Ever wonder what Giorgio Armani, Betsey Johnson, Donna Karan, and Ralph Lauren do
all the time? Work! Few other professions depend so much on keeping on top of fickle popular
opinion and watching what competitors produce. The life of a designer is intimately
linked to tastes and sensibilities that change at a moment’s notice, and he or she must be able
to capitalize on or—even better—influence those opinions. Designers reflect society’s sensibilities
through clothing design. “You have to know just about everything that’s been done
before so that you can recognize it when it becomes popular again,” wrote one respondent.
Fashion designers are involved in every phase of designing, showing,
and producing all types of clothing, from bathing suits to
evening gowns. Those with talent, vision, determination, and ambition
can succeed in this difficult, demanding, and highly competitive industry.
Fashion design can be more glamorous than a 1940s Hollywood musical or drearier than
a bank statement, but it’s always taxing. A designer’s day includes reading current fashion
magazines, newspapers, and other media that reflect current trends and tastes. He or she
looks at materials, attends fashion shows, and works with other designers on projects. A
designer should be able to communicate his or her philosophy, vision, and capabilities clearly
and comprehensively through sketches, discussions, and, occasionally, samples. No matter
what his or her personal style is, a designer must produce a creative, exciting, and profitable
As in most professions that produce superstars, it is easy for a competent but otherwise
unremarkable designer to wallow in obscurity, designing small pieces of collections, generic
lines (the plain white boxer short, for example), or specialties (cuffs, ruffles, etc.). The personality
that raises itself above this level must be as large as the vision of the designer; perhaps
that’s why the word “crazy” showed up in more than 75 percent of our surveys as a plus in fashion
People entering the field should have a good eye for color, style, and shape, an ability to
sketch, and some formal preparation in design. An excellent portfolio is a must for the job
search. A two- or four-year degree in fashion design is helpful, as is knowledge of textiles and
a familiarity with the quirks of a variety of fabrics, but no formal certification is required.
Candidates should have a working knowledge of business and marketing. The hours are long
for a fashion designer, and the initial pay is very limited. This is one of those hit-or-miss
occupations where beginners work as someone’s assistant until, when they can muster up
enough confidence in their abilities and sell that confidence to their superiors, they design a
few pieces themselves. The superstar rise is an unlikely event, but it happens. Based on the
number of “international star designers” in the last 10 years and the number of people who
have entered the profession, the estimated odds of becoming an internationally famous
designer are roughly 160,000:1.
Fashion designers who become unhappy with the lifestyle (low pay, long hours, hard
work, low chance of advancement) leave the field to do a variety of things. Some of them use
their color and design skills to become interior designers, graphic designers, or fashion consultants.
More than one quarter of the people who leave remain in the clothing industry,
either on the production end or on the institutional buying end. Another 10 percent of them
enter the advertising or promotions industry.