I've seen face after face light up with surprise and interest when I say that I'm a fashion designer. I have a good sense of what my new friend thinks I do, what I actually do, and the massive divide between those two points.
Being a 9-5 office fashion designer (silent fashion designer) tends to be much less creative than people think. Projects trickle down from creative director, to design director, to senior designer, to associate designer, to assistant designer. Or a similar path. When you're a lower-level designer, projects have a long way to travel before they get to you. And when they arrive, they're normally stripped of almost any possible creative freedom.
When I was in that position, I was handed any combination of rules, inspiration pictures, concepts, color palettes, prints, and more often than not, very specific directions. Usually, it was my job to organize different combinations or options of these guidelines.
One example is, I would get handed a floral print, and a color palette, and be told to use that exact floral print to make similar print repeats. I could tinker with the repeat, the angle of the pattern, and the scale. This is normally where the creative freedom stopped. I had to organize color combinations using the corresponding color palette. Some tasks were even less creative, where I was told to 'drop' specificied colors in specificied placements in the print using the 'paint bucket' tool in Photoshop. Someone else knew what they wanted, and it was my sole job to execute that task.
Fashion design jobs vary drastically. Some are creative. Others aren't. Based on my personal experience, creative freedom is hard to come by, unless you work for yourself. And even then, it's a lot of non-design chores, like finances or marketing to be lucratively self-employed. Also, creative freedom is relative, and some might think of what I did as creative. But as someone who went through a demanding fashion design program at The Fashion Institute of Technology, I didn't feel my degree, nor my creative potential were being put to good use.
Last summer, I was introduced to a fashion-designer-friend of a fashion-designer-friend at a fashion industry event (it's a small fashion industry world). She was a knitwear designer just like me. We got to chatting, and she explained how she pursued fashion later in life. She graduated college and worked as an accountant for a few years. Eventually, she decided to go back to school for fashion design.
Based off of her energy, I could tell that dream seemed to have fallen a little flat. I felt sympathy and remorse. I knew how she felt but wanted her to verbalize it for confirmation. In the most encouraging voice I could produce I asked, "Now that you're a fashion designer, how do you like it?" She paused for what felt like an eternity, but was closer to 2 seconds and answered flatly, "...it's okay."
Even though her answer was predictable, I felt horrible and didn’t know what to say. It was déjà vu. I've seen this before. I've seen the fashion design career idealized only to see dreams crushed because of the lack of a thorough investigation of what it's really like to be a fashion designer.
But don't fret! Working in the fashion industry can be rewarding, and there are many other occupations that support the fashion industry besides design. If you have no experience within the fashion industry, and are interested in being a designer, my advice to you is to first stick with the career that you already have and get a job within the fashion industry. For example, if you're an accountant try to get a job as an accountant within a fashion house. If you're a lawyer try to bring on more fashion industry clients. Here in New York City there are lawyers and firms that specialize in fashion industry cases. How cool is that?
Don’t go to fashion school yet! There are always more reasonable options before you make that big leap. And chances are, you'll find that you don't need to go back to school. There are many careers where you can be very involved in the fashion industry without being a designer:
If you’re positive your calling is fashion design, and not any of the departments listed above, you should still dive into the industry with what you already do. While working in one of the above departments, you can be in close proximity to designers. Talk to them, ask them questions, see what they do on a day-to-day basis. At this point, you’ll have talked to enough designers that will have discouraged you from becoming one. But after all of that you still feel like fashion design is your passion, at least now you have a more realistic perspective of what it's like to be a fashion designer.
Go forth and conquer your dream!
If you are a fashion designer via 2nd career, I'd love to hear your experience before and after entering the fashion industry! Comment below!
If you are looking to enter the fashion industry but don't know how, comment below with thoughts or questions!
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