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How to Survive as a Fashion Designer (and why I thought I was a unicorn)

January 19, 2018

How to survive as a fashion designer is like figuring out how to survive Black Friday madness:

Black Friday is Like Your Fashion Career

But instead of just one day a year, it’s every day. All year long.

It’s brutal and there’s no mercy. People will push you over and punch you to get what they want. And they couldn’t care less.

Bosses and owners can be nasty, promising you the dream but then turning your life into a nightmare (like what happened to me).

The responsibilities and the stress of your job weighs heavy on your shoulders. And it sure as hell doesn’t match up with the $20, $40 or even $60k salary.

Even though you work harder and harder, more and more hours, stay until 11p some nights and arrive early the next morning at 7a with dark circles under your eyes, you’ll never earned another cent on top of your base wage.

Because, like Black Friday Madness, a lot of people running these businesses want what they want: profits and fame. And they’re willing to do it whatever it takes to get it, even at your expense.

You have no control and you’re stuck working on projects you despise and don’t believe in.

And you began to hate the work.

And if you’re trying to launch your own line? It can leave you bruised, battered and broke.

Like Colleen, “I’ve probably put $30,000 into this company over the last year. It’s super embarrassing to be honest about the numbers…and it’s the scariest thing when your savings are just bleeding.”

Or like me, who instead of designing and creating, wound up doing the grunt work of running a business selling products I began to loathe. Even though I’d grossed $40k in my third year of business, only $8k was profit.

And $8k is not enough to live on.

It’s easy to fall out of love with the fashion industry.

And so you wonder, “how can I make my fashion design dream come true if it’s not launching my own collection or working for a fashion brand?”

It starts with unicorns. Yes, unicorns.

Like the one on this plate that I eat lunch off of almost daily.

Sew Heidi Unicorn Plate on Instagram

(And yes, we have lime green kitchen counters that I love. And yes, I post random pics like this on Insta. Follow me.)

Here’s a little known fact: I used to think I was a unicorn.

No, not a real unicorn. But a unicorn in the sense that I had created such a rare situation for myself in my fashion career, its existence was virtually mythical.

I worked a lax 30-40 hours a week from the comfort of my own home. I enjoyed the work, could decline projects that didn’t suit me, and was happier than I’d been in years.

I had freedom, flexibility and best of all, was in control of my life.

I reached a 6-figure salary (almost all of which was profit).

It was a completely different scenario than when I made $40k with my fashion line but was left with just $8k (for a year of work) or when I worked 60+ hours as a designer making just $24k.

But I’d heard a lot of designers say things like, “no, I don’t think it’s possible to earn a full time living doing remote freelance work in our industry. It’s possible in other industries – but not fashion.

And for a while, I thought that was true to. Which explains the whole unicorn thing. Even my husband told me I was just “lucky”.

Until about 18 months ago when I started doing research.

I scoured LinkedIn high and low and sent out 100+ messages to designers I didn’t know but who had “freelancer” in their title. A lot of them I didn’t hear back from (because who answers random messages on LinkedIn asking to “talk about your journey as a freelancer”?). But turns out, some people did and were willing to hop on a Skype call with a random stranger.

Sometimes we talked for over an hour.

I messaged random people on Instagram who looked like they were doing freelance work to see if they’d be up for a chat.

Again, we hopped on Skype for a call.

And I asked them real and invasive questions. I pushed them and made them spill the beans.

Things like:

“Are you really making a full-time comfortable wage doing remote freelance work?”
“How much are you charging an hour?”
“Have you ever not been paid or had to chase payment?”

And even I was surprised to find that many of them were landing true remote projects for $10,000-$15,000, or charging $50/hour or even $150/hour.

Brands were paying them these rates. And they were busy. They had enough work. They were making full time livings.

Many of them had never been “stiffed” or not paid by a client (I have always gotten paid too).

And some of them had never even been asked to “work for less”. This surprised me even more!

So, part of me was sad. I was no longer a unicorn.

Just kidding. I wasn’t sad at all. I was freaking ecstatic!

And I was also even more confused. Confused about why no one was talking about freelancing in fashion. Confused about why no one was teaching designers how to freelance in fashion. Confused about why more designers weren’t going after freelancing. (More on this next week.)

There are so many reasons why freelancing and contract work in the fashion industry just makes sense! Clear, plain, simple sense!

Let’s take a look at some of those reasons.


Reason #1: There are virtually no startup costs (compared to launching a line which can cost $500, $5,000 or even $50,000)

Making a few fair assumptions like you already have a computer and phone, you can get started for nothing. Not a single penny.

Don’t have Illustrator on your personal computer? Take advantage of the free 30-day trial to put your portfolio together and wait until you land your first gig to subscribe ($29.99/month).

Reason #2: 80%+ of your earnings are profit (compared to launching a line where, if you’re lucky, 15-20% is profit)

Here’s the thing about a “service” based business that took me years to realize. It doesn’t cost you anything except time.

And as your income scales? Your overhead does not. As you go from $20k to $40k to $80k a year? Your expenses and overhead doesn’t double. They barely increase at all.

But here’s the thing about a “product” based business that took me years to realize. It costs you a lot of freaking cash to run. You’re constantly investing in new product, sitting on tied up inventory, paying for storage, packing, shipping, returns.

As income doubles or triples, so does your overhead. Remember Susan Lazar? I shared her story yesterday. She grew an $8 million dollar womenswear brand, and still never turned a profit:

“We were losing a little bit of money. We grew it and grew it and grew it and the numbers doubled or tripled every year. But the overhead kept growing and it spiraled out of control…”

I made a quick chart to look at two scenarios. These numbers are based off my personal experience with running a fashion brand (which, scary enough, was financially successful by a lot of standards) and being a full-time freelancer (which is a similar experience to other freelancers I know).

We’ll compare expenses vs profit vs time worked for a year where you make $40k vs $100k in both situations.

(To keep things simple, taxes aren’t included for either business since there are taxes on any money you earn.)

Notice on the $40k/year chart, expenses and profit for freelancing vs your own fashion line are opposite of each other. Clearly freelancing is more profitable:

Launch a Fashion Line vs Be a Freelance Fashion Designer

And notice on the $100k/year chart the freelance expenses hardly grow while the fashion line ones skyrocket:

Launch a Fashion Line vs Be a Freelance Fashion Designer

Now, I know it’s not all about money. Success and happiness and being fulfilled is not all about money. I am completely aware of that.

Which leads us to the next few reasons, which are some of the best.

Reason #3: You can travel whenever you want.

You never have to ask for a day off again or decline a getaway because you ran out of vacation time.

This is one of my all-time favorite reasons. This is one of the best parts of being a freelancer.

I don’t know about you, but time with family is really important to me. My sister and I are besties, I love watching my 8-year old nephew grow up, and thrifting, wine drinking and cooking with my parents is precious time to me.

<em”>But I’m in Colorado, and they’re in California.

If I worked a full time job, I’d have to spend vacation days frugally and wouldn’t get to see them as much. If I ran my own fashion line, I’d be trapped packing and shipping orders (because unless you’ve got some major cash, that’s something you have to DIY for a while).

But since I can work from anywhere, I get to see them. All the time.

In 2017 alone, I’ve was lucky enough to take 7 vacations to places like San Diego, Ventura, Lake Tahoe and Mexico (and yes, my sister and I got hair braids!):

Sew Heidi Successful Fashion Designer

Plus an unforgettable trip to Chicago where I got on stage in front of 500 people with New York Time’s best selling author Ramit Sethi. A wine-tasting getaway with my best childhood friends. And a YouTube collaboration vacation with the one and only fashion illustrator Zoe Hong:

Sew Heidi Successful Fashion Designer

And while traveling is great, I also absolutely love scheduling my time how I want.

Which is why the next reason is also one of my favorites:

Reason #4: Work when you want, play when you want (instead of being chained to a desk 9-5 or dealing with inventory and product).

Sometimes, it’s the little things that I love the most.

Like grocery shopping mid-week when it’s not crowded.
Daily yoga with my favorite teacher, no matter what time the class is.
Or leisurely rolling out of bed and working in leggings and no makeup.

Marc and I regularly pop out for happy hour on a whim, take the poches swimming on a Tuesday, and rock climb before everyone else gets off work and the gym is a zoo.

Sew Heidi Successful Fashion Designer

You can work from the comfort of a home office, your kitchen table for a change of scenery, or even from a bungalow in Mexico (your client will never know).

I’ve taken client calls on hikes. I’ve done line sheets on a Sunday. And I’ve done conference calls from a bungalow in Mexico.

You may be thinking, that sounds terrible. I like my Sundays, I want to enjoy a quiet hike, and when I’m on vacation, I want to be on vacation.

So, do I love working on vacation or my outings being interrupted? Honestly, I don’t mind.

I’d rather squeeze in a few hours here and there than not take the trip at all, or take a quick call instead of skipping the hike, or crush it on a Sunday so my week is free for whatever I want.

Because what’s important to me isn’t when or where I work, it’s the next reason.

Reason #5: You get to choose.

You choose:

  • to work set 9-5 hours or do a little bit here and there like I do.
  • when and where the work gets done.
  • how you spend your time.
  • the projects you say yes to.
  • what clients you work for and don’t have to answer to a-holes (like so many of us have…or still do).
  • to turn down people who will only pay you pennies and take the better paying gigs instead.

And I don’t know about you, but for me, choosing is priceless. That’s a freedom I’d never be willing to give up.

And the other freedom I wouldn’t give up? The ability to have a voice and make a difference:

Reason #6: You can make a difference in this industry – for the better.

I saved one of the absolute best reasons for last. After all the dream crushing and harsh honesty we talked about in the fashion industry this week, you may be thinking:

“Heidi, how are you now telling me to be a freelancer and help others pursue their fashion dream – the very dream which most likely won’t come true or won’t be profitable?”

I 100% get it.

But here’s the thing:

When you’re a freelancer, you also get to choose to have a voice and make a difference. To help guide brands in a direction they should or shouldn’t go. To help them make smarter decisions. To help prevent them from making the same mistakes you made or saw other companies make.

Most of the time, you don’t get this voice in a full time job. You’re told to just get the work done.

Do you know how many aspiring brands I’ve consulted with and told them they weren’t ready to go overseas and order 500+ units? Told them to start much smaller and referred them to a freelancer who could help them with small batch production? And they graciously thank me for guiding them instead of just doing the work and taking their money.

Do you know how many brands I’ve helped negotiate lower minimums because I knew they couldn’t sell through 1000+ units? Or convinced to cull the assortment down from 12 to 8 styles (even though that meant less work and money for me)?

And yes, I’ve worked with brands that have plummeted, run out of money, and gone out of business.

But fashion designers and brands out there are still going to go for it. They’re still going to pursue their dream, even if they know it can come crashing down.

Person X who I told you about yesterday who’s fashion brand bankrupt their family told me, “I still considered it a success, and I’m still glad I did it.”

Susan Lazar who closed down her $8 million dollar brand because it was losing money turned around and again started another fashion line.

If I had to do it all over again? I would have still launched my fashion company Funklectic. Because that led to my first industry job which led to freelancing and this (my online business).

Because sometimes even if your dream fashion brand is a total flop, you learn, you grow and it leads to your next thing. And that happens in all areas of life and all industries.

And so it is our responsibility as freelancers to help these brands do it a little smarter. To use our knowledge and experience to help them do the best possible job.

You don’t have to be some grandiose expert with factory contacts and strong negotiation skills (I didn’t always have this). It can be something small like sketching their flats or creating tech packs. Or helping them understand the process and how things work.

Every bit of knowledge and skill you have, no matter how small, someone else out there wants and needs help with. Do the responsible thing and give them that help, so they can do a little better job.


Listen, I realize I am painting a freelancing fantasy life here. And I don’t want to unrealistically sugar coat things like most experts do.

  • It still takes work – like a job, running a fashion brand or anything in life.
  • It’s still hard – like a job, running a fashion brand or anything in life.
  • It’s still risky – like a job, running a fashion brand or anything in life.

But if you ask me, the work and the risk are worth the benefits 100x compared to what you get out of a job or your own fashion line.

And if I’m going to work that hard anyway, you bet your ass I’m going to do it on my terms.

I don’t write this to brag about how amazing my life is and make you feel bad or jealous about yours. I want to paint a realistic picture of what it can be like doing freelance or contract work in the fashion industry.

Which is why next week, I’m going to share some of the biggest challenges of this work too (and how you overcome them).

I’ll also be introducing you to some other fashionistas who make a full time living doing freelance and contract work in fashion. Because I know you don’t want to just hear mine.

Watch for the next blog post on that.

In the meantime, have a fantastic weekend and talk to you next week.

xx Heidi

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