Should I leave the fashion industry?

Should I Leave the Fashion Industry? Before you quit, consider this.

“Should I leave the fashion industry?” It’s a tough question to ask yourself. And I’m not going to tell you the cliche advice of “consider your goals and think about how transferable your skills are.” There’s enough generic career content out there like that.

What I will talk about is my personal story when I considered leaving the fashion industry, and how I found an alternative path that worked reeeeeally well for me. (Something you’re probably not familiar with, and no I don’t mean starting your own fashion brand. More on that in a sec!)

Listen, burnout in the fashion industry is legit and the idea of quitting can feel like a relief. 

The desire for work-life balance, creative fulfillment, and fair wages is a trifecta that is hard AF to come by working in fashion. You’re not alone. It’s a very common place to be. 

But changing careers and moving to a new industry isn’t as easy as it sounds. 

The feeling of looking at jobs in other industries, wondering how your skills could transfer, and contemplating starting a new career from scratch is overwhelming.

I’ve been there, and so have many of my students.

I was ready to quit fashion. And you may be too.

After building a fashion brand I grew to hate, I decided working in-house would be better. So when I luckily landed my “dream” fashion job, I thought “I’VE MADE IT!”

Not. So. Fast.

The office was toxic. Long days, long hours, and harsh treatment from bosses that love you one day and hate you the next got old really fast. I wasn’t passionate about the product, and the brand wasn’t sustainable. I wanted to feel innovative in fashion, like I was changing the world for the better.

I considered my $22k/year salary (even back in 2008, that was a crap wage considering how much work I was putting in), and none of it felt worth it.

I had lost all confidence and self-esteem working in the fashion industry with no one to talk to about it.

Worse, it felt like everyone else was getting ahead in fashion and I was being left behind.

And I was feeling super burnt out. I was seriously considering whether or not I should leave the fashion industry.

Signs You’ve Reached Burnout in the Fashion Industry

Burnout is common in the fashion industry, especially with the rise of fast fashion.

If you’re constantly tired. Overly irritable. Losing motivation. Struggling with creativity. Those are all signs you’re burnt out.

If you’re constantly feeling on the edge of a meltdown. Can’t focus. Getting headaches. Or stomachaches (something I experienced regularly). Those are all signs you’re burnt out.

Changing jobs can help. But sometimes things just get worse. For me, the effort of finding a new job didn’t feel worth it (and my options were limited because I lived in Denver, Colorado).

You Want More Sustainability in Fashion

As awareness about environmental issues increases globally, so does the demand for sustainable practices within industries like fashion. Pollution caused by fast fashion production methods and waste disposal processes (among other factors), many companies are now prioritizing eco-friendly initiatives such as using recycled materials or reducing water consumption during manufacturing processes. Some brands do a “good” job, like Patagonia. But others are just greenwashing, like Uniqlo and Nike

Your desire to work for a sustainable brand…

That also gives you a work-life balance…

That also treats (and pays) its employees well…

That also gives you the creative freedom you crave…

That also is where you live (unless you’re willing to move)…

Feels like an impossible combination. I wasn’t able to find it, and you may not either.

Leaving the fashion industry altogether starts to sound a lot more appealing.

But before you start creating a brand new resume, you do have options to stick it out in fashion, just on your own terms.

The first is starting your own fashion brand (which I did and quickly grew to hate). I’ve written extensively about my thoughts on that and why I don’t think it’s a great idea, so for this article, we’ll stick to a lesser known option you can consider if you’re thinking about leaving the fashion industry.

It’s the path I went down. The path that worked reeeeally well for me. After burning out from my toxic job, I was seriously considering leaving the fashion industry. But it felt like climbing a massive mountain to reinvent my career.

So I decided to try something different. Even though I didn’t know anyone who was doing it in fashion, even though I wasn’t sure how (or IF!) it would work, and even though I was terrified I didn’t have all the answers…

I decided to become a freelancer. (This was way back in 2009, pre-Covid and long before remote work in fashion was even a thing!)

Freelancing in Fashion

When most people think of freelancing in fashion – or say “I’m a freelancer” – they mean they’re working at a “freelance” job that looks like this:

This is NOT freelancing in fashion

I call this “permalancing,” and I’m not a big proponent. You’re essentially an exploited temp employee working full-time without benefits. It’s a pretty abusive arrangement for you (but beneficial for the brand).

If this works for you, great. Just know that it’s not “real” freelancing.

“Real” freelancing in fashion is where you’re in control of your own business. 

You have freedom in your day and aren’t tied to a desk.

You get to work for yourself in fashion AND make money.

You can work with brands you love, instead of mass production companies.

Choose only the most sustainable and ethical brands out there. Or maybe you’re passionate about inclusive sizing. Whatever drives your creativity, you get to CHOOSE to work with those companies.

And since you’re working remotely, you can work with brands around the world.

Now, some fashion brands don’t allow remote work, that’s true!

The big name brands in fashion hubs like NYC, LA and London aren’t your likely clients.

But there are THOUSANDS of brands (that you’ve probably never heard of) that actually prefer to hire remote freelancers.

This was how I finally found the freedom, creativity and work-life balance I was looking for in the fashion industry. It’s how I was able to earn $100k+ while working 30-35 hours a week with brands I truly CARED about.

Freelancing in fashion was WAY better than having my own fashion brand.

It doesn’t require any money. It’s quick to start. You get to do more of the fun stuff. Success rates are much higher. And it’s almost pure profit.

Starting a clothing brand vs freelancing in fashion

Students in my program, Freelance Accelerator: from Surviving to Thriving (FAST), have similar experiences. They’ve considered leaving the fashion industry, but were able to find a better balance with freelancing.

Alexandra was being underpaid in her fashion industry job and considered quitting

Alexandra Agreda is a technical designer and a fashion school dropout who lives in Pennsylvania. She felt stuck and got burnt out from working TWO jobs just to pay her bills.

“I was being so underpaid, but thought I didn’t have any other options. I dropped out of fashion school and wasn’t living in a fashion hub.”

As a freelancer, she’s found freedom AND money. BOOM.

“Within a few months of freelancing, I already make more $$ in 1 day than I did in an entire week full time at my old job!!”

Alison wanted more freedom and to work on projects she was passionate about

Alison Hoenes, a patternmaker in Missouri, kickstarted her freelance career with just a few years of industry experience. She wanted to work for herself and have more flexibility.

“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!”

In 2022, Alison earned 75% more money than her last full-time salary. And in 2023, she just raised her rates 40%. She’s still booked out 2-3 months in advance!

Amy had a baby and decided her fashion design job wasn’t right for her, so decided to leave

Amy Barnhart, a menswear designer in Washington state, struggled to adjust to the long hours of working in the fashion industry after having a baby. So she left her full-time fashion design job and decided to pursue freelancing, despite the doubters.

“My plan, which almost no one I that I knew thought was possible, was to freelance. I still wanted to work; I just wanted more flexibility.” 

And she was quickly successful.

“Despite one of my biggest fears coming true, I found clients right away and am very happy with my choice and the balance of my life.”

So, Should You Leave the Fashion Industry?

It’s up to you. I was so obsessed with fashion, that I really wanted to make it work. And I did (as have a ton of my students).

To me, it was “safer” to give freelancing a try than to find a new career altogether. Entering a new industry (even though I was still young in my career) felt daunting. Yes, freelancing felt daunting too, but it felt like a more exciting path that was still inline with my goal:

Keep doing the work I loved in fashion, just on my own terms.

If you’re curious about freelancing, I have a massive amount of free resources and podcast episodes where you can get tips on how to find clients, present yourself professionally, and get started now.

Whatever you decide, you got this. I’m rooting for you.

Heidi Signature

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