You’re currently reading Chapter 8 of The Ultimate Guide to Creating Your Fashion Portfolio (in a weekend)
As fashion designers, it’s easy to get pigeonholed in one category or role. Maybe you’re stuck in denim and want to do lingerie, or a tech designer and are dying to work on the creative side. In this chapter, we’ll go through a few strategies you can use to create opportunities for yourself to break into that new fashion design job.
How do you put together your fashion portfolio for a “new to you” category or job in the fashion industry?
Listen, I’m not going to sugarcoat it and say you can easily break into a new category.
Depending on your determination, who you know, and some luck, this can be really hard.
Fashion designers do get pigeonholed, and chances are, if you do get the opportunity to design in a new category?
It’s going to be because of a relationship / contact, not because of your fashion portfolio.
It’s going to be because you are able to make a lateral change in a company you already work for, rather than finding a new gig in a new category from scratch.
The kind of jump you want to make is going to impact your success rate as well. Swim to active is a shorter jump than swim to knit sweaters. Think about the crossover in knowledge about fabrics, construction, trims, finishes, etc.
I don’t want to discourage you, but I want to be realistic.
On that note, I am a firm believer that you can create opportunities for yourself.
But you have to WANT it, and you have to WORK for it.
I mean REALLY WANT it and REALLY WORK for it.
Your best chances for success probably mean getting yourself into the right network and connecting with the right people to create this opportunity for yourself. From there, you may have to do a test project to show you’re capable.
If you’re not putting yourself out there and networking (why aren’t you doing this?!), then your next best chance for success is SHOWING brands that you understand their aesthetic and know how to design into their category.
And that means doing self directed projects for that category.
That means you’re finding friends (or people) who have startups in this category and helping with their projects (probably for free or at a reduced rate to help build your fashion portfolio…more on this later).
Somehow, you are creating collections to show that you can and want to design into this category.
Let me tell you a story about a (soon to be) fashion designer named Jasmine.
This is a true story, and it unfolded while I was writing this book.
Two days before my publish date, I emailed Jasmine and asked if I could share her story with you.
To my absolute delight, she said yes.
So, here is the story about a girl with a BIG vision…but NO experience.
Jasmine works in the Ecomm department at a fashion brand in NYC. She did go to fashion school, but left feeling too unprepared for the real world. In her own words:
“My program had only one class in each area of design. One illustrator/photoshop class, one pattern making class etc. They also did not require internships. I graduated in 2015 and my portfolio was too weak to apply for design jobs.”
While she wound up working at a fashion brand in NYC, it was in Ecomm, nothing to do with design.
But her dream of working as a designer never died. So she took it upon herself to improve her portfolio and skills, on top of her full time job.
So, she spent weekends and nights improving her Illustrator and tech pack skills.
And in January 2018, she emailed me to share some of her work. Here are a few styles she sent:
I replied and told her they looked fantastic, and that she was doing great.
And then, things fell silent. For a few months, I didn’t hear from Jasmine.
Until May 2018, when I was doing research for this book and I emailed to ask about her fashion portfolio. This was her reply:
Like a lot of you, she had gotten stuck. And it was simply because she found “a reason to stay in a safe place”.
Because safe places are comfortable. But the problem is, nothing magical ever happens there. You know the graphic, I’ve shared it before:
So I replied and asked Jasmine if she was up for a call to talk more. We hopped on the phone, talked about her portfolio, and I gave her some advice on next steps.
I said something like this:
“Your designs are really, really great! And you already work at a fashion brand…there is a huge opportunity waiting for you to create it. See if you can get a meeting with the design director or CEO to show them your drive, ambition and what you’ve been working on. Tell them you’d love the opportunity to learn more, to shadow a designer [something she told me she wanted to do], and you’d be willing to make up for any lost work for your current job duties on your own time.”
She told me that idea terrified her…and she was full of more “what if’s” than I can count…
What if my work isn’t good enough?
What if there aren’t enough details and close-ups?
What if I’m not ready?
But she said she would do it. So I gave her a week deadline and told her to get back to me when it was done.
To my surprise (because most people I give advice like this too never follow up), I got a wonderful email from Jasmine letting me know she did her homework.
BOOM. Just like that, one email turned into a meeting:
Then, something terrible happened.
Right as she was feeling good…right as she was trying to get amped up for her big meeting on 5/31…she got a big slap of discouragement.
And it was because of one of MY podcast episodes.
Episode 53 made her worry:
But here’s the thing you have to understand about the fashion industry.
There are people out there who are going to tell you you can’t do it.
Tell you you’re not good enough.
Tell you there’s too much competition.
This industry will chew you up and spit you out.
It will pick you up only to tear you down.
It will crush you at the worst possible time.
And you have to keep your foot on that gas pedal and keep going. It will be hard, and there will be times you want to give up, but you have to keep moving forward.
So I gave her the nudge I knew she needed right in this moment, right before her meeting with the CEO:
And so she straightened her backbone and stood up tall with confidence. She used her wishbone to dream big and put herself out there. And she used her jawbone to ask for what she wanted…even though it terrified her. 
 I linked to the article once already, but if you didn’t read it yet, I highly suggest you take 2 minutes to check out the 3 Bones Lead to Success Article.
She asked for a meeting. And she got it.
BAM, just like that, she created an opportunity for herself:
And then, just when I thought it was happening for Jasmine, things took a turn. She emailed to let me know how the meeting went, and the news was not good.
The meeting was uneventful.
Now, before you make a judgment about what happened, there are a couple important details you should know.
Jasmine told me there were layoffs just a week ago, so my guess is that the office climate may be a little off. There is only “one designer left on the design team”, and having been in a similar position to that myself, I can imagine she may feel in a blur about what’s going on within the company.
So while the meeting didn’t end with any big opportunity, I do think there is still a chance to nurture this relationship in a more casual way. Maybe it means asking the designer out for a drink to share her interest in learning and where she’s coming from.
Because you know what? It’s amazing how people will open up when you approach them honestly and explain your situation. It’s amazing how people want to help you when they understand a little more and the protective barrier comes down.
The conversation could go something like this:
“Hey! I feel like our meeting went a little awkward, and it wasn’t my intent for that to happen. I don’t want to leave things that way, and I know things feel a little off around here with the recent staff cuts. I’m really interested in design and want to learn more about how everything works. I would love to take you to lunch or a drink to chat more and explain where I’m coming from. No pressure, but if you’re up for it, it’d be great to get to know each other a little better. What do you think?”
Jasmine will have to use her judgment call and do what she feels comfortable with, but there are ways to continually open doors even when it feels like they’ve been softly closed.
Creating a relationship with this designer now may not produce an immediate result or opportunity for Jasmine, but it may eventually.
Because it is your relationships and friends who will bring you in for an interview at their next job when there’s an opening. It’s how this industry (and most) works.
Last? Jasmine also told me that she feels like “my CEO and direct boss set up the meeting because she’s a good employee.” 
 Did you know that hiring good employees is one of the biggest challenges for many companies (in any industry)? It’s actually really difficult to find hard working, reliable staff. I’ve experienced it firsthand, and heard it from others in fashion and beyond.
Which I see as is a way bigger deal than she may realize right now.
I’ll tell you exactly what I told her:
While your eye as a fashion designer matters…
While your POV matters…
While creating a book that passes the Portfolio Golden Rule matters…
(She did all these things…)
It is your work ethic…
Your drive and your willingness to continually put yourself out there…
Your ambition to create relationships and find opportunities…
That will actually get you ahead.
(And she has all these things…)
I told her that the road may be rocky and hilly and there will be times she will fall down (no different than most of us who’ve “made it” in fashion). But with her attitude and determination, she is going to make it in this industry too.
Because someone like Jasmine is the kind of person who brands want, even though she didn’t go to fashion school.
Someone like Jasmine is the kind of person brands are willing to take a risk on, even though she doesn’t have any experience.
And it is someone like Jasmine that the CEOs (and that designer if she’s able to forge a friendship) are going to remember. When they change jobs, it’s someone like Jasmine who they’ll reach out to and ask, “can you come in for an interview? There’s an opening on my new team.”
Your fashion portfolio or website is not a “build it and they will come” thing.
(And if you know who came up with that saying, please let me know so I can go swat them with a stick…because nothing in life or business is build it and they will come. I hate that freaking saying.)
Yes, you need a body of work to share, and most of the time, that comes in the form of a portfolio.
But you need to put yourself out there, build those relationships and create those opportunities.
You have to do the leg work and get out of your comfort zone to make this stuff happen. It is only after you do that, that it may start to feel like things “magically” fall in your lap like I know they will for Jasmine.
Now, I know you’re probably thinking, “but Heidi, my situation is different. And Jasmine has a leg up. She already works at a fashion brand.”
And you’re right, she does.
But she also has hurdles to get over.
No industry experience (not even an internship).
No portfolio with any “real life” work.
All the leverage she has to find an opportunity? She’s creating it herself.
Listen, each of you has your own version of a “leg up” and your own version of “hurdles” to get over.
Stop making excuses. Stop with the “buts” and the “what if’s”. Use the advice in this book, apply it to your own situation, and take action.
On that note, let’s dive back into the original topic for this chapter to see what it is you’re supposed to be taking action on.
It was this:
How do you put together a fashion portfolio for a “new to you” role or category?
Well, like Jasmine did, you somehow create a body of work. Self directed, for a friend’s startup, for your own fashion brand, doesn’t matter.
Just create something.
And since I know you’re wondering, “how much do I need to create?”
I’ll tell you now that there are no rules. Two or so small capsule collections or one larger assortment should be a good starting point.
And I’ll remind you, if while reading this, your first thought is, “but Heidi, I am too busy with my [full time job / family / life / insert your excuse here] to do a self directed project on the side!!!“, then it’s probably not for you.
Because here’s the thing:
Like Jasmine, this should be all you think about. If you want it badly enough, the work should be a no brainer. The desire to make this happen should be so much an extension of your being that you just have to do it.
You will somehow manage to find the time, even if that means staying up until 2am or waking up early before your day job starts.
If you’re not, you need to reevaluate what you really should – or want to – be doing.
Now, it’s major disclaimer time.
All this said, it’s still going to be hard.
Chances of approaching a recruiter to help you find opportunities in new categories? TOUGH. I know because they told me this (and it almost crippled Jasmine).
Chances of landing a job on StyleCareers with no resume experience in the new category and just self directed work? SLIM.
Chances of finding an opportunity in a “new to you” industry through relationships and some good ol’ fashioned networking? YOUR BEST BET (like Jasmine is working on!).
Your best opportunities will be discovered amongst your network, your contacts, and getting yourself out there. I know those are really vague instructions, but this is what you have to do.
It means talking to people you know in the industry and tell them what you’re working on.
It means going to events / mixers / meetups and having conversations.
We’ll go through some tips on how to have these conversations later, but if you’re really stuck, then start with this the book Never Eat Alone. I can give you a few pointers, but this is a book on your fashion design portfolio, not a book on networking 🙂
How do you show you’re capable even though the fashion role is “new to you”?
In case you haven’t guessed it, you’ll show you’re capable by creating a collection that adheres to the Portfolio Golden Rule, just like Jasmine did.
Here’s the rule again:
“This [project / collection / design] speaks to the brand, tells them that I understand their market, customer and aesthetic, and visually shows them that I am the right designer for the job.”
Shocking, I know. I told you’d notice some themes and repetition in my fashion portfolio advice 🙂
On top of that, if the jump between categories is big, focus on showing you know fabrics and construction for that new category. This may mean some extra education on your side (google, asking friends, even reaching out to someone blindly on LinkedIn to see if you can get some help) to learn this stuff.
One of the biggest barriers a brand may have in hiring someone new to a category is the steep learning curve. They may not have time to train you, so if you can show that you’re up to speed and willing to put in the extra effort (on your own time) to learn, you’ll put them at ease.
That said, you don’t have to know it all (I mean honestly, we don’t ever know it all, even after working in a category for years), but showing you have a base understanding and knowledge will give you a huge head start.
And again, if you “can’t find the time” or just aren’t willing to put in the effort? Then I hate to say it, but you probably don’t want it badly enough to make it happen.
Now, if a random opportunity falls into your lap and you’re not prepared with anything to show, there are some “tricks” you can use.
If the opportunity is a last minute call for a full time or temp job, it’s best to go into a meeting with something, even if it’s just a few rough sketches you did the night before to show your ideas.
If it’s for a true, remote freelance opportunity (not a “temp job”), the scenario may be different.
For example, I’ve gotten freelance work for a running project, even though I didn’t have any running stuff in my portfolio (and I didn’t do any test projects to prove I could do it). Instead, I got the work because of two reasons:
- I was referred by a trusted client
- I put together examples of similar projects (yoga, golf) that were “close enough” in design / fabric / construction
Either way, think about how you can get creative when you present your work.
Let’s say you landed a meeting for women’s active but don’t have any direct experience. How can you combine experience from other projects (or even your life) to show you’re capable?
It may look something like this:
“I don’t have any one project that falls directly into women’s active, but let me explain why I know I can do a great job for you.
1. I’ve done swim before, and am knowledgeable about performance fabrics and construction. The learning curve will be quick and I am willing to put in any extra time outside of my duties to get up to speed.
2. I’ve worked in the industry for X years and fully understand the entire design process. I know from industry friends that there’s not a huge difference amongst most categories.
3. And last? I am the target market! I’m an active [yogi / runner / whatever you are] and honestly, I live and breathe this stuff. I see it at the gym almost daily, and I’m always up on the trends and what people are wearing.
I’m also fully prepared to do a test project to show you what unique ideas I can bring to the table and show you I understand your brand aesthetic and target market.”
Your examples may look different than this. Maybe you actually aren’t the target customer. That’s ok!
This is just an idea. It’s up to you to get creative on how you can implement it.
And last? I know you don’t want to hear it, but I’ll emphasize it again, because it is SO important. Your network and contacts are the number one resource you have.
In all my years of freelancing, I never landed a new gig in a new category because of my portfolio or self-directed projects. It was all through networks and contacts or because I created and asked for an opportunity.
Golf turned into running, yoga, and high performance outerwear, and even an opportunity to design women’s underwear. I never had any of this work in my fashion portfolio, but good contacts and referrals got my foot in the door.