Fashion Designers are responsible for creating and designing clothing (including shoes, accessories and jewellery), individual garments and full collections.
It is possible to be a designer in a variety of different areas. The term fashion designer may refer to haute couture (high fashion) and is commonly construed as this. However, there are a variety of ways to enter the career. Examples would include being self employed/ freelance, working for a retail outlet, working for a media/film/television or theatre company and apprenticeships with both designers and tailors.
Common to all these jobs will likely be:
- Researching current trends – this may be through both independent research or through fashion house research. If working in a more specialised area e.g. designing for performing arts, this may involve working with a show designer or director to help realise their vision
- Sketching of designs or use of Computer Aided Design (CAD) to provide an initial idea. Designs may be thematic, for an entire collection or for an individual piece
- Selection of colours and fabrics to realise these designs, visiting fabric manufacturers to select the most appropriate fabrics
- Creating prototypes of the design, potentially through mood, shape and trend boards
- Taking these designs to market through a variety of means e.g. fashion shows, relationship with buyers and/or running your own boutique.
This can be a highly competitive area to get into and starting salaries may be low or even non-existent as a designer builds a portfolio of work. It is possible to find graduate positions with starting salaries ranging from around £12,000 to £25,000 depending on employer and experience.
Freelance and self-employed designers can earn considerably higher sums depending on availability of work and commissions. Top designers with either their own label or working for top fashion houses can expect to be earning well in excess of £100,000 but to achieve this is the exception rather than the rule and will require a good deal of business acumen.
- Designing garment/ collections
- Selecting the best fabrics
- Self-tailoring the clothes or employing appropriate pattern cutters/ seamstresses to do so
- Supervising the production of garments
- Building a portfolio of work
- Keeping up to date with current fashion trends and the industry
- Building a network of contacts to ensure that designs can be sold.
The only true pre-requisite to be a designer is talent. However, it is common to have attended art school. Fashion is a highly specialist area and notable schools include Central St Martin’s College and the London College of Fashion in London and the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York. These colleges have produced some of fashion’s greatest luminaries.
Most universities/ colleges will offer BA or MA degrees in Fashion, Textile Design, Clothing Technology or other related subjects and assist in building the portfolio of work necessary to enter the industry.
Another option for aspiring designers is to find an internship or apprenticeship. It is possible to work under an established tailor/ designer on this basis and build many of the fundamental skills necessary.
Qualifications in CAD are available through various bodies.
The Textile Institute is one of the key professional bodies and offers membership, giving access to conferences and key trade events. Membership is available on 3 levels: Licentiate, Associate and Fellow.
Talent and passion – these are theoretically the only pre-requisites to a successful degree in fashion.
People skills – a range of presentation and sales skills will be beneficial. Fashion is a highly people driven industry and networking skills will prove beneficial. Being able to liaise with suppliers, buyers, fellow designers and retailers will also prove important.
Appreciation of the aesthetic – designers must have a good sense of colour and an appreciation of proportion.
Technical skills – sketching is an absolute must and CAD and textile skills will be advantageous. If you do not have the skills yourself it is important to understand the role of the pattern cutter and textile designer so that realising a design is possible.
Creativity – design relies upon creativity whether that be reviving lost ideas from fashion history with a new spin or starting a new trend.
Working conditions will depend upon employment type.
Wholesales, Retail, Manufacturers, Design firms – these are likely to work normal office hours but will be expected to meet deadlines and attend shows and client presentations where appropriate. Hours can be long when a collection is being finalised and attendance at trade shows may require periods away from home.
Freelance – by nature, self-employed designers will have greater flexibility. However, working on a contract or to a particular commission can mean long hours to meet the client’s expectations.
Performing Arts – designers working in performing arts may have mornings free but be expected to work evenings during the design and performance periods of the show. Once a show is established a ‘bible’ of photographs and methods will normally be created to make revivals of the show considerably easier.
An art background is normal, whether this be in Fine Art, Fashion or another affiliated subject.
Internships and apprenticeships will be useful.
Building a portfolio that represents your work is essential. The portfolio is a designer’s calling card. Studying for a fashion degree will normally entail developing a portfolio to meet industry standards. Each portfolio should contain:
- sketches – both final sketches and, if appropriate, preliminary sketches should be included
- fabric swatches – examples of fabric from which the design would be made
- finished photographs
As an aesthetic industry portfolio presentation is very important. Items should be displayed thematically and it may be worth including a focused commentary on your inspiration and successes within the industry. It may also be worth creating a website which showcases your work.
Major Fashion Houses/ Haute Couture – Dior, Yves saint Lauren, Issey Miyake, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, Marc Jacobs, Paul Smith, Chanel… the list is endless but competition for jobs is very high.
Key Retailers – Most retailers will have in-house designers and buyers.
As an industry, it is possible to move between a variety of the related jobs cited above and the most talented designers are in great demand. Fashion journalism, film and theatre work, teaching and consultancy positions are all possible progressions although many designers will want to remain on the design side.
Also known as…
- Costumer Designer
- Clothing Designer
What’s it really like?
Vanessa Davis, 25 years old, is a Fashion Designer
How long have you been in this particular job / industry?
I’ve been working in this job for 3 ½ year but have been in fashion since I graduated. I studied at the London College of Fashion at St. Martin’s.
What did you do before this job?
I worked on a freelance basis and was on tour with English National Ballet.
What do you do in a typical day at work?
Every day is different. The job involves meeting with show directors, designers and performers/ models / artists, designing, executing designs using the best resources and skills necessary, recruiting staff, managing a team and running shows. I can spend considerable time at work when a show approaches and the environment can be both very stressful and the people I work with incredibly intense and demanding. Often a look or piece will take months to develop from initial concept to show and can change dramatically in the interim.
What do you like about the job?
I love fashion, but the reason I entered this industry is because I love creativity and thus love all the creative aspects which come into designing and making the end product, working with principal artists and working in a team.
What do you dislike about the job?
My mobile constantly ringing!
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?
I would say someone has to be very serious about fashion, and know that it is not as glamorous as it seems at all. Fashion is a business so it’s hard work, and you have to be patient as you will be working with some very intense and demanding people.
What job(s) do you think you might do after this role (i.e. career progression)?
I love what I do but I would definitely think about moving abroad.
What other inside-information can you give to help people considering this career?
Seriously think about it, it’s not what it seems from the outside.