INTRO: WHY READ THIS GUIDE (AND WHY I CREATED IT FOR YOU)
You know that making it as a freelance fashion designer is hard in this industry.
As in really, really hard. But what if I told you there were strategies to:
- figuring out your pay rate and wages
- finding (and reaching out to) new clients
- and presenting your portfolio
…that were simple to follow?
That’s exactly what you’ll find in this step by step guide.
If you want to:
- find and get hired for your next freelance job
- discover what your salary could be
- know what contracts should say (and when you need one to protect yourself)
- and know what to include in your design portfolio
…this guide is for you.
It’s over 20k+ words and it’s absolutely free.
And it includes templates, swipe copy files, example portfolios, sample contracts…yes, all for free.
So, why did I write this guide for you (and why am I giving it away for free)?
- Because I know firsthand how hard it is to make it as a full-time freelance / contract fashion designer.
- Because I know what it takes to negotiate remote work that you can do from home and still earn a fair, living wage.
- Because I know what it’s like to work with clients who have no education and expect things that are unreasonable.
And I know what it feels like to deal with people who say ridiculous things like:
“Can you do my tech pack for $15? I don’t think it should take that much time?!”
Because absurd expectations like this make you laugh hysterically.
And they also make you cry a little.
Because you start to think that this “freelance fashion designer” thing is never going to work out.
But maybe you’re just not talking to the right brands? “I just need to work with more established brands who have money and know what it takes to do a tech pack. They know it’s not a $15 job”.
The problem with that? It seems like they only ever want you to work on-site.
And that’s a job you’re not doing. Because what’s the point of being freelance…on-site?
It defeats the point of the whole work-life balance thing people tell you comes with being a freelancer.
The last few years, you’ve gotten a few random freelance gigs.
You’re an accidental freelancer!
You’ve done everything from fashion illustration, hangtag design, and even some tech pack projects.
They’ve all come from people you know or a friend of a friend.
So you convince yourself, “I just have to network more. I need to put myself out there. Get out and talk to people“.
Oh, and of course, start your website.
Because your friend told you that’s what you should do.
So you did just that. You started your website.
But it’s still a work in progress. It’s up there, but nobody really knows it’s there.
Maybe if you update it, add some more work and get the SEO up so people can find you, that would help.
Because you’re convinced if you can just get the right people to see your website and portfolio, you can get a meeting or call.
And if you get a meeting or call, you can get a project.
I know because that’s exactly what I thought.
“It’s really important to have an industry accepted website – something to direct some traffic to. Once that’s ready, I can get some projects.”
You become so obsessed with your portfolio that it takes over your whole life. Of course, that allows you to inflate it into something more daunting.
So you spend hours in Illustrator working on a logo and branding. You order some fancy new business cards from VistaPrint or Moo.
And the day they arrive on your stoop, you think, “today is the day“.
“I can finally get out there and network. Pass out my shiny new cards and get my freelance career off the ground.”
It’s been months – maybe even a year – you’ve been getting all this together.
And you’re giddy with excitement to start passing out your cards and getting work.
There’s an industry mixer tomorrow in the Garment District right around the corner from your office.
Perfect. You register on EventBrite.
The bar is dark and you go straight for a drink. A vodka tonic – you need to loosen up.
Your left hand holds your cocktail and your right hand’s in your coat pocket.
You can feel the rounded corners and metallic foil on your new business cards. And you’re glad you splurged on these details.
After all, in fashion, details matter.
People will be impressed with these cards!
They’ll go to your website!
They’ll call you for a freelance project!
This is going to WORK!
You approach a group of 3 women who are clearly here for the mixer.
“Hi, I’m Kim,” you say with a big smile. “I work as a women’s knitwear designer, and I just started my freelance business. Nice to meet you!”
You’re still figuring out your pitch and it’s not bad, but you know you need to sex it up a little.
They introduce themselves and you all shake hands.
And your stomach drops a little when you realize you have met 3 other people looking for work:
- A women’s activewear freelancer.
- A recently laid off lingerie designer who needs a job.
- And a menswear designer exploring new opportunities.
It must be coincidence that all the job hunters have congregated.
You escape the conversation and talk to a few more people.
But you keep discovering the same thing:
Everyone here is looking for work.
It hits you like a semi-truck.
“I’m networking in a room full of people who are also networking.”
You give out a few more cards because hey, you never know.
One woman was a knitwear designer at Ann Taylor and it sounded promising that they may need some freelance help.
But you don’t keep your hopes high.
It’s 22 blocks to your apartment, but you decide to walk in the cold anyway. Your $27 bar tab makes you think twice about dropping another $10 on Uber.
A few weeks pass and you still feel defeated.
You drag yourself out to a couple more events, but it’s the same thing over and over again.
All of these networking things are just full of other people looking for work.
And you feel like giving up on this whole freelancing thing.
Because freelancing is hard. And freelancing in fashion is really hard.
But it is possible.
And that’s exactly why I created the Ultimate Guide to Being a Freelance Fashion Designer.
To show you, step by step, exactly how to get more freelance work and earn more money.
We have a lot to cover.
You’ll learn what it means to be a freelancer in fashion.
You’ll gain confidence to market and present yourself and your portfolio.
You’ll discover how to price your services and negotiate rates.
You’ll understand what you do (and don’t) need for proposals and contracts.
You’ll figure out how to find clients and reach out to them.
And you’ll land your first (or second or third!) paying client.
Before we get started, there are few other things I want to run by you.
I know that a lot of you are asking yourselves right now:
“Heidi, who are you to be writing this? Don’t you teach Illustrator?”
And you’re right, I do. Most of you know me as the AI for fashion expert. Some of you have been learning with me since waaaay back in 2010!
And thousands of you have used my Illustrator tutorials to get ahead in your careers (congrats BTW, that is awesome!).
But most of you don’t know that for the last decade, I’ve earned a full time living doing freelance and contract work in the fashion industry.
What you also don’t know is that my first year as a freelancer, I didn’t make any money.
Not. A. Single. Penny. (Whew, it feels good to get that ugly fact out of the way early on.)
Just like you, I thought it was as easy as going to some networking events and asking friends of friends for work.
But it wasn’t.
In 2010 I left the comfort of a full time job and regular paycheck to start my new career.
It was one of the scariest decisions of my life, and during year one, I couldn’t help but think:
“Did I just make the worst decision of my life?”
I kept feeling like my big break was right around the corner, but weeks and months seemed to slip through my fingers like quicksand.
I felt “busy”, but somehow I didn’t make any real progress.
I applied for random gigs on Craigslist and asked everyone I knew if they had any work.
I knew I had to get out there and network, but I wasn’t sure where to start.
I had a website, but it wasn’t getting any traffic.
Somehow, things started to fall into place during my second year as a freelancer.
One by one, industry contacts had projects they needed help with.
I was finally getting to design again and it felt good. I didn’t realize how much not designing had affected my creative self esteem.
And on top of that, I was generating some income.
Income I didn’t feel guilty spending.
From there, things seemed to grow magically.
Bigger clients. Bigger projects. Consistent work.
Projects seemed to “luckily” fall into my lap.
In my second year of freelancing, I earned $35,000 – more than my previous salary as a designer.
A few years later, I tripled that and passed 6-figures.
I even got to travel overseas to China and Vietnam with some of my clients.
Industry friends would tell me, “you’re so lucky!“
And for a long time, I thought it was just luck too.
But when I stepped back and really looked at how it all happened, I had a huge realization.
Yeah, like with anything, there was some luck involved.
But there were freelancing strategies.
Some of them, I unknowingly used.
Some of them, I should have used to get started much faster…especially during year one when I was totally broke.
So I studied for 2+ years. I analyzed what I did. I researched what others do. I’ve learned exactly what it takes to be a successful fashion freelancer.
And I wrote it up in the Ultimate Guide to Being a Freelance Fashion Designer for you.
Because I want to help you on your journey to being a freelancer.
Because I want to make sure you earn more than a few pennies in your first year.
Because I don’t want you to just throw shit at the wall and see what sticks.
I want you to know what sticks.
So you can kick MAJOR ASS.
Listen, this guide is long (20,000+ words).
It’s in depth (which is why I broke it into 4 parts).
It requires hard work (like anything in life) if you actually want results.
If that’s not for you, no hard feelings. Close the page right now and have a great day.
But if you’re willing to get out of your comfort zone and take action, this guide is for you.
If you want to land your first – or second or third – client, this guide is for you.
If you want to earn your first few hundred – or hot damn, even your first few thousand – on the side, this guide is for your.
If you’ve randomly gotten some freelance gigs and you’re ready to put yourself out there and get more work, this guide is for you.
So grab a coffee, glass of wine (that’d be me), or whiskey, find a comfy seat, and let’s do this.
WHAT’S INCLUDED IN THIS GUIDE?
Here is a table of contents of everything that’s included in this 20,000+ word guide. You can either go through it all (which I highly recommend) or you can skip to the part that’s most interesting to you if you’re short on time.
Here’s what you’ll learn from this guide:
Chapter 3.1: What format should I use to present my freelance fashion design portfolio professionally?
PART 4: GETTING TO KNOW YOUR CUSTOMER, REACHING OUT TO CLIENTS & GETTING WORK AS A FREELANCE APPAREL DESIGNER
PART 1: WHAT DOES FREELANCING IN FASHION REALLY MEAN…AND IS IT RIGHT FOR YOU?
Freelancing in fashion is tricky because, let’s be honest, our industry is whacky.
So before we dive into strategies, tactics and step by step instructions, we’re going to go through this other stuff first.
Like what freelancing in fashion is – and what it isn’t.
Because it’s not all rainbows and roses.
Part 1 will help you decide if it’s the right path for you.
And then we’ll go through step by step how to start with well thought out plan instead of floundering in frustration for years.
Chapter 1.1: Why do you even want to be a freelance fashion designer?
A work-life balance sounds pretty nice.
Imagine, you wake up at 8:37, no alarm.
You spend a few minutes catching up on Instagram, and like always, you give in and let your dog in bed for some morning snuggles.
You checked your calendar the night before and don’t have any client meetings. So, you throw on leggings and an oversized Zara sweater.
You skip makeup all together, something you can’t believe is becoming the norm.
The weather’s nice, and you decide to spend the morning at the park with your kids. You can make it up by working later tonight if you have to.
And you don’t mind working late because you’re actually excited about the work! You’re juggling 3 clients right now, but the work is stimulating and varied.
It feels good to be so busy.
Flats and specs for a technical project.
And vendor research for a fabric sourcing project.
The freedom is priceless, and you’re relieved not to have someone dictating your every move.
For too many years, you were forced to sit in a chair until 6pm and be there no matter if you had work to do or not.
That *bitch* of a boss was constantly breathing down your neck every minute.
It felt awful.
By now, you’re probably thinking:
“Woah, Heidi, all that sounds great!
I hear about people freelancing full time in fashion – sometimes.
But me? I just haven’t quite connected with the right thing yet. I’ve applied for a couple opportunities that I felt were the right fit, but I haven’t gotten them.
Maybe there’s just time in getting that right one.
I’m not sure freelancing is for me.”
Listen, it may not be. It takes hard work. It won’t happen overnight. And it can be a really tough road.
I’ve had really hard months, and I’ve had really great months. I’ve had to learn to manage my finances, my time and face difficult client situations.
But I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Because the benefits are priceless.
Chapter 1.2: Is freelancing in fashion really right for you?
As a freelancer in the fashion industry, you have to wear a lot of hats.
You’re a creative.
You’re a salesperson.
You’re an accountant.
You’re a business owner.
You have to manage your time and yourself.
This is really freaking hard for a lot of people.
It takes self discipline, and it’s easy to get distracted. Days turn into weeks into months and all of a sudden, you’re not sure what you did with yourself.
It can hurt your self esteem.
This has happened to me. And it sucks.
You have to put yourself out there and face fear + rejection.
A lot of brands will say no, tell you now isn’t a good time, or kindly dance around the fact that they simply don’t like your portfolio and design aesthetic.
It can sting.
This has happened to me. And it sucks.
Now, I don’t want to scare you. But I don’t want to sugar coat anything either.
If you’re feeling intimidated, that’s ok. It’s normal.
And maybe I told you all that scary stuff way too early.
Let’s back up a little.
Instead of diving in headfirst and getting your head spinning with managing time, finances and all the complicated stuff that comes with freelancing full time, let’s take this one step at a time.
We’ll start with freelancing on the side to earn some extra cash.
This is where I suggest you begin.
And by that, I mean:
“Don’t quit your day job. Yet.”
If you want to freelance full time, you can get there too.
Maybe you’re almost there and just need one more client or one more thing to work on.
This guide will help you find that one more thing.
Maybe you’re trying to get your first, second or third client and start getting a better rate.
This guide will help you find that next client at a rate you feel good about.
But first, I want to be 100% transparent about a huge misconception some of you may have about “freelancing” in fashion.
It’s not your fault – the industry has done this to you.
And for that, I’m sorry.
But I want to get this straight so you don’t get out there accepting “freelance” gigs that aren’t really freelance gigs.
Because these “freelance” gigs aren’t going to give you the work-life balance you’re looking for.
Chapter 1.3: What does “freelance” actually mean in fashion?
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.
- Working onsite 40 hrs/week is not freelance. It’s a temp job without benefits.
- Going to an office full time for 3 months is not freelance. It’s brands taking advantage of you.
- 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:
- It’s impossible to have multiple clients.
- You don’t get to work on a variety of projects like you wanted.
- 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 this guide.
Chapter 1.4: So, can you even be a “real” freelancer in fashion?
I’ve already told you that yes, you can.
You can be a full-time “remote work from home in your sweatpants without makeup” freelancer in the fashion industry. I’ve taught hundreds of fashion designers (and TD’s, PD’s, textile designers, patternmakers and more) how to do it.
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 this guide 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.
Chapter 1.5: What kind of fashion brands can you work with as a freelance designer?
When it comes to freelancing, some brands will be better – or easier – to work with than others.
Some of this is because of our industry.
Some of this is your personal preference.
Some of this is based on your experience.
And I know, this isn’t the sexiest topic.
You’re probably wishing we were figuring out your rates already.
Don’t worry, we’ll get there!
But brand types is something you need to think about. And the types of brands you work with can also affect how much money you make, the kind of work you’ll do, and the services you offer.
You don’t have to decide right now or limit yourself to one category, but I want to walk you through them so you can start thinking about what sounds good.
Or, just as importantly, what sounds terrible.
Now, there are tons of different kinds of brands out there.
They all have goals to achieve, problems to overcome, and challenges to work through.
If you can help them do any of these things, they will love you and happily pay you.
But each brand has pros and cons.
Let’s look at 4 broad categories. Some may be a better fit for you based on experience or preference, so think about that too.
The pros and cons I’ve outlined are generalized. Each brand within each category will vary, but this will give you a good overview.
Startup Brands and Indie Designers
This sector of the fashion industry is seeing the fastest growth right now and there’s a lot of opportunity for work.
I know one freelancer who did a ton of tiny projects with over 60 indie designers in one year!
I also know a freelancer who worked with just 5 startup brands and had a great year.
So even within this category, projects can vary greatly.
Don’t be so quick to dismiss these brands.
Why? Well, first, there is an unlimited supply and new ones pop up almost daily.
Many of them have small teams, or maybe they’re even run by just one person, so outsourcing is something they have to do.
Since they are small, you can also have a greater impact and more involvement – which can be really cool.
Remote opportunities where you can work from home is also easier to come by because some of them don’t even have an office.
But startup and indie brands have their challenges too.
They can have smaller budgets, and you may have to lower your rates or compromise.
While new ones are launched daily, many of them are gone next season, so this could be a one time project.
And since they’re new, they can require a lot of hand holding or management.
Arguably, this could be a good thing for you. Either way, it’s something to consider.
“Middle America” Brands (that you probably have never heard of)
Personally, I think this is one of the best types of brands to work for.
It’s also one that most freelancers forget about.
What do I mean by “Middle America”?
I mean brands that aren’t located in NYC, LA, London or other fashion hubs.
I mean brands that make everyday clothes for everyday people.
These brands are usually not glamorous and you’ve probably never heard of them, but they have their own niche in the market and many of them are doing really well.
There are way more of them than you think (and yes, soon I’ll show you exactly how to find them).
They don’t have access to huge talent pools like the New York or LA brands, so hiring remote freelancers is sometimes their only option.
Because of this, they’re more open to remote work (meaning you get to work from home).
But there is a sacrifice.
This may not bother you, but for some designers, this is a deal killer.
Looking to add sexy lines to your resume and do brag worthy work to tell your friends about?
Want to work on runway designs with loads of glamour?
Most of these brands won’t give you that.
I don’t care about those things, but a lot of designers do.
It’s up to you to decide.
Big Name Brands
In my opinion, it’s most difficult to get remote freelance work from these types of brands unless you have a pre-existing relationship.
Even then, it can be really hard to negotiate.
I know one woman who worked for a big name brand for 9 years. She left to start a family and offered to do remote freelance work.
They said no.
Because they were worried she would steal their designs! After she had worked there for 9 years!
Now, to be totally transparent, I haven’t done any freelance work for big names.
And every time someone asks me what brands I work for, I hate having to say “a bunch of random ones you’ve never heard of“.
That’s where I miss out on the brag worthy work. But in the big picture, I’m 100% okay with it.
If you do want to work with the big names, it is possible.
I even know a couple designers who have had success with remote freelance work for fair wages with big companies in New York.
They then get to show off those names on their website and portfolio, and it can help get them more work.
But landing these jobs is pretty rare and convincing them to let you work remotely is even harder.
Plus, competition for work is higher and you’ll probably be forced to lower your rate.
And, depending on how big they are, creative freedom can be limited and work can feel more like you’re a “regular employee”.
Some freelancers like this structure, so it may be a good fit for you.
Just remember, this is the hardest type of brand to get true freelance work from.
Non-Glamorous Brands (uniforms, trading companies, resort brands, etc)
In my decade as a freelancer, I’ve done a lot of work for these types of brands.
I will tell you honestly that they’re often the easiest to work with and have the least drama.
They have budgets and can pay, and there’s often little to no competition for this work.
Because it’s terribly un-sexy.
Have you ever heard of the Sex & Cash Theory?
Here’s how it works:
These “non-glamourous” brands offer the kind of work that pays the bills.
So think about what you want from your work and which types of brands may be a good fit.
You don’t have to limit yourself to just one type, and you don’t have to decide right now.
In fact, one of the great things about freelancing is that you have the freedom to explore different companies and see what you like best.
I’ve worked with startups, and I hated it! It was too much hand holding, too much fuss, and the process was too tedious.
I realized I prefer to work with people who already know what they’re doing.
But I know a lot of designers who work with startups and absolutely love it.
So figure out what’s right for you.
If you take a gig and hate it, you can explore something else next time.
Whatever you do, don’t make assumptions like “oh, they’re so established, they don’t even need more help” or “oh, they’re too small and don’t have any money“.
I’ll remind you that all brands have goals to achieve, problems to overcome, and challenges to work through.
If you can help them do any of these things, they will love you and happily pay you.
Chapter 1.6: What kind of work can you do as a freelance fashion designer?
The sky is really the limit.
Here are a few things to think about when figuring out what kind of work you can do:
- What type of brand are you working with?
- Established brands may not want you doing vendor correspondence, while startups may love to have you do this.
- Where are you located?
- Some tasks, like production management, are easier done on site. Although I approve lab dips, fabrics, and review protos remotely, so don’t exclude this. It can be harder and the clients’ FedEx bill reflects this arrangement, but sometimes it’s the best option for you to manage everything.
- What is your experience and skillset?
- You may not want to handle everything from design through development, or you may not even be experienced enough. And that’s okay! You can offer full package services, or just one specific task like sketching flats. It’s up to you.
The point here is that you can get creative with your offer.
Don’t underestimate your skills or underestimate and what brands need.
Here’s a quick list of things you could do as a freelancer. I’m just spitballing here, and keep in mind I’ve purposely made it broader than just “fashion design” to help you get inspired and think outside the box.
- Creative Services
- Technical Services
- Sourcing Services
- New fabrics / trims
- New factories / suppliers
- Price / MOQ negotiation
- Vendor correspondence / follow up
- Consulting Services
- Collection / merchandising review / analysis:
- what categories are missing / not needed?
- Sales analysis / reporting:
- suggestions for moving forward (what styles to run again in new colors, what should be dropped, etc)
- Market analysis
- untapped opportunities / market segments
- Distribution analysis
- New sales channels (wholesale, retail, DTC, pop-up shop, email, web, etc)
- Collection / merchandising review / analysis:
- And beyond…
- Marketing / sales / promotion
- Are you really good at building Pinterest following that gets a lot of click throughs? Startup brands may be dying for this!
- You know how to build and run an email list? Trading companies who are a little behind the times may be dying for this!
- Marketing / sales / promotion
So start thinking about it, what kind of freelance work do you want to do?
If you’re not sure, answer these three questions to decide.
- What do you love doing?
- What are you really good at?
- What will brands pay you to do?
Don’t be afraid to get really specific.
If I told you to pick just 3 specific services from these lists (or other things I missed), what would they be?
And if you had to pick just one product category like men’s active, women’s denim, or kidswear, what would it be?
Take a minute right now and write this down.
We’ll go through this in more depth later (I even have a worksheet for you to fill out).
For now, take a few minutes to brainstorm and write down your 3 services and 1 category.
Chapter 1.7: What do you need to do first before you start freelancing as a fashion designer?
You probably feel like there’s a lot to just to get ready for freelancing.
You know, just to make sure you have your ducks in a row and look professional.
You want to be prepared, have your rates figured out, have an email template, know what to say and how to say it, and are ready to respond to any situation.
That way when you do get that client, you’re not in panic mode.
Because panic mode is an awful place to be.
I’ve been there.
If you haven’t, here’s what it can look like:
Client: “Sounds great Heidi, we’d love to have you work on this project with us. What are the next steps?“
Me, inside my head, in full panic mode: “Next steps? I don’t know what the next steps are. Shouldn’t you know that? I don’t even know what my rates should be for this – should I charge hourly or by the project? What do I do if they keep asking for endless revisions? Or what if I underestimate the time and can’t finish on time? And don’t I need a contract? What should it even say? And then what about invoices? How do I even do that? Do I need Quickbooks or some bookkeeping software?”
Listen, when you first start freelancing, you feel like these are all the things you have to think about.
But you’re way overthinking a lot of it, so just sloooooowwwww down.
This even gives me anxiety. I’d be overwhelmed too.
So it’s no wonder you haven’t really gotten started.
Like you, I’m the type of person who likes to have everything figured out before I dive into anything.
I’m not a “fly by the seat of your pants” person either.
It works for some people. But for people like you and me, it doesn’t make us feel good.
And when we don’t feel good, we don’t feel confident.
And we start to worry.
And we question ourselves.
And we start to spiral.
We’re going to go through all of these things one by one. I’ll tell you what to focus on and what can be ignored (for now).
It’s not as overwhelming as you think.
But it’s a problem many designers face.
You get stuck in the “getting prepared” stage for a few reasons.
One reason is because you feel more comfortable if you’re prepared before you go out and start looking for work.
And that’s fair.
But two is because the “getting prepared” stage is a more comfortable place to be.
It’s easier to work on your portfolio, figure out your rates and think about contracts than it is to actually go out and get the work.
“Getting ready” is a place you feel secure, so you spend a lot of time there.
And you never actually get to the “uncomfortable” things like reaching out for work.
Because whether you admit it or not, that’s the stuff that scares you.
You’re afraid of rejection.
Maybe worse, the thought of them saying yes is more scary. Which sounds absurd, but it’s true.
So you spin your wheels working on your portfolio, updating LinkedIn, and figuring out how to get out there and network.
But you never actually get out there and really look or ask for work.
So nothing gets done.
I don’t tell you this to be an a-hole and make you feel bad about yourself.
I tell you this because it’s a real problem we all have. I’ve gone through it with my freelance work and with other things in life.
But once you start getting out of your comfort zone, really putting yourself out there and getting work, you’ll discover it’s not as scary as you’ve made it out to be in your head.
Because unfortunately, our brains are really good at imagining the absolute worse case scenario and then convincing us that’s what will happen.
When most of the time, it never happens.
Which is why I created this guide. It’s why I spent countless late nights writing with a glass of wine and long days typing away at coffee shops drinking Americanos.
And this guide will help you in a few different ways.
It will help you get out of your own head.
It will help you quit making the “I just need to work on my portfolio a little more” excuse.
It will help you get out there and actually find work.
Chapter 1.8: Where do you find this “freelance” fashion design work?
Most fashion designers feel like they just need to get out there and network.
I talked to a lot of you while researching and writing this guide, and these are some of the things you told me:
“I’m trying to find new ways of networking and getting out there.”
“You just have to network a lot, and I’m trying to do so many different things right now, it’s hard to get out there enough.”
“I go through my contacts and see if anyone within my network is an employee at a company that I really want to work for. I’ll try to network that way and meet for a cup of coffee, that way I learn more insights about the company.”
So you reach out to everyone you know.
And you even go to some of those industry mixers we talked about earlier.
But it doesn’t lead to much.
Listen, at the end of the day, freelancing is a relationship business.
So having a network and contacts can be helpful.
But there are a few things you must realize.
First, you have to know how to ask for the work.
Most designers mess up here, so we’ll go through some of the common mistakes and cover what to do instead.
Second, your existing network and contacts may lead nowhere – or you may not even have one.
So you need to know how to find brands to work with.
Here are five different places you can discover freelance opportunities.
Some of these work better than others and depending on your personality, one may be better for you.
Agencies or Recruiters
If you do a search on a popular agency site like 24 Seven, your first thought probably goes something like this:
“Oh, this freelance thing is going to be great! Look at all these jobs!”
The page scrolls and scrolls with what feels like hundreds of freelance opportunities.
So you set up your profile and start applying.
But here’s the problem with these “freelance” jobs.
They’re actually just “temp jobs” like we talked about earlier.
You’re required to show up and work 40 hours a week on-site.
Even worse is the little known fact that most of these agencies take 50% of your wage.
That means if you’re getting $35 an hour, they’re charging the client $70.
Listen, I realize for some of you, you don’t want to look for work and you don’t mind going on-site. If that’s the case, these “freelance jobs” may be a good fit for you.
But that’s not what we’re focusing on in this guide.
We’re talking about true remote freelance work.
And for that type of work, recruiters and agencies are the worst place to find it.
Gig sites like Upwork / Freelancer / People per hour
This option works great for some freelancers and I know a few who’ve gotten steady work and reliable clients from these platforms.
If you hate selling and pitching, these sites are great. You can browse the jobs and apply to what looks good.
But keep in mind that you’ll be sifting through a lot of crappy gigs that want a tech pack for $15.
You’ll send out tons of proposals only to find none of the people who posted these jobs were even serious.
And you’ll probably wind up settling for a lower wage. People who post on these sites are often looking for a really good deal.
If I were you, I wouldn’t invest much time here unless you really don’t want to pitch or you’re just starting out and are willing to work for a lower wage.
If you decide to give Upwork a shot, listen to this episode of the Successful Fashion Designer podcast first.
Using Your Network and “Getting Out” to Network
I always suggest you utilize your network.
I’ve told you a few times already that freelancing is a relationship business.
So you never want to ignore or neglect your network.
As you grow your freelance business, you’ll find that your best customers come from referrals or people you know.
In the long run, it’s often the easiest and quickest way to get work.
In fact, the pitch that I’m going to show you exactly how to write can be used to reach out to people you know in email or through LinkedIn.
But to start, you probably can’t rely exclusively on your network.
If you’re in a fashion hub like New York, chances are a lot of these brands don’t even hire remote freelancers. (And you already know by now that the “networking” events you go to are just full of other job seekers.)
Trade shows can be good, but they’re also hard because brands are there to sell, not to be sold to.
It also requires a certain personality type and sauvity to go up and talk to people.
To give you a quick visual, it included doing jumping jacks in the hallway to psych herself up before approaching brands at trade shows.
Marissa also had her pitch and strategy really dialed in. She didn’t just blindly going up to brands to ask for work or tell them about all her industry experience.
I told you earlier it’s not just about how you find the work, but how you ask for the work, which I’ll show you exactly how to do.
But the biggest challenge with most of these “networking” strategies is that they’re nearly impossible if you don’t live in a fashion hub.
Which is why we’re not going to focus on “getting out to network” in this guide.
Design Agencies and Service Providers
These are companies that help brands go from idea to launch. Most of them work with startup and indie designers, although not exclusively.
As the indie designer and startup scene grows, more of these are popping up every day.
You can reach out to them using the email pitching techniques we’re going to cover in this guide and I suggest you do.
They can be great to work with since not only do they act as a funnel to send you work, but they handle and manage the client.
This is a great setup for many designers.
But it comes with a price.
Like the recruiters and 24 Seven agencies, they take a big cut of the money. Which arguably is fair since they found the work and manage the client.
Just realize your earning potential has a cap if you work with these design agencies.
And while I do recommend reaching out to them for work, especially when you start out, I wouldn’t rely on them exclusively.
If they go out of business, you could be at risk of losing a huge chunk of or all your clients.
Email pitches are an amazing way to “get yourself out there”. Why?
With email, you’re in 100% control of who you contact.
And your options are limitless.
You don’t have to rely on meeting people at networking events – which is really tricky when you don’t live near a fashion hub.
In this guide, the strategies I’m going to show you step by step how to do are tailored for finding freelance work using email pitching.
But keep in mind that you can use all of these techniques to reach out to anyone on LinkedIn, whether you know them personally or not, or even to apply for gigs on sites like Upwork.
PART 1 SUMMARY
We’ve gone through a really big overview of what it really looks like to be a freelancer in the fashion industry.
We’ll get to some more actionable steps next so you can start making progress towards getting out there and getting work, but what we’ve covered so far is still essential.
You understand that freelancing takes hard work – you have to put yourself out there, work hard and face rejection, but you’re willing to do it for the awesome work life balance payoff.
Plus, the thought of working on a variety of projects instead of just being a sweater designer for one brand sounds pretty freaking fantastic.
One mistake you’re not going to make? Working “freelance” temp jobs – unless that’s what you want. I wrote this guide to help you land real freelance gigs – that you can do remotely on your own schedule while working for multiple clients.
You see your friends – architects, graphic designers, web developers – doing work like this, and it’s possible in fashion too. It’s just not as common and you may have to work a little harder for it than they do.
But the work is out there, and there are all sorts of brands you can work with from startups to big names and “Middle America” companies to non-glamourous businesses like trading companies.
And you can reach out to them at networking events, on LinkedIn, or through good ol’ fashioned email. And I’m going to show you step by step how to do this.
The to do list you need to accomplish before getting started? Not as overwhelming as you may think. You don’t need an LLC, you don’t need QuickBooks, and you don’t need super fancy contracts.
What you do need? You can get it together in a week. And I’ll show you exactly how next in Part 2: Figuring Out Your Rates, Services and Contracts
PART 2: FIGURING OUT YOUR RATES, SERVICES AND CONTRACTS AS A FREELANCE FASHION DESIGNER
Figuring out rates, services and contracts is where most designers get stuck. In fact, in my research for this guide, almost all of you had questions about these things, which is why I decided to dedicate an entire section of the guide to it.
First, let’s just be totally honest about something.
Chances are, you’re over thinking most of this stuff.
I don’t want to trivialize your concerns, and don’t get me wrong, rates, services and contracts are important.
But I also don’t want you to get so concerned with these details that you don’t actually go out and get work.
So, we’ll cover each one thoroughly enough so you can be a confident freelancer.
Chapter 2.1: How much should you charge as a freelance fashion designer?!
This is by far the #1 question designers ask.
And unfortunately, there’s no magic answer.
Your rate will be different than my rate or the rate of the other fashion designers reading this guide.
Because we are all different. Just like a job salary for a designer in NYC vs Tennessee or an assistant vs senior designer will vary, your freelance wage will vary.
We don’t live in the same area, we don’t have the same skills, and we don’t offer the same services.
But, as different as we are, there is one thing we will all go through.
No matter where you live, your skillset, or how much I prepare you right now, we will all experience the same thing during our freelance journey.
It’s called undercharging. And it sucks.
It’s also the biggest mistake most designers make.
In the fashion industry, nobody talks about money, so you don’t know what to charge.
Sometimes you feel like you’re just guessing and then later, you realize that $150 project took you 10 hours.
And $15 an hour (before taxes) is not a living wage.
So, why does this happen? There two main reasons. (And remember, we all go through this, so don’t feel bad.)
First, you lack confidence to charge a higher rate, so you tend to lowball yourself.
Second, you underbid a project.
I’ve done both of these things, and I’ve done them more than once.
It will happen to you more than once too.
Just don’t let it discourage you.
Learn from it and move on so you can do better next time.
But to help get you started on the right foot so you don’t feel overworked and underpaid, I’m going to give you a few strategies to figure out your rate.
Now, I know I said there wasn’t a magic solution to this, but there are some simple tricks you can use.
Some of these I’ve learned from financial experts like Ramit Sethi, who teaches even more advanced strategies like how to raise your hourly rate once you have a happy client.
For now, let’s keep things simple to figure out your base pricing.
How to Charge Hourly for Freelance Fashion Design Work
I suggest everyone start with hourly. It’s the simplest option for you and your clients. Here are some techniques you can use to figure out how much to charge, and you can even use my freelance hourly rate calculator to make sure you’re making enough.
- Drop 3 zeros: If you’ve worked as an employee, this is the easiest option. Take your yearly wage and then drop 3 zeros.
- For example: If your yearly wage is $60,000, charge $60/hour. If it was $35,000, charge $35/hour.
- Charge industry averages: Depending on your skills and location, this number varies. Do some googling, ask around to industry friends, and pick a price that’s fair based on what you discover.
- Other fashion freelancers are your friends, not your competition, so meet them and don’t be shy to talk numbers. Chances are they’re dying to know your rate just as much as you are theirs.
- This is not a perfect science! Yes, you need to charge reasonable rates, but that doesn’t mean competing with people on Fiverr charging $15 for a tech pack. I know designers who charge anywhere between $20 to $150/hour. Again, it depends on your experience, location, project, and client.
Pros and Cons to Charging Hourly
- It’s simple to plan your finances based on how many hours you work
- It’s a comfortable option for many freelancers, especially when you’re starting out
- It’s normal and understandable for clients
- You only have so many hours in the week and your income potential is capped
- You can only raise rates so much before your client refuses to pay $xxx/hour
- It’s laborious to track time for every email, phone call or meeting
- As you get faster at doing the work, your rate doesn’t scale proportionally
How to Charge A Day Rate for Freelance Fashion Design Work
This pricing structure is more common with UK freelancers than US ones.
I also see it being used more for temp work “onsite” freelancing, which I discourage unless this is the arrangement that you prefer.
If you’re doing a few days of onsite consulting, a day rate may be a great option. This is the only time I’ve ever used this pricing structure.
- To calculate your day rate, multiply your hourly by 8 hours and adjust to a flat rate.
- Example: $35/hour x 8 hours = $280. Your day rate could be $300.
Pros and Cons to Charging A Day Rate
- It’s simple to plan your finances based on how many days you work
- You don’t have to track every minute and can just invoice how many days you worked
- If you do onsite days, an 8 hour day somehow always turns into a 12 hour day
- Your leisurely morning dog walk and coffee shop stop (one of the reasons you started freelancing) can *poof* be gone real quick. If you’re just doing a few days of consulting here or there, this may not be a huge deal, but think carefully about signing up to do a day rate 5 days a week. You may not be creating the lifestyle you were imagining.
How to Charge by Project or Piece (ie one tech pack or one flat sketch) for Freelance Fashion Design Work
You can earn more money this way, but it can bite you in the butt if you underestimate or don’t put your foot down against an abusive client.
Even almost a decade into my freelance career, I can still underestimated big projects, especially when working with new clients (I’ll tell you a story about that later).
Things get tricky and you have to know what questions to ask and be really good at clearly outline and managing client expectations.
You also have to make sure you look through any files you’ll be inheriting so you don’t wind up with a bunch of unusable Illustrator flats that have thousands of anchor points and aren’t grouped or joined.
Because if fixing or recreating that wasn’t part of your proposal, it’s a hard thing to bring up after the fact.
You don’t want to look inexperienced, so you wind up doing the work and resenting the project and the client, and that feels shitty.
Which, in a nutshell, is why I really recommend you start out hourly and move into project rates later.
But if you’re more advanced, here are some ways to calculate a project rate.
- Charge based on estimated hours: If you know a tech pack takes you 3 hours, and you want to earn $50/hour, then you can charge $150 for a tech pack. Your client doesn’t know the rate or the hours, they just know a tech pack costs $150.
- Be careful of setting an absolute flat rate for things like tech packs though. The time and work will vary based on design complexity. A tech pack for a basic t-shirt is going to be a lot easier and quicker to do than one for a fully lined piece of outerwear. Are you creating the flat sketches or do they already exist? Do you need to create the graded specs, or does your client have them done? In reality, you really wouldn’t want to have a flat rate for tech packs but instead offer a range depending on the design.
- Remember what I told you about how project based rates are more complicated? Look at how many questions I had to ask – and that was just for a tech pack. And I didn’t even ask all the questions I should have.
- If you are going to do project based, make sure your proposal is very thorough and outlines exactly what the client will get.
- If the client is doing excessive revisions or being overly demanding, you’ll need to be prepared to pick up the phone and tell them the price needs to be adjusted (this can feel really hard, which is why hourly may be better).
- Charge based on value: Maybe you’re really fast and can complete the tech pack in one hour. That doesn’t mean it’s only worth one hour of pay. You’ve worked hard to gain this skill, to get really good at it, and to be really fast. All the time, years, and energy you invested in getting better at this is part of what your client is paying for.
- What is the value of that tech pack worth? It may be $150, or even $300. Don’t look at this as you earning $300/hour (which may make you feel like you’re charging a ridiculously high amount), but rather your client paying you a flat rate in exchange for an item that’s worth $300 to them.
- Again, this is a more advanced technique and depending on the client and the type of work, it may or may not be successful for you, or you may simply not like it.
- If you’re feeling overwhelmed or intimidated about this, don’t start here. Start hourly for your first gigs, and move onto project based later once you’ve tracked your time and know what things take.
Pros and Cons to Charging By Project or Piece
- The faster / more efficient you are, the more money you can make
- You can charge based on value
- Some clients like knowing a flat rate of what something will cost
- It can take time to develop skills to accurately assess a project and what work needs to go into it. Most freelancers tend to underestimate at first (I’ve done this and learned the hard way).
- Scope creep (when the scope of a project creeps beyond the original agreement) is common and can create difficult conversations. Either you get abused (doing too many revisions, etc) or you have to raise the rate mid project
Whatever option you choose, set a rate you feel good about.
Don’t try to get the max wage possible right away, but don’t go so low that you resent the project and client.
Pick something in the middle and focus on getting really good at understanding your client, reaching out to get work, and closing deals.
You can always raise your rate later.
Chapter 2.2: What if your client asks you to lower your rate?!
“Heidi, we’d love to work with you but that rate is really too high for our budget. Is there any way you can do it for less?”
I’ve heard this line.
More than once.
Sometimes I cringe, sometimes I sympathize.
There are experts who will tell you to hold strong and never negotiate your rate.
But I will caution you that most freelancers lower their rate too soon and too much.
So, how do you negotiate your rate? You have a few options.
If it’s your first project with this client and really want the job, offer a trial rate for the first small project with an agreement to increase to your usual wage.
Here’s exactly what you can say.
Go ahead and swipe this verbatim. You’re welcome 😉
“My usual rate is $40/hour. I’d love to work with you on this project, and am happy to offer you a trial rate to start to make sure everyone’s happy. How about we do the first 3 hours at $30/hour and if you’re absolutely pleased with my work, we can continue at the usual rate of $40/hour. Does that work for you?”
If it’s not the first project with this client, you can just do it at the lower rate.
You’re the CEO of your freelance business, and you make the decisions.
Go with your gut, but I only recommend lowering your rate in a few scenarios.
A lot of the time you can stand firm on your price and still get the job – it comes down to your confidence to navigate the situation.
Here are a few cases where you may consider negotiating your prices:
- You really need the cash and you’re not going to feel resentful about the work. This is critical and I’ve mentioned it before, but I’ll reiterate: if you wind up feeling resentful, you’ll provide bad service and your client will be able to tell. In the end, it won’t fair well for anyone.
- You really want the experience and it will add to your resume / portfolio. This is a great way to get work in new categories and learn new skills. Be transparent with your client if this is the case. You can always increase your rate later after you’ve shown your value.
- “I don’t have much experience with kidswear, but am really passionate about the category and would love to work with you. Since it will be a learning experience for me, I’m happy to do it at the lower rate.”
- You simply love the project or client and are excited about the work. Give them a lower rate if you really want to and see how it works out for both of you.
- It’s a big chunk of ongoing work. This is almost like giving them bulk pricing (ie the price to do 1 tech pack may be more expensive than 15 tech packs) and can be a great win win for you and your client.
Pricing is a sensitive area and can be a difficult conversation for you and your client.
You’ll get better as time goes on and these discussions will become easier.
You’ll also mess up a lot and that’s ok.
It’s a learning process, don’t beat yourself up about it – you can always resolve it later.
Even I still mess up on pricing sometimes.
Just 2 years ago, I hugely underbid a project with a new client. It was a full design package including color inspiration, trend research, and design. It was a rush turnaround, and they put me on the spot with the pricing.
I turned the proposal around in an hour, and bid $5k for a job that should have been $10k+.
I don’t know why I put the price so low, and I should have known better.
Two weeks in, I was kicking myself and hating the project. I had 2 other people on my team helping with it, and I knew we were doing way too much work for that rate.
We finished the project on time and did an exceptional job. Our client was absolutely thrilled.
After everything wrapped up, I made the phone call to tell my client what happened. It went something like this:
“Hey Joe – really great working with you on the SP16 collection. We’re very pleased with how everything came together! I know you guys were too. I wanted to reach out to tell you one thing however. I know we bid the job at $5k, and we were happy to do it for that price. But I just wanted to let you know that we undercharged by quite a bit, and I don’t want you to be in sticker shock the next time you ask for a proposal. We were rushed to turn the proposal and project around, and as you know when working with a new client, it’s hard to know how much work the process takes. We just didn’t take the time to put the right price together. No hard feelings – this was completely our fault and like I said we’re happy to do it at that price. But in the future, I wanted to make sure to give you a fair expectation of cost. Don’t worry, we’ll make sure to get to a price that’s fair for everyone.”
The next time he asked for a proposal? I called him to review the price over the phone before sending the bid. I gently reminded him of the low price on the previous project and explained what the new price would be.
And you know what? He was thrilled. He felt like they had gotten an insane deal on the first project, and was happy to pay a more fair price next time.
As a business owner, he too admitted he’d underbid things and wanted to make sure we were compensated fairly.
We got another project with this brand the next month, and for the past 2 years, they’ve been one of our best clients.
This is what happens when you find those great clients, do an exceptional job, and have an open and honest relationship with them.
You respect each other and have a win win relationship.
If this is not how your client is treating you? It’s probably not someone you want to work with anyway.
When your client puts you on the spot about lowering your rate (because it will happen), here are a few key things to keep in mind when you’re negotiating:
- Make sure the rate isn’t so low you’re going to resent the work. No one will be happy and the project and relationship will go south.
- Don’t immediately say yes to the lower rate they offer. If you are willing to negotiate, meet them in the middle:
- You: “My usual hourly rate is $40/hr.”
- Client: “Would you be able to work for $30?”
- You: “I really love your project and team, but that rate is pretty tight for me. How about we meet in the middle at $35. That way we both feel good about the price.”
- Client: “Great, that sounds fair.”
- Decrease the scope of work instead of lowering the rate. Maybe someone on their team can handle part of the project so you have less work to do. This keeps things in their budget and maintains your rate.
- Always denote the adjusted rate on your proposal and invoice as a “courtesy price adjustment.” This reminds them that the actual price is higher and makes it easier to raise it or defend a higher price. I always make sure to highlight this, so it’s hard to miss. (Oh, and don’t use the word discount. This isn’t the 99cents store.) Something like this works great:
- It’s ok to say no! If the client asks for a rate that is too low and they aren’t willing to negotiate, kindly tell them it won’t work out:
- “It seems like my services may not be right for you, and that’s okay. Thanks for the opportunity!”
- And it’s okay if you accidentally underbid! Again, don’t beat yourself up over it, I still do it sometimes too. Just get through it and approach the situation after. If they’re a good client and you’re being reasonable, they’ll understand and you can continue moving forward.
Sometimes, you’ll be put in a spot where you have defend your rate.
It can be helpful to explain what goes into certain processes and why they cost what they do.
Working with a lot of startups? This will come up often.
At first, just be prepared to explain various processes and what work is involved.
As you grow and get more clients, you can create PDFs, pages on your website, or blog posts that explain these processes.
Don’t get overwhelmed by her site though! She’s been freelancing full time for a few years and slowly created all this content over time.
For now keep it simple and verbally explain why the price is what it is or put together a bulleted list of everything that goes into the process and walk them through that.
All that said, there is a time to walk away.
There are clients who will just ask way too many questions.
Be way too nit picky.
Who will make you become overly defensive about your work.
Say no to these clients. It’s okay.
When it comes to pricing, you’re in charge.
Be reasonable, BUT be fair to yourself.
Be confident and don’t be afraid to put your foot down for a fair price.
Again, one of the joys of freelancing is we get the freedom to choose who we work with, what we work on, and define how much we earn.
And that is priceless. No pun intended. Ok, maybe a little 😉
Chapter 2.3: What if someone asks you to work for free (for exposure or experience)?!
DO. NOT. DO. IT.
These projects never go anywhere. These people are abusing you and taking advantage of your skills.
It also contributes to the unfair wage gap that’s already a huge problem in our industry.
Out of respect to yourself and our industry, do not do it.
You can tell them your rate and say you’d be happy to do it for that, but no matter what you do, tell them working for free is not fair to you or our industry.
You can tell them your rate and say you’d be happy to do a trial project for a lower rate to make sure it’s a good match, but do not do it for free.
The more of us who put our foot down and say this, the better place our industry will be for everyone.
Chapter 2.4: What if you are looking for more experience and offer to work for free?!
You can consider it.
If you reach out and initiate a free project, that’s a completely different scenario than someone asking you to work for free.
And it can be a great way to grow your portfolio and resume.
But be transparent about why you’re doing it, and define clear boundaries.
You cannot work for free forever – again, that’s not fair to you or our industry.
Chapter 2.5: What services should you offer as a freelance fashion designer?
After undercharging, the second biggest mistake designers make is trying to do everything for everyone.
Please don’t be a denim, knits, swimwear and textile designer who does menswear, womenswear, and kidswear.
You very well may have experience in all these categories, and as your business grows, you can offer more services.
When you’re pitching, the more focused and niche you are, the better you’ll be able to connect with brands and speak their language.
Let’s play the would you rather game for a minute.
If you’ve ever played this game in real life, it can get really crude and rude (mom and dad, if you’re reading this, you’re probably LOLing right now).
Ok. Would you rather…
Work with a career coach who helps graphic designers, web programmers, and other creatives get more work?
Work with a career coach who helps fashion designers with 5-10 years experience get more work?
Would you rather…
Buy a bra from a company that offers sizes for everybody from 32AA – 40GG?
If you’re [large] or [small] busted, buy a bra from a company that sells “bras made just for [large or small] busted women with the exact support they need.”
Let’s look at one more example, because I really want to make this point clear.
Have you ever read a guide or book like this one about freelancing in general?
No, because they’re made for “creatives” like graphic or web designers, or they’re about freelancing in any industry.
The reason you’re reading this guide is because it’s made just for you and people like you working in the fashion industry.
So just like you want a freelancing guide that’s made just for you and your industry, your client wants a freelancer who can do something just for them in their industry.
And I’m going to get nerdy cliche marketing on you here for quick sec. Because it’s true:
If you talk to everyone, you talk to no one.
“But Heidi! If I focus on just one category, won’t I limit myself?”
We’ll go through how to figure out your exact offer and market in just a sec, but here are two reasons you won’t limit yourself if you focus on just one category:
- There are more than enough brands out there. One of my freelancing students, Alison, focused on small to medium womens brands that were print heavy. Within a few days, she had a list of 400+ brands to pitch to in this super niche market. Whaaattt!!!! Yes, true story.
- You could reach out to 100 brands with a focused offer and land 2 new clients. OR, you could reach out to 1000 brands with a broad or generic offer and land 2 new clients. I know what I’d choose.
Focusing your offer doesn’t just make pitching easier, it’s going to make your portfolio much easier to get done too.
We’ll cover your portfolio in the next section, but think about it this for now:
How are you going to show denim, knits, swimwear and textiles for menswear, womenswear, and kidswear all in one website, book or PDF?
You’re going to have too much stuff.
Your client will be confused and put off.
And the process will overwhelm you so much you’ll probably never get it done.
Which means you’ll never get to the point of pitching or finding clients.
Which means you’ll never actually get any freelance work.
And I see a lot of designers stuck in this exact spot.
Spinning their wheels for weeks, months or even years trying to get their portfolio just right and making sure it includes everything they can do.
Which is really hard.
But if you focus, things become a lot easier
So, what exactly should you do?
First, we need to decide your exact market and offer.
I know, here I go with the marketing lingo again. These are easy though, and things you should understand as a freelancer.
Your market defines what kinds of brands you work with (category, size, type, etc).
Your offer defines what kinds of services you do for them.
Just like pricing, there’s not a magic formula or fool proof way to figure this out, but there are a few tricks.
Trick One: Ask Three Questions
- Ask yourself 3 questions to help decide your offer:
- What do you love to do?
- What are you really good at doing?
- What are people willing to pay you to do?
- Ask yourself the same 3 questions to help decide your market:
- What types of brands do you love to work with?
- What types of brands are you really good at working with?
- What types of brands are willing to pay you?
Trick Two: Be Niche and Broad
To help find a sweet spot, be niche and broad at the same time:
- Define a niche market with a broad offer:
- I work with medium size women’s activewear brands to do everything from design to development
- Define a broad market with a niche offer
- I help startup designers develop flat sketches and tech packs
You’ll play with this a little once you start researching and pitching. And you can always change it.
For now, the key is to get something down and get started.
To make it really easy for you, I’ve created a downloadable worksheet you can fill out. Grab it now, take 15 minutes and fill it out. I promise it will help you later.
As you go through it, keep a few things in mind:
Don’t worry about being too narrow with your offer.
Don’t panic that you’re only offering design services when you can handle all the development too.
Once you get your foot in the door with a brand and they love you, you can expand your services then.
Sell them initially on one thing, and show them that you are the absolute best at that one thing, then grow from there.
This isn’t a new strategy, and it’s not one I made up.
Brennan Dunn of Double Your Freelancing goes into super great depth about being niche, and it’s common in all areas of business.
Chapter 2.6: How do you protect yourself as a freelance fashion designer? What about contracts?
First, the obligatory disclaimer.
In case you hadn’t guessed yet, I am not a legal expert.
Therefore, I cannot offer you legal advice about contracts.
My lawyer would get mad and I’d probably be in a lot of trouble.
Everything in this guide is my opinion and not to be taken as fact.
It is up to you to consult a legal professional for advice about contracts (or listen to this podcast episode where I interviewed one about freelance contracts!), but here’s what I suggest to start out.
Don’t overthink it!
Contracts can and do become important, especially as the price of the project grows.
But when you’re just starting out with a client and doing a small trial project for a few hours, I wouldn’t worry about it.
It’s easy to scare clients with legal jargon for a project that’s a couple hundred bucks.
Your “contract” can be as simple as an email that outlines exact deliverables, timelines and rates.
Make sure to get them to agree via email, so include a clear CTA (call to action – yes, marketing lingo again) asking them for confirmation.
An email like this works just fine:
I will reiterate a few things from this email.
You are very clear about:
- What the services are and what exactly they can expect to receive (5 sketches, front/back, B&W)
- How many revisions they get (one). How many you offer is up to you, just be clear.
- How they will receive the files (dropbox in AI CC)
- When they will receive the files (Friday)
- What the rate is ($40) and your estimate time to complete (4-5 hrs)
- That if there is any additional work, it will be billed at the hourly rate
You are also specifically asking for their confirmation and agreement at the end of the email and you get their response in writing.
If the project goes beyond this and they start asking for more revisions or more sketches?
Remind them what the project includes and offer to do the work at your regular hourly rate.
You can say this:
“I’d be happy to do those extra [revisions / sketches / etc], since it wasn’t in the original proposal, I can charge you my regular hourly rate of $40 for that. Does that work for you?”
Be mindful of not nickel and diming your client too much.
If they ask for one more tiny revision that will take you 5 minutes, just do it and provide them with exceptional work and a great experience.
But there’s a fine line between that and them abusing you, so don’t be afraid to speak up.
Use your gut.
Now, there is a time when you may want to think about a formal contract…
If the project is large enough (anything over $1k is a good starting point), you may want to consider a more formal contract. Consult a professional (I like UpCounsel) or pay for a template from a legit source like Legal Zoom.
You can pay for this once, and then use that contract over and over.
Once your price hits a certain point as well, you’ll probably want to get a deposit before you start working.
It’s as simple as something like this:
“50% is due at start of project, 50% due at completion.”
And don’t start working until you get that first 50%.
Bottom line? Don’t get hung up on contracts and let this be the reason you never actually get out there and start looking for work.
Some brands will have their own contracts for freelancers.
Review these carefully and consult a legal professional (listen to this podcast episode first) if needed.
PART 2 SUMMARY
By now, you have a solid system to figure out your rates. If you mess up and undercharge? Don’t beat yourself up. It happens to all of us, even sometimes after years of being a full-time freelancer.
You have solid strategies to negotiate your rates and make sure you earn a fair wage. You’re not going to work for free, unless you initiate the project as a learning experience.
And it’s okay to say no to some clients!
You know that you shouldn’t try and do everything for everybody, and can use the services worksheet to figure out your offer and market. Remember, the more niche, often the better.
Last, you’re not going to overthink contracts. An email works fine for small projects and once you need something more legit, you’ll spend a few bucks to get a basic template you can use over and over.
So, what’s next? You guessed it – your portfolio. And no, you don’t need to spend months on it. I’ll show you exactly how to get your portfolio together in a week next in Part 3: Presenting Yourself & Your Work
PART 3: PRESENTING YOURSELF AND YOUR PORTFOLIO AS A FREELANCE CLOTHING DESIGNER
So many of you had questions on your fashion portfolios, that I wrote an entire book on them. Check it out now: Ultimate Guide to Creating your Fashion Portfolio (in a weekend).
There are a lot of places designers get stuck. We’ve gone through two of the big ones so far: pricing and contracts.
But the biggie? The one place you’ll spin your wheels forever? The black hole every designer gets sucked into and takes over their life?
Presenting yourself and your portfolio.
Putting a digital portfolio together has always been like a stone around your neck, and it’s what clients want to see first. So you know you need to focus more attention on it.
But this is where your head starts spinning out of control, the overwhelm becomes too much, and the task feels too big to tackle.
“I have this idea in my mind that the portfolio should take over my whole life.
Of course that allows me to inflate it into something more daunting.
And I’m not even sure how or where I should do it.
I have Adobe portfolio because I pay for it with my CC subscription, but what about LinkedIn?
Or maybe I should just go with Wix or Coroflot?
But some people say I need to build my own WordPress or Squarespace site…but I’m not sure where to get started.
Or what about StylePortfolios.com? That way it’s connected to my freelance job search on StyleCareers.com.
Should I put it there?”
Your head is spinning a million miles a minute trying to figure out where to start.
So instead of doing anything, you do nothing.
And I don’t blame you. If this was how I felt, I’d do nothing too.
Which is why I’m going to tell you that your portfolio doesn’t have to be this complicated. And you don’t have to be everywhere – Coroflot, LinkedIn, Adobe, StylePortfolios.
(BTW, if you choose StylePortfolios, that’s fine. But don’t choose it just because it’s easily linked to StyleCareers and your freelance job search there. Because the kind of “freelance” jobs you’re going to find on SC are the “temp” jobs we talked about earlier. They’re not real freelance jobs. You’re not going to find those on job boards or through agents.)
In just a sec, I’m going to show you some examples and give you some tips on how to quickly get your portfolio together.
First, I want to remind you what we talked about earlier.
Remember what I said about picking a niche market and offer instead of trying to do everything?
This is going to define what goes in your portfolio.
And what you need to include should be pretty minimal based on your market and offer.
You don’t have to show everything you’ve ever done, and you don’t even have to have a website.
Eventually, that’s a good idea. But you don’t need one to get started.
Chapter 3.1: What format should I use to present my fashion design portfolio professionally?
I just told you that this is where all designers get stuck.
And there are two reasons this happens.
We already talked about one: because it’s overwhelming.
But the big reason? It’s one you don’t want to admit to yourself. You’ll probably even deny it. But if you’re really honest with yourself, this is the real reason you get stuck here.
Because working on your portfolio is comfortable. It’s your safe zone. It’s easier to do than putting yourself out there for work. Than pitching. Than handling clients.
You’re afraid of doing all the things that actually get you work, so you spin your wheels doing things that aren’t scary – like working on your portfolio.
But you can’t afford to do this, because working on your portfolio doesn’t get you results.
Do NOT overthink your portfolio!
A client is going to glance at it for 2 seconds and make a decision. If they see a few designs that match what they’re looking for, they’ll reply.
They’re not going to spend 10 or even 5 or even 2 minutes browsing. They don’t care if the work was from last month or last year.
They’re too busy.
So keep it simple and include just a few examples of your best work for the market you’ve chosen.
To make it easy on yourself, just do it as a PDF. It’s much easier to update and customize a few PDFs to send to different clients than it is to update a website.
Give yourself permission to stop fighting with technology and the internet, and create a few simple PDFs.
Here are some examples.
Freelance Fashion Design Portfolio Example 1: Sheena Schoolcraft
She could just have easily have put together a PDF with a couple projects like I mocked up below.
Note: her website is niche to womenswear, but these projects are for very different customers. I wouldn’t suggest sending both of these PDFs to the same brand. Put together 2-4 cohesive projects and share those.
A few things that Sheena did well in her portfolio. She included:
- Design, print and color inspiration. Brands want to see your process! Notice that this is not overly complicated – it’s a simple collage of inspo photos.
- CAD work or hand sketches. You can include either or both. I don’t sketch by hand so only include CADs, but don’t be afraid to show your sketches.
Freelance Fashion Design Portfolio Example 2: Hillary Glenn
Hillary Glenn is a full-time remote contract apparel designer specializing in knitwear, activewear and custom print design. Her online portfolio has tons of great work, but again, don’t get overwhelmed about creating a fancy website like this.
Here is a great project she could have easily created as a PDF to send out to brands.
A few things that Hillary did well in her portfolio. She included:
- Design, print and color inspiration. This was easily done using the actual inspo images she pulled for each design.
- CAD work and hand sketches. Again, if you don’t have hand sketches, showing CADs only is fine – this is how I do it.
- Marketing photos of the actual finished product. If you can get these, it really helps show what the design looks like.
I’d also like you to note something that may surprise you. Did you notice how long it’s been since Hillary updated her site? As of writing this (12/2017), she hasn’t updated her portfolio in a couple years. I know because she told me!
I point this out to remind you that you don’t have to constantly update your portfolio and it doesn’t have to be this monumental task that takes over your life.
Put together a few specific and really strong projects and add more only when / if you need to.
Freelance Fashion Design Portfolio Example 3: The Fashion Element
The Fashion Element is a my full service design and development agency. We work with golf + lifestyle and trading company + resort brands.
You’ll find a few of these images on the site, but this project was put together and sent out to a potential client as a PDF.
Here are a few things that work in this portfolio. It includes:
- Design, print and color inspiration. Again, this is just a collage of photos.
- CAD designs for capsule collections. Notice there are no hand sketches, and that’s okay! A lot of us don’t use a pencil and paper, so don’t fake or force this if you don’t.
- Final marketing imagery of the completed designs. These really help show off the designs in real life settings.
So, what’s the biggest takeaway? Show the project from start to finish as much as possible including your original inspiration, design process, and completed product.
Don’t over think this and just focus on getting 2-4 really great projects put together as a few pages in a PDF.
Oh, and a protip? When sending your portfolio, link to it in DropBox or similar instead of attaching it. This way you’re not crowding inboxes with huge files!
Chapter 3.2: How do you navigate including client work in your fashion design portfolio??
You’ve probably heard somewhere along the way that including client work in your portfolio is not ok since it’s technically their property.
Again, I’m not a legal professional so I will give you my opinion and not legal advice.
Depending on what contracts you may or may not have signed, you may need to figure out what you can and can’t include in your portfolio from your clients.
Don’t stress over this, just figure out a way to deal with it and move on.
Just ask: Once the product has launched and is available for sale, ask your client if you can include your designs in your portfolio. They’ll probably be more than happy to let you do this.
Just do it: Again, once the product has launched, it’s available for sale in the mass market. There’s no reason you can’t include it in your portfolio unless you’ve signed something that says otherwise.
Create mock designs: Do a few self directed projects to show.
I’ve done all three of these things and they all work. So pick one and move on.
Chapter 3.3: How long should you spend on your portfolio?
A lot less than you think.
Your portfolio does not require 3 months or even 3 weeks!
Set yourself a hard deadline and get it done in ONE WEEK.
Yes, that’s it. One week. I’m giving you that deadline because I know you need to hear it from someone else.
Do not spend more time than this, just get it done and put yourself out there.
Spend 10-15 hours MAX (one full weekend or 2-3 hours a night for a week) and do it as a PDF if you want.
And DO NOT worry about
- updating your entire website
- getting your brand identity, a logo and color palette together
- making business cards
- setting up an LLC or business bank account
None of these things matter right now.
Chapter 3.4: How much work do you need to include in your portfolio?
Here’s exactly what I suggest: keep it specific and short.
3-4 pages or 3-4 small projects is enough.
If you only have 2 projects, just show 2.
Don’t add more just to make it bigger.
Your portfolio is about quality, not quantity.
Brands don’t have time to browse through 20 pages of your work.
Give them a snapshot of your best stuff that’s relevant to them, and they’ll be able to glance at it and know if you’re right for them. If they want to see more, they’ll ask to see more.
This is the best way to show your experience and knowledge that matches their needs.
Again, this will be much easier if you niched your target market and offer.
If you’re doing like I told you not to and offering services to denim, swim, lingerie, knitwear and handbag brands, you’re creating a nightmare for yourself.
So don’t do that!
If you want to reach out to a couple different types of brands or offer a couple different types of services, you can create 2 or 3 versions.
But to get started, stick with just one and start outreaching.
Remember, don’t spin your wheels in the “comfort zone” of working on your portfolio.
It’s a place you can’t afford to spend too much time hanging out because it’s not a place you’ll find any work.
Oh, and one last tip? Make it easy to get in touch and include contact (phone and email) on the bottom of every page in your PDF. It’s amazing how many designers don’t do this!
PART 3 SUMMARY
I hope you’re feeling a little relieved about your portfolio by now. Remember, don’t overthink it. Keep it focused and targeted toward your customer.
There’s no need to get stuck creating a beautiful website. You’ll get there eventually, but for now, a PDF that you can link to in DropBox works great.
Choose a few of your best projects (2-4) and put together a couple pages showing your inspiration, CAD work, and finished marketing images if you have them. Use the 3 different examples I shared as a reference.
So many of you had questions on your fashion portfolios, that I wrote an entire book on them. Check it out now: Ultimate Guide to Creating your Fashion Portfolio (in a weekend).
Up next? You’re almost ready to start pitching. And next in Part 4: Getting to Know Your Customer, Reaching Out to Get Clients, and Getting Work, I’m going to give you word for word scripts you can use to email them to ask for work.
PART 4: GETTING TO KNOW YOUR CUSTOMER, REACHING OUT TO CLIENTS & GETTING FREELANCE APPAREL DESIGN WORK
If you haven’t noticed a pattern yet, I’ll point it out again.
Picking a niche market and offer will make everything you do easier. It’s easier to market yourself. It’s easier to your portfolio together.
And it will make understanding your customer a lot easier.
What do I even mean by “understanding” your customer?
Chapter 4.1: How do you get inside your customer’s head? (And why you need to.)
As a freelancer, the best thing you can do for your customer is solve their problems and help them achieve their goals.
They will love you for this and happily pay you.
But if you don’t understand your customer, then you won’t know their problems and goals.
You can ask yourself a few questions to start figuring this out.
What do you see broken in the industry from your past experience, that you can go into other brands and fix for them?
What are challenges brands in your market experience and how can you solve them?
You can also ask people you know in the industry. This could be your boss, coworkers, or friends.
Keep it light, simple and noninvasive.
To a friend or coworker:
“What’s the biggest obstacle you face during [sampling, design, etc]? Why?”
“What are your top 3 goals for this season? Why?”
To your boss:
“Where do you feel things get stuck during the design and development process? Why?”
“What are your top 3 goals for our team and the brand this season? Why?”
Here are a few more example questions to get started:
- Tell me about your [design, development, sampling] process?
- What goes into that?
- What are some of the holdups?
- Where could things be improved?
- What are the biggest challenges?
- What are your business goals right now?
- What are you working on right now?
- Have you ever thought about doing this?
Bottom line? Just be curious.
You’ll be surprised to find that people actually love talking about their goals and challenges.
Listen carefully and take notes.
You’ll use this information later in your pitches.
Chapter 4.2: Where do you find fashion brands that need to hire for freelance or contract work?
There are an unlimited number of brands you can pitch to. But like putting your portfolio together, finding them may seem daunting.
It does take some time to put together a list, so to help get you started, here are places you can look.
Before you do that, keep yourself organized.
I like to create a spreadsheet (if you haven’t heard me say it before, I’m a big spreadsheet nerd).
Here’s what my list looks like:
You can download my template or create your own.
Whatever system you use is fine, just keep track somehow.
Okay, so where exactly do you find the brands to put on your list?
Here are 4 great places to start, but get creative! You’ve heard of this thing called Google? Your options are endless!
- Scour trade show listings
- Where would your category of brand be exhibiting?
- Google “ABC tradeshow exhibitor list” to find a PDF or webpage listing
- LinkedIn (you may need to get a premium account, the first month is free!)
- Pay attention to the right hand column to find “similar people”
- Discover the right hashtags (and finally have an excuse to get sucked into the rabbit hole!)
- This is a great place to find startup brands who may not have a big online presence or be active on LinkedIn
- You can also discover what brands are working on like new collections, collabs, or sponsorships. Make note of these things as you can reference them in your pitch to show them you’re paying attention and engaged (more on that soon).
- The internet is great, but real stores in real life still carry clothes!
- Go shopping (yes, another excuse I know you needed) to stores that carry brands in your market. It’s a great way to discover new brands you never knew existed.
There are thousands of brands out there that you’ve never heard of.
And all of them have problems to be solved and goals to reach – the things you’ll be helping them do as a freelancer.
A lot of them aren’t located in NYC, London, LA or other fashion hubs.
In fact, the ones located outside fashion hubs are often easier to get freelance work with.
So think outside the box and don’t pigeonhole yourself.
Chapter 4.3: Who should you pitch to? (Making sure you email the right person.)
You’ve done a lot of the hard work by now, and you’re getting really close to pitching.
But to increase your chance of landing a new freelance gig, you’ll want to reach out to the right people.
Decision makers are key. Think directors and C- V-level people (CEO, VP, etc).
This takes some digging and work…but you’ll get in your groove.
Sometimes I do this tedious work at night on the couch with a glass of wine. Whatever works, right?!
Here are a few tricks:
- Search LinkedIn – again, you may need to go premium for a month or two
- Pay attention to the keyword search feature on the right hand side column to find the “director” or “VP” level person
- Look on their website (depending on the size of company, they may or may not list this)
- Google exactly what you’re looking for!
- “CEO of ABC company” or “Design Director of ABC company”
- If you find 2 people who may be right, you can reach out to both (CC them both on the email)
Now you need to figure out their email address.
Luckily, the internet and all the fancy apps out there have made this pretty easy for us.
If you’re using LinkedIn, the free Skrapp plugin works great.
Browse the company website for email format hints. For example, the email address URL may be different than the website.
- Website: www.TheBestBrand.com
- Email: email@example.com
- Now you know their address will be @bestbrandcorp.com, not @thebestbrand.com
If you use Gmail, get the free Full Contact plugin for email format hints and test common formats:
Hunter.io works great too. Just input a URL and it’ll spit out any email addresses it’s found online. It even predicts common formats, so once you have a contact name, you can formulate their email.
And finally? Get old school and call! You may or may not have success, but give it a shot:
“I was trying to email Jenny Smith and must have her email down wrong as it keeps bouncing back – can you confirm what her address is?”
Worst case scenario? You can send it to whatever address you can find, even that’s firstname.lastname@example.org, and ask for it to get passed along to the right person. It could go into a black hole, but it could work. I know designers who’ve landed jobs this way, and you could too, just don’t waste too much time on these ones.
Chapter 4.4: Crafting your freelance pitch: what exactly do you say?
You’ve got a list of emails, your portfolio is ready, and your heart is racing because now it’s time to actually write the email and hit send.
It’s scary, I’m not going to lie.
I even still get butterflies sometimes when sending out pitches.
Here’s the thing though.
The design director on the other end of that email? She’s just a real person like you and me.
The CEO who may want to talk to you about doing work for his brand? He’s just a guy who thinks you may be able to help him.
And you probably can.
Which may terrify you even more – them saying “yes, we’d like you to do some work for us“!
It’s ok to be nervous.
Just be honest about your work, what you can and can’t do, and relax.
You got this.
Ok, so what exactly do you write in a pitch email?
First, be yourself. Write something that feels like you. You have a voice, and you’ll refine it over time.
Second, don’t over tweak it. Your emails will get better the more you outreach like everything else you do in life.
Third, don’t be overly salesy. They’re a real person, and they want to feel like you’re a real person too. If your email is salesy and robotic, they won’t reply.
Like finding your market and offer and creating your PDF portfolio, we’re working on getting started and doing something – not being perfect.
It’s okay if you mess up or do a bad job. This is a learning process!
There are a variety of formats and there isn’t one cut and dry template (although I’ll give you some swipe files) but here’s what I suggest:
- Keep it short. Around 6-10 sentences should be more than enough. They get a lot of emails, so don’t overwhelm them with a novel.
- This is not a mass sales email. Write a personalized and authentic introduction for each pitch. This will take more time but will 10x your results. The more specific, the better.
- Start with a compliment and tell them why you love their brand.
- Comment on their new collection or collaboration.
- Give them an idea about how they can expand their brand or something they could do better at!
- Keep it personal and lead with THEM (not you). This is not an email to tell them all about how great you are. Don’t go on and on about your experience, just give them enough to tell them what you can do and the results you’ve gotten.
- Focus on how you can help them achieve their goals or overcome their challenges. Remember the research you did? The questions you asked your industry friends? Make sure to include that! Things like helping them save time, beating deadlines, or decreasing costs are the results and benefits they get. Doing tech packs is the process, and they need to know that too, but be sure to include the results they’ll see if you help them with tech packs. This is key.
- Close with a CTA (call to action) – tell them what you want them to do next, and make it a super simple yes or no question. The goal of the first email is just to get a response. From there, you can talk workload and details like rates and contracts.
What about subject lines!?
Be clear, personal and to the point.
Don’t be obscure, confusing or vague.
Good: Freelance design work for ABC brand
Bad: Question for you
Don’t be afraid to play with all of this to see what works best for you and your market.
Experiment, get creative and have fun. This is work, but it can also be fun 🙂
Here are three email examples. We’ll dissect each one to understand what works and why.
A good freelance email pitch example:
- A clear and personalized subject line
- A genuine and specific introduction, letting the brand know where you found them (Instagram) and what you like about their work. I also snuck a compliment in there at the end.
- Notice how short the sentence is about who you are and what you do. Brief, to the point, and speaks directly to them.
- This is what you discovered when you “got inside your customer’s head”.
- Tell them in one sentence why you’re qualified and what results that gets. Notice you don’t include a thorough resume and list all your experience.
- This is your CTA. Keep it simple and an easy question for them to answer with a “yes” or “no”. Tell them exactly what you want them to do.
And one small detail that can go a long way? There aren’t huge chunks of text. Each line has spaces between them and it’s easy to read.
A bad freelance email pitch example:
This is an actual email someone sent to my design agency to ask for freelance work. There are a lot of things wrong with it, and I’ll go through each one.
- Subject line is vague – it’s not terrible, but could be better.
- Go to the effort of figuring out who I am and what my name is.
- There is no introduction or talk about my company, instead she goes right into talking about her credentials and experience.
- Look at all those things she can do! Web layout? Data input? It’s way too much and all over the place. The list is so broad, I feel like she can’t do any of those things well.
- Too many details in the first email, and there is no CTA. She has not asked or told me to do anything, so as a result I do nothing.
Do you feel overwhelmed reading this email? I do. It’s long and there are too many big blocks of text with long lists.
Let’s look at one more good freelance pitch example, using a different angle.
This type of email requires a little more work and guts, but if you really do have a good idea for how a brand can do something better, send it to them.
- Clear and intriguing subject line – of course someone would want to see an idea!
- Address the person by their name
- Be a real person and tell them why you love their brand, get specific with details (neon accents / pop of color)
- Notice, this is the only sentence that talks about your experience – it just gives a quick overview of who you are and the results you’ve gotten (introducing best sellers)
- Offering an idea – only do this if you really have an idea, don’t just make something up. Be clear why you are offering it (you thought the assortment was missing it and you would have bought it).
- Not only do you offer the idea, you provided a mock up. Again, this takes extra work but can get you 10x the results.
- Tell them how you can help. Look closely here: “missing out on key categories or sales” is the best part. No brand wants to miss out on categories or lose sales!
- Clear and simple CTA asking a specific question.
Listen, email writing is an art and at first, it’ll take you a while to write these. You’ll get better and faster over time, but for now, don’t over tweak it.
Just follow the rough outlines I’ve provided and see what works.
Most people write terrible emails that are summaries of their resumes, so even if yours aren’t perfect, you’ll be doing better than 99% of the people out there.
And that’s way more than good enough.
If you want to hear even more about how well email pitching works, listen to this episode of the Successful Fashion Designer podcast with Melissa Mendez. Melissa’s used email pitching to land $10,000+ projects (and she even shared her customizable email template that you can use).
Now, don’t ruin all your hard work by sending your email at the wrong time.
Late nights and weekends are terrible times, as are Mondays and Fridays.
Schedule your emails to go on Tuesdays – Thursdays during normal working hours.
Next, don’t be afraid to follow up!
In fact, about 50% of your responses will come from follow ups, not the first email you sent.
Be courteous and friendly with a quick reminder a week later, and then again two weeks later.
If you haven’t heard back after that, you’ll probably want to cross them off the list.
Here’s a great template that I use all the time:
One note about follow up? Reply to the original email you sent so the original content is below the follow up email.
Simple trick, but it’s amazing how many people send a new email.
I’ve received pitches, and when the follow up arrives, I’m scratching my head wondering “follow up to what?“
No one has time to dig through their inbox and find the original email.
So, how many replies can you expect?
It will vary on your market, offer and email.
Here’s a good benchmark:
100 pitch emails should get you 10-20 replies. 10-20 replies should land you 1-2 new projects.
I know some designers who have much higher rates than this, but again it depends on a lot of factors.
If you send 30-40 emails and don’t get any replies, your pitch isn’t working. Ask some people for feedback and try a new angle.
You will get rejected!
Some brands will email back saying they don’t work with freelancers, you must be local / work onsite, or your work doesn’t match their aesthetic or needs.
Some brands will ignore your emails all together.
Remember what I said about the rejection thing? It happens to all of us.
Don’t take it personally.
Because some brands will email back saying they are interested.
And that is exactly what you want (even if it’s what scares you the most).
WHEN THIS HAPPENS, CONGRATS!
You’re ready to do the rest – the things we already covered like negotiating a trial rate and putting together a simple contract.
There are just two more things I want to cover.
You’ve done all the hard work.
These last 2 things are super simple, but a lot of freelancers let their clients down and fail here.
This is how you will set yourself apart from the competition.
This is how you will get ahead fast.
This is how you will turn all that work you did to land one small trial project into bigger contracts and bigger paychecks.
Chapter 4.5: You got a small freelance fashion design project, now what?!
“I have to be honest Heidi, that was an assload of work to land one small trial project.
This is absolutely insane.
I don’t think there’s any way I’ll be able to do this whole freelancing thing.”
Yeah, I know.
Getting set up to pitch is hard.
Sending out your first 100 emails (yep, sometimes that’s what it takes) is hard.
And then you land one small project, make a few hundred bucks, and now what?
There are two simple things you are going to do to turn all that effort into more projects and more money.
Without having to do all that work over again.
ONE: Deliver on time and do an exceptional job.
Go above and beyond to show your client how great you are to work with.
No one does this.
Not only will you stand out, they’ll love you and happily give you more work.
How? Here are three examples, but get creative – it doesn’t take much.
Give them a couple extra design options: “I know we agreed to 5 versions, but there were a few extra ones I thought looked great so included those as well.” (Hillary Glenn shares how this strategy gets her more paid work in this podcast interview!)
Beat your deadline: Since most people are late (and freelancers have a reputation for being flakey), they’ll be thrilled: “I know we agreed to a Friday deadline, but I had this done a little early so wanted to help you get ahead with your work.”
Make yourself available and reply quickly: Even if you can’t get to something right away, acknowledge the email and tell them when you’ll get done.
TWO: Ask for more work.
Just because you landed the trial project, doesn’t mean they’re going to just start throwing work at you. They may, but most of the time you have to keep asking for it.
Don’t worry, it’s a lot easier once you’ve done the first trial project.
We talked a lot about starting with a niche offer.
Even if you can do tech packs and development, you may have started pitching design only.
You’ve completed the trial project and since you did an exceptional job, your client is thrilled.
This is the best time to upsell and ask for more work.
Don’t bombard, but offer to help on whatever task logically comes next.
Design is done? Ask to help with line sheets.
Sketched flats? Ask to help with tech packs.
Finished tech packs? Ask to help with sourcing and vendor correspondence.
You can also ask for referrals.
Freelancing is a relationship business and people in fashion know other people in fashion.
If you don’t ask for these things, you won’t get them.
Remind your clients by saying things like this:
“I’m always looking for new brands to work with, if you know anyone who needs some help I’d really appreciate getting any names from you.”
Or if you know they used to work at another brand, you can say, “I’d love to reach out to XYZ brand – would you be able to tell me who I could email to see if they have any work? Would be it ok if I mentioned your name?“
When you’re asking for a referral, make it easy for them.
Don’t ask them to write an introduction email – they’re busy and will forget.
Instead, just ask for the contact name and get permission to reference your client.
You know how to find an email address by now, so do the work yourself to reach out.
These things will become easier over time. Before you know it, they’ll be habit.
You’ll learn to ask for what you want. You’ll learn to put yourself out there. It’ll become more and more comfortable, and you’ll get better and better at it.
And your freelance career will skyrocket.
YOU’VE REACHED THE END OF THE GUIDE. CONGRATULATIONS! WHAT’S NEXT?
I wrote this guide to get you through the hardest parts.
To prevent you from getting stuck where most designers get stuck, like putting your portfolio together.
To push you out of your comfort zone and increase your confidence to negotiate a fair rate.
To show you exactly how to do the hard work that gets real results, like reaching out and pitching.
If you wanted a fluffy feel good overview of what it’s like to be a freelancer that’s not going to get you any real results, that’s not what you’ll get from me.
There are plenty of those out there.
(Would you believe, that’s what comes up at the top of Google when you search “freelance fashion designer”?! Side note: if you enjoyed this guide, help get it to the top of Google instead by sharing it with one person. Thank you!)
But if you want to put in the work and do what it takes to have that work life balance you dream of, I wrote this guide for you.
Congratulations on making it to the end.
You’ve already made it further than 90% of the designers who read it.
If you want to be in the top 1% of designers, take action and actually do the work.
You’ll find the competition’s not that tough. It’s that most people aren’t willing to put in the effort to get there.
Once you do, share your results with me.
I’d love to hear your wins, failures (we all have them) and feedback.
Email me anytime at email@example.com with the subject “Ultimate Guide to Being a Freelance Fashion Designer” – my team and I read every email!
Cheers to your successful freelance journey – I’m right here alongside you, so don’t be a stranger.
P.S. If you enjoyed this guide, I’d LOVE it if you shared it on Facebook (on your own wall or in your favorite online community), LinkedIn, or wherever you hang out online. You can also email it to a friend that’s just getting started as a freelancer or who already has a few clients – they’ll thank you for it!