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How to Get a Fashion Design Job After College: By Sew Heidi

How to Find Your First Fashion Design Job (or Internship!) After College

February 21, 2019

How to Get a Fashion Design Job

LANDING YOUR DREAM FASHION JOB IS HARD AF.

You can go it alone 🤷‍♀️, OR get real life advice from mothers, students, and regular people (just like YOU) who made fashion pay the bills 👊

Drop your info below for a free copy of my book to help land your dream job now 👇

By signing up, you’ll get access to weekly emails with free tutorials, templates and occasional offers.

Even If You Have No Experience

04 how to get a fashion job internship after college 01

You know one of the hardest things to do in the fashion industry?

Land your FIRST job.

It’s the whole chicken and egg thing: “I can’t get a job without experience. But how can I get experience without a job?”

And so getting your foot in the door when you’re just getting started feels, well, it feels *&$%-ing IMPOSSIBLE. It can feel like you send out hundreds of resumes and portfolios…without hearing anything back. It’s like your information goes into a black hole.

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But it’s not your fault – because as a fashion design student, they don’t really teach you this stuff in school. They’ve shown you how to “design” but for some reason, a lot of fashion schools lack training on how to actually get the job.

So WHAT. THE. F. are you supposed to do? Well, here’s the thing you may have NEVER thought about:

EVERYONE starts from zero. At some point, we all have NO experience.

But year after year, new designers manage to break into the industry. So, HOW DO THEY DO IT? What is their MAGIC SAUCE?

Turns out, there are 3 simple strategies. And that’s exactly what we’re going to cover in this chapter, step by step.

STRATEGY #1: Show Commercially Driven Designs in Your Portfolio

How to Get a Fashion Design Job or Internship After College

When you’re in school, professors foster your “creative” and “artistic” sides. Which is great. Listen, I’m all about making art!

But at the end of the day, when it comes to fashion? 99.9% of what sells in the REAL WORLD and in REAL STORES?

IT ISN’T ART. IT’S CLOTHING.

And while yes, it can be (but isn’t always!) “fashion-y” or “fashion forward” (because there are a lot of “everyday” people out there who just want to wear “everyday” clothes)…

Most, MOST, MOST of the time it’s NOT ART.

Hate to break it to you, but this my friends is the real fashion world: EVERYDAY CLOTHES FOR EVERYDAY PEOPLE.

And your portfolio HAS to reflect this. But the problem? When you’re coming out of school, your book is FULL of ART.

It’s full of gorgeous designs that feel glamorous and super creative. And don’t get me wrong, I’m sure you did a fabulous job on your senior collection.

But it’s NOT what brands want to see. Instead? They want to see COMMERCIAL work.

What does that mean? It’s the actual clothes that brands are actually selling in stores and online. If you’re unsure what that looks like? Here’s how to figure it out:

First, find 5 mainstream brands that you’re interested in. (And I say mainstream because – not to burst your bubble – but that’s most likely where you’ll start out. There are 100x more of them and chances are, that’s where you’re going to get work as opposed to couture houses.)

Then, take a good look at what they are ACTUALLY selling. REALLY look at the designs and details. They’re PRACTICAL designs for REAL LIFE people, not runway models.

Because here’s the thing about most of the clothes runway models wear: they may be beautiful, but THEY NEVER GO TO MARKET. They’re never produced or sold. They’re created for PR and marketing purpose. They’re putting on a SHOW.

But don’t just take my word for it.

On my Successful Fashion Designer podcast, tons of guests have shared this same advice.

In episode 1, I interviewed design director Bjorn Bengtson, who has 20+ years of experience with brands like Theory and Greg Norman, about what he wants to see in an entry level fashion designer’s portfolio.

Here’s exactly what he shared:

“Schoolwork is, many times, very conceptual and not always applicable to what goes on in the industry from a commercial standpoint. So develop something by yourself that you feel could be good for those 5-10 companies you really want to interview with and then when you show your portfolio, actually develop time in developing something that you feel is relevant from a commercial standpoint.”

Now, not only is this advise that Bjorn suggests, it’s exactly what Carla Louise Stout did when she broke into the fashion industry 15+ years ago.

In episode 60 of the SFD podcast, Carla shared step by step how she built a successful career as an international fashion designer with brands like Mavi Jeans and getting features in magazines like InStyle and Vogue.

But just like YOU, she started from zero. And back in the early 2000’s when she was fresh out of college looking for a job? She interviewed for 20+ opportunities…but kept getting a BIG FAT NO.

Why? Because she didn’t have any experience. OMFG, what is a girl to do?!

Unpaid internships weren’t an option either. Living in the UK, she had expenses and bills and rent. Working for free just wasn’t going to work.

So, she did something really smart. She took a big step back and she looked at her portfolio. She realized that everything in it from Uni was very “airy fairy conceptual” (her words, not mine!).

So she did some self-directed projects that were more relevant to what was going on in the market trend wise.

Almost immediately? She landed her first PAYING job.

So if this is you? Take some time and research the market to see what’s REALLY out there. Then, do a self directed project or two that your top 5-10 brands would want to see.

While doing self directed “commercial” projects is an amazing add to your portfolio, there’s another thing you can do to stand out from the competition.

If you have ANY work from an internship, include that in your book.

This is exactly what Shellie Simpson, the Talent Director for Fashion Recruiting at Atrium Staffing in NYC advises.

She has seen hundreds, if not thousands of applicants from entry level to advanced apply for jobs. Being in direct contact the brands, she knows what works and what doesn’t when it comes to getting your first job out of college.

And she says that the biggest mistake fashion school students make? Is putting too much emphasis on their schoolwork and having their portfolio full of class projects and senior collections.

When I interviewed her on episode 53 of my SFD podcast to ask her how fashion school grads can increase chances of getting a job, here’s exactly what she said:

“I think it’s important to have some of your schoolwork in there, but anything you can take from an internship is going to be key. And that’s going to be some of the basics, they just want to know that you have the systems, especially if you’re going to be going to a corporate or mass market company that you’ve worked in Photoshop and Illustrator, they’re going to want to see some of your flat sketching. They’re also for assistant designers, really gonna want to know if you’re able to do tech packs.”

Now, if you read the last chapter, then you already know the importance of Illustrator and tech packs. So, like Shellie suggests, think about how you can show those skills through a few small real life projects that you worked on in an internship. Because THAT can make a huge difference in your job hunting success as a fashion design student.

And even if it’s just some of the basics you worked on, it’s better to include parts of a real life project than a book full of just schoolwork.

Unsure of how to do that? Not sure what you can or can’t include from an internship? Wondering how you present something if you were only involved in part of the process?

I covered this exact topic in my Ultimate Guide to Creating Your Fashion Portfolio.

STRATEGY #2: Send Customized Resumes and Cover Letters

How to Get a Fashion Design Job or Internship After College

Remember that part at the beginning of the book where I said there may be bits of advice in here that would be SUPER valuable for you…even if at a first glance they may not seem like they’re relevant to where you’re at?

This is one of those bits of advice.

Let me say it again, a little louder.

THIS IS ONE OF THOSE BITS OF ADVICE!

Whether you’re looking for your FIRST job or you’ve been in the industry FOREVER, this next tip applies to EVERYONE.

Especially if you’ve ever had the feeling that your resume is GOING INTO A BLACK HOLE.

So, how do you make sure your resume actually LANDS ON the desk of and GETS READ by the right person?

You CUSTOMIZE it for EVERY job.

This is where I tell you loud and clear:

DO NOT SEND OUT 500 GENERIC COPY AND PASTE COVER LETTERS + RESUMES.

Applying for jobs is not a marathon to send out as many applications as you can.

You may *think* you’re increasing your chances if you just vomit your information everywhere you can…but this is a TERRIBLE strategy.

Think of it this way. Do you think you’d have better success if you:

  1. Threw a stack of 500 resumes of the roof of a high rise building and hoped one landed in the hands of the right person?
  2. Hand delivered your nicely printed resume to 10-20 brands that you were specifically interested in?

If you didn’t guess…the correct answer is B.

You are MUCH better off spending a little (or even a lot) more time customizing your resume, cover letter (and application if that’s the format) for each brand.

This will pay off in HUGE ways.

Don’t believe me? Here’s some proof.

Kirby Nuñez was an aspiring designer just like you. And then – get this – he landed his first dream job at Puma, without a fashion design degree, because of this exact strategy.

But it wasn’t without a LOT of failures. At first? Kirby did the “throw a stack of 500 resumes off a high rise building” approach.

It got him NOWHERE. He applied to Nike, Adidas, and every other brand out there. And he applied to Puma SEVEN times.

Six of those times? He heard nothing or got a big fat REJECTION. But on the seventh try? He got a YES.

So when he shared his story on episode 72 of the SFD podcast about landing his dream fashion design job, I asked him what he did differently.

And once he told me, I was nodding my head yes like one of those car dashboard hula-dancer thingamajiggies like “oh, yeah, of course that’s why they hired you.”

How to Get a Fashion Design Job or Internship After College

So, what did he do? You guessed it…

Instead of sending a generic application, he decided for his one last attempt at applying, he would pour a little bit of his heart and soul into it.

He told Puma WHY he wanted the job. He researched projects and initiatives they were working on as a brand and talked about WHY he was excited and interested in them. He explained HOW he aligned with what they were doing and HOW he could help them with some of these projects.

And the extra work it took? Paid off 10x.

Because while it was an internship that got Kirby’s foot in the door at Puma, he was able to turn it into a full-time paid job. Two and a half years later, he still works there as menswear designer.

His dream job as a fashion designer? He LOVES it.

Think about it this way: there are a kajillion people out there competing for ONE spot. Most of them? Do the “mass” application thing by just sending out the same resume over and over.

Why? Because it’s easier. So if you’re one of the few who customizes it for each brand? You will stand out amongst the competition.

But here’s the thing. It’s not just about standing out in the eyes of the hiring manager.

It’s about making sure the hiring manager (or even a real person!) sees your resume + application in the first place.

Because with technology these days? Guess what.

A lot of brands that use online applications? Filter them through a computer first to see if they’re a good match.

If the keywords line up? THEN they’re put in front of a real person.

Brands get so many applicants, they can’t physically look at every resume. And this is exactly what Malie Bingham, who’s a senior designer at Phillips Van Heusen (a multi-billion dollar lifestyle apparel company that owns Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and more), explained in episode 29 of the SFD podcast.

Here’s exactly what Malie shared in her own words about how to make your fashion design resume stand out:

“You can’t just take the same resume and apply it to 20 different jobs. It’s not going to work. You have to take the time to read the job listing that they’ve posted somewhere, find the keywords that they’re looking for and then make sure that those keywords are in your resume before you apply. It’s not even a human being that’s like printing them all out. It’s like a computer system that’s looking for certain keywords. And then if your resume has those keywords, it’s gonna rise to the top and then hopefully you’ll get a call back.”

But if it doesn’t have those keywords? A real person won’t ever even see your application.

Explains that “resume going into a black hole” thing, doesn’t it.

Because that is LITERALLY what is happening.

My guess? Is that you may be guilty of just copying and pasting and hitting send…over and over and over.

(Now, is your head is nodding yes like one of those car dashboard hula-dancer thingamajiggies?)

So, does this all take extra work? YES. But it will produce 100x the results.

And if you’re trying to get internships? You can use all of these strategies to that too.

Because an internship is a great way to get your foot in the door and turn an unpaid opportunity into a full time paying job (like Kirby did).

We’ll go through some specific tips on how to do that in a bit…but first:

STRATEGY #3: Do Something to Stand Out From the Competition

How to Get a Fashion Design Job or Internship After College

This is another one of those “applies to everyone” strategies.

So if you’re skim skim skimming your way through, this is where you should STOP and READ.

In a sea of hundreds or even thousands of designers competing for just ONE job, it’s easy for you to get lost in the sea of everyone.

And while sending a customized resume and application is one way to stand out, there are other things you can do to go above and beyond.

Because here’s the thing about going above and beyond: not only does it help you stand out, it shows that you put in the effort.

It shows that you go the extra mile. It shows that you “do the extra credit” (a concept we’ll talk more about later!) as I like to put it.

And that’s EXACTLY the kind of designer brands want to hire.

So, how can you do this? Well, you’re a designer. It’s your job to be creative. So get creative! Have fun! Experiment! Push the boundaries!

Here are a couple examples:

  1. You could print up a few mini portfolio booklets and mail them, along with your resume and a hand printed note. This is something Malie Bingham, from episode 29 did, and out of 7 or 8 packages she sent? She got something like 5-6 interviews. That turned into 2 job offers, and not only did she land her dream job, she got to choose the best of two options. BOOM.
  2. Another woman I know plastered a giant version of her resume on a wall where a company was advertising a job. Even though she didn’t have any experience in this field, they called her in immediately to talk. And while this wasn’t in fashion (and she didn’t wind up taking a job there – they both decided it wasn’t a good match), I love this example. It shows how being BOLD and taking a RISK can really help you stand out. Brands want designers that aren’t afraid to think outside the box. How can you do this with your resume, portfolio, cover letter or application?

How to Get a Fashion Design Job or Internship After College

  1. Maybe you come up with a fun slogan about why a brand should hire you and have it printed on a shirt that you pack up nicely and mail, again, along with your resume and a note telling them why you’re a great match for the job. With one off printing resources like Zazzle and other sites, you can get some custom stuff done pretty inexpensively.
  2. Maybe you send a (gasp!) video to SHOW them why you are are so awesome and how you can help their brand. People are busy, so I’d keep it to a few minutes, but introduce yourself, tell them why you love their brand and how you can help them do a kickass job. Have fun with it!

We live in SUCH a digital world, it’s so easy to have your resume get buried in someone’s inbox. It’s really easy for your information to get lost. Sometimes going backwards and reverting to the way things used to be (snail mail) can help you stand out.

And listen – this doesn’t have to be an expensive endeavor. You don’t have to print a 4 ft tall version of your resume and plaster it on a NYC wall. You don’t have to print t-shirts or physical portfolios and mail them out.

But do SOMETHING different than everyone else. Get creative. Have fun!

Even if the idea is weird or kinda funny, you’ll stand out and increase your chances of getting the job. You’ll also show brands that you think outside the box and you do the “extra credit”. That is the exact kind of person they want to hire.

Oh, and pro-tip? If you do want to send something in the mail? Do your research and figure out who the hiring manager or director of the department is. Don’t send it to the HR person, even if that is who’s on the job listing.

And just for fun, I wanted to throw in one last bonus strategy you can use to find your first job without any experience.

BONUS STRATEGY: How to Make Non-Fashion Experience Relevant in Your Application

How to Get a Fashion Design Job or Internship After College

This is a strategy Dior Bediako of Pepper Your Talk shared in SFD Podcast episode 18. Dior specifically helps recent grads and entry level applicants land their dream fashion job.

And this lady KNOWS. HER. STUFF! Dior landed her first job at Burberry…without even having an internship on her resume.

Her advice? Start doing some critical thinking, some digging and self reflection into your past experience or what you spend your time on.

Identify the top 3-5 skills that job is asking for, and then figure out how you can demonstrate that you have those skills through other work that you’ve done – whether personal projects or professional job experience.

Here are a few examples:

Job Requirement: Organized and attention to detail

Your Experience: You managed the senior fashion show which required coordinating and scheduling 30 students, 50 models plus makeup artists and hair stylists to make sure everyone showed up and walked down the runway on time.

Job Requirement: Good with Excel and spreadsheets to keep track of product development

Your Experience: You worked retail and did stock keeping – perfect! Show how you’re good with numbers and spreadsheets from keeping track of all that inventory.

Job Requirement: An eye for color and what’s on trend

Your Experience: You watch what’s in the market by reading magazines, following relevant bloggers, watching the runway, etc. Show what sites you check daily and exactly what you do to stay up to date.

Even if you think you don’t have the experience, you can usually dig into something for entry level jobs and find a relatable skill.

And as a friendly reminder, I’ll share a quick sound bite from Dior to let you know that brands DON’T expect you to know everything. You’re entry level, and they realize that:

“When you’re an entry level employee, the company’s not expecting you to be amazing from day one. They’re quite clued up on the fact that you want to start with uni and you’re not experienced, but they want to see the passion, they want to see initiative.”

So show them that you have that passion and initiative with the things you’ve done in other jobs or with your own personal side projects. It will make your resume shine.

Now, let’s get to something I promised you earlier that I know so many designers need help with:

BONUS STRATEGY: How to Turn Your Fashion Design Internship Into a Full Time Job

How to Get a Fashion Design Job or Internship After College

If you get an internship or have your foot in the door at a brand, there is one thing you can do to turn that into a job. It’s a simple thing, but the fact is that MOST people don’t do it.

Go above and beyond to do an exceptional job and create good relationships + contacts.

Because here’s the thing: good relationships and contacts is what will get you ahead in the cutthroat fashion industry. And you build these by making a ridiculously good impression from day one. You do this by doing an exceptional job and by doing the “extra credit”.

Remember Kirby Nunez from episode 72 who we talked about earlier? The ambitious designer who landed his dream internship at Puma after being rejected SIX times?

So, you want to know how Kirby turned the unpaid internship into a full time job? He did the “extra credit”.

What exactly does this mean? How exactly did he do “extra credit”? Well, he did things he wasn’t asked to do but that were helpful to the rest of the team. Specifically, Kirby:

  • Stayed late to help others with their projects (instead of leaving early like the other interns).
  • Offered to help when someone was out of town (instead of only doing what was asked of him like the other interns).
  • Saw tasks that needed to be done and asked to do them (instead of taking extra long lunches like the other interns).

And at the end of his unpaid internship, he was the only intern that got an offer to stay with the company in a paid role.

The general concept of this strategy is simple:

By doing an exceptional job (AKA “doing the extra credit”), not only will you shine in that internship (or in any other opportunity) and increase your chances 10x of it turning into a full time job, you’ll make tons of friends and contacts.

Why? Because by doing an amazing job, you make your teammates’ jobs easier. And when you make other people’s jobs easier? They’re going to love you and they’re going to remember you. And the next time they need to hire someone or know of a job opening (whether at that brand or somewhere else they’re working) they’ll reach out to YOU.

ONE LAST BONUS STRATEGY(!): If You’re Absolutely Stuck and Can’t Land Your First Fashion Design Job

How to Get a Fashion Design Job or Internship After College

Before we dive into the next chapter, I want to include another bit of advice in here I’ve seen other designers find success with.

If you’re at an absolute loss and can’t get your foot in the front door as a design intern or entry level assistant, figure out how to get in through a “side” door.

(Side note about the “side” door: if you want a good read on how to figure out your way into any opportunity, I highly, HIGHLY, HIGHLY recommend The Third Door.)

What does that mean? It means taking a job at a fashion brand but in a different department. This may be as an admin, in customer service, or something else. The point is to get your foot in the “side” door, and once you’re in, do a kick ass job (by doing the “extra credit”) and then asking for opportunities to get some design experience.

It’s exactly what one of my coaching students did who started out working full time as a customer service rep for a contemporary brand in NYC. I told the beginning of her story in my free book on creating your fashion portfolio, and I’m excited to share an update here that she now spends part of her time in the design department for that brand.

And it all started with her doing an amazing job in her first role in the customer service department and then asking for opportunities to work in design.

Listen. Landing your dream fashion design job won’t happen overnight. It takes hard work and the fashion industry is still competitive. But with these strategies, determination and the confidence to ask for – and put yourself out there for – opportunities, will put you miles ahead of the competition.

It’s how you will stand out, and it’s how you will get ahead in our cutthroat industry. Promise.

How to Get a Fashion Design Job

LANDING YOUR DREAM FASHION JOB IS HARD AF.

You can go it alone 🤷‍♀️, OR get real life advice from mothers, students, and regular people (just like YOU) who made fashion pay the bills 👊

Drop your info below for a free copy of my book to help land your dream job now 👇

By signing up, you’ll get access to weekly emails with free tutorials, templates and occasional offers.

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