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How to Become a Fashion Designer in 2021

October 4, 2021 | Staff Writers

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Miuccia Prada is worth about $11 billion, Giorgio Armani about $9.6 billion, and Ralph Lauren around $8.2 billion. The fashion industry as a whole is worth over $1.4 trillion and is expected to climb past the $2.2 trillion mark by 2025. While these numbers might sound crazy and unachievable to anyone looking to become a fashion designer, the truth is that most successful fashion designers had very humble beginnings. 

For example, Henry Coffie, who came from Ghana, went to France to live with his mom, who was a hairdresser at the time. During a period of about 15 years, he would help out at the salon while pursuing his dream of becoming a fashion designer. He’s now one of the most iconic designers in Europe. He has even been inducted into the Best Fashion Designer 2020 Business Hall of Fame!

Yes, becoming a fashion designer require creativity (it does involve quite a bit of graphic design) and, to a large extent, persistence. However, if one has what it takes and can bring their vision to life, they can join the list of many highly successful fashion designers earning a living from this mega fashion industry. 

Here are some tips and information on how to become a fashion designer. 

Educational Paths for Aspiring Fashion Designers

While fashion might seem like one of those industries where one can get by on their natural talent alone, there is so much about becoming a good and effective fashion designer that actual formal education is necessary. 

For the most part, excellent fashion designers have not only had numerous training and certifications in various sectors of the industry, but they have also had actual schooling in the art of fashion itself. 

Here are some of the most common educational paths for aspiring fashion designers:

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree 

The Academy of Art University and, most notably, New York University are just a few of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning that offer fashion degrees. While there are many aspects of the industry that one can pursue, fashion designers in particular almost always apply for degree programs such as fashion merchandising or fashion design. 

In the pursuit of these programs, the student will learn and earn valuable skills in courses such as:

  • Textiles and fabrics
  • How to use CAD (Computer-aided Design) technology

Students also get a chance to work on practical projects that can improve their portfolio and give them a leg up when either applying for jobs within the industry or when they want to showcase their skills to potential investors. 

This particular bit of information is crucial as most artists, not just fashion designers, need to develop a portfolio that showcases their talent to get employed. In many cases, employers will consider and even require whatever kind of formal education their company calls for in fashion designers but when it comes down to it, what the individual can do carries the day. 

A student who can amass an impressive portfolio before graduating with their degree in fashion design stands a better chance of gaining employment. To build up this portfolio, a student can take advantage of several opportunities, such as entering fashion design contests. Not only do such competitions put their creativity to the test, but many offer learning opportunities as professional judge’s critic the presented works. 

What Type of Training is Useful for Fashion Designers?

Fashion designers need to have a vast range of skills within the industry to succeed. The most successful fashion designers can design the clothes themselves and stitch them together and even find the models who can best showcase their work. There are also some technical aspects to the industry, such as computer-aided design, which are often taught as part of the chosen fashion design degree program.

However, apart from a bachelor’s degree in fashion, there are many other skills that a successful fashion designer needs to have, and these skills often require formal training. Here are a few types of training that can be useful for fashion designers:

  • Visual Arts: While not entirely necessary, many exemplary designers have completed some kind of formal training in visual arts. This could be a simple course or an entire bachelor’s degree. This study mainly focuses on combining theories such as drawing, painting, photography, and other aspects that are important for a successful fashion design career. 

Here, students will learn how to use collages, digital imaging, and professional photography to bring out the best in their designs. One of the best schools when it comes to visual arts is The University of Washington

  • Art History: Great fashion designers find ways to express their vision and manifest it in the physical world to attract clients and have them wear what they produce. Unfortunately, for those who are gifted thinkers but average expressionists, designing their vision might be a bit more than just a little challenging. 

In this case, studying Art History, which often includes courses such as the Philosophy of Art, offers aspiring fashion designers the tools they need to express their ideas and put them into the right context. In fact, some of the best designers in the world, such as Vera Wang, majored in Art History. 

Other useful courses could include graphic design, marketing, and branding courses to help fashion students improve their marketability.  

Skills and Qualifications for Fashion Designers

Most successful fashion designers are obsessed with detail. That’s why you will find them pouring over every single sketch, every single stitch, and every single fabric that goes into anything they create. Not only are they looking to infuse their own personalities into their designs, but they are also looking to ensure that every aspect of it is as they envisioned. 

From fashion students working to build up their portfolio while in fashion design to school to professionals overseeing a fashion show, obsessing over the design process is quite common. However, to be successful fashion designers, one needs more than simply being obsessed with the design process or fashion trends. They need to have a wide array of skills that not only complements their creativity but also helps to bring their brand to the market. 

Here are some of the most important skills and qualifications for fashion designers:

1. Creativity

This is by far the most basic yet the most important skill that every fashion designer needs. Unfortunately, creativity isn’t really something that can be learned in a fashion design course or fashion school. This is a trait that is inborn to most iconic fashion designers. Thankfully, there are ways through which one can nurture their creativity and bring their vision to life. 

The more designers interact with the fashion industry, the more they get inspired, the more they get to see things from different angles, the more they get to infuse this newfound vantage point into their designs. It all starts from the moment the designer gets an idea or even when they look at a unique piece of fabric. The best instinctively know how that particular material and design would work on a dress, a suit, or some other type of garment. 

2. Visualization Skills

The best fashion designers have amazing visualization skills. They can see the finished products based on their own creativity long before anyone else does. However, it’s not enough to be able to visualize a dress or a suit – one needs to be able to put that vision on paper or in a sketch. This needs to be done in such a way that it allows others to see it as well. That’s why taking additional courses such as Art History, which offer you the skills and ability to conceptualize and present your ideas more simplistically, is a great idea. 

Additionally, there’s more to having excellent visualization skills than simply seeing things that others don’t. The practicality of it all is in anticipating any issues that may arise and solve them beforehand. For example, some of the best designers instinctively know how future-fit issues may arise thanks to little mishaps such as a certain stitch being just a quarter of an inch off. They see this beforehand and make rectifications to ensure that the problem is solved before everything goes into production. 

3. Impressive Communication Skills

As is the case in any other trillion-dollar industry, communication and collaborations are the order of the day. The fashion industry is fragmented and full of a wide array of sectors ranging from design, production, marketing, sales, shipping, and even customer service. All these sectors often need to work well hand in hand if the industry is to run like a well-oiled machine. 

Designers often need to communicate well with a host of interested parties, from fashion buyers to suppliers, team members, and even the press. It’s all about how well the designer can express themselves. When working to produce a fashion line, the designer needs to communicate their vision to their team. While this is often done in the form of sketches, in many cases, verbal communication is key to clarify the vision. 

In many cases, the designer is also expected to work hand in hand with fabric manufacturers, distributors, and marketers. All this is to ensure that their vision or design integrity is maintained. 

4. Sketching and Digital Drawing Skills

The better digital drawing tools become, the more they get adopted into the industry. While top fashion designers still sketch using a pencil and a pad, these designs are now more often than not transferred to a digital platform. 

Tools such as Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator have become a basic industry standard, and using them is a skill that every fashion designer is expected to have mastered.

It’s through these digital sketches that a designer can convey important information such as:

  • Size specifications
  • Fabric
  • Pattern
  • Design

Furthermore, these digital tools make collaboration much more streamlined as soft copies can be shared more easily than physically sending over a sketch pad. Although fashion designers learn how to use CAD (Computer-aided Design) in fashion school, mastering almost every other digital design tool on the market is not only an added plus at this point but a necessity. 

5. 3D Designing Skills

It is said that this is a “Microwave Society” with people’s attention spans being at their lowest point ever. Thanks to inventions such as social media, fashion trends tend to come and go much faster than they used to in the past. This is especially fueled by the fact that there are more freelance fashion designers and fashion influencers online today than at any other time in modern history. 

Any fashion designer who wants to quickly capture the market or ride the wave of a specific fashion trend, the time from conceptualization, design, production, and market should be incredibly short. 

In the past, this process would take months and still make the designer some money in the end. Today, people’s attentions are fleeting, and if they don’t get the design they want almost instantly, they will quickly move on to the next best thing. 

Incorporating 3D design within the development process helps to bring designer clothing to market much faster. This accelerated development process allows most iconic fashion designers to remain at the top of the industry. 

5. Excellent Multitasking Skills

Today, fashion designers are expected to do much more than just dream up a design, sketch it, source the necessary materials and stitch something together. Today, there are myriad sectors with which these designers need to deal. 

From production, promotions, social media influencers, public relations, and events planning, everything that goes into building a solid brand falls at the designer’s desk at some point in time. Managing all these things while still keeping the reasonable design to production to market timelines calls for excellent multitasking skills and stress management. 

How to Gain Hands-On Experience as a Fashion Designer

Apart from taking on a bachelor’s degree course in a fashion industry-related program such as fashion design or fashion merchandising, there are several other ways through which aspiring fashion designers can get hands-on experience. 

Many of these ways not only give the student a glimpse into how the fashion industry works but also allows them to build up a portfolio that may come in great handy once they start making inroads towards their own fashion brand. 

Here are some excellent ways to gain hands-on experience as a fashion designer:

Join a Fashion Apprenticeship as a Fashion Designer

Fashion apprenticeships are designed to give aspiring fashion designers a chance to work for an already established fashion brand and earn while gaining invaluable hands-on experience. For the most part, apprentices are paid a minimum wage, but the kind of workplace skills and experiences they gain could go a long way in helping them establish themselves within the industry. 

Benefits of Joining a Fashion Apprenticeship Program

There are several good reasons why ambitious fashion designers should consider joining an apprenticeship program:

  • Earn while learning: There are very few better ways for a fashion designer to learn the industry and horn their craft while earning than joining an apprenticeship program. 
  • Fast track to employment: One of the most common yet unwritten rules is that the best performing apprentices are almost always retained and absorbed by the company for which the apprenticed. This is one of the simplest and most practical ways for a fashion student to fast track their way towards employment.
  • Helps build a portfolio: A robust portfolio is perhaps one of the most important assets any aspiring fashion designer can possess. One of the best ways to build this up really quickly and expertly is to join an apprenticeship program where they will be required to put their skills to practical use every day. In doing so, they will learn the trade and build up an impressive portfolio.
  • Build up networks: Like most other industries, in fashion, an individual’s network can be quite valuable in terms of sharing ideas, gaining employment, and marketing their designs. The more an apprentice interacts with the already established professionals within the industry, the wider their network becomes. This makes it easier for them to position their brand well when the time comes. 
  • Get recognized qualifications: An apprenticeship program is a viable alternative to gaining formal education at a university or a community college. That isn’t to say that the qualifications one gains here aren’t formal. Each level of an apprenticeship comes with its own recognizable qualification that can be used as a professional currency within the industry. 
  • Benefit from personalized support: In many cases, an apprentice is assigned an assessor whose job is to train the apprentice and guide them towards becoming a better-qualified designer. This assessor will assess the work the apprentice does and offer professional criticism and guidance where necessary. This kind of personalized support is more than most students get when they join a University class with tens of students with just one professor per course. 
  • Improve employability: Apart from the fact that most apprentices tend to get absorbed by the brand they apprentice, these programs greatly improve an individual’s employability. This is particularly true if the apprentice program is well recognized and respected within the industry. The simple fact that the aspiring fashion designer has been trained and certified by recognizable brands makes them highly marketable to other top brands and even competitors. 
  • Get vacation time: As a “starving artist,” an aspiring fashion designer can ill afford to take a vacation until they find a solid footing in the industry which can take a long time. However, as an apprentice, this student does get vacation time slowly but gradually establishes themselves within the industry and learns the design process. 

Get an Internship

Another excellent avenue for fashion design students to get hands-on experience is to join an internship program. The main difference between an internship and an apprenticeship is that the employer specifically structures an apprenticeship program to provide the student with the skills that the training organization will need in the future. On the other hand, an internship isn’t as structured and not as long term but still imparts invaluable practical knowledge. 

Benefits of Joining an Internship Program as a Fashion Designer

While internships are more short-term and often taken by university students who need credits to graduate, there are still some benefits that come with joining a suitable program within the fashion industry:

  • Put theory into practice: Most students only learn theoretical concepts in classrooms or don’t get enough experience working with invaluable systems such as CAD (Computer-Aided Design) programs. The problem with this is that these students often feel lost once they get into the real world and realize that there is a slight disconnect between reading aspects of the design industry in a book and actually doing it. Joining an internship program bridges this gap and allows students to gain invaluable hands-on experience by putting theory into practical use. 
  • Gain the necessary work experience: Although internships often last for the duration of a semester, that work experience can be a good addition to an aspiring fashion designer’s resume. Furthermore, the student gets to witness first-hand how the industry works, which could help them get a better footing. 
  • Explore different career paths: There’s more to the fashion industry than just being a fashion designer, and each student should follow the path which gives them the most intrinsic reward. By joining an internship program, the student will have a chance to work with different industry sectors, which will allow them to get a feel for what they like the most. 

Whether it’s becoming a graphic designer or focusing on fashion merchandising, maybe even a fashion stylist…all these options will be laid bare through the program period. This puts the student in a better position to choose the right path for their fashion career. 

  • Improve chances of employment: The right kind of internship greatly improves the student’s chances of employment. For one thing, students can get absorbed by the company after graduation. However, if that doesn’t happen, the hands-on experience and practical knowledge they gain from their internship will make them more marketable than students who don’t have the same level of experience. Furthermore, interns get to learn the industry players and network with them, which gives them options for job applications. 
  • Refine their skills and gain confidence: Like every artist, fashion designers have insecurities. This often comes from the fact that the public might not quite take to their designs or perceive them the same way as the designer does. This often occurs because there is a disconnect between the actual concept and visualization by the designer and what can be put on paper, designed, and produced. 

An internship gives the student the right tools and skillset to better translate these concepts and present them to the public. The more the gap between the designer’s vision and actualization is bridged, the more they grow in self-confidence, and the more daring they will become with their designs. All of which opens up better earning and recognition opportunities. 

Professional Fashion Designer Associations and Groups

Huge industries such as fashion have professional fashion designer associations and groups. These groups are tasked with ensuring industry standards are followed and maintained and are also an avenue for the industry players to collaborate and network. 

Here are some of the most recognizable associations and groups within the fashion industry:

Benefits of Joining a Fashion Designer Association or Group

There are a few inherent benefits of joining any association or group that brings industry professionals together. These include:

  • Excellent networking opportunities
  • A way to gain recognition within the industry
  • Provide an excellent insight into how the industry runs
  • Access to lobbying benefits and protection

Like most high-paying and high-value industries, the fashion industry is extremely competitive, and only the best make it to the very top. However, just because most fashion designers don’t ever get to the level of Ralph Lauren or Vera Wong doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of opportunities within the industry. 

With amazing creativity, a will to work, and the ability to navigate complicated industry landscapes, fashion design students can slowly create a name and brand for themselves and make money while doing what they love the most. Highlighted here are the steps necessary for joining the highly exciting and often very rewarding fashion industry.

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