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Becoming a Fashion Designer: Education, Salary, Connections

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If you’ve always loved fashion and are forever flipping through Vogue and sketching dresses you wish you could wear, a career in fashion design just might be for you. Though you can attain a position in the design world with just a high school education, additional training at an accredited college or university can help you make the connections you need to excel. Read on to learn more about what you can expect from a career in the fast-paced, competitive world of fashion design.

By Johnny Bevers


While networking and on-the-job training are both critical for success in the fashion industry, an associate’s or bachelor’s degree will help you stand out from other applicants. You can expect to learn the theory behind fashion design, colors and textiles, and history of fashion, as well as practical skills like sewing, pattern-making, and using design software.  You should also choose a school with an internship program, which will not only help you gain valuable on-the-job experience, but allow you to begin to make connections in this very competitive industry.    When searching for the best place to get your design education, focus on a school that has an accredited fashion design program and is located in an area where it will be possible to seek internship, volunteer, and entry level opportunities. Some of the best fashion design schools in the United States include Parsons (New York City), The Fashion Institute of Technology (NYC), Pratt (Brooklyn, NY), Academy of Art University (San Francisco, CA), Los Angeles College of Art and Design. Kent State University in Ohio, while not located in a hotbed for the design industry, does have study abroad programs in Paris and Milan. Drexel University in Philadelphia and the Rhode Island School of Art and design, while also off the beaten path, have proven themselves with graduates that have excelled in the field.   In addition to learning the technical skills necessary to do the job and networking to develop connections, you should also be sketching your own designs to add to your portfolio. This is one of the most important elements that will be considered in the hiring process when you’re trying to get your first job in the industry.

Salary For Fashion Designers

The average fashion designer makes about $65,000 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, salaries vary widely depending on the cachet of the clothes you make and the type of company you work for. While the lowest-paid 10 percent of fashion designers make less than 32,000 per year, the highest-paid 10 percent earn over $130,000 annually.   About 30 percent of fashion designers are self-employed, with many others who do freelance, contract, or part-time work. Though hours can be long, there are unique opportunities to travel and network (for example, at trade shows and fashion shows).

Go Where the Work Is

Though some fashion design work is available in any large city, the best way to find work in the fashion design industry is to move to New York City or Los Angeles. In fact, an estimated 75 percent of working fashion designers live in one of those cities. Of the 22,000 working fashion designers, most work for wholesalers, manufacturers, retailers, design firms, and theater or dance companies (costume designers).  The highest paid area of fashion design tends to be in management (average salary $77,000), followed by manufacturing ($64,000), specialized design ($60,000), and costume design ($43,000).

Career Outlook

Because of the large number of people pursuing a career in fashion design and the relatively few number of jobs available, opportunities in the field are somewhat scarce. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, no growth in the industry is expected by 2020. However, there does look to be an increase in the need for designers who specialize in specific techniques or services; for example, as new manmade fabrics are developed, the designers with the expertise to work with those fabrics will be in demand.

That means that if you want to become a fashion designer, it’s important that you excel in all aspects of your education and training. Network and make valuable connections, taking any job opportunity no matter how poorly paid. This is truly a field where you work your way up from the bottom. By displaying creativity, flexibility, and a keen attention to detail, you can make yourself invaluable to senior designers and begin to ascend the ladder. If you’re interested in going into business for yourself, use your college education as an opportunity to build an impressive portfolio of designs.  It’s also important to be prepared for the rigors of the field. Since fashion design is quite competitive, know that you’ll have to be assertive and have a thick skin to weather criticism. In addition, lots of travel and long hours are a must, particularly when your firm is on a deadline for a big show or other project.

Independent Study

If you are truly interested in a career in fashion design, you must begin perfecting your craft at a young age. Learn how to sew; study fabrics and how they move; and learn how to sketch outfits like the professionals. Experiment with colors and textures. This is also a good opportunity to develop your specialty; for example, do you want to design for women? Men? Children? Casual or formalwear? It’s important to give thought to these questions as you prepare to further your education. In addition, when applying to design college after high school, you’ll be expected to submit a portfolio of your work thus far. You should also learn about the business side of fashion through publications like Women’s Wear Daily, particularly if you want to strike out as a self-employed designer.

In summary, if you are striving for a career in fashion design, it’s important to have the trifecta of an excellent portfolio, industry experience, and formal design education. In addition, it will be critical to relocate to an area where designers are in high demand, most typically New York or California.  The bottom line, is the fashion design industry will continue to thrive as people continuously change their “look.”  Top designers can demand large salaries if they’re good and strive for perfection and detail.  Men and women around the world will continue to buy clothes and the cycle isn’t projected to stop any time soon, so this is a very solid career choice for those with that special “something”…

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