismal place in the world.

I drove home discouraged day after day from that mind numbing job. I wondered what happened to my dream of being a fashion designer. Or even just working in a creative field – was that asking too much?!

What did I do wrong? How did I mess this up?

I worked my ass off in college and graduated with honors.

And it got me nowhere.

I felt defeated, frustrated, and cheated by my worthless degree. And even worse, I was embarrassed.

I threw away 2 years of my life caged behind that reception desk before reality kicked me in the stomach with a steel toed boot. Hard.

Weekends weren’t even enjoyable. The relief Friday afternoons brought was overcome by the dread of returning Monday morning. Like clockwork, the cage would always be there waiting for me to climb in.

I felt nauseous when people asked what I did for a living and it was no longer this temporary gig I could blame on recent graduation.

I was disappointed in myself for letting this job ruin my life. I just wanted to do something that made me happy.

I was willing to do anything to break out of the prison that was my life and break into the fashion industry.

With a degree in graphic design and “receptionist” on my resume, I didn’t feel qualified to land a fashion job.

So I DIY’d it and launched my own label.

Every night, I hunkered behind the Husqvarna machine my mom gave me.

Weekends were spent selling at local markets and doing fashion shows and photo shoots.

It took almost a year, but I started making a small profit. I got my designs into boutiques. My business was growing and for the first time in my life, I felt like my dream was within reach.

So I made the scariest – and most relieving – decision of my life.

I quit my shitty day job to work on my label full time.

It was amazing.

But as any designer can attest, it was also fucking tough.

Physically tough.

Emotionally tough.
Financially tough.

One struggle had just been replaced with another. The embarrassment of working as a receptionist was gone, but I was filled with anxiety wondering where my next paycheck would come from.

So 6 months later when the phone rang with a fashion job opportunity, it was bittersweet. I’d have to pull away from my collection, but stable income was attractive.

Wait a minute…whaaaat? I know what you’re wondering.

“How did this job magically fall in your lap?!”

The explanation is simple.

Back when I was drowning in unfiled papers and ringing phones, I went on a job hunting binge – you know the kind. I applied to anything that sounded creative or even just better than what I was currently doing.

The manager at a lifestyle brand in Denver had kept my info on file. Now, he needed someone with my skills.

This was my chance to design product that was professionally made in bulk (not piece by piece with my own two hands) and sold in retail shops worldwide.

It was a no brainer. I took the offer.

My impossible fashion design dream had come true.

I worked with that brand for 3 years. But in the first 3 months it was clear why I beat out the competition:

Because of my Illustrator skills.

Fashion designers use AI 20+ hours / week and proficiency is mandatory

Students coming out of fashion school weren’t being taught the software. Old school designers could sketch by hand, but were intimidated by Illustrator.

Companies needed designers who could create everything digitally, from repeating patterns and fashion flats to presentation boards and line sheets.

I had enough AI knowledge from my graphic design degree to figure them all out. And I did.

Life was amazing. I pinched myself regularly to make sure it was really happening.

Days were full of design meetings and cork boards overflowing with magazine tears.

Fit models shuffled in weekly to try on product and get pinned for adjustments.

I spent endless hours sketching flats in Illustrator with my boss often over my shoulder. She couldn’t believe how fast I could mock designs up, and I couldn’t believe I was living these moments.

The fantasy life I dreamt of – the one that once seemed as impossible as becoming a Hollywood actress – had come true.

I was so excited I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs to share this with the world.

And I want you to experience that same feeling.

You have talent and passion. Like me, it’s what keeps you from giving up. But right now, you feel stuck.

Illustrator is the only thing standing between you and your dream.
But that “proficiency” word keeps coming up.

What you still need after all these years is confidence and skill in Illustrator.

Every job posting on StyleCareers.com. Every interview. Every callback.

All you hear are those two evil words you’ve grown to loathe:

AI “proficiency”.

Just reading them makes your heart race, stomach drop and ears ring. The weight in your chest grows.

You feel tremendous pressure to learn quickly and you’re committed to figuring it out.

But the thought of Illustrator is daunting.

Maybe it’s because you’re terrified and don’t know where to start.

And you know it sounds like an excuse, but you can’t find the time to catch up.

I know how you feel.

I spent 2 years trapped in a dead end job I was overqualified for.

I felt powerless, depressed and embarrassed.

So using passion, my OCD tendencies and surviving on very little sleep, I launched a collection and landed my dream job.

But I would have killed for someone to help me get there. Because I wasted a lot of time and made a lot of mistakes along the way.

Which is why I created this guide.

Because I want you to get ahead NOW. Not next month or next year.

Get the ultimate guide as a downloadble PDF
Save it. Print it. Keep it forever.

This guide will show you how to further your fashion design career by gaining confidence in Illustrator.

There are a lot of things that will knock you down and tear you to shreds.

Make you want to throw your computer out the window and give up.

And leave you overcome with disappointment and anger within yourself.

I am here to prevent this from happening to you. And show you:

Reaching your dream is possible.

You can get there, and I’ll be with you every step of the way.

Here are 5 reasons Illustrator proficiency is closer than you think.

Anyone can learn Illustrator – including you. And it’s more achievable than it seems.

Most of your frustration comes from 2 things:

  1. misconceptions you believe about AI
  2. unqualified teachers who don’t show you how to easily do things in a clear way that’s easy to understand

We’ll get to unqualified teachers later. For now, let’s look at some misconceptions and 5 reasons proficiency is closer than you think.

REASON #1

“I feel like I’ll never learn how to do everything! There are so many hidden functions and features in Illustrator, so I feel completely overwhelmed.”

Guess what? You DON’T have to know it all. I don’t, and neither do you. Here’s why:

Illustrator does a lot more than fashion.

It’s used for things like:

  • graphic design (logos, packaging)
  • artistic design (cartoons, illustrations)
  • technical design (maps, charts)

There are a lot of fancy tools to do very specialized tasks.

And you don’t need to know how to use any of them.

I don’t want to just tell you this. I want to show you this.

Look at my old college notebook from 2000:

Using JUST the tools mentioned in this photo (actually less), you can draw an entire sketch.

Let’s look at a flat together.

Count the tools used (noted in bold). The entire design was drawn with just 6 tools. And not mentioned but surely used, we’ll add the Selection Tool (black arrow) for a grand total of 7.

So, if I told you all you had to do was learn 7 tools, do you think you could do that? I know you could.

REASON #2

“The thought of illustrator terrifies me so I’ve been putting off absolutely everything to do with it. It scares the hell out of me. Sounds silly, but it’s true.”

It’s ok to feel this way – you’re not alone.

You may be surprised to hear this, but tons of designers are scared.

Here are just a few examples of of emails I get all the time:

But you don’t have to let these emotions hold you back. One of my favorite yoga teachers once said:

Fear makes a good servant, but not a good master.

We have emotions for a reason – they protect us. But we can’t let them control our lives.

So when it comes to Illustrator, don’t let the fear win.

Why? You can’t break the software or your computer.

And nothing is permanent.

Did you mess up drawing that princess seam line? Don’t like the fuschia colorway? Just undo or change it.

Illustrator gives you limitless edits and you can always go backwards.

It’s not like that moment of panic when you mess up cutting $50/yd silk chiffon fabric. There’s no undo for that.

Luckily, in Illustrator, there is.

You can get in there, play around, and have fun – like a kid.

Remember when you used to draw with crayons? Did you worry about what color to pick? If the tip was sharp enough? What happened when the wax wore down to a stub?

No. You just drew and figured it out as you went.

So next time you open AI, explore with the mind of a child. Because you can’t break anything, and you can always undo.

REASON #3

“My hand sketches are 100x better and faster, but it’s difficult to keep a hand drawn look and feel in Illustrator.”

If you can sketch beautiful flats by hand today, I’m not saying drawing in Illustrator will be easier tomorrow. And there’s a logical explanation for this:

How long have you been hand sketching? Were your sketches perfect the first time you tried?

No, you learned, practiced, and got better. You’d probably even see improvement if you compared sketches year after year.

Have you spent that much time practicing and refining your AI skills? I bet the answer is no.

But like hand sketching, over time, things will get easier and you’ll get better. Just like “S”, you’ll get so good in AI that your hand sketching will go out the window.

In the long run, you’ll find it easier to sketch in AI than on paper. It’s faster to make edits and mock up variations.

Your sketches start to build themselves as you “Frankenstein” the different pieces together from designs you’ve already drawn.

No more drawing everything from scratch, over and over.

You’ll cut your design time in half.

REASON #4

“I wasn’t born with artistic talent, and I have no idea how to draw.”

You and me both!!! And it’s ok.

Illustrator can be used as a technical and/or artistic tool. Many designers who don’t consider themselves artists, think sketching in AI is easier than on paper.

Here’s proof – I’ve been designing for 10+ years and I still can’t draw a t-shirt. See?

But I sketch in Illustrator like a boss. See?

You can learn the tools to do this, even if you’re not an artist.

REASON #5

“But what about Photoshop? It seems like so many jobs list that as a requirement too. Do I need to learn both?”

No. Here’s why:

2 things happen with these job postings:

  1. They’re written by HR or management who *think* you need Photoshop to sketch
  2. Designers use PS because they don’t know how to do it the right way in AI

I use Photoshop to crop and edit photos. Not to design. It’s inflexible and inefficient.

Forget about PS. You only need to know AI. Promise.

Feel some relief? Thought so.

But now what? How do you actually become proficient?

You have choices to learn Illustrator. Some are better than others.

  • Fashion school gets you a “certificate”, but is outdated and irrelevant
  • Youtube is free but full of shoddy videos with poor audio
  • Books and private tutors are hit and miss, but mostly miss
  • Online courses are your best option

The route you choose will get you different results.

What’s more important to you?

Listing a well known fashion school on your resume?

Learning from someone who’s using Illustrator daily in a real life setting?

Your learning style may determine the best route for you.

Do you see something once, get it and never need to ask a question?

Do you need to see something a few times, practice, and be able to ask questions?

I will show you exactly how to decide later.

But right now, I want to tell you the hard stuff you need to hear.

How to kill your dream: the truth no one else will tell you

There are dangers in taking the wrong Illustrator course.

You’ll leave the classroom in tears and more confused than when you started.

“I was so confused because of the way he explained things, it felt like learning a new language. He might as well have been speaking Chinese to me.”

You’ll walk out perplexed wondering how to do anything fashion related in AI because the teacher is a graphic designer, not a fashion designer.

You’ll be stuck with a teacher who lectures out of a book – something you could have done on your own for way cheaper:

You’ll lose so much confidence that you’ll just quit.

I know it sucks to hear this, but I believe you have the right to hear the truth.

Because I don’t want you to waste time and money on methods that don’t work.

Or worse, give up on your dream all together.

Want to read it later?
Get the guide delivered to your inbox.

Illustrator is the difference between getting the job and not getting the job.

To reach your dream and get ahead, Illustrator skills are mandatory.

98% of fashion design jobs require proficiency and hand sketching is no longer sufficient.

I searched 20+ listings on StyleCareers.com. Not one listed hand sketching, but they all listed Illustrator:

It is your Illustrator skills that will set you apart from the competition.

Can you:

Sketch flats quickly and accurately to convey your vision to factories and buyers?

Create seamless repeating patterns and colorways – and apply them to your beautiful flats?

Layout line sheets and presentation boards?

Because this is what jobs require:

The days of assistants and graphic teams to digitally translate your ideas are gone.

Companies are cutting back and designers are expected to know how to do everything.

I experienced it firsthand in 2008 shortly after landing my dream job in fashion.

I’ll remind you that was the year of the financial crisis.

Global economies crumbled and fashion brands were no exception.

Sales plummeted but overhead stayed high. Layoffs swept through companies like tidal waves.

My manager was the first to be let go.

Over the coming weeks, more designers lost their jobs.

Our team of 20 shrank to 8 in just a few weeks.

Somehow, I was one of the last (wo)men standing.

I wondered WHY and HOW?

Some of the most experienced staff was cut when I barely had any “real” fashion experience.

And then the obvious reason slapped me in the face like a bolt of fabric.

It was because I knew how to do everything on the computer:

  • I could sketch flats in minutes when it took other designers hours.
  • I could mock up colorways and design variations while the CEO hovered over my shoulder.
  • I could pull presentation boards together in an afternoon.

What they needed was designers who could “do it all”.

And most of the team didn’t have computer skills to make the cut.

No matter your experience in the industry – entry level or 20+ years, Illustrator is mandatory. And you’ll be tested.

Feeling panicked? Don’t.

We’ll walk through your options to learn Illustrator together. And I’ll show you the quickest and easiest way to success.

You can choose your own path to proficiency. But some are more treacherous than others. (Hint: online courses are the best.)

Here are pros and cons of the different ways you can learn.

Traditional Fashion School Courses

Pros

You will:

  • Get a “certificate” and can list it on your resume (it looks good on “paper”)
  • Learn “in person”
  • Network with other designers

You may:

  • Get connections to job opportunities

Cons

It’s inconvenient. You have to:

  • “Show up” at set times and places
  • Jump through application, enrollment and registration hoops
  • Take pre-reqs just to get the class you actually need

It’s outdated and ineffective. Teachers:

  • Don’t have time to stay up with technology and aren’t using AI daily in a real world setting
  • Are unqualified and don’t have the skills you need, so instead share my free videos with you:
  • Have tenure and are “just a warm body”. I know because faculty at Parson’s and FIT told me verbatim.

Course structure and support is lacking. You will:

  • Only learn basic skills and will struggle to get what you really need
  • Be stuck with students who don’t understand basics and waste hours of class time while you lose out on learning important skills
  • Be left hanging when you have questions or need support after the semester ends.

Let’s check out two top fashion school courses to see what they look like. I realize many of you don’t live in these hubs, but it’ll give you a good overview.


FIT NYC

Courses: FF 242 Fashion Design Computer: Illustrator is the course you want, but FF 141 Introduction to Computerized Fashion Design is a required pre-req.

Cost: In-state: $477.50 / Out of state: $1435

Time Investment: 17 weeks (31 hours) x 2 courses = 8.5 months (62 hours).
Including transit (30 mins per class at 34 total), you’ve lost 17 hours just in travel.


London’s Central Saint Martins

Course: Creative Fashion Design with Illustrator

Cost: ~ $910 USD

Time investment (3 options):

  • 10 weeks (25 hrs total)
  • 5 days (30 hrs total)
  • 4 days (30 hrs total)

IMPORTANT – READ THIS!

The 4- or 5-day “bootcamp” style class may look attractive, but it’s a terrible idea. Your brain cannot absorb the content that fast and you will leave more overwhelmed than when you started. I know because I used to teach this way – it doesn’t work. Every student said it was too much in too little time.

If you choose this route, make sure:

  • You research the teacher and how qualified are they
  • You contact past students to get real feedback

Take a “General” Illustrator Class

This is a horrible option but I’m obliged to mention it because I know too many designers who’ve done this.

Pros

  • None

Cons

  • You will learn how to design logos & brochures, but no idea how to relate this to fashion
  • You may not even understand why fashion designers need to learn “graphic design” software
  • You will leave more confused than when you started

If you choose this route, make sure:

  • Just don’t do it. Please, don’t.

Learn The Old Fashioned Way From a Book

Pros

  • It’s cost effective
  • You get forever “access”

Cons

  • Books are expensive and hard to update, so they easily become vintage (and not in a good way like that Chanel bag)
  • There is no way to get help or your questions answered
  • It requires tremendous self discipline

If you choose this route, make sure:

  • The book is relevant to your version of AI
  • You have discipline to learn from a book instead of letting it gather dust on your shelf (I know because I’ve been guilty of this)

Get Custom Training with a Private Tutor

Pros

  • You can focus on the skills you need and ignore the ones you don’t
  • You’ll get direct one-on-one support

Cons

  • The cost adds up quickly
  • It can be hard to find someone qualified locally or online who is a good match for you

If you choose this route, make sure:

  • You find the right person who has a teaching style you like
  • You get feedback from past students to make sure the tutor is qualified
  • You can afford enough lessons to learn everything you need

Learn for Free on YouTube

Pros

  • It’s free!

Cons

  • You have to sift through a lot of bad stuff to find the good
  • You’ll suffer through poor audio / video quality
  • You may get a segment of how to do a specific task, but are then left hanging
  • You’ll watch graphic design tutorials and try to relate them to fashion – which is hard
  • It requires tremendous self discipline

I’m not totally knocking YouTube – I have tons of videos on there. Maybe you’ve even watched a few!

I’m just saying this is not always the easiest and quickest route to proficiency.

Remember:

Time is money.

If you choose this route, make sure:

  • You have the time and discipline to dig through tutorials and piece meal things together

Learn From Online Courses

Pros

  • Content is more current and easier to update
  • You can conveniently learn from the comfort of your own home, 24/7
  • You can go at your own pace and view videos over and over
  • Depending on the course, you may get perks like:
    • Lifetime access
    • A money back guarantee
    • Interactive support

Cons
* There’s no real “physical” life interaction
* You may or may not get a “certificate”

If you choose this route, make sure:

  • You can preview content to make sure the teaching style works for you
  • The program offers the features you need (ie support, guarantees, etc)

If you aren’t getting what I’m saying by now, let me be totally blunt with you:

Online courses are the best way to learn.

But before you close this window and start googling your options, let’s dig a little deeper.

When it comes to online courses, there are big differences in what you’ll get.

Most will teach you the tools you need to sketch flats. And it’ll be good material.

You may get what you need on Lynda or Skillshare for $99.

But here’s where they all fall short.

They won’t follow up with you.

And who do you call when things go wrong? When you have a meeting next week, you’re about to present your work and this is a make or break decision for the company?

These kinds of issues are the things that can determine the success of our career.

What’s the value of that powerful presentation that makes your boss turn to you and say “you’re going to lead this project, you’ve proven you can do this.

What’s the value of the raise you’re going to get over 5 years, 10 years from now?

It’s these little moments, it’s having confidence, it’s not being terrified to put yourself out there – that make or break the journey that we’re all on as fashion designers.

And I’m committed to being there for you in those moments.

That’s not something Lynda.com or any of these other online platforms will give you.

They won’t be there for you, they won’t have conversations like these:

Because at the end of the day, it’s not just about learning Illustrator. It’s about what learning AI is going to do for you. How is it going to change your life?


Get your designs into production?


Knock your client’s socks off (and get your work done in half the time)?


Get the confidence you need to leave your current job? Or just stop being intimidated and afraid of doing things wrong?


Because you know that more confidence in Illustrator would make you more confident in YOURSELF.

And that is priceless.

How to make the right decision and move forward.

You’ve read a lot by now. 4,110 words to be exact. So let’s switch things up and do this the fun way.

Choose your own adventure and discover the best way to move forward with Illustrator.

Are you happy with where you landed? No? Then start over.

It’s way easier to do it now than when you’re halfway through a course and you realize it sucks.

Remember, there are dangers in going down the wrong path – like leaving more confused than when you started or losing so much confidence you give up entirely.

I promise I won’t let that happen to you.

Everything is possible – even getting a dream job. And I’ll show you how, with Illustrator.

Get started now with free tutorials, templates and downloads delivered to your inbox. I’ll also send you a PDF of this guide so you can read it anywhere.

I’m ready to get ahead with Illustrator

You’ll learn the easiest and quickest ways to sketch flats – and you’ll wonder why no one ever showed you them before.

You’ll realize you CAN do this – without getting overwhelmed.

Your dream is within reach.

And it’s closer than you think.