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How to become a fashion designer: Part I

Main11 Becoming a fashion designer

It seems like everyone is jumping on the designer bandwagon these days. And why not? The fashion industry is sexy — fashion shows, parties, celebrities, recognition, and even fame go along with a career in fashion.

Now herein lies the question: do you go to design school or go straight to starting a business? Not all fashion designers go the traditional route to design school, instead drawing on an entrepreneurial spirit, some “designers” turn their head for business into a thriving fashion enterprise.

Ralph Lauren is an example of a fashion designer who bypassed the sewing machine and headed straight for the marketplace. Which path you take depends on your personal motivation. If you love sewing and pattern making, the traditional route is going to bring the most satisfaction. If you love the fashion world but don’t have the patience for needle and thread, a career in the fast-paced and exciting fashion biz is still possible … read on.

So you want to go out on your own, what’s first?

You’ve always admired fashion designers and their ability to design trendy, unique and wearable fashions season after season, as if by magic. But it’s not magic; it’s a business. And to succeed in business, nobody is an island (meaning that everyone needs a little help to accomplish his or her dreams). And it’s not all glitz and glamour. Being a fashion designer means you have to actually run a business.

Before you print up those business cards, ask yourself if you’re prepared to roll up your sleeves and tackle the not-so fun aspects of fashion.

At first, running a fashion business could mean fulfilling orders yourself (i.e., packing boxes until the wee hours of the morning), steaming clothes repeatedly during fashion shows, and bookkeeping. You could spend only a small percentage of your time actually designing; instead you’re networking, schmoozing and negotiating with suppliers and vendors.

If you’re planning to take the direct-to-consumer path, you’ll have to create a website and maintain it (and most likely have to pay someone to do handle these tasks), get a merchant account to process credit card transactions and manage charge back cycles. If you’re not interested in learning what these things mean, then you may decide to work for a large fashion house to learn the ropes.

But if you have the endurance and enough friends with skills or services you can trade for, you could go out on your own and succeed. Today is the age of entrepreneurship, why shouldn’t you get a piece of the pie?

The fashion biz: a reality check

Exciting industries are rife with competition—some that will fade away and others that will give you a run for your money. You have to compete against the big names out there and trendy emerging designers fresh out of the best design schools or veterans of big fashion houses—not to mention all the celebrities popping up with their own labels.

Running your own fashion biz may require you to reach out to suppliers and potential customers all over the world, which means you better be organized. Are you prepared to coordinate the procurement of raw materials like fabric, trim and hardware, so that your manufacturer gets what they need at the right time to deliver a finished product on deadline?

Think of yourself as a businessperson first and a fashion designer second. If your fashion business fails, you’re the one that suffers. Always keep the business aspect in the forefront of your mind. Some people find this prospect exhilarating, while others can’t think of anything more horrifying. Still interested in starting your own fashion business?

I’m not a designer, can I still work in the fashion industry?

Yes … and no. If you have the design vision, you can pay people to take your idea and turnRalph_lauren_at_cfda_awards_2 it into a tangible pattern or design. This is sort of like what a creative director does. If this fits your situation, then you’d better have the business chops to get your business off the ground and you’d better have a solid Core Value Proposition.

What this means is that you must have a strong business proposal and offer a product that’s valuable and in demand. That doesn’t mean you have to sell high-end couture clothing to rich people. Clothiers H&M and Zara focus on fast ready-to-wear fashion at affordable pricepoints.

There is more than one path to becoming a fashion designer. You can learn to sew and go to design school to learn the ins-and-outs of the business. But not everyone learns to draw patterns and stitch together garments. The keys to succeeding in the fashion business are creativity, a good business sense and determination.

Stay tuned for more advice on becoming a fashion designer.


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  1. Adil on May 21, 2008 11:03:04 AM:

    There is a huge competition in this field but it is highly rewarding. Its kinda unique where you can apply your own ideas.

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    hi pple

  1. lady on Oct 20, 2009 5:55:46 AM:

    ...Yes I'd like to learn how to sew and then how to draw.I have a solid historical and artist background I speak 3 languages and I got an international mba. I live in a textile italian district.Im creative and I like to apply my ideas to create something.It's a deep necessity.I don't care to became famous I just want to start for myself or be a pat of a team.The problem is that I'm 28...do you think I'm gonna be to old?Is it better to attend a fashion school or go in a 40 years old taylorschool that follows very close the made in italy taylorist tradiction? thanks

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