freelancing in fashion without design experience

Freelancing In Fashion Without Experience: Is It A Good Idea?

For a long time, I didn’t advise people to start freelancing in fashion until they had some work experience. But after the pandemic hit, I changed my opinion.

It turned out that full-time jobs, especially for people who didn’t have any industry experience yet, were really hard to get. Shit, they were hard to get even for people with years of experience.

The pandemic changed the industry for freelancers too. Crazy enough, it created more opportunities.

As more students inside our Freelance Accelerator: from Surviving to Thriving (FAST) program (who didn’t have any experience) started becoming Successful Fashion Freelancers, it became clear to me that freelancing was a viable path for aspiring fashion designers who hadn’t yet gotten their break.

Which is why I’ve now been pretty vocal that you can become a freelancer even if you’ve never had an industry job (or didn’t go to fashion school). Arya, Brittany, Eleni, Alex, and other FAST graduates are real life proof of this.

But I’ve been getting some criticism about my view. (Ok, one person sent me a DM on Instagram. But I figured if one person called me out on this, perhaps there were more people out there who disagreed, so I wanted to explain my viewpoint.) 

The criticism goes something like this (I can’t find the original message – whoops!):

“How in the world are you proposing that people can work as freelancers without any experience or school? Where are they supposed to learn the necessary skills? As someone with 10+ years in the fashion industry, I just don’t see how someone can do the work without the experience.”

I have a lot of thoughts and comments on this, so let’s dig in.

First, What Can You Do As A Freelance Fashion Designer Without Experience?

As a freelance fashion designer, you can do any part of the process you want. But if you don’t have any experience, your options are limited (IMHO).

Which is why I suggest newbies start out with the 2 fundamental skills: fashion flats in Adobe Illustrator and tech packs.

The reason is because these are the 2 easiest skills to learn on your own (using my free tutorials). Every brand needs flats and tech packs, and it doesn’t require any real world experience to learn how to do this. (As long as you have the proper tutorials and templates from someone who knows what they’re talking about. Cough, my stuff is pretty good, cough.) 

I never suggest someone without experience offer services beyond this. Things like patternmaking, fittings, sourcing and product development are hard AF to learn on your own. These are the more advanced skills that truly come from getting your hands dirty, not from a course or free tutorial.

So now that we’re clear on what I do (and don’t) suggest freelancers without experience offer, let’s talk about why I don’t think you need to have worked in the industry or gone to fashion school to start freelancing.

Fashion School Can Be Sh!t Education

fashion school education can be shit

If you’ve been following me for any amount of time, you probably know that I’m not a huge fan of fashion school. (Side note: I did not go.)

My entire business was initially built on teaching Adobe Illustrator for fashion because fashion school wasn’t offering (effective) courses on this mandatory subject. That was way back in 2010 when I started creating YouTube tutorials, so I thought schools just hadn’t caught up on technology.

But fast forward more than a decade, and (many) schools are still doing a sh!t job of teaching AI. Turns out, they have also been doing a sh!t job of teaching tech packs, another mandatory skill for anyone who wants to work in the industry.

I’ve literally received hundreds of emails and messages from graduates young and old who felt fashion school shafted them. Many of them were left with mountains of debt without knowing what a tech pack was or how Illustrator was even used in fashion.

Their messages usually include a comment along the lines of:

“I’ve learned more from your free content than I did from my (very expensive) 4-year fashion school degree.”

learn more from sew heidi than fashion school

I’ve seen work from these newbies who’ve followed my free tutorials that’s really, REALLY, REALLY GOOD.

And I’ve seen work from fashion school grads that’s really, REALLY, REALLY BAD.

So no, I don’t think that fashion school is 100% necessary. Sure, some designers come out prepared with the right skills, and it can be a great way to build a network. (It’s up to you to research the school and ensure it fits your expectations.)

But I often see graduates who have no idea what they’re doing.

Which brings us to the second thought I have on this topic…

“Experience” In Fashion Isn’t Always Treated Equal

if fashion experience really that valuable fashion freelancer

Internships are a crapshoot. You can luck out and get some actual experience, but you also may just be fetching coffee, making copies, and even unpicking threads from samples.

Beyond that, I’ve seen (and heard about) horrendous systems and files from established brands and “experienced” designers. We’re talking about tech packs and flats that are FAR from industry standard. They’re incomplete and an absolute mess. If these brands didn’t have long running established relationships with their factories, nothing would get manufactured correctly.

I know this from 2 different firsthand experiences.

First, I used to do on-site training for brands, and the stuff I saw from their “experienced” staff was scary. The way they were setting up their flats and tech packs was embarrassing. I was shocked some of these people had jobs. Problem was, upper management had no idea how to do things right either, so there was no effective way to assess their work quality or skills.

I’ll share one quick story from when I was on-site with a known brand in NYC…

My hourly rate was $300 for custom corporate training. The Design Director had a hard time justifying the high cost, so he sat in on the session. One of their designers explained how she created her files, complaining that they took 2 hours. “Oh, that’s easy!” I exclaimed. In under 30 seconds, I showed her the “right” way to do it. The Design Director sat there, jaw dropped. He later emailed me to express his shock at how ineffective his team was and scheduled another 3 hour training for the following week.

So yeah, “experience” isn’t all treated equally. You can learn a lot from working for a brand, and of course there are valuable skills that are only learned by doing, just know the quality of what you learn can vary.

My other firsthand experiences come from my decade + working as a freelancer. Clients would come to me begging for help because the last freelancer did such a bad job. I inherited their files and it was pretty easy to see why production had gone sideways and designs were getting manufactured incorrectly.

Contrast that to designers without experience who’ve used my tech pack system and gotten perfect protos back the first time from a new factory…

And newbies who’ve learned Illustrator from my free tutorials whose files are professional, accurate and easily interpreted. 

It can be night and day. 

So when it comes to “experience,” you may be learning whacky, outdated and inefficient methods – even at a well-known brand. Of course those brands are getting product made and successfully delivering it to their customers, so they must be doing something right, but it doesn’t mean they are doing things effectively.

YOU Determine Your Own Success

you determine your own success fashion freelancer without experience

Of the (literally) thousands of people and stories I’ve been exposed to over the years, there’s one thing that holds true.

Success – and how well the job is done – boils down to the individual freelancer (or employee).

I’ve seen super driven newbie designers (without experience or a fashion school degree) who are completely self taught create exceptional careers as Successful Fashion Freelancers. Their work ethic and desire to do an exceptional job is high. They do great work and their clients are happy. 

Alternatively I’ve seen “experienced” designers with impressive resumes pump out subpar work leaving their clients (or employers) frustrated and in a sh!tty situation.

Of course, the inverse is true. There are self taught freelancers doing pretty meh work, and experienced designers doing exceptional jobs.

At the end of the day, some people are just more driven, thorough and do a better job. It doesn’t matter how much experience they have or if they went to FIT or not.

With the plethora of online training available (that’s often taught by industry professionals who have experience, like me, unlike fashion school where many professors have never worked in the industry), anyone can learn the necessary skills to kickstart as a freelancer.


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