Becoming a Fashion Designer

You’re currently reading Chapter 1 of The Ultimate Guide to Getting Your Dream Fashion Design Job

Are You SURE That’s What You Really Want to Do?

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I realize the title of this book is the Ultimate Guide to Getting Your Dream Fashion Design Job. And now the first thing I’m asking you is:

Are you sure you REALLY want to be a fashion designer?

Now, before you think I’m stomping in here like a dream crusher asking you this question, I want you to know that I’ve worked professionally as a fashion designer for over a decade…and I’ve loved every minute of it.

If I had to do it all over again…I would.

BUT, there are a lot of misconceptions based on what you see on Project Runway or in the movies…and what it’s actually like.

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I also ask you this question because after interviewing 75+ fashion professionals on my Successful Fashion Designer podcast, I’ve learned a few things.

If you’ve ever listened to the podcast (I mean, of course you have, right?!), you know that at the end of the episode I ask EVERY guest the same question:

“What is one thing you wish people asked you about working in fashion but they never do?”

And you know what the MOST common answer is, by FAR? It goes something like this:

“I wish people asked me what it’s REALLY like working in fashion. Most people assume we frolic in fabric all day, draping it on mannequins and spend hours sketching beautiful illustrations on paper. But the reality is so much different than that. It’s not even close to as glamorous as people think.”

After hearing this over and over and over from so many people, it occured to me that there genuinely is a huge misconception about what it’s like to work in our industry.

And do you know who is mostly to blame? Project Runway, the media, and what they teach you at fashion school. Because what is portrayed on TV and what is taught in school is drastically different than what it’s ACTUALLY like to work as a designer.

The expectation vs reality is literally meme worthy:

How to Get a Fashion Design Job: The Ultimate Guide by Sew Heidi

So, before we dive into any of the actual strategy stuff to land your dream fashion design job, let’s start with a day in the life:

A 10,000 foot overview (of the untold truth) about what it’s really like working as a fashion designer.

And even though you’ll soon discover that a fashion career is not as glamorous as you may think, I’ll also share the #1 reason why many designers still love their job.

To begin, the general fashion design cycle is a pretty typical 3-step process like you may expect:

  1. Inspiration
  2. Design
  3. Production

And repeat!

How to Get a Fashion Design Job: The Ultimate Guide by Sew Heidi

It’s what goes on inside each of these steps where things get interesting. Because inside each of these steps is where the process starts to vastly differ from what you see on TV and what you learn in fashion school.

Now, timelines vary depending on the exact brand’s business model. Some companies may plow this these phases in weeks, some take months.

And who is responsible for each task may also vary a lot. At small brands, one or two people could be responsible for everything. At a large brand, there could be entire departments for each step.

But no matter the size or business model, the process still looks pretty much like this.

So, let’s dig into each step with a little more detail.

Fashion Design Step 1: Inspiration

The first step of fashion design, inspiration, involves a lot of shopping, browsing Pinterest, and looking at trend reports. Designers will gather inspiration for any and everything that goes into the garment, including:

  • Color
  • Silhouette
  • Trims
  • Fabric
  • Labels

And while you’ll be responsible for coming up with your own design ideas, you’ll also do A LOT of copying, AKA knocking off other designs. It’s not uncommon for your boss to send you a direct URL or even hand you a physical garment and say, “make it exactly like this.

During the inspiration process, you’ll work collaboratively with other designers and team members to come up with new ideas or refine designs you’ve swiped from other brands. If the brand sells wholesale, you might even get quite a few ideas from the sales department since they work directly with buyers and often have good insights about what stores want.

Analyzing past sales history will also play a huge role in deciding what direction to go for future collections. Afterall, you’ll want to create more of designs that performed well and steer clear of pieces that fell flat.

You’ll put together mood boards with color swatches and tears from magazines or inspiration from online or trend resources. Typically, they’ll be pretty specific for each collection and should portray the “feeling” of the assortment.

Real life mood boards are often less glamorous and “robust” than what they teach you at fashion school, and may look something like this:

How to Get a Fashion Design Job: The Ultimate Guide by Sew Heidi

And if it sounds like this part of the process is not as creative as you thought? You’re right. As we’ll talk more about later, you’ll be designing everyday clothes for everyday people, not conceptual runway collections.

But I promise, there is something magical about working in fashion. It’s the #1 reason many designer still love their jobs, and I’ll share that soon.

But first, let’s look at what comes next.

Fashion Design Step 2: Design

In step 2, you take all the “inspiration” and start sketching. Now when I say sketching, I mean 1 of 2 things:

  1. Rough sketches on paper
  2. Fashion flat sketches in Adobe Illustrator

How to Get a Fashion Design Job: The Ultimate Guide by Sew Heidi

To put it another way, you will not be sketching fancy fashion illustrations. We’ll go into this in more detail later, but for now, just know that drawing beautiful fashion illustrations with pen and paper is not part of the job.

No matter where you start with the design phase (rough sketches on paper or with digitized fashion flats), all the designs will wind up being drawn in Adobe Illustrator. During this part of the process, don’t be surprised if you spend 20+ hours a week in AI.

You’ll be required to mock up loads of designs in the software (hint hint: you’ll need to be proficient and fast!) to create loads of different versions. You’ll fill the flat sketches in with patterns and colors, creating multiple options and colorways.

Every variation is typically printed out and pinned on cork boards or large design walls. Here’s a small version of what this may look like:

How to Get a Fashion Design Job: The Ultimate Guide by Sew Heidi

Working with the entire team or department, you will spend tons of time analyzing every piece individually and as a cohesive collection

With each style printed and pinned on a board, it becomes somewhat of a “paper doll” game, moving each piece around, dropping some, adding new ones, and making tons and tons of tiny tweaks.

Every detail including fabrics, exact Pantone color, and all the trims (labels, zippers, buttons, etc) will be reviewed in detail to make sure the garment is just right.

One thing to keep in mind? The design stage is not just about aesthetic. Price plays a HUGE role in deciding what fabrics and trims and construction details will work. Need to drop the price a little? It’s not uncommon to sacrifice for a cheaper fabric or remove a pocket.

Because remember, a brand always has to keep the end consumer in mind. And depending on their target market and customer, they may be required to keep their prices in a certain range.

There are often many design meetings during this stage and depending on the size of the company, there are often many people who have their say. You might be trying to juggle input from design directors, sales reps, the marketing department (yes, they have strong opinions!), members of the board, CEOs or owners. The list goes on, and it can be really hard to please everyone!

It’s a challenging but fun process, and once the final collection has been signed off, it’s time for the last step.

Fashion Design Step 3: Sampling + Production

One of the most exciting parts of the process (IMHO) is this step! It’s when the sketches and flats and ideas that have only existed in a digital format get turned into real life garments!

And it all starts with TECH PACKS! Tech packs are a blueprint, or a set of instructions, so the factory knows how to make your design. They’re used for initial sourcing, costing, and ultimately as a tracking tool to manage the entire sampling + production process.

How to Get a Fashion Design Job: The Ultimate Guide by Sew Heidi

During this step, you will be doing A LOT of tracking and following up. You’ll need to make sure things are getting done on time to meet deadlines, and you’ll be checking in, checking in and checking in with your factory. ALL. THE. TIME.

While in the sampling and production stage, it can feel like you’re being a pest with the amount of follow up that you have to do.

But here’s the thing:

Factories juggle A LOT of clients and A LOT of products. It’s your responsibility to make sure they get you things on time, from pricing to prototypes and trim samples to fabric submits. Every tiny piece and part of the garment will be sent to you for approval or rejection.

Throughout this entire time, you’ll need to track the status of every garment and every trim / fabric / finding / prototype / etc. This data is often kept in some type of industry development tracking software (often known as PLM or PDM), or just in an excel spreadsheet, but don’t be surprised if you’re expected to know it on a whim.

An old boss of mine used to storm over to my desk to ask what the status of something was, and she’d expect me to know it off the top of my head. Considering I was managing the sampling and production of 18-36 styles at any given time, this was A LOT to keep track of! Be prepared to be SUPER organized ;).

Once all the prototypes, trims, fabrics, etc have been approved, the factory starts making bulk production. And while they’re doing this, you’ll repeat the whole process for the next season, starting again with step 1, inspiration.

Again, the exact details of this entire 3-step process (inspiration, design, sampling + production) may not be as glamorous as what you had in your head, what you saw on Project Runway, or what they taught you in fashion school…

But as I promised, there is a reason why being a fashion designer is still insanely rewarding.

It’s because the excitement and thrill of seeing your designs in real life never gets old. Spotting something you created in a magazine or hanging on a rack in a NYC retail store is one of the coolest things ever.

So yes, while you will spend a lot of time on the computer gathering inspiration, sketching fashion flats in Illustrator, creating tech packs, and tracking + following up on production…the joy you’ll get from seeing something that transformed from a digital sketch to a physical garment is priceless.

As I told you before, I didn’t start the book with “Are you sure you REALLY want to be a fashion designer?” to be a dream crusher.

I did it because if this ISN’T sounding like something you’re super excited about, it’s better to find out now.

If you still want to go after this dream, I’m supportive of that! Listen, I have no regrets after a decade of working as a designer.

But there is one thing I wish I knew before I started out. I wish I knew that there were OTHER OPTIONS.

Because a lot of people don’t realize there’s more fashion jobs out there BESIDES than being a designer.

And there are some super TOP SECRET reasons you may want to pursue these instead.

Let’s dig into that in the next chapter.

Go to Chapter 2: Seven Awesome Fashion Jobs You Never Knew Existed