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 youâre 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. Itâs like your information goes into a black hole.
But itâs not your fault – because as a fashion design student, they donât really teach you this stuff in school. Theyâve shown you how to âdesignâ 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 thatâs exactly what weâre going to cover in this chapter, step by step.
When youâre in school, professors foster your âcreativeâ and âartisticâ sides. Which is great. Listen, Iâm 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 ISNâT ART. ITâS CLOTHING.
And while yes, it can be (but isnât always!) âfashion-yâ or âfashion forwardâ (because there are a lot of âeverydayâ people out there who just want to wear âeverydayâ clothes)…
Most, MOST, MOSTÂ of the time itâs 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 youâre coming out of school, your book is FULL of ART.
Itâs full of gorgeous designs that feel glamorous and super creative. And donât get me wrong, Iâm sure you did a fabulous job on your senior collection.
But itâs NOT what brands want to see. Instead? They want to see COMMERCIAL work.
What does that mean? Itâs the actual clothes that brands are actually selling in stores and online. If youâre unsure what that looks like? Hereâs how to figure it out:
First, find 5 mainstream brands that youâre interested in. (And I say mainstream because – not to burst your bubble – but thatâs most likely where youâll start out. There are 100x more of them and chances are, thatâs where youâre 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. Theyâre PRACTICAL designs for REAL LIFE people, not runway models.
Because hereâs the thing about most of the clothes runway models wear: they may be beautiful, but THEY NEVER GO TO MARKET. Theyâre never produced or sold. Theyâre created for PR and marketing purpose. Theyâre putting on a SHOW.
But donât 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 designerâs portfolio.
Hereâs exactly what he shared:
Now, not only is this advise that Bjorn suggests, itâs 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 designerÂ 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 2000âs 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 didnât have any experience. OMFG, what is a girl to do?!
Unpaid internships werenât an option either. Living in the UK, she had expenses and bills and rent. Working for free just wasnât 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 âairy fairy conceptualâ (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 whatâs 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 âcommercialâ projects is an amazing add to your portfolio, thereâs 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 doesnât 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, hereâs exactly what she said:
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 itâs just some of the basics you worked on, itâs 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 canât 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.
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 theyâre relevant to where youâre 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 youâre looking for your FIRST job or youâve been in the industry FOREVER, this next tip applies to EVERYONE.
Especially if youâve 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* youâre 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 youâd have better success if you:
If you didnât 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 thatâs the format) for each brand.
This will pay off in HUGE ways.
Donât believe me? Hereâs some proof.
Kirby NuĂąez 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 wasnât without a LOT of failures. At first? Kirby did the âthrow a stack of 500 resumes off a high rise buildingâ 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 âoh, yeah, of course thatâs why they hired you.â
So, what did he do? You guessed itâŚ
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 Kirbyâs 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 âmassâ application thing by just sending out the same resume over and over.
Why? Because itâs easier. So if youâre one of the few who customizes it for each brand? You will stand out amongst the competition.
But hereâs the thing. Itâs not just about standing out in the eyes of the hiring manager.
Itâs 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 theyâre a good match.
If the keywords line up? THEN theyâre put in front of a real person.
Brands get so many applicants, they canât physically look at every resume. And this is exactly what Malie Bingham, whoâs 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.
Hereâs exactly what Malie shared in her own words about how to make your fashion design resume stand out:
But if it doesnât have those keywords? A real person wonât ever even see your application.
Explains that âresume going into a black holeâ thing, doesnât 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 yourÂ 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 youâre 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).
Weâll go through some specific tips on how to do that in a bit…but first:
This is another one of those âapplies to everyoneâ strategies.
So if youâre 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, itâs 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 hereâs 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 âdo the extra creditâ (a concept weâll talk more about later!) as I like to put it.
And thatâs EXACTLY the kind of designer brands want to hire.
So, how can you do this? Well, youâre a designer. Itâs your job to be creative. So get creative! Have fun! Experiment! Push the boundaries!
Here are a couple examples:
We live in SUCH a digital world, itâs so easy to have your resume get buried in someoneâs inbox. Itâs 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 doesnât have to be an expensive endeavor. You donât have to print a 4 ft tall version of your resume and plaster it on a NYC wall. You donât 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, youâll stand out and increase your chances of getting the job. Youâll also show brands that you think outside the box and you do the âextra creditâ. 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. Donât send it to the HR person, even if that is whoâs 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.
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 youâve 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 youâre good with numbers and spreadsheets from keeping track of all that inventory.
Job Requirement: An eye for color and whatâs on trend
Your Experience: You watch whatâs 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 donât have the experience, you can usually dig into something for entry level jobs and find a relatable skill.
And as a friendly reminder, Iâll share a quick sound bite from Dior to let you know that brands DONâT expect you to know everything. Youâre entry level, and they realize that:
So show them that you have that passion and initiative with the things youâve done in other jobs or with your own personal side projects. It will make your resume shine.
Now, letâs get to something I promised you earlier that I know so many designers need help with:
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. Itâs a simple thing, but the fact is that MOST people donât do it.
Go above and beyond to do an exceptional job and create good relationships + contacts.
Because hereâs 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 âextra creditâ.
Remember Kirby Nunez from episode 72Â 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 âextra creditâ.
What exactly does this mean? How exactly did he do âextra creditâ? Well, he did things he wasnât asked to do but that were helpful to the rest of the team. Specifically, Kirby:
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 âdoing the extra creditâ), 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, youâll make tons of friends and contacts.
Why? Because by doing an amazing job, you make your teammatesâ jobs easier. And when you make other peopleâs jobs easier? Theyâre going to love you and theyâre 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 theyâre working) theyâll reach out to YOU.
Before we dive into the next chapter, I want to include another bit of advice in here Iâve seen other designers find success with.
If youâre at an absolute loss and canât get your foot in the front door as a design intern or entry level assistant, figure out how to get in through a âsideâ door.
(Side note about the âsideâ door: if you want a good read on how to figure out your way into any opportunity, I highly, HIGHLY, HIGHLY recommendÂ 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 âsideâ door, and once youâre in, do a kick ass job (by doing the âextra creditâ) and then asking for opportunities to get some design experience.
Itâs 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 Iâm 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 wonât 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.
Itâs how you will stand out, and itâs how you will get ahead in our cutthroat industry. Promise.