How to set your rates as a freelance fashion designer?

Freelance Fashion Designer Rates: Project Rates vs Hourly

As a freelance fashion designer, it’s easy to totally eff up your pricing… and only once it’s too late, do you realize YOU’RE NOT MAKING ENOUGH MONEY! So you’re wondering, how do you set your rates as a freelance fashion designer? Should you do a flat rate and price by project, or should you charge an hourly rate?

Now, before we get to the pricing stuff… I want to remind you about a designer whose story I shared in the last post named Jenny. Jenny was an aspiring fashion freelancer who almost burnt out after 6-months of trying to get work and failing.

She spent way too much time on her portfolio, and pitched herself all wrong.

She also made a lot of pricing mistakes.

And Jenny has a secret that I told you I’d share.

So, here it is…

Her name isn’t actually Jenny.

Her name is Heidi. That’s right. It was me.

Back in 2009, there I was…

Platinum blonde pixie haircut…
Thinking I was all that…
Talking to all my big clients…

Actually, it was my mom on the other line…too bad she didn’t have any freelance work for me.

Sew Heidi Blonde Hair

All the things that happened to Jenny? Almost exactly how my story went down when I started freelancing about decade ago.

Year one, I earned a BIG FAT ZERO DOLLARS. Yay me!

All kidding aside, I felt like sh!t. I felt like a failure.

I had no idea WTF I was doing… even though I thought, “Oh, I can figure out this freelancing thing.”

And I dragged my husband through this “venture” of mine. I relied on him for a whole year to support our family and household. Every day, he went to work to pay bills and earn a paycheck.
While I sat at home floundering and “trying” to be a freelancer.

Do you know how sh!tty that feels? It’s embarrassing. It’s humiliating.

But it doesn’t start out that way.

At first, you feel good. You tell all your friends that you’re “finally doing your own thing!

It’s not until a year later, no money in the bank, you’re secretly updating your StyleCareers profile and saving jobs to apply to.

The thought of going back to work for another b!tch of a boss, chained behind a desk 40 hours a week makes you nauseous.

But you feel like it’s your only choice.

Because no matter how hard you try, you “just can’t make ends meet freelancing”.

And you want to know why?

A lot of it comes down to the hot topic of: PRICING

There are two pricing camps. Chances are, you’re in one of them.

PRICING CAMP 1: The Flat Rate Project Camp

Flat rates sounds like a great idea. Your client knows how much to budget, and you know how much you’ll earn.

PLUS? You have a secret weapon and your client doesn’t know: YOU ARE FAST! You’ll wind make MORE per hour! SWEET!!!!

I have been through this exact situation…and it goes something like this:

You quote $500 for sketches + tech packs for 3 simple styles and you are FEELING GOOD!

$500 fat ones in your bank account…you needed this win more than you realized.

(And they said you couldn’t be a freelancer…look at you now!)

At first, things are going great. Your client sends you 3 hand sketches and you start converting them to flats in AI.

You send her a draft and she’s pleased with the interpretation, so you move on to the tech packs.

You spec the flats in AI and then drop them into your trusted template (maybe it’s even the free one you downloaded from my site!). You fill in the color callouts, BOM, and are just about finished merging the existing graded specs into the Excel file…

When your phone dings with an email from the client.

Your blood starts to boil just from the subject line:

SUBJ: Changes to style F19537


As annoyed as you are, you can’t open the email fast enough to see what’s inside.

UGH. Are you kidding me? Why couldn’t you send me these TWO DAYS AGO before I started the tech packs?

You bite your tongue and make the changes. “It’s just one style,” you tell yourself, and you open Illustrator again to adjust the flat + tech sketches.

An hour later, the edits are done and you’re back in Excel updating the tech pack.

When your phone dings again with another email:

SUBJ: Changes to style F19538

Two hours later, another email:

SUBJ: Changes to style F19539

OHHHHH MYYYYYY GODDDDDD. You are killing me.

Not only were there excessive revisions…there were all the unexpected things that came up:

Hour long phone calls at 9pm to deal with last season’s production problems?

You take them…even though you weren’t even involved in last season. You feel like you’re becoming a consultant, and you’re not sure…should you be charging for these things?

Advice on sourcing and manufacturers?

You give your client ideas and a list of your contacts…even though you’re only supposed to be doing flats + tech packs. And you find yourself wondering (again)…should you be charging for these things?

The list of work grows and grows. But the compensation does not.

And you have no idea:

  • How to avoid scope creep (when the client starts asking for work above and beyond the original “scope” of the project)
  • What you should and shouldn’t be charging for (should phone calls be billed?)
  • How to stand up for yourself (and not let the brand take advantage of you)

Three weeks, 6 rounds of revisions, 4 late night phone calls, and 100 hours of your time (+ all the industry contacts you gave her) later, you send the “final” tech packs over…for the SIXTH time.

You know, the file folder that looks like this:

All for (what now feels like a measly) $500.

You’re relieved project is over, but you’re left feeling like total CRAP.

You feel abused.
You despise the client.
You’re frustrated with yourself for letting it end like this.

And just when you think things have settled after you haven’t heard from the client for a week…you get another email.

They want you to make “just a few more changes to the tech pack” per request from the factory.


Nope. No kidding here. This sh!t happens ALL the time with flat rate projects.

Because here’s the thing:

Flat rate pricing IS hard, HARD, HARD!!!

Man, even after freelancing full time for years, I have royally f-ed up and way underbid or underestimated projects.

And I know some of you have too:


It is hard to manage your client and the project.

It is hard to avoid excessive revisions.

It is hard to know when to say “sure, I’ll do it” or “that’s going to cost more” (without sounding stingy).

Those are delicate – and freaking difficult – conversations to have.

It is hard to predict all the things that can come up…and the bigger the project, the worse things get. Even “just a few simple” tech packs can get out of control REALLY FAST.

You wind up working yourself to death making $5/hour. NOT A LIVABLE WAGE.

Camp 1, The Flat Rate Project Camp, is a TERRIBLE place to be…

Which is why hourly pricing IS much safer…but it also comes with its own problems.

Welcome to camp 2…

PRICING CAMP 2: The Arbitrary Hourly Rate Camp

When it comes to freelancing, one of the biggest questions designers have is:

“What is a fair hourly rate?”

On one hand, you’re terrified of saying a ridiculously high price and scaring off the client.

On the other, you’re afraid of getting taken advantage of.

The result? You pick an arbitrary hourly rate that “sounds” good.

I know a designer who did just this…she’s doing better now, but two years ago when she started freelancing, things got off to a really grim (and financially uncomfortable) start.

She’s a friend of mine and someone whose name you may recognize, so for privacy purposes, we’ll call her Kathy.

Kathy got her first few freelance projects from brands she’d been employed at in the past. Not bad!

She had no idea how much to charge, so she did some backwards math and calculated her hourly rate as an employee: $24 per hour.

“Sounds good, I’ll charge that!”

The first few months, she had what felt like a lot of work coming in. She was busy managing multiple clients, doing trend research, creating mood boards, and sketching flats for the collections.

Kathy sent weekly invoices and was getting paid. ON TIME!

Things were going great! Money was coming in! She was doing projects she loved!

Things were falling into place! It was almost too good to be true!

When we talked on Skype last year, she told me she couldn’t believe how quickly her freelance business had taken off at first.

And then…about 3 months in, reality hit her like a Birkin bag full of bricks.

She had NO money.

Her bank account was empty.

Her rent was late.

She couldn’t pay her phone bill.

And she was eating year old frostbitten taquitos from the “scary” part of her freezer…way in the back buried under the tubs of half eaten Ben & Jerry’s and bags of frozen corn.

How in the world did this happen?

And that’s when Kathy had a painful realizations about why $24/hour was too low:

Unlike when you’re an employee, she wasn’t actually doing 40 hours of paid work each week.

Because here’s the thing about freelancing:

You spend a lot of time on things like finding clients, sending out proposals, invoicing, and all the other day to day “business stuff”.

And NO ONE IS PAYING YOU for that stuff!

So, Kathy did what a lot of freelancers wind up having to do, and she raised her rate with new clients.

She was also slowly able to raise it with her existing clients, but those were some tough and uncomfortable conversations to have.

Worse? It took her 6 months to financially recover and make up for those lost wages.

Now listen, freelancing in fashion is hard (just like anything else in our industry, like launching a label or working for a brand).

And we can make pricing tough, TOUGH, TOUGH for ourselves.

My intent is not to scare you with these terrible “OMG I AM WORKING FOR PENNIES” stories.

Because there are actually a few REALLY simple tricks you can use to make sure you’re getting a fair wage and not abused by your client with excessive revisions.

It really doesn’t have to be that complicated…it’s just that we’re REALLY good at overthinking this stuff.

And I know we’ve talked about a lot of other mistakes most freelancers make too…like creating fancy websites + business cards and sending out “portfolio + resume” pitches.

I don’t tell you these things to make you feel sh!tty. Or to make you feel like freelancing isn’t for you (however, if you are totally terrified of this stuff, it actually may not be for you – it’s not for everyone).

I tell you because they’re the EXACT MISTAKES I made when starting my freelance business almost a decade ago.

And they’re the EXACT REASONS I earned $0 my first year.

Which is why tomorrow, I’m dropping a big fat knowledge bomb ?on you.

It’s all the stuff I WISH someone had told me back in 2010.

All the things I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW I should be trying to figure out.

All the things that would have made my freelancer endeavor MUCH EASIER.

And I am going to deliver them to you on a silver platter…because I want you CRUSH IT.

I want you to SUCCEED.

And I want your experience to be WAY BETTER than mine was.

Watch for tomorrow’s post: 3 strategies on pricing, portfolios and pitches that you can use (right away) to get more freelance work.

Or, get that and MORE in my FREE Ultimate Guide to Being a Freelance Fashion Designer!


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