How to Become a Fashion Designer

Becoming a Fashion Designer: Overview

While talk of fashion designers may have you thinking of famous names like Donna Karan and Marc Jacobs, you don't have to be a celebrity to work in the field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 22,000 people worked as fashion designers in 2013, and while the profession is expected to see a slight decline in jobs from 2012-2022, there still may be plenty of career opportunities for those with the right combination of education, skill and natural talent.

One in four fashion designers is self-employed, according to government data. They may work on their own to create clothes, shoes and accessories and then market them independently or sell their designs to apparel firms. Another 28 percent are employed as in-house designers for apparel wholesalers and 17 percent work for apparel manufacturers. In 2014, fashion designers earned average annual incomes of $73,690.

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What Does a Fashion Designer Do?

Fashion designers are the people who create the clothing and accessories purchased by the billions every year by consumers. In doing this, designers regularly study fashion trends, sketch designs, select colors and fabrics, and oversee the process by which their original designs come to fruition in the form of new clothes and accessories.

The design process, which typically takes between 18 and 24 months, involves the following steps:

  • Researching future fashion trends. Some designers use trend reports that project the particular styles, colors, and fabrics which are expected to be popular for a certain season in the future.
  • Sketching preliminary designs. Although most designers initially sketch designs by hand, a growing number now make use of computer-aided design (CAD) software to translate these hand sketches to the computer.
  • Visiting manufacturers or trade shows. Fabric samples help designers decide which fabrics to use with which designs.
  • Creating a prototype of the article using cheaper materials. The prototype is tried on a model for design adjustments.
  • Making samples using the actual material, marketing them to clothing retailers, and displaying them at fashion and trade shows. When retailers at the shows place orders, these items can then be manufactured and distributed.

Depending on their experience level and also on the size of the design firm they work for, fashion designers may have varying levels of involvement in some or all of these process steps. Some fashion designers are self-employed. They generally work for individual clients on a contract or on a job-by-job basis. These types of designers tend to have sporadic working hours, often needing to make adjustments to their workday (or work nights) to meet deadlines. Other designers are employed by manufacturing establishments, wholesalers, or design firms, creating designs for the mass market. These types of designers generally tend to have a more normal work schedule, although even they will occasionally need to work long hours to meet production deadlines or prepare for fashion shows.

Steps to Become a Fashion Designer

To be a fashion designer, you should:

  1. Become familiar with the tools of the trade. Fashion designers can't do their job if they aren't able to put their ideas on paper and then make prototypes. In addition, programs such as Adobe Illustrator and the Optitex Pattern Making Suite may also be used by designers to easily modify their ideas and experiment with new looks. At the very least, you should have basic knowledge of sewing and drawing prior to applying to a degree program. Some fashion designers teach themselves these skills, but you could take sewing classes at a local fabric shop or learn drawing techniques through programs offered at art museums, art councils and community colleges. Although it may be difficult to gain hands-on experience with specialized pattern-making software outside of design school, classes for Illustrator may be found at community college.
  2. Apply to design school. At this point, you should have the basic skills necessary to begin designing. Now it's time to apply to a design school where you can be professionally trained. Art and design schools may offer both associate degrees and bachelor's degrees. Associate degrees may be completed in 1-2 years and offer a basic overview of the profession. However, a Bachelor of Fine Arts may be preferred by some employers and offer greater opportunity to specialize studies in an area such as children's wear, special occasion or intimate apparel. Some schools may combine design degrees with business or marketing coursework to round out your skills. Request information from several schools to determine which offers the program that best matches your career goals. Ask for information on the school's retention and graduation rates as well for details on where recent graduates are working.
  3. Create a professional portfolio. Selecting the right school is important because it will likely be the place where you develop your professional portfolio. "Attend a good school with a high reputation for turning out good designers," advises Nicola Schulten-Gaywood, an independent footwear designer in Rockford, Michigan. "You will need to show a superb portfolio." A portfolio can vary depending on your specialty and, at the start, may include a mix of personal projects and class assignments. Your design school may also have career counselors available to help you craft a resume to accompany your portfolio.
  4. Complete an internship. Some fashion design schools may have an established internship program while other schools may leave students to independently pursue these opportunities. Either way, an internship is an important step, one that not only allows you make networking connections but also helps you learn how to work in the collaborative environment that marks most designer jobs. "You may be creative but if you interrupt other people's ideas, are inflexible and want to "own" every idea yourself, you probably won't make it," Schulten-Gaywood says. "If you want to start you own line, I would still advise a solid stint in the industry so you understand all aspects."
  5. Get ready to work hard. The final step in how to become a fashion designer involves working hard to prove your worth. New designers need to be willing to step up as a part of a team rather than insisting on their particular vision. "Show that you are willing to work day and night, re-do [a design] over and over until it is perfect," says Schulten-Gaywood. "These characteristics are just as important as attending the right school programs."

How can a person become a GREAT fashion designer?

To learn how to take your fashion design career to the next level, we spoke with Nicola Schulten-Gaywood. Schulten-Gaywood, an independent footwear designer in Rockford, Michigan, earned a bachelor's degree in fashion with a specialty in footwear design from Berkshire College of Art and Technology which is now a part of Reading University in England.

Q. What should students look for in a fashion design school or program?

Students should look, first of all, for a school that has a reputation for producing successful designers. The school should be readily able to list designers that have trained there. Look for a school that has a broad range of specialties within the chosen design field. This will give the student the opportunity to try their hands at other disciplines.

Look for professors that have had a successful real life experience in the industry. Ask them questions about their own career. Are they still active in the industry and proud to tell you?

A school that is continually investing in new technology is so important. When you leave, you need to be up to speed with the industry as it is working today, not 10 years ago.

Q. What characteristics does a person need to be successful in the field?

Once you have trained in a good school and have actually talked your way into employment, you need to focus on staying there and becoming successful. Successful means your product is selling well and consistently. You have recognition from your peers, and your design hand and opinion is respected.

Again, determination, self -confidence, flexibility and a thorough understanding of the market you are addressing are absolutely essential. You will work day and night, and you won't be thanked for it - like most jobs. But you will be delighted with the results!

I cannot stress how important it is to shop the market over and over. It is essential to be out in the marketplace as much as possible to see what everyone else is doing. How does your product fit in with the other merchandise available? Are you priced appropriately? Are your design ideas too far ahead or falling behind?

Watch people. Be realistic about who is wearing what. Good designers are also "people watchers." Airports and malls are a great place to do this. Keep your customer in mind, and dress her or him, not yourself. Stay ahead the customer and carefully anticipate how they are going to evolve so you can deliver what they need.

Q. Do you think there are any common misconceptions about the industry?

Yes. The first you will discover shortly after you secure employment: the line does not belong to you! Building a line of clothing, shoes or handbags is the collaboration of a team that includes design, sales and marketing. One can really not operate without the others. Many young designers become disappointed when they discover the reality of design is a "we" not a "me" experience. Accept that you are part of a team; be a good collaborator.

If you are fortunate enough to hit a big design house, good for you! You will discover the politics of high end fashion houses and learn to play the game or wilt. If you are like most designers, you will work for a larger company as part of a design team. When you are in college or school, you get to experiment with all kinds of fantastical ideas but more often than not, the demands of the end consumer will not require that kind of flamboyance.

It is a real challenge for young designers to understand that they are part of a business, and their job is to address the needs of a very specific consumer, not themselves. They may find the product brief they are given to be ultimately boring. It is challenging to create product that is both commercial, interesting and still "new" but tame enough for the customer. It takes a lot of experience to balance this fine line, but this is usually where the money is.

Resources for Fashion Designers

  • National Association of Schools of Art and Design
  • Fashion Group International
  • Pantone.com
  • OptiTex Fashion-design Software
  • Fashion Toolbox


  1. Nicola Schulten-Gaywood, interview with the author June 2015
  2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, Fashion Designers, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/arts-and-design/fashion-designers.htm
  3. Fashion Design Undergraduate Degrees, Academy of Art University, http://www.academyart.edu/academics/fashion/undergraduate-degrees
  4. Career and Internship Center, Fashion Institute of Technology, http://www.fitnyc.edu/3526.asp
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