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How to Become a Fashion Designer in 2019 (new complete guide)

by Boris Hodakel  • November 20, 2019 • 19 min read

So, you think you want to be a fashion designer? A job in the fashion industry is no walk in the park, and just keeping track of current fashion trends is a full-time job. If your heart is set on making beautiful clothes for the ritziest retailers in New York, Paris, and London, however, we have some pro tips that will help you get your big break in the industry. Learn more about what it takes to become a fashion designer, what designers do, and how much you'll make in your new career. Here at Sewport we prepared the all you need to know list with all the insights, so read on below.

How to Become a Fashion Designer

There's no set path to becoming a successful designer. You can lurk around renowned fashion houses for years and check out fashion shows whenever they're in town but still fail when you decide the time has come to make a name for yourself. Even a bachelor's degree in fashion is no guarantee that your designs will make it inside the pages of Vogue; in the end, becoming a designer requires as a creative spark and a will to succeed that can't be put out by even the most imposing obstacles.

That said, there are quite a few things you can do to improve your chances of seeing your styles on the runway at New York Fashion Week. For starters, having a background in high fashion is a definite plus. If you've admired Tom Ford and Calvin Klein for years and you can rattle off the names of prominent fashion brands like Ralph Lauren, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, and Haute Couture without breaking a sweat, you're already prime material to be a fashion designer. Remember that fashion is a business as well as an art, so if you've got a good financial head on your shoulders, you'll be better equipped to make a splash in the industry.

Before you get lost in dreaming about showing off your award-winning women's fashions as you tour across the Italian countryside once you've made it big, start off small by making some designs in your own bedroom. Get your hands on some fabrics, draw up some sketches, and teach yourself more about computer-aided design. Get some real skills that will help you transition smoothly into daily life as a designer, and don't be afraid to give pattern-making a shot as you prepare to mass market your fashions someday in the future.

Here are some step-by-step instructions that will help you get ready for the big time:

  • Consider going to school: While getting a degree in fashion isn't for everyone, you might find that a four-year degree is the best way to learn the ropes.
  • Make a portfolio: Put together a digital file commemorating your achievements in the fashion industry so far, and make a physical copy that you can show off to potential clients.
  • Immerse yourself in the industry: The design industry is so finicky that a tiny creative breeze can change everything. Keep a close eye on the design concepts and trends that are emerging as you prepare for your design career.

What Do Fashion Designers Really Do?

A fashion designer's life isn't all about making glitzy clothes that are fit for Project Runway. In fact, most designers work in relatively obscure corners of the fashion world studying fashion trends, sketching designs, and selecting materials to use in the ordinary clothes that you see at your local Kohl's or Target.

According to Career Explorer, designers spend a lot of time researching the history of fashion and developing styles based on trend reports or the results of their own research. These professionals also spend plenty of time visiting trade shows and using computer-aided design (CAD) to transform simple sketches into finished products that are ready for photo shoots and runways.

As a successful fashion designer, you may eventually have your own business. When you are in charge of your own label, you'll have to tackle the business side of being a designer, which means you'll rely on assistants to take care of many of the research and design aspects of fashion merchandising.

Many designers have their own studios, but some freelance designers may move from place to place as the job demands. Costume designers, for instance, often work in television or movie studios, and the life of a costume designer involves a lot of research into the setting of the film or show that is being created. No matter where you end up working as a designer, having a good eye for fashion and plenty of technical know-how will be essential aspects of your overall success.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Fashion Designer?

There are plenty of different ways to introduce yourself to the world of fashion. Remember that many of the best designers are self-taught; especially in the internet age, all it takes is hard work and a good grasp of social media to make it big in the fashion industry.

However, there are a few advantages to taking the traditional route and finding an internship program or checking out design schools. Degree programs take the guesswork out of fashion designing, and it's often easier to amass an impressive portfolio at school that you'll use once you start making your mark in the real world.

Keep in mind, however, that formal training to be a designer is expensive, and you'll only get what you put into this type of education. If you don't have it in you to be a good designer, no amount of time spent studying at the best school of design in Italy or the United States will make you a success.

Most formal fashion design programs take 2-4 years to complete, but your formal education as a designer may last longer if you decide to work while you study. Successful designers who didn't go to fashion school are generally ready to start asking for jobs at design firms after about five years of experience, but going the self-taught route gives you the freedom to take the fashion world by storm as fast or as slow as you want.

Even when you're done with school and you've landed your first job, you won't be a designer yet. The true test of a designer begins the moment he or she starts his or her first day on the job, and the process of becoming a success continues every day from there on out.

What Defines a Successful Fashion Designer?

To be a successful designer, you'll need to hone a number of important skills. Some of these attributes are known as hard skills, and others are called soft skills. According to The Balance Careers, hard skills are "teachable abilities or skill sets that are easy to quantify," and soft skills are people skills or interpersonal skills that include communication and leadership abilities. Here are some examples of the types of hard and soft skills that will be vital to your success as a designer:

Hard Skills

  • Sketching: Most great design ideas begin on paper. You'll need to have some sort of artistic training or self-taught skills to be a designer, and knowledge of how to draw a basic human form is essential.
  • Computer-aided design (CAD): Once you have a basic idea of what you want to make on paper, you'll need to transfer your imagination into the digital world with a CAD program. Some designers do away with paper altogether and come up with all of their great ideas on digital platforms.
  • Fashion research: Before you design your first piece of apparel, you'll need to have a good grasp of how the fashion industry works. Research is a surprisingly important component of a designer's day-to-day life, and you'll need to decide whether you want to do this research yourself or rely on trend reports.
  • Business skills: Unless you're happy to work for someone else for the rest of your life, you'll need to start building up your business skills now. The life of a successful designer is filled with instantaneous decisions that can make or break a business, and a good grasp of money is an essential facet of a prominent designer's portfolio.

Soft Skills

  • Effective communication: Unless you plan to run a one-person design firm, you'll need to learn how to effectively communicate with others before you become a designer. From relating brilliant ideas to making sure that everyone gets along, communication is a vital aspect of a designer's everyday life.
  • Time management: When you're caught up in the creative flow, time can get away from you fast. As you go down the path of becoming a successful designer, you'll find that learning how to manage your time is a critical component of running a successful business.
  • Self-confidence: The fashion industry is competitive to the point of being cutthroat. Success isn't guaranteed, and you'll need to put in long nights and endure plenty of pitfalls on your way to the top. Being able to keep your confidence level high is the key to leaving your mark on the fashion world.
  • Accepting criticism: If you don't already know it, one of the first things you'll learn as a designer is that your peers in the fashion community don't tend to hold back when they critique your designs. You'll need to have a strong ego to handle the abuse that other designers and snobbish magazine editors hand out, but if you can integrate this criticism while shedding a minimal number of tears, you'll become that much stronger.

A Day in the Life of a Fashion Designer

Your day as a designer might start before you even wake up; many creative professionals derive inspiration from dreams, and you might spend your first waking moments scribbling out a sketch of the perfect gown or blouse.

Once you get to the studio, your first step will be to coordinate with your team to determine what everyone will do throughout the day. If you don't already have a project started, you'll need to do some research and start some sketches of your next piece.

If there's already a design in the pipeline, it might be time to find models, reach out to retailers, or schedule photo shoots. If you're directly merchandising your designs, your day will be full of plenty of business decisions, but if you're working in a bigger firm, it's more likely that your entire day will be dedicated to the design process.

A successful day as a designer will be wrapped up by putting a bookmark in whatever you're working on. If you're like most designers, however, the creative process won't stop even after you're home for the night or for the weekend.

How Much Do Fashion Designers Earn and Why?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average pay for a fashion designer as of May 2017 is $67,420. The lowest 10 percent of designers earned less than $35,000 per year, and the top 10 percent earned more than $135,000 per year. While fashion designers earn close to double the average wage over all occupations, you'll probably need to earn more than $70,000 per year to make all of your dreams come true.

The difference between low-paid and high-paid designers is clear: experience. According to Glassdoor, designers with at least 10 years of experience make more than $30,000 more per year than novice designers. However, experience isn't the only important aspect of the equation when it comes to success as a designer; the more you take things in your own hands, the more you'll be paid.

If you content yourself to working for a mediocre company as an interchangeable cog in a huge design team for your entire career, it's likely that you'll never experience the breakthrough success you crave. Instead, the only way you'll truly leave your mark and make it big is by going it on your own. While you might want to spend a few years working for a big company as you learn the ropes, never lose sight of your dream, and stay on the constant lookout for fresh design ideas that will boost you from being a run-of-the-mill corporate clothing designer into a life of wealth and superstardom.

Since a fashion degree is a substantial investment, we decided to do an in-depth look at the potential ROI of a fashion degree.

When doing our calculations, we aimed to make extremely conservative assumptions. If we can show that a fashion degree has a positive ROI in an extreme case, then you can be more confident that your degree will be worth it.

To that end, we are going to assume that you receive no help from your family and don’t receive any scholarships. We assume that you’re not working while at school. In our calculations, we will use out-of-state tuition, since it’s higher than in-state tuition.

When looking at your earnings after college, we will assume that you make an average salary for your career and that you never change jobs into something more lucrative. We’ll also assume that you can’t deduct any part of your student loans.

Finally, we’ll assume you never get the chance to refinance your student loans and don’t pay your loan back early. That way, you’ll have to pay the maximum amount of interest.

Costs of Different Schools

The first thing we looked at is how much different fashion schools cost. Note that the following chart lists the total cost of attendance and includes tuition, housing, books, and other costs:

costs of fashion degree by school

On average, attending a fashion school for four years will cost you over $180,000 in total. While that seems like a lot, keep a few things in mind:

  • The average cost of attending college for a public, out-of-state school is $21,629 .
  • Even though that adds up to over $80,000 over 4 years, the average graduate with debt only has $28,650 in loans. That means most students find a way to pay for a significant part of the fees.
  • Most schools have some type of scholarship or need-based aid.
  • The most expensive schools can cost well above $60,000 a year. The extra $15,000 a year can cost you an extra $100,000 over the long term or more depending on the interest rates on the loans you pay and how quickly you pay off your loans.
  • There are some good deals here. The fashion program at the Fashion Institute of Technology is cheaper than the average and isn’t hard to get into as it has an acceptance rate of 47% . Kent State University is also in the top ten and has an annual cost of $30,660.

Costs and Potential ROI of a Fashion Degree

Now that we have an idea of how much a fashion degree can cost, let’s consider the economics of a fashion degree when compared to someone who enters the workforce directly after high school.

We’ll go over all of these numbers in detail:

costs of a fashion degree

  • If you have to pay off $181,576 in student loans over 25 years at a 5.05% interest rate, then you’ll have to pay $320,031 over the course of the loan.
  • It’s likely that you will work at least 40 years in your lifetime, but we want to be aggressive and see if we can get a substantial ROI after 30 years.
  • If you were to join the workforce without a college degree, the median salary you would earn is $37.336. Multiply that by 30 to get total earnings of $1,120,080.
  • In order for your fashion degree to break even with a high school graduate over 30 years, you’ll need to earn the total loan payment added to a highschooler’s total earnings: $320,031 + $1,120,080 = $1,440,111.
  • For your fashion degree to earn you $250,000 over 30 years, you’ll have to earn a total of $1,440,11 + $250,000 = $1,690,111.
  • You’ll have 26 years of earning (you’re in school for four years), to earn that total. That means that in order to get a $250,000 ROI you’ll have to earn an average salary of $1,690,111 / 26 = $65,004.

What this means is that if your fashion degree gives you a career where the average salary you earn is at least $65,004 , then it’s worth it.

Let’s take a look at some common fashion graduate careers to see if they offer a salary that makes a fashion degree worth it.

Expected Salary of a Fashion Designer

average salary for a fashion designer

One of the most common jobs for a fashion graduate is a fashion designer . That is, someone who designs original clothing.

We can see that the average salary for a fashion designer is almost as high as our target salary of $65,004.

This means that if you work as a fashion designer for 26 years, your fashion degree will net you a substantial ROI as you will almost certainly have a higher than average salary as you gain experience.

How hard is it to get a fashion designer job? The total amount of fashion designer jobs is only expected to rise by 3% from 2016-2026, less than the overall rate of 7% for that time period.

The low growth rate suggests a somewhat competitive industry. Breaking into the industry will be hard but not extremely so.

The key is to get your first fashion designer job and continue building experience. If you do that, your salary will rise and you’ll almost certainly make way more than you spent on your fashion degree.

Expected Salary of a Technical Fashion Designer

average salary for a technical fashion designer

Another common job for fashion graduates is a technical fashion designer. Technical fashion designers work with manufacturing and design to make sure a garment is created correctly.

The overall average salary is close to our desired average of $65,004. This means that you’ll almost certainly make your money’s worth if you work as a technical fashion designer for 30 years.

The number of technical fashion designer jobs, like fashion design jobs, should similarly grow by about 3% from 2016-2026. Getting a technical design job will similarly be somewhat of a challenge.

It seems that the key to a successful career in technical design is to break into the industry and get your first technical design job.

Expected Salary of a Textile Designer

avrage salary for a textile designer

Another common job for fashion graduates is a textile designer. Textile designers create patterns for clothing, towels, carpets, and other fabric products.

Few textile designers make our target salary of $65,004. The average textile designer with over 10 years of experience makes $64,816 a year, just short of our goal.

This means that it’s possible that it won’t be worth it to get a fashion degree to become a textile designer. Remember that our calculation for our target salary was based on the average cost of a fashion degree.

Many fashion students spend even more than $45,000 a year to get their fashion degree. As a result, the economics are shaky for textile design, a profession that tops out around $65,000.

This doesn’t mean that becoming a textile designer is always a poor choice financially for fashion graduates. Your total cost of getting a fashion degree can be substantially lower than the average.

Receiving scholarships, graduating a year early, working while in school, living with your parents, and paying back your loan early are some of the ways you can lower the cost of a fashion degree.

Also, keep in mind that job growth for textile designer jobs should be around 3% . Not only do these jobs not pay that well, but they are also somewhat competitive.

If you’re going into a career with lower earning potential (such as textile designer), you need to be aware of the costs, earnings, and tradeoffs. As this New York Times article explains, for a lot of students a college degree is not worth it.

Expected Salary of a Fashion Buyer

avrage salary for a fashion buyer

A different but common career for fashion graduates is becoming a fashion buyer. Fashion buyers work for retailers to buy in fashion clothes that consumers will want to buy.

An average fashion buyer’s salary is $5,000 below the target of $65,004. Still, over a 30-year career, the average salary of a fashion buyer would be above our target.

Fashion buyer is not necessarily as lucrative as some of the other jobs we’ve seen, but it pays enough to justify a fashion degree.

The number of fashion buyer jobs is supposed to grow by 6% over the next decade. While that is slightly less than the overall job growth of 7%, it’s still more than any of the other jobs we’ve analyzed.

This means that it might be slightly easier to break into a fashion buyer career. That may come at the expense of some earning potential.

Something we should highlight is that averages like these, even from reputable sources like the BLS or Glassdoor can be a bit misleading. Take a look at these three adjacent job listings on Glassdoor when looking for fashion buyer jobs:

three adjacent job listings on glassdoor

All of these are substantially higher than the averages we saw earlier. It’s not that the averages we saw earlier are inaccurate, it’s just that average and median salaries don’t tell the whole picture.

There are a good number of jobs that pay well above the averages, even though this is not reflected. While these positions are certainly competitive, it’s reasonable to assume that you can eventually get one of these jobs if you live in the right cities and have enough experience.

Expected Salary of a Retail Manager

average salary for a retail manager

The final career we will look at that fashion graduates might enter is a retail manager. Retail is a competitive industry, especially when it comes to fashion. To maximize sales, retail stores hire managers to optimize their operations.

The average salary for a retail manager $50,648 is far below our target salary of $65,004. Even retail managers with over ten years of experience only make an average of $55,403.

We tried looking at Glassdoor listings to see if we could see some jobs with higher salaries, but we couldn’t find anything with a salary higher than $70,000.

Furthermore, retail management jobs are predicted to only increase by 4% over the next decade. Considering that the eCommerce’s share of retail is set to grow from 13.7% in 2019 to 17.5% in 2021 , it’s easy to see why there isn’t much job growth.

For all of these reasons, it’s questionable whether getting a fashion degree to be a retail manager is worth it. We’re sure that it’s worth it for some people, but we urge you to take a hard look at the numbers before committing to this career.

Cost Summary

Our analysis has shown that a fashion degree can lead to a lucrative career and can absolutely be worth the price, even when it’s quite expensive.

Even if you have to take out loans of $100,000 or more, it can still be worth it in the long run. The key is to make sure you choose the right fashion career.

Be sure to do some more of your own research. We’ve shown that there are some careers in the fashion industry that might not be worth it. However, the right career can turn your degree into hundreds of thousands of dollars over your entire working career.

Factors that Can Make or Break a Fashion Designer's Career

There are a few different critical factors that will ultimately determine your success as a designer:

  • An eye for detail: Successful designers need to be able to take precise measurements and painstakingly plan out every aspect of a garment. Attention to detail will be a critical aspect of your success, and you'll need to have an overall creative mindset.
  • Passion for fashion: Now's the time to decide whether or not you love fashion enough to make it your life's work. If you can't imagine yourself designing two years, five years, or a decade from now, quit before it's too late.
  • Education: Whether you teach yourself the ropes or go to a design school, your fashion know-how will decide whether or not you'll be able to remain competitive with your peers.
  • Resilience: From long hours to unflinching critiques, fashion is brutal. Ask yourself whether you have the right character to stand up to the pressure.
  • Luck: Like it or not, success in fashion is sometimes all about being in the right place at the right time.

Where Do Fashion Designers Work, and How Much Do They Work?

Most of the world's fashion jobs are in New York, Los Angeles, London, and Paris. Depending on the type of design work you do, you might work for a textile wholesaler, a design firm, a movie studio, or you might even work for yourself if you're lucky.

Designers usually have spacious offices where they can lay out fabric on tables and take a look at how garments drape on mannequins without rubbing elbows with their coworkers. Sketches usually adorn the walls of design offices, and it's common to see art equipment strewn about.

Like most creatives, designers are usually very driven, and they may have to be forced to leave the office. In general, designers in the fashion industry work at least 40 hours per week, and since it's increasingly common to do design work on tablets and laptops, the line between work and recreation often blurs for these professionals. Some designers may work as many as 80 hours per week.

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About the author:

Boris Hodakel is the founder and CEO of Sewport - an online marketplace connecting brands and manufacturers, former founder of various clothing manufacturing services. He is passionate about e-commerce, marketing and production digitisation. Connect with Boris on LinkedIn.