How to Become a Fashion Designer

by Genevieve Carlton
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From swimwear to runway looks, fashion designers create styles for diverse consumers. However, fashion careers require more than just a good eye and sewing skills.

A fashion designer creates original apparel and accessories. Drawing on fashion trends and a deep knowledge of textiles and style, designers turn their vision into a reality.

Careers in fashion design also require business training. Successful designers blend creativity with solid skills in marketing, sales, and management. Most fashion designers hold a bachelor's degree.

The fashion design career offers above-average salaries. But how do fashion designers start their careers? Like other art and design careers, fashion designers often put in long hours before breaking into the industry. This page explores how to become a fashion designer.

What Do Fashion Designers Do?

Fashion designers create and design clothing and accessories. They may specialize in high fashion, ready-to-wear apparel, mass-market clothing, sportswear, evening wear, accessories, or footwear.

Designers research fashion trends to create forward-looking designs. They often rely on design software to create pieces, and they collaborate with designers on projects. At the beginning of a design project, fashion designers make sketches, evaluate textiles, and create a prototype.

Some designers create collections or fashion lines that showcase a theme or trend. They design pieces to show during fashion weeks in New York, Paris, Milan, and London. Other designers work for major brands, where they pitch ideas to creative directors and design seasonal lines for the brand.

In addition to fashion training, many designers learn marketing and business skills. Fashion merchandising experience helps designers get their pieces in retail establishments and market their work to customers.

Where Can Fashion Designers Work?

Fashion designers work for major fashion brands on the wholesale and manufacturing sides. In these roles, they create apparel and accessories that brands distribute to retailers. Nearly a quarter of fashion designers work in freelance roles, where they contract with clients to create pieces. Some of these designers launch their own clothing lines or create high-end custom apparel.

The career often requires long hours and travel. Designers who work on production deadlines or put together fashion shows often work long hours. Most fashion designers based in the U.S. work in New York or Los Angeles.

Skills

Fashion careers require a variety of skills. Designers draw on their creativity and artistic sensibilities to create designs. The career demands strong communication skills, an ability to collaborate, and a detail-oriented outlook. Hard skills like the ability to use design software, clothing construction training, and a deep knowledge of textiles and color also help designers.

Students planning to run their own fashion business also need strong marketing, sales, advertising, and management skills. Self-employed designers draw on sales and product development skills to understand their consumers and create in-demand designs. Overall, fashion designers must balance their passion and creativity with technical and business know-how.

Fashion Designer Skill Sets

Human Skills

  • Artistic
  • Creativity
  • Communication
  • Detail-oriented
  • Collaborative

Hard Skills

  • Computer-literate
  • Clothing construction techniques
  • Color theory
  • Textile training
  • Design software

Steps to Become an Fashion Designer

Earning a fashion design degree can help designers launch their careers. But a degree alone does not guarantee success. Fashion designers also need a strong portfolio, work experience, and a professional network to break into the fashion industry. Career success also depends on skill. Designers must know their brand identity, aesthetic, and niche in the industry.

Successful fashion designers work their way up. Many start building skills long before entering a fashion program. Learning how to sew, following fashion trends, and practicing with design softwares all help future designers gain admission to competitive fashion programs. After earning a degree, designers often work as stylists, fashion buyers, and assistants to established designers. These roles help designers expand their skills and build a network.

1. Complete a Fashion Design Degree Program

Most fashion designers hold an art and design bachelor's degree. During a fashion design program, students study fabrics, fashion theory, and color theory. They also learn how to create styles using computer-aided design (CAD) software. Fashion design courses use project-based assignments to help students strengthen their skills and build their portfolios.

Fashion design degree programs incorporate coursework in fashion merchandising, business, and marketing. Designers draw on these skills to launch a line, evaluate customer demand for styles, and earn a profit. At the conclusion of a fashion design program, seniors may design a line for a school fashion show.

2. Gain Hands-On Experience

A fashion design or fashion merchandising degree provides valuable training for a career in fashion. However, designers also need hands-on experience.

During school, fashion designers should pursue internship opportunities. Many colleges connect aspiring designers with companies hiring interns. During an internship, students work under the supervision of an experienced fashion designer. Internships provide practical experience with the business side of the fashion industry. While students hone techniques and aesthetics in class, an internship provides career training.

In addition to internship experience, students should consider part-time or contract work opportunities. Working for a small brand helps students build their portfolio and potentially launch their own line. Experience with a major brand helps designers build their resume and make valuable connections in the industry.

3. Network Within the Industry

Like other artistic fields, networking helps fashion designers find professional opportunities, secure clients, and advance their careers. Designers should begin networking as early as possible, even before entering a fashion program. Networking events in school offer a valuable resource for meeting fashion professionals.

Connect with other designers, suppliers, buyers, and everyone else in the industry. Those connections can pay off once you begin freelancing or applying to full-time positions.

4. Build Your Design Portfolio

Careers in fashion require a strong design portfolio. Many fashion designers start building their portfolios before entering fashion programs. Students expand their portfolios to showcase their designs and skills. For example, designers might want to show range in their portfolio by including ready-to-wear looks and custom high fashion looks, or they may emphasize their technical skills.

Throughout a fashion career, designers update their portfolios. Internships, entry-level jobs, and stylist positions all help designers add to their portfolio.

5. Stay Up-to-Date on the Fashion Industry

Fashion designers need to stay on top of trends and keep up with fashion news. In an industry that changes seasonally, designers must devote time to following fashion cycles.

Several resources help fashion designers stay current. Professional associations, fashion magazines, and fashion shows showcase trends and industry information. Following other fashion designers and watching red carpet events also help designers keep up with trends. Designers can then incorporate new styles into their upcoming projects.

Things to Know Before Becoming a Fashion Designer

Considering a career in fashion? Wondering how to become a fashion designer? Before applying to design schools, make sure you have done your research. Here are three things to know before becoming a fashion designer.

As a creative art, fashion thrives on artistic ability. Passion and drive help keep designers going in this demanding career. As with other artistic pursuits, it can take time for designers to see their efforts pay off. Confidence and drive carry designers to their professional goals. Do fashion designers need strong drawing skills? Not necessarily. Today, many designers work with software programs to create designs. Others pin fabric by hand to craft the perfect drape. While drawing skills help, you do not need to draw like da Vinci to be a fashion designer. Networking matters in fashion. Even before applying to fashion design programs, start investing in an industry network. That means attending events, staying current with fashion news, and connecting with designers, manufacturers, and suppliers. Continue to meet industry professionals during school to enter the workforce backed by a strong network.

Fashion Designer Salary Information

Fashion designers earn an above-average salary, with the highest paid designers making more than $145,000 per year. Salaries vary depending on the industry and location. As the tables below show, designers in manufacturing and specialized design services report average salaries of over $100,000.

Fashion Designer Annual Wages in 2020

$38,570
Lowest 10%

$75,810
Median Annual Wage

$146,300
Highest 10%

Source: BLS

Fashion Designer Pay, by Industry
Industry Mean Annual Wage (2020)
Miscellaneous Manufacturing $110,780
Specialized Design Services $109,320
Cut and Sew Apparel Manufacturing $91,550
Motion Picture and Video Industries $90,790
Management of Companies and Enterprises $89,120
Source: BLS
Fashion Designer Pay, by State
Industry Mean Annual Wage (2020)
California $97,270
New York $91,690
Vermont $90,640
New Hampshire $84,990
Massachusetts $84,480
Source: BLS

Ask a Fashion Designer

Carolina Dalfó is a fashion designer based in New York. Her academic career includes a BA in fashion and textile design from UADE in Buenos Aires and a MA in critical theory and the arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She has experience working for leading brands such as Ralph Lauren, Robert Geller, Opening Ceremony, and Gustav Von Aschenbach. She has also worked with companies such as Lululemon and Dreamworks on special projects and collaborations. Dalfó is also the founder and chair of LATA — the Latinx Alumni Together in the Arts Association at the School of Visual Arts — and the owner and designer of DALFO.

What are the most rewarding aspects of your career?

The most rewarding aspect of being a designer is seeing people feel good in something I've created. Clothes should ultimately enhance the human experience, and when one gets to a point of creation where garments contribute to someone's confidence, it's something to be proud of.

What are the most challenging aspects of your career?

Fashion design is a competitive, busy, and fast-paced industry. The nature of it can be exhausting, even frustrating at times.

When the road to becoming a fashion designer was challenging, what kept you going?

Working in fashion in New York is a dream come true, but being far from home is very hard sometimes. The key for me was to always look at the bigger picture, aim for that image I created for myself, and put in the work to get there. I now know that not everything will go as expected, but everything will be a learning experience on the way to where I want to be.

Granted, this is hard to understand when something doesn't go as planned, but the best way is through. Letting all the effort I've put in go to waste was never an option for me, so I'd allow myself to feel my feelings and keep going.

What type of person is successful and thrives in a fashion career? What type of person may not be the best fit?

Many different types of people are successful in fashion. What they all have in common is that they haven't only perfected their skills, but they've developed their own taste and aesthetic preferences and understand them really well.

Knowing how to take criticism is a big part of this job. If someone struggles with this, it doesn't mean they are not a good fit for fashion — just that they might need to work on accepting critique on their work.

What's a typical day for a fashion designer? What tasks do you typically work on?

I work on every step of the design process, from the initial research and designing a collection to fitting the sample garments and making corrections with the technical designers.

I prefer sketching by hand to get my ideas flowing, but I do my job sketching in Illustrator and sometimes in a 3D program. It's a lot of screen time and a lot of editing and reviewing.

The installed idea that fashion is a glamorous world is not entirely true. It's a very hands-on career.

Who do you communicate with?

I communicate with several different teams permanently every day. I mostly work closely with product developers and technical designers, who are in charge of the construction of a garment and setting up fittings for designers.

I also work with a graphics team and a prints team, as well as with other design teams, such as woven shirts and outerwear.

Besides communicating with creatives, my team also works close to the merchandising team, who dictate the seasonal collection needs. It really is a huge team effort.

What kind of hours do you keep?

Sometimes it gets busier, and you might need to put in some extra time, but most days, even working from home, 9am-6pm are my hours.

I used to work during Fashion Week, and those days were longer. Producing a runway show takes a lot of preparation because there are a lot of parts moving together, so the schedule can get a bit out of control. There was always something to do, but it was a lot of fun. I loved it.

Who are your coworkers?

My coworkers are mostly other fashion and textile designers, but also illustrators, graphic designers, and product designers. We all come from different places and we all have our own strengths we bring to the table. It's great to work with people you can also learn from.

What knowledge do you utilize?

A designer needs to know how to read a brand's DNA every season in order to come up with new ideas that will push the brand forward and reach new customers without turning the brand into something it is not. For this, it is important to pay attention to social shifts and customer behavior.

Technically, knowledge of garment construction is necessary, especially because you're going to be participating in fittings and you need to know how to modify that garment in order to solve any issue that might come up.

Personally, even if you're just starting, knowledge of Adobe Illustrator is a must for me. You can always learn and improve your skills, but a good foundation is always good.

Since becoming a fashion designer, has there been anything about the role that you didn't expect or anticipate?

Absolutely! Fashion design school does not reflect the reality of being a fashion designer accurately. It is very idealistic and abstract. It surprised me to see how much weight departments like merchandising have, for example.

At the end of the day, you need to make money to keep your company in business, and contrary to that, designers are trained to look to the future and experiment. It took me a while to find the right balance between pushing for newness through experimentation and creating something that makes a profit without feeling like a "sell out."

What would you recommend that students do, in addition to their fashion design degree programs, in order to stand out to employers?

Anything they genuinely find interesting [that] they could use to fuel their designs. When interviewing, I was always drawn to candidates who had something they were passionate and knowledgeable about, which they could take elements from to add to their own creations. It's about differentiating yourself and bringing something new to the table.

Fashion Designer Professional Organizations

AATCC represents professionals in textiles, apparel, and materials, including fashion designers. The association offers online learning resources, including digital labs. AATCC also offers student memberships and scholarships. Founded by the editor of Vogue in 1938, the Fashion Group International represents apparel, accessories, beautify and home professionals. Members benefit from educational resources, market data, and networking opportunities. CFDA dates back to 1962 and advocates for American fashion designers. The council publishes the Fashion Calendar, hosts fashion awards, and provides industry insights on the profession. CFDA also offers sustainability resources. USFIA encourages global fashion by advocating for fewer tariffs and barriers to fashion. The association offers research and reports on the field, a webinar library, and a career center for job seekers.

Common Questions About Fashion Designers

How Can I Learn Fashion Designing at Home?

Yes. Online fashion design programs train students for careers in fashion design without going to campus. Prospective designers can also enroll in online courses and practice their skills at home.

How Many Years Does It Take to Be a Fashion Designer?

About four years. Most fashion designers hold a bachelor's degree. During a fashion design program, students study textiles, fashion history, and fashion merchandising.

Can I Design Clothes Without Making Them?

Yes, some fashion designers create designs without constructing pieces themselves. Designers can outsource construction to other professionals.

Do Fashion Designers Travel a Lot?

Yes. Most fashion designers travel regularly to attend fashion shows, meet with suppliers, and network. The majority of fashion designers live in New York or Los Angeles.

Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University. After earning her doctorate in early modern European history, Carlton worked as an assistant professor of history at the University of Louisville, where she developed new courses on the history of science, Renaissance Italy, and the witch trials. Carlton has published five peer-reviewed articles in top presses and a monograph with the University of Chicago Press. She also earned tenure with a unanimous vote before relocating to Seattle. Learn more about Carlton's work at genevievecarlton.com.

Header Image Credit: xavierarnau | Getty Images

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