How to Make a Career as a Textile Designer, interview with Michelle Fifis of Pattern Observer: The Successful Fashion Designer podcast with Sew Heidi

SFD008: Freelance Textile Designer: How to Have A Successful Career with Michelle Fifis

Being a freelance textile designer can feel like a daunting process to tackle. It’s hard to figure out how to price your work and whether or not you should work with an agency or print house.

Which is why I’m so excited to share the latest episode of the Successful Fashion Designer podcast with Michelle Fifis, founder of Pattern Observer and creator of the Textile Design Lab, a blog and community that helps creatives grow their textile design business.

Michelle’s done textile work for Columbia Sportswear, Lucy Activewear, Jantzen Swimwear, Perry Ellis and had been featured in, Elle Decor, and Nordstrom. In the interview, she shares how she got started and worked her way up in the industry, her strategy for leaving her full time job to start freelancing, and how she grew her blog into a successful online business. Michelle and I also talked about how to choose and start working with an agency or print house, how to stay motivated when you feel deflated, and not only how to price your work, but how to gracefully raise your prices.

You will learn:

  • The role a textile designer plays in the fashion world
  • The pros and cons of working with an agent or print house
  • How to rediscover your creativity when you feel stuck
  • The importance of having patience with your career growth
  • How to stay up to date on trends if you don’t have access to expensive services like WGSN
  • The importance of having a community and not working in a vacuum

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SFD 008: Full Podcast Transcription

Heidi: Hey everybody this is Sew Heidi and you’re listening to the Successful Fashion Designer Podcast we all knew that the fashion industry is brutally competitive and it takes loads of hard work to get ahead the problem is that everyone’s secretive and tight-lipped about their ways. After working as a designer and educator for over a decade I wanted to help break down those barriers and bring you valuable knowledge from industry experts and this show is exactly where you’ll find that whether you’re trying to break into the fashion world make yourself more marketable launch your own label or become a successful freelancer we’ll help you get ahead in this cutthroat fashion industry. This is episode 8 of these Successful Fashion Designer Podcasts, and today I’m chatting with Michelle Fifis founder of Pattern Observer and creator of the textile design lab a blog and community that helped creatives grow their textile design business Michele stone worked for Columbia Sportswear Lucy activewear Perry Ellis and has been featured in style site Elle Decor and Nordstrom’s in the interview she shares how she got started and worked her way up in the industry her strategy for leaving her full-time job to start freelancing and how she grew her blog into a successful online business Michele and I also talked about how to choose and start working with an agency or print house how to stay motivated when you feel deflated and not only how to price your work but how to gracefully raise your prices.

Michelle: And I feel like that was a really safe way for me to continue to raise my rates because we have to as designers you know no one else is giving us raises so when you’re working for yourself you have to make sure that you’re staying in line with how you are progressing as a designer and you’re learning and so you need to be charging more as you have new experiences and become more of a senior designer.

Heidi: Before we jump into the interview I want to remind you, you can help the show out and make it easier for others to discover by leaving a rating on iTunes if you enjoyed this episode I’d really appreciate it if you take sixty Seconds to do that visit to leave your rating to your support and help to access the show notes for today’s episode visit now on to the interview with Michelle.

Michelle: So I am a textile designer and I also mentor and teach other textile designers on how to grow their business and become stronger more professional designers and I actually started out as a fashion design major at Stephens College in Columbia Missouri and during I was always interested in textiles but it was one of those professions that I really didn’t know existed I knew someone must be responsible for getting patterns onto fabric but I wasn’t quite sure how that happened and the summer before my senior year I did an internship as a fashion designer with Sandra Rhodes in London and I’m not sure if everyone’s familiar with her but she and her team hand paint these amazing textiles aren’t on her designs on her fashion designs and so that’s when I kind of discovered this field and decided to spend my fashion design major into more of a textile design focus and so I started working as an in-house textile designer and did that for a little over seven years and then started a freelance textile design business.

Heidi: Awesome. So for those and those of the listeners who maybe are not familiar tell us a little bit more about like the role of a textile designer as compared to the role of a fashion designer and how those two may or may not overlap within the workspace.

Michelle: So, I have worked in the apparel market as a textile designer so I work hand in hand with a lot of fashion apparel product designers and so oftentimes it works two ways oftentimes an apparel designer will come to me with a vision and say hey I have this dress I’m designing and I think I would like a pattern that looks like this and so I’ll actually go to my computer or go to my paints and paint a textile design that I think would be appropriate for that garment so that means maybe painting the flower and then scanning it into Photoshop or illustrator and creating that surface pattern design within those programs and so you can see that as an apparel designer they oftentimes have a vision for the final product and so I love working with designers to kind of capture that vision when maybe they’re having a little bit of a difficult time envisioning what that might look like or how it might look on the final product.

Heidi: Yeah, because it can be a whole different animal to design and visualize silhouettes versus the actual print and there’s I mean like you said there it can be hard to visualize okay what’s the right skill that I should you how to make sure your pattern is balanced and even if that’s how you want it there’s so many intricacies that go into what can make or break that finished garment regardless of the silhouette you know in relation with the textile design and so that’s where you and other textile designers really come in have a really strong eye.

Michelle: Right, and I feel like I actually learned a great deal from the more senior apparel designers and design directors when I worked as an in-house designer because even though they were apparel designers they had such an incredible eye for the scale like you mentioned that the pattern needed to be in and they really taught me why surface pattern designs and textile designs need to be a certain scale depending on the type of garment or why non-obvious repeat is so important to the final product and I think actually having a degree in fashion design and understanding garment construction and the in use consumer has really helped me because that’s what I enjoy doing is thinking about the final product and thinking about the consumer who’s going to wear that pair of shorts out running versus when I start to think only about the textile design or solely about my style and what I want to design that’s when things get really heavy for me and I find that I just get overwhelmed but thinking about the product and the in use consumer I think are really helpful and are so important to the process.

Heidi: Yeah. And okay so I’d love to hear a little bit more about your journey because you said that you worked as an in-house textile designer for seven years and then you went freelance is that correct?

Michelle: Correct.

Heidi: So, tell us a little bit about you went to fashion school you got an internship that that kind of turned you on to more the textile side of things and then you got your first job as in-house textile designer and so tell us about that journey and how that all happened for you.

Michelle: Yeah, and I feel like this story dates me a little bit because what happened was I was living in Columbia Missouri and I moved to Portland Oregon never thinking that I would get a job as a textile designer or an apparel designer to me even though I had that degree getting a job in that field seemed like such a stretch in such a dream I just really never thought it would come true and so I moved to Portland thinking I would work in coffee shops the rest my life and while I was there I was actually working as a salesperson at Saks Fifth Avenue so I was around beautiful clothes which was really nice but I was reading through the local Portland newspaper and I saw a job opening available as a textile designer at Janssen swimwear and I was just so excited it was such a great opportunity but the catch was they were asking for someone with five years of experience which I did not have I went ahead and applied and interviewed and they were really drawn to the way I was using colors and I think honestly my enthusiasm for the job and so they adapted the role to fit someone with little to no experience which was me…

Heidi: Wow.

Michelle: …and so that’s how I was able to get my first in-house textile design job was the old fashioned way you see in movies now where people are looking through the want ads and you know circle the want ad with a pen that was me looking for that first job.

Heidi: But you like jumped into this offered community that said you had to have five years’ experience and you I mean what did you have you had your education and you had an internship is that what you had at that point?

Michelle: Correct, and I had started a handbag company but you’re right I mean I had no really job experience at that point.

Heidi: And you said you felt like it was your enthusiasm that that allows you to get that opportunity like what do you mean by that you just feel like I’m so I love this so much I’m so pumped I’m going to work really hard and I want to know a little bit more about that.

Michelle: Right. And it’s you know slightly difficult for me because I wasn’t making the decision at the time but I asked my Cubic the woman who became my boss you know why did you decide on me and that’s what she said she was really drawn to the way I used color in my portfolio and I think the professionalism of my portfolio and the professionalism of the way I held myself and just my attitude of I’ll take whatever I can get you know I’ll do whatever you need me to do not being so fixated on coming into the role with an expectation of I’m going to be a senior designer and I’m going to be designing these textiles I think when you come into an assistant design position you need to be willing to do the grunt work and be happy about it for a while and that was definitely my job I came into the role and I was not designing textiles for at least two years I think they had me just focusing on repeats you know the senior designers would create the designs and then I would do the production work basically and it was frustrating at times I’ll be honest with you and sometimes I got a little huffy and won it in the design use the pattern because that’s the fun part but looking back on it was such an amazing learning experience and creating repeat after repeat after repeat really gave me that foundation…

Heidi: Yeah.

Michelle: …to become a stronger textile designer.

Heidi: Yeah. And so then you did you advanced within Janssen?

Michelle: Yes. Then I was promoted to I can’t remember if the job title Junior-Textile Designer or just textile designer and then I moved on to Columbia Sportswear where I started as a mid-level textile designer and then was promoted to senior level textile designer there.

Heidi: Yeah. And how do you feel like you were able to kind of keep moving up the ladder over those couple years like you got the promotion within Janssen and then you move to Columbia which is a huge name and you got a promotion within there what did you do anything strategic that really helped you keep moving forward and up the ladder within your career there?

Michelle: I wouldn’t say that I did anything very strategic I am a very hard worker and so I continued to work hard I continued to look for opportunities within my job but I wouldn’t say it was strategic it’s more just my personality type…

Heidi: Yeah.

Michelle: …and then I was always looking for ways to grow and also being patient I think you know you listen to my side even you know listening to me telling the story and it seems like it happened so fast…

Heidi: Yeah.

Michelle: …and it really wasn’t it’s very slow you have to wait for those promotions you have to vocalize that this is what I’m interested in doing I’m interested in being a senior textile designer I’m interested in having these responsibilities and your boss might look at you and say okay and just kind of walk away but you’re planning that seed and you’re being just very vocal and honest with what you want to achieve but yet not being too pushy about it and still putting in the time and not expecting it to happen overnight I think it’s just a really important lesson to keep in mind because otherwise it can be so frustrating if you think it’s going to happen so quickly.

Heidi: Yeah. But I like what you said about planting the seed and talking about you know where you ultimately do want to go and being vocal about that and communicating that with the people within your workspace that’s important to you know say what you want and ask what you want while also being very patient and humble about getting there.

Michelle: Right and that’s something I try and carry on into the pattern observer team as I’m constantly trying to touch base with them and make sure that they’re happy with what they’re working on and each year we talk about our goals and what we would like to be working on in the upcoming year and what we would like off of our plate and I always tell them look this might take me a year to get to the point where I can do these things for you and kind of craft your job in this direction but I want to let you know that I hear you and I’m making the plan so that we can create that role for you in the future.

Heidi: Yeah, that’s great. So, okay and I want to get to all the pattern observer stuff because everything you do with that team and that whole business is phenomenal but you were at – you’re at Columbia and then did you go freelance after that?

Michelle: Yes. So, I was at Columbia Sportswear and I was a senior level designer and I believe I had been there for about three and a half years which seems to be a theme with me and my ability to stay connected to a corporate work and I decided to leave and start a freelance business and so at that point I had two clients who I was working with sporadically but it was definitely a plan departure I didn’t all of a sudden up and quit with no money in the bank and no idea of what I wanted to do is something that I knew I always wanted to become an entrepreneur or work for myself so I had been planning for it in the back of my mind for quite some time.

Heidi: And so how did you plan and prepare for that you said you would started getting a couple clients and like what did that whole process look like?

Michelle: Well, it started getting a couple client I think you know the clients came sort of organically through working and knowing people and then one of my new clients I had found through Craigslist which I feel like also dates me because at the time it was really easy to find jobs on Craigslist and so that was a client I started working with right before I started freelancing I believe and then continued to work with them for you after and so I had those two clients and I had saved up the money in the bank and decided it was I felt safe enough at that point to leave my job we didn’t have my husband and I didn’t have any kids at the time so it was a little easier for me to kind of take that leap and start freelancing.

Heidi: Yeah. And so how okay so you kind of organically got some clients just from people you knew in the industry and how were you able to grow from there to ultimately go full-time with the freelancing?

Michelle: So those two I mean there was a little bit of a leap there honestly so because I had the two clients and then I just decided to take the leap at that point I had enough savings I had three months’ worth of living expenses saved up so that gave me enough time to start freelancing for new clients and I quickly spread the word through my contacts in the industry and I also religiously applied for every single job I saw on Craigslist more anywhere that’s how I started every morning I would wake up make my coffee and go out online and look for open positions.

Heidi: Yeah. Is do you see that working currently I mean present day its 2017 right now do you see that pivot process being very effective for people or that is a little bit dated?

Michelle: I, it might be slightly dated and I don’t go through that process every morning anymore so I can’t speak to the level of difficulty but I do think it’s probably a little harder than that now but that’s still kind of that attitude is how I would still approach looking for freelance work making it a part of your day every day you know that’s what your focus on is getting new clients I think now social media is so much bigger than it used to be back then and so you know I would make posting artwork and pieces to social media part of my day every day if I were looking for more freelance clients right now.

Heidi: So something I’ve heard and it’s interesting because you just say you know posting your artwork to social media something I’ve heard designers say a lot is they’re really afraid to put their textile designs out there for fear that someone is going to take it off Instagram or take it off Facebook and use it as their own you know how would you like is that something you’ve ever thought about or the designers that you work with is that is that a problem in the space or what do you what do you think about that?

Michelle: Yeah, it’s definitely an issue and something you have to watch and so there’s kind of tricks that you can do you could put your proto your patterns on mock-ups and post those you know there’s ways to make it more difficult to knock off your work I think almost more importantly than posting final pieces final surface pattern designs or final garment designs or posting pictures of your process…

Heidi: Yeah

Michelle: …that’s really interesting as well and then that makes it more difficult to knock off and it’s almost like a teaser at that point…

Heidi: Yeah.

Michelle: …you can say hey I’m painting this motif if you want to see the final design contact me here but I think you know there’s all these tricks that we go through and ways to protect your work but I really encourage designers to just get over it at some point we have to ship we have to share what we’re working on otherwise no one’s going to be interested…

Heidi: Yeah.

Michelle: …and yes you know you have to protect yourself and I don’t want to belittle the importance of that but you also have to share you can’t hide your best work behind the password-protected portfolio you know your best work actually needs to be out there gaining traction helping you to grow your business and getting new clients I’ve worked with lots of designers who put their least of strong work on the front of their portfolio and these amazing collections behind the password and you know it’s just not a great way to grow your business when you’re not really sharing what you’re passionate about and what you’re doing.

Heidi: Hey, I love that idea of sharing sort of in process work because it gives like a behind-the-scenes glimpse which everybody loves right some because gives you a little sneak peek into like what’s going on behind the scenes and that’s such a fun way to kind of share who you are as an artist and a designer…

Michelle: Great!

Heidi: …yeah…

Michelle: Definitely.

Heidi: …that’s a great suggestion did you work with agencies or agents at all and before you answer that question can you tell everybody out there what exactly is an agent in the surface pattern design world and how that works?

Michelle: Sure. So, I’ve never worked with an agent or print studio but in within our textile design work there are agents who will market your work to manufacturers and take a percentage you know to cover their time spent marketing your work it’s a great deal of work so they work for a commission but then within the surface pattern design world we also have print studios and print studios can work in a variety of different ways some print studios just work with in-house designers who are full-time and they show up to work and create patterns that are then usually sold the copyrights are sold to buyers at print shows or different events while some print studios also work with freelance designers so I as a freelance designer could design collections of work and then send my work to the print studio for the print studio to market and they would take a percentage of each sale for the time being spent marketing the work and the costs occurred.

Heidi: Okay. And you were able to sustain without going down working with a print studio or an agent?

Michelle: Correct. I really love working one-on-one with clients and that I love listening to what they need and trying to interpret that so I never worked through an agent or studio.

Heidi: Okay, and you don’t if you’re comfortable and you don’t have to share exact numbers but what is the pricing structure look like for doing a print you charge hourly or do you charge a flat rate and if you do charge a flat rate like how do you manage you know excessive revisions or you know what it and maybe not exactly what you did or what you did do and then what you see other designers do and what you feel like does or doesn’t work best or maybe it’s not a one-size-fits-all type of setup.

Michelle: Right. Exactly there’s so many different options and I think it really depends on how you want to work as a designer and how your clients are asking you to work as well there’s just this industry is so vast there’s so many different markets you could work in the apparel market or home decor or stationery in each market while generally the same is slightly different so I really encourage designers you know to set your rates and set your business plan but once you’re out there in the market be flexible and listen to what your clients are asking for but when I first started freelancing I charged an hourly rate and I think when I first started I only charged thirty five dollars an hour because I was much slower at the time and then as I became faster I kept raising my rate I’m not sure if it was every year but it might have been you know every year and a half somewhere around that point and that’s how I work I love to work by the hour since I’ve launched a studio and since my hourly rate has become a little higher I’ve switched to a project rate for some of our work some of our work is still on an hourly basis but for other work when you’re designing a complete custom pattern for now it makes the most sense to just charge by the project and then we limit the amount of revisions that are included within that project price and so you know it’s honestly something that I’m constantly tweaking and experimenting to see what works the best for us and for our clients we just want to make life easy for them…

Heidi: Yeah.

Michelle: …and a lot of clients really appreciate having that set price and knowing for budgeting reasons how much their print is going to cost rather when they’re working by the hour a little bit of an unknown there for them so that’s kind of the feedback that I’ve received on that but designers could really charge by the hour or by the price whichever they prefer.

Heidi: Yeah. And how do you like I know having that conversation with your client I mean you said you raised your prices every year every year and a half and that can sometimes be hard conversation to have you know they might your client might come in with certain expectations and then you’re like well I went from thirty five to forty five or whatever the jump was how did you approach some of those pricing intricacies and make that a comfortable space for your client but also feel like you know this is an increase that I need to get.

Michelle: Definitely, so what I did that worked really well was I would raise my rates for new clients first and then once I felt like I had enough clients at that rate and I felt comfortable with the amount of new clients that I had at that higher rate then I would politely tell my existing clients or clients I’d worked with in the past that this was going to be my new rate moving forward and that I would love to continue working with them and I only ever had one client who said you know this new rate is just too high I would love to keep working with you but it’s just not in our budget and I just you know had politely stood by my rate and said I have you know continued to move forward with my new price I would love to hear from you in the future so that only happened once and I feel like that was a really safe way for me to continue to raise my rates because we have to as designers you know no one else is giving us raises so when you’re working for yourself you have to make sure that you’re staying in line with how you are progressing as a designer and you’re learning and so you need to be charging more as you have new experiences and become more of a senior designer.

Heidi: Yeah, that’s great advice and how do you calculate the per project price?

Michelle: So what I did for that is I took the numb of hours that I thought I would spend on each project and then multiply that by my hourly rate it’s something that again I’m still experimenting with and so we just actually raised the price of our pattern projects because I found that I work very quickly and a lot of the designers that who I work with weren’t working as fast so we weren’t really making enough money off of the per pattern project but that’s just again one of those small learning experiences that now we know moving forward that I need to budget for more hours within each project.

Heidi: Yeah. Great point there and it is kind of constantly you’re kind of constantly tweaking it and it’s not a perfect science you just have to keep figuring out what works best and keep improving from there…

Michelle: Exactly.

Heidi: …okay, so you did all your freelancing and then then what happened next did you start pattern server next?

Michelle: So, when I started freelancing I had downtime between clients and my husband is a software engineer and he came to me and said Michelle you really should start a blog and I kind of rolled my eyes and said I don’t I don’t even like writing why would I start a blog and but I did it he set it up for me so I said well I might as well use it so I started blogging and then I realized that I loved it and smell in love with blogging and at the same time I had a really interesting conversation where with a client where he said he asked if I subscribed to a trend service such as WGSN and I’m not sure if everyone knows what that is but WGSN is a fantastic online trend service that you subscribe to and it’s wonderful but it’s also very expensive and I could not afford it at the time so my client said well how do I know that you’re staying on top of trends when you don’t pay for a service such as WGSN and I felt like it was this wonderful challenge and he seemed in it in the nicest way but I then turned the blog into a way to show my potential clients and show my existing clients that I know what I’m talking about and staying on top of trends it was a nice exercise for me to make sure that I was continually researching trends and that I was going through the process of doing that research and then applying it to my work because in as an in-house designer I’ve gotten used to using those wonderful trend programs and I was scared that I was going to lose touch with the industry and lose touch with what was going on and become complacent basically about staying on top of the trend…

Heidi: Yeah.

Michelle: …so that was how pattern observer started as a way for me to maintain that practice.

Heidi: So, for like most listeners out there who are not within a company who pays for WGSN and even a lot of companies don’t pay for it because it is quite pricey what are some of your resources for staying on top of trends you have free resources you check out or how do you go about that process without paying for WGSN?

Michelle: So I love doing the research myself I like taking the time again with my cup of coffee or with my wine to look at the runway shows and I really feel like going through that process and doing it myself I’m able to really absorb the trend in a way that I don’t think you get from just looking at a service or a book that someone else has put together I feel like I’m more in touch with the trend and I’m also able to pick up on trends that I feel like are good fit for my clients and my customer again getting myself out of getting yourself out of this mindset of oh I love that skirt – oh this pattern the skirt would be perfect for my this in use consumer and so I think just going through the runway shows on or Pinterest is great for that as well and you know pinning what you like pinning what you think is perfect for your clients and now I actually do have access to WGSN but I still go through that process with our team of just looking at the trends and seeing what we think will resonate more so for our print and pattern clients.

Heidi: Yeah, yes it’s a little more work but you do I think start to see things differently when you look at it through your own lens and you look at each of the individual pictures one by one instead of looking at these mood boards and these trend boards that these services put together that are really meant to to show you exactly what they want you to see.

Michelle: Right. I think you’re able to pick up on things that it’s more inspiring to me and I think as a designer you’re able to pick up on little details that resonate with you and inspire you to you know run off with an idea to design a new garment or design a pattern that maybe someone else wouldn’t have picked up on because it’s each have our own creative personality and so we’ll notice different things.

Heidi: Yeah. Okay, so you started incorporating some of the trends stuff within your blog to show you know what I do keep up on the stuff just because I don’t subscribe to WGSN and then what happened?

Michelle: So then I started getting lots and lots of emails from other textile designers graphic designers and surface pattern designers who wanted to know more about what I was doing and was asking they were asking for advice and it got to the point where I could have sat there and answered emails all day long and not done any work and at one point I that’s what I was doing I was just talking to people online all day long and I thought wait a second I have bills that I have to pay next month I need to get back to my client work and so I then I began kind of packaging what I was sharing into courses so that it was easier for everyone to get the information and I was also able to earn money off of the time that I was spending sharing this information and sharing what I was working on because it is a very time-consuming process.

Heidi: Yeah. And that was back in when was that 2000?

Michelle: That was I think it was back in 2011.

Heidi: So here you’re pretty early to the online course space?

Michelle: Yes.

Heidi: Kind of a new and new thing at that time?

Michelle: it was a lot of fun.

Heidi: Yeah. Okay so you started offering courses to people and then and how did it how did that go was that well-received that I would assume it worked based on where you’re at now?

Michelle: Yeah it was definitely well-received I loved I mean working with designers and seeing a transformation has turned out to be a passion that I did not know I was very passionate about both of my parents were educators and teachers and so I grew up in the environment of Education and I cut I looked at them throughout my life and thought I don’t have the patience to do that I don’t understand how teachers should have the patience for this and it turned out that I love teaching maybe not elementary school but I love working with designers and helping them to find their own style and just improve their artwork and really achieve their dreams and create successes from what they’re doing.

Heidi: Yeah. And so that’s really how the whole pattern observer thing started just really organically from a blog and you started adding all the trend stuff you’re doing and then people start asking you questions and it just blossomed.

Michelle: It was it was very organic I never thought this was what I would be doing or even enjoy doing but it just happened and it’s been such a wonderful experience.

Heidi: Yeah. And so tell for everybody that doesn’t know that much about Pattern Observer has maybe never even heard of that tell us a little bit more about some of the stuff you guys do with the community that you guys do a lot of stuff.

Michelle: We have. So we have the pattern observer blog where we feature textile and surface pattern designers and artists sometimes as well in our industry and that I love doing that because when I hear often times from designers that after their feature they get new clients or they sell the patterns that we featured and so it makes me really happy and excited to help designers promote their business and then I also write blog posts for pattern observer on you know how to grow your business how to stay creative of how to stay motivated and we also have eBooks and self-study courses that you can purchase through pattern observer and work with work through on your own or we have our textile design lab community called the textile design lab and that’s where we have a team of experts who check the forum on a consistent basis multiple times a day we have a series of courses that designers work through bonus tutorials which you were kind enough to create one for us in our textile design lab as well and lots of resources for designers to work through but then we’re there to give them support and critique their work and answer their questions along the way.

Heidi: That’s awesome. You guys do so much and I’ve heard so many people just rave about the experience of being in your textile design lab or going through some of the courses and I think the hands-on work that you and your team do with everybody is really beneficial because it can be easy to sign up for an online course and then you just work through and you’re in a vacuum and …

Michelle: Right.

Heidi: … it get to talk to anybody or get it work with any other students that can be hard a hard situation to be in for some people.

Michelle: It can definitely be challenging I love to take online courses and I find that problem for myself or some often times I might not be the person asking the question but I’ll work through a course and then seek questions that other people have asked and then I realize that I’ve completely interpreted the material wrong and I love seeing other perspectives and having that you know being able to look at the work that designers are creating and being able to show them ways to improve that work is something that I honestly think we’re very good at doing and we really enjoy doing it and it’s just wonderful to see the transformation from when someone comes in maybe never maybe they’ve never received feedback on their work before and just how quickly designers can improve when there’s actually someone looking at their work pointing out the mistakes and giving them direction on how to move forward.

Heidi: Yeah, good constructive critique is invaluable.

Michelle: Right.

Heidi: Okay. So, you said a couple things a minute ago on you right on growing your business staying motivated and staying creative and so I’d love to just hear let’s say I am I’m interested in textile or surface design or maybe I’m already in the industry like what can I be doing right now to help grow my business like what would be the one or two things you would tell me to do in that space to make some more progress?

Michelle: So the first thing I would do would be to either look at your artwork or have you look at your artwork and just make sure that you’re continuing to grow and focus on the work I think often times so many designers get caught up in all the things that they think they need like a portfolio all the social media accounts an agent and they forget that the work is the most important part and having that amazing portfolio that you’re so proud of and I know that can be where a lot of designers get hung up because we all feel so self-conscious about our work but if you’re really excited about your work if you’re excited about what you’re doing then it’s easier to market it and it’s easier to share it so that’s the first step I think is just making sure that you know you might need another six months or a year before you really start actively reaching out to agents or buyers and that’s fine so many people think this is going to happen overnight but even you know the story that I just told I worked for seven and a half years before I launched my freelance business so even if you’re not working as an in-house designer somewhere you know if you’re just working on your own it can take years to get to feel ready to launch your work to feel ready to work with an agent or buyer so I think first just making sure you’re focusing on the artwork and improving your craft and then after that once you feel ready I think a portfolio is key and having one or two social media accounts that you share your story through you know referring back to what we spoke about earlier social media is just a wonderful way to grow your business and kind of find your people find your clients find your fans who you know even if your fans aren’t necessarily buyers they can just be so beneficial to your creative spirit and motivating that it’s really important to finding those people online and then I think for most designers I think a print studio or an agent is a fantastic way to go because you’d be able to receive feedback on your work you know there’s someone you can ask questions of there’s someone to guide you and give you those little tidbits while you’re still honing your craft and you know exploring new creative techniques.

Heidi: Yeah, and what does the process look like for finding the right agent or print studio to work with how does that all work?

Michelle: So, what I recommend is that you do your research into the various agents and studios and there’s lists online that you can find but I recommend just typing in print studio or design agents or art 8 art licensing agents and see what you come up with because you might find something different again it’s all about your crew your artistic eye and what you land upon and then look for an Asian or studio who has a similar look or style to the artwork that you’re creating you don’t necessarily have to look exactly like the other or your work doesn’t have to look exactly like the other artists who they’re representing but just ask yourself as a creative person would you see your artwork hanging well on it in a sales booth next to the other artwork that you see I think that’s a really big point that a lot of designers miss is they reach out to you know every agent who they can find and then they don’t hear back but oftentimes there’s a disconnect there between the artwork with the artist is creating in the artwork that the agents selling and so that would be the first step is to kind of find your ideal agent or print studio match and then reach out to them of course following the guidelines that they mention on their website for getting in touch with them.

Heidi: Yeah, and what about like going to shows and markets and print shows and stuff is that a good space to go and network or you know what, what does that look like if I’m an independent textile designer and I’m trying to get out there more?

Michelle: I think it’s a wonderful way to be able to quickly check out agents or studios see their booths see the type of artwork they’re creating you know watch them in an on stalkerish way and you see if you like the way they’re presenting their work if you like the way they’re engaging with clients if it’s if they’re not busy and I think walking up to introduce yourself as just fine you know maybe having your portfolio on an iPad or having it available in some way if it comes up or if they have time to speak with you but still being really respectful that you know they’re there to sell work and make money for the other artists and designers who they represent…

Heidi: Yeah.

Michelle: …but I think it’s a really fantastic way just to get out there and see what this industry is all about and I’ve never been to surtex but that’s something that I would really love to do is to go to surtex and kind of walk around and meet more people there…

Heidi: Yeah…

Michelle: …as an option.

Heidi: …and I’ll put a link to that show in the show notes that’s in New York I don’t know maybe they have it else right I have to know if I don’t know if it’s elsewhere.

Michelle: I think it’s just the new you order.

Hiedi: I think is just, okay. Okay, great so those are some really awesome tips to grow your business and then can you just give us a few things on staying motivated and staying creative because as you said it’s a long game and it can be really easy to you start out super pumped and then you know you maybe don’t hear back from a couple of agents and if it’s easy to get deflated and so what are some of your tips to keep trudging forward in in this space when you feel, feel a little bit deflated?

Michelle: Yeah, just quickly going back to what I said about surtex I think you’re right after I said that I think they are they do have another show in maybe Shanghai or somewhere else I just wanted to say that before we moved on okay I think I was wrong about that but tips for staying motivated I think it all comes back to being in touch with your creative spirit and the work that you’re creating and I just wrote a blog post about this today if it means turning off social media I think it’s fine I mean social media is really important and it’s great to have a consistent social media practice where you post consistently but if it’s distracting you from being excited about the work that you’re creating turn it off it does it’s not that important your work is the most important so I think do what you need to do to stay engaged with your work it might be taking a watercolor class it might be taking you know a pottery class something that’s just going to bring about ideas and give you new inspiration moving forward maybe it’s just going for a walk or a hike to see the different patterns that you see out in nature you know experiment and find different ways that you tend to get inspired and then return back to those consistently for me it’s nature and painting those are the two ways that I really get in touch with my creative side and stay connected to that and don’t let all the online overwhelm get to me.

Heidi: Yeah, and I actually love that point and it’s something I continually kind of struggle and have a hard time finding balance with is this whole feeling that I have to be sitting at my computer actually working and doing something but sometimes that three hour break in the middle of the day to go do a hike or you know whatever it is maybe taking a class like you said can be the biggest boost that you need versus sitting behind a blank screen or sitting in front of a blank notebook and just feeling really stuck.

Michelle: Right. Looking at that white blank screen is the worst feeling ever and I totally agree that it’s just more efficient to close it down when it gets to that point and go do something else even if for me washing the dishes really helps and then I’m kind of multitasking but just having that brain from the computer screen can really be helpful like you mentioned.

Heidi: Yeah. That’s great and so many great insights Michelle thank you so much for sharing I will end with the question that I asked everybody at the end of the interview what is one question that you wish people would ask you about working in the fashion and textile and surface pattern design industry but don’t ever ask you?

Michelle: You know ironically I think people oftentimes don’t ask about the craft of creating pattern and it’s so focused now on just drawing a motif and using the Adobe pattern making tool and then how do I sell it you know how do I sell it and really it’s the craft of creating a really beautiful pattern seems to be falling more and more to the wayside…

Heidi: Yeah.

Michelle: …and that’s something I really enjoy talking about and something that I teach a lot about is you know how do we create these beautiful layouts and how do we create these beautiful repeats that ultimately are what buyers are looking for and really flattered that final garment…

Heidi: Yeah…

Michelle: …final product.

Heidi: …that’s great. Alright, Michelle where can people find you online?

Michlle: So they can find me at

Heidi: Awesome. And I will add that to the show notes and I’ll also put a link to the blog post that you mentioned earlier about maybe taking a break from social media to help stay motivated and creative and is there anything you’re working on that you’d like to share with everybody?

Michelle: We have our upcoming summer of creativity course in the lab that we’re really excited about and that launches July 17th and so the summer tactic is overwhelming for a lot of people because their children are home from school and so the summer of creativity we just focus on really fun artistic techniques that you can apply to your textile and surface pattern design work and it’s a we ran it last year and it was so much fun just a really fun creative experience and a way to your creative juices flowing again so everyone should be on the lookout for that.

Heidi: Okay. Awesome. Is there really a specific link to that that I can put in a show notes or what would you suggest people go to your site and sign up for the list?

Michelle: Yes, they could sign up for the pattern observer list would be the best way to hear about that.

Heidi: Okay, awesome. Awesome, thank you so much Michelle this was really fantastic and thank you for sharing all the great advice and insights onto to help people make it in this crazy industry.

Michelle: Thank you so much this with a blast.

Heidi: Thanks for listening to episode 8 of the successful fashion designer podcast if you’d like to learn more about any of the resources mentioned in this episode visit the show notes at and since you made it this far you must have liked the episode if you can take 60 seconds to leave a review on iTunes your tiny bit of help goes towards making the show better for you and everyone it’s super easy to do and I’d really appreciate it visit to leave your rating and again thanks for your help and support.


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