From an outsider’s perspective, fashion can seem like a good career. Project Runway paints a pretty glamorous picture of frolicking in fabric and watching your designs go down the runway. But what’s it really like working in the industry, and is fashion actually a good career?
First, we have to talk about what the word “good” actually means. It’s pretty subjective, and your definition may be different than mine.
“Good” could be…
I’m not here to define what “good” means for you. Rather, I’ll give you a behind the scenes peek at what it’s like working in fashion, and you can decide whether or not fashion is a good career.
My experience in the industry spans 15 years. I’ve done it all from having my own brand to working in-house as an employee to being a freelance fashion designer. While my perspective is mine alone, I’ve also heard thousands of stories over the years from the SFD community, our 20k+ email subscribers, the 100s of guests I’ve interviewed on my podcast, and the ~500 students inside Freelance Accelerator: from Surviving to Thriving.
What I’ve written here is a collection of those stories and my own experiences.
From a high level, there are 3 different types of fashion careers you can pursue. Having your own brand, working as an employee for a brand, or being a freelancer. As I mentioned, I’ve done all 3. Let’s look at the pros and cons.
For a lot of people, their fashion dream is having their own brand. Like I mentioned above, the media paints this as an amazing career path. What you don’t see is the blood, sweat, tears and cold hard cash that it takes to pursue your own clothing line. I’ve written about this in depth before, and I’ve interviewed tons of founders who’ve pursued various launch strategies from Kickstarter to venture capital to bootstrapping it with savings. None of it is as good as it seems from the outside.
Despite the fact that I quickly grew my brand to $40k and had my designs in 50+ retailers around the world as a young 20-something with no industry experience, I was totally broke and hated the life I created.
In my personal opinion and from the brand founders I know and have interviewed, having a fashion brand is definitely not a good career. It takes a lot of time and money to get started. Once you actually have product, it’s really really really freaking hard to sell (even if you’ve had a successful Kickstarter). There are a lot of misconceptions out there. Of course there’s a chance for success, and I’m not here to be a dream crusher, but it’s the absolute hardest path to pursue in fashion.
Working as an employee in fashion can be a great fit for a lot of people. There’s some sort of stability, and unlike having your own brand, you don’t have to fund anything. Of course you give up creative liberties, and you’re tied to a 9-5 office job, but there are benefits. With every “stable” career, there are drawbacks as well.
I worked in-house for a brand for less than 2 years until I decided it wasn’t for me. I had the highest anxiety of my life and was stuck in a super toxic office. To top it off, I was paid $22k while putting in 60-80hr weeks. Even in 2008, that was a really low wage considering all the bullsh!t I put up with.
It depends on what you want in life. Full-time fashion design jobs are extremely demanding and inflexible and underpaid. I’ve even interviewed one designer who only saw her son once each morning because he was already asleep when she got home from work (she ultimately quit to start freelancing). Beyond sacrificing your personal life, the role isn’t as creative as most people think – brand policies can be very restrictive, and you’re often designing the same thing over and over each season. A lot of designers I know have described it as “pumping out whatever is dumped on your plate.”
Note on “steady” and “stable”: I reference these words with quotes because I personally don’t believe that full-time jobs, especially in fashion, are actually that stable. Most designers I know have been let go multiple times, often looking for a new job every few months or every year. Downsizing, budget cuts, and poor sales are among the many reasons people lose their jobs. When you get let go from a full-time job, you lose 100% of your income and stability. *Poof* just like that, everything is gone, and it’s hard AF to find new full-time employment.
Any career in fashion takes effort and work. Freelancing is no different. But from my 10+ years experience as a freelancer making $100k+, I think it’s the best career path in this industry. I worked 25-30 hours a week for brands I cared about and had the freedom and flexibility to work when and where I wanted. I traveled a ton, hit yoga midweek with my favorite teachers, and loved the work I did. Compared to having my own brand and working as an employee, it was the best fashion career I could have dreamed of. Not only was I fulfilled, I made way more money than I had working full-time or running my own brand.
This isn’t just from my personal perspective, but from the stories from our ~500 students inside Freelance Accelerator: from Surviving to Thriving (FAST).
Like Sarah Ward, a FAST grad who’s making almost double as a freelancer compared to her previous full-time industry job. She also loves freelancing compared to her fashion career as an employee:
“Life as an employee felt like constantly rushing. I was rushing to drop off my son at before care, rushing to work, rushing to get work done so I could pick up my son at aftercare, rushing home to make dinner, etc. Life as a freelancer is so much more flexible and less rushed! I also really love being able to work on so many different types of projects with different clients. It never gets monotonous or boring! I feel that I’m always learning with freelancing, which you don’t always get to do when you’ve been at the same company for a long time.”
Or like Alison Hoenes, another FAST grad who makes 75% more as a freelancer than she made working in-house. She enjoys the freelancing lifestyle and the variety of work.
“My favorite things are setting my own schedule and being able to choose my clients so I work with people I enjoy on projects that I love doing! Also, nothing beats seeing the excitement of a client when they’ve reached their goal after a successful project.”
There’s also PK, who was sick of the 9-5 grind and wanted to spend more time with her son. She has so many clients, she started a small design agency and hired other freelancers to help!
“I had big visions of owning a design studio and having a team of designers doing what I love. I used to think that I could confidently say that I am a design studio owner,only when I have rented out an office. But when the pandemic hit, I saw huge companies, transitioning to a work from home model, which I was already doing. Only then I realised, you don’t need a fancy office. I can realise my vision, from the comfort of my home, which is great. Today my son is 8 years old and he peeks into my computer all the time, and keeps asking me to teach how to design. I love this life.”
It depends on what you want from your career, but in my personal experience and that of our ~500 FAST students, freelancing is the best career in fashion. The freedom and flexibility is priceless, you can earn way more than in a full-time job, and you get the creative variety of working with multiple brands. While it requires some light business duties, it’s not as much as you may think (we include all the templates you need inside FAST). And while you’re responsible for your own paid vacation and benefits, this is outweighed by your ability to earn A LOT more money. You can easily give yourself paid time off and fund your own benefits with the extra income.
Fashion is a good career, it just depends on what path you choose. Whether you decide to have your own brand, work as an employee or become a freelancer, know that there are a lot of job opportunities beyond “design.” The speciality you choose can definitely define your career success.
No matter what part of fashion you want to pursue, freelancing is the best of all worlds. I’d love to help you get started.