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Why your "freelance" fashion design job is abusive (and illegal): The Ultimate Guide to Being a Freelance Fashion Designer by Sew Heidi

Why your “freelance” fashion design job is abusive (and illegal)

January 03, 2018

What does a freelance fashion designer do? In reality, you can do any kind of work you want.

But it’s not so much about what you do, it’s about how you do it. More specifically, where and under what terms.

Turns out, there’s a common misconception about what it means to be a “freelancer” in the fashion industry.

How’s that?

Most designers are trained that “freelancing” in fashion means working for a brand onsite 40 hrs/wk for a period of time…until you’re “unemployed” again.

And if you’ve ever felt like this is just one of the ways you’re being abused in your career and job…you’re not alone.

But here’s the deal:

You can be a remote “work from home in your sweatpants without makeup” freelance fashion designer.

And in this article, I’ll explain why you don’t have to put up with being an “onsite” freelancer…and what you can do instead to create that “work-life” balance you want.


This is an excerpt from The Ultimate Guide to Being a Freelance Fashion Designer. You can read the entire FREE 20k+ word guide to learn step by step how to present your portfolio, find clients and negotiate your rates here.


It makes me sick when designers say things like this:

“I just got a great new freelance job with Ralph Lauren [or insert favorite brand here]! I’ll be working onsite from their Madison Ave office 40 hours a week. It’s a really great opportunity and I’m sooooo excited to start Monday!”

This is not a freelance job.

And I’m going to tell you why three times.

Why three? Because that’s how many times we have to hear something before it really sinks in and we really get it.

And I want this to really sink in and for you to really get it.

  1. Working onsite 40 hrs/week is not freelance. It’s a temp job without benefits.
  2. Going to an office full time for 3 months is not freelance. It’s brands taking advantage of you.
  3. Showing up 9-5 and acting like an employee but not getting any benefits of being one is not freelance. It’s abusive, and it’s actually illegal.

Now, listen. Some designers like this set up. If that works for you, ok.

But I don’t think it’s good for you or our industry.

And if you feel like this is a really shitty deal because in 3 months, you’re basically unemployed again looking for your next “freelance job”, you’re not alone.

These ‘freelance” set ups are shitty for many reasons. Here are just 3:

  1. It’s impossible to have multiple clients.
  2. You don’t get to work on a variety of projects like you wanted.
  3. And you don’t get that amazing work-life balance we talked about.

Instead, you get more stress and anxiety than a full time job gives you.

And you don’t get any of the benefits.

Yeah, if I were you, I wouldn’t want that either.

The problem is fashion designers, like you, have been trained to think that “temp work” is actually “freelance”.

Most designers don’t know any better, so they put up with it.

But it doesn’t mean you have to.

Our industry is unique and whacky and competitive.

That’s why brands get away with this.

That’s why freelancing in fashion is harder than in other industries.

That’s why you’ve seen a lot of groups out there to help creative freelancers, but they’re all focused on graphic or web design.

That’s why there’s no one out there helping fashion freelancers.

And that’s why I created the Ultimate Guide to Being a Freelance Fashion Designer.


How to Become a Freelance Fashion Designer

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So, can you even be a “real” freelancer in fashion?

Yes, you can.

You can do “real” freelance work for the big name brands – even in NYC.

Beyond that, there are a ton of “non-traditional” or “non-obvious” opportunities.

There are endless startups and indie designers that need loads of help.

Small brands you’ve never heard of – and they all have work to be done.

In fact, there’s more opportunity today than there was five years ago.

“But Heidi, no way. How can that be?! The industry is shrinking and retail is dying. It’s so hard to stay positive with the fashion industry being how it is.”

“How it is”…?

What does that even mean?

I argue that “how it is” is what you see in the headlines. It’s the doom and gloom. It’s big retail brands going bankrupt and doing mass layoffs.

How it is” is the retail apocalypse, as they call it.

And the media has a heyday with this stuff because that’s what gets them clicks.

And clicks gets them money.

Fear, panic, depression, all the bad stuff is what sells. It’s human nature, it’s what we’re attracted to.

But what they don’t talk about is all the amazing brands that are absolutely killing it.

The startups that are disrupting the industry and innovating.

Yes, those two words annoy me as much as they do you, but it’s true. That’s what’s happening in fashion now.

There are hundreds – no thousands – of brands out there doing really amazing things.

And they need work done.

They have problems to be solved.

They have goals to be met.

And as a freelancer, you can help them with that.

In fact, a lot of them prefer to hire freelancers (more on that in a sec).

Listen, fashion still exists. People still need clothes. They will forever.

While we’re seeing a decline in big box and department stores, more startup and indie brands are making it than were five or ten years ago.

And I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon.

So yes, you can be a “real” freelancer in fashion.

Depending on your experience, skills and network, your journey will be unique.

How long until you see results will vary.

Your earning potential may be less or more than other designers.

And it takes a lot of hard work. I’ve already told you that.

If you’re not up for it, no problem. Stop reading now.

But if you want the unbeatable rewards and payoffs like:

  • Getting to work on a variety of projects
  • Being able to pick your kids up from school every day
  • Working from your couch…in leggings and no makeup

Then the Ultimate Guide to Being a Freelance Fashion Designer is for you.

One day, maybe you even want to be your own boss full time so you never have to go to an office again.

It is possible. And this guide is for you too.

It will show you how to put yourself out there, present yourself and your work, figure out and negotiate your rate, and find clients to reach out to.

Even if you’re used to a salaried job and have never done freelance before.

Even if your portfolio isn’t ready and you’re not confident reaching out yet.

Even if you feel totally clueless about how to value your work.


This is an excerpt from The Ultimate Guide to Being a Freelance Fashion Designer. You can read the entire FREE 20k+ word guide to learn step by step how to present your portfolio, find clients and negotiate your rates here.

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