A Day in the Life of a Fashion Designer

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 product line. 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 design.

Paying Your Dues

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.

Present and Future

With the invention of the sewing machine by Elias Howe in 1846, cheap reproducible garments became available to the public. Individuals could rapidly design and commission their own wardrobes. Fashion opened up to the public. At its highest levels, called “couture,” fashion is available only to the wealthy—couture dresses and gowns can sell for more than $20,000 each. But the concept of fashion, applied to the world at large, has become a democratic principle. As the fashion market expands, some predictors hold that pockets of smaller, more unique brands of clothing will be marketed over television, the Internet, and the mail. The ability to reach large numbers of people for little cost will determine if this future is real or merely a pipe dream dangled in front of young, aspiring fashion designers.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Surprisingly few people (less than 8 percent) leave the profession in these rough early years, perhaps because they are prepared for the rigorous, unremunerative entry-level jobs. The hours are long, and the duties are ill defined; one day the duties may include tracking down magazine articles on the resurgence of 1970s style, and on another day, duties may include finding the phone numbers of five dance clubs and finding out which night is most popular with the 19–27-year-old crowd. Connections and networking are important during these early years; most designers learn as much about the business as they can. Some of them take part-time jobs in other fields to pay the rent.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Frustration with the slow pace of progression, a leveling of responsibilities for people who have failed to rise, and increased competition for the few available jobs are cited as the main reasons for a massive professional exodus; nearly 50 percent leave the profession at this point. Individuals who remain are actually designing partial lines and simple pieces. Designers gain valuable experience around this time working with production and advertising people.

TEN YEARS OUT

As competent and proven “senior designers,” 10-year veterans have specialized areas of responsibility. One may be in charge of shepherding all designs through the production process. Another may be in charge of scheduling lines based on season and available fabrics. A third may be in charge of overseeing the young designers and their partial lines, scouting for talent. They become both producers and educators, as newer designers look to them for advice and guidance. Wages are solid, the hours are long but manageable, and connections are extensive. The constant challenge 10-year designers face is in reinventing themselves and proving themselves relevant in the fast-changing world of fashion design.