You graduated from a toy sewing machine to a full-fledged Singer when you were six years old. You’ve watched every season of “Project Runway” at least three times, and Tim Gunn is one of your heroes. You are the acknowledged fashion guru at your high school, and your wardrobe is always absolutely fabulous, dahling. You dream of introducing a product or trend that will take the world by storm and put your name on the lips of fashionistas everywhere for a hundred years.
Your goal in life is to be a fashion designer, and not just any fashion designer, but a super-duper famous one. You want to spend your days researching and predicting fashion trends, sketching clothing and/or accessory designs, attending trade and fashion shows, visiting manufacturers to select fabrics and doodads for your creations, and turning your design prototypes into salable final products. And, obviously, you want to see your work on the runways of Milan, New York City, and Paris and in the windows of the world’s most exclusive department stores.
Of course, there are tens of thousands of other young people who aspire to this career, just like you do. They, too, long to follow in the footsteps of Charles Frederick Worth, a British draper of the nineteenth century who moved to Paris and invented haute couture (aka really expensive and trendy clothes) when he opened a dressmaking shop that catered to European royalty and nobility, famous courtesans, and world-renowned singers and actresses.
There are so many criteria you must meet in order to even get entry-level work as a fashion designer. You’ll need an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in fashion design and work experience—probably acquired through an internship—in the fashion industry. You’ll have to prove that, not only do you have an artistic vision for wearable design, but that you can translate that image in your head into reality via your skills with needle and thread. You’ll need to be able to:
Communicate with others
Work well with others, be they clients, colleagues, or employers
Accept suggestions, advice, and criticism about your designs
Submit your creative vision to the needs and wants of the person or company employing you
You should also acquire some business savvy and lots of experience with a computer (because so much design work is done with the help of software nowadays).
Why should you accept that your dream of fashion-design stardom is never likely to come true? Because this industry is small and it isn’t growing. At all. There are also lots of other people who are as talented and driven as you are who want to be fashion designers, which means that competition for even the lowliest positions is absolutely brutal.
This doesn’t mean that your love of a good drape and that expensive undergraduate education in fashion design has to go to waste. While you may find it impossible to land a gig at Chanel, you might have success getting a job with a more ubiquitous apparel or accessories manufacturer. If you cultivate your entrepreneurial skills, you could own your own small tailoring or design business (you’d be amazed how much people will pay for a good alteration). You could become a clothing or accessories purchaser for a store or chain of stores, or maybe even become a fashion stylist or writer.
Pay for fashion designers is all over the place. If you’re just starting out at a large company or if you’re a freelancer, you’ll probably bring in just enough cash to be able to afford ramen three times a day and a cardboard box to live in, especially as you’re likely to live in an extraordinarily expensive urban area/fashion hub. There are more lucrative design jobs (Remember those ubiquitous apparel or accessories manufacturers?) where you can work at a desk eight hours a day and make a dependable $70,000 to $80,000 a year. If you’re in business for yourself as a designer, you may find that the money’s okay, but that you’re putting in lots of late nights in order to get all of your work done.
While there’s quite a bit of uncertainty in this career, one thing you can be sure of is that, at some point, you will have to sacrifice your artistic vision in order to pay the bills. Sure, your creative viewpoint is what makes your designs unique and (possibly) financially viable, but don’t forget that food is important, too.