Reality shows like “Project Runway,” “America’s Next Top Model,” and “The Fashion Show” put the runway in America’s living rooms. But, working alongside the likes of Isaac Mizrahi and Michael Kors is not as simple as television makes it seem. Launching a career in this industry requires savvy, creativity and an unwavering dedication to fashion. If you think you have what it takes for a fashion career read on to learn about the industry, education, and building your personal brand.
Part I. The Fashion Industry
While a career as a fashion designer is the most coveted – and most visible – in the industry, you do not need to have drawing and sewing skills to be successful in this field. There are many careers that fall under the fashion umbrella.
An Overview of Fashion Careers
- Production Management: Detail-oriented and organized, production managers are crucial for designer’ success. Production managers oversee the manufacturing of clothing and work with suppliers for quality assurance. As consumers become more eco-conscious, the manufacturing world is evolving. So, business skills and an interest in “green” innovation are necessary for success in this role. Some fashion schools offer degree programs in production management.
- Fashion Merchandising: Retail management, buying and advertising are great jobs for brainy, creative types. Responsibilities in these positions include selecting items to be stocked in stores based on what consumers want; working closely with designers and attending fashion shows to gain knowledge on emerging trends; and negotiating costs with manufacturers. A bachelor’s degree in fashion, marketing, business or a related concentration as well as prior retail sales experience are required.
- Publishing: With a circulation of 1.3 million publications, Vogue Magazine is a dominant force in the fashion publishing world, and Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour is calling the shots. To land a job in fashion publishing, you will need a bachelor’s degree in fashion or journalism, previous experience and industry connections. Many fashion writers and editors get their start as interns or freelancers.
- Design: Designers are at the helm of the fashion industry. This position requires a steadfast love of the fashion world, unwavering knowledge of emerging trends, drawing skills, and ability to communicate with a variety of people. An associate or bachelor’s degree in fashion design combined with an education in merchandising, business or marketing is often necessary, especially for designers wishing to pursue their own business. Like other careers in design, internships, apprenticeships and freelancing are often necessary for acquiring pertinent experience.
Salary and Career Outlook
Depending on location, background and career path, salaries in the fashion industry vary greatly: from less than $30,000 to over $100,000. Just as it is with any industry, bringing a wealth of knowledge and experience to a job will net a larger income. On average, those who have what it takes to compete as a fashion designer make over $70,000 annually, more than the national average of all occupations.
While job growth in fashion design is expected to see little change in the next 10 years, merchandising, publishing and retail jobs will continue to grow at an average pace, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Those with a formal education in fashion, working knowledge of design software like computer-aided design, work experience and industry connections will find more opportunities.
Part II. Top U.S. Fashion Design Programs
Developing a solid education is fundamental to a successful career, and American schools have turned out some of the biggest names in the fashion world. Choosing the right school requires realizing your aspirations and finding a program that will help you attain them. There is a fashion school and degree program tailored just for you.
Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (San Diego)
“I didn’t know how to cut and sew before I came to FIDM,” said Monique Lhuillier, bridal and evening wear designer. “When I was a student, I was full of dreams and knew I loved clothing, but I was also scared. I was fortunate that I could start my own line and risk it all.”
- Accreditation: Accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and National Association of Schools of Art and Design
- Specialized Degrees: From Buyer to Stylist, FIDM offers 20 creative majors to prepare its students for careers in the fashion, interior design, entertainment and visual arts industries. The school offers three different arts associate degree programs and a bachelor’s in business management program. Degrees programs in Merchandise Marketing Professional Designation and Business Management are offered online.
- Industry Perception: Famous alumni include Monique Lhuillier, Pamela Skaist-Levy and Randolph Duke. This school’s website allows prospective students to create their degree plan based on their desired career. Their career placement programs are exceptional, and, since it’s near Los Angeles, landing internships and networking with industry professionals is even easier.
- Cost: $27,000 to $36,000 per year, depending on degree plan
- Financial Aid: In addition to standard state and federal financial aid programs, the school offers scholarships to new students based on a variety of criteria.
Savannah College of Art and Design (Savannah, Ga.)
“I am genuinely inspired to come here. It’s an antidote to the chiffon trenches of fashion week … the rich and complex beauty of the city, the school as a first class art and design university, it means a lot to me,” said Andre Leon Talley, fashion industry icon, of the gallery named for him at the SCAD Museum of Art.
- Accreditation: Accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, National Architectural Accrediting Board, and Council for Interior Design Accreditation
- Specialized Degrees: This university offers two bachelor’s degree programs and six master’s degree programs. In 2011, fashion was among the school’s top five majors. A variety of degree programs are also available online, but fashion is not yet among them.
- Industry Perception: With Andre Leon Talley on the board of directors and alumni going on to work for reputable companies, SCAD is well-equipped to help students succeed.
- Cost: $31,905 per year for undergraduate programs and $32,670 per year for graduate programs
- Financial Aid: SCAD allocates scholarships money to new and current students. The average need-based scholarship or grant award is $5,692.
Fashion Institute of Technology (New York)
“I attended FIT in the late 1970s, and the school provided a totally comprehensive curriculum for fashion design that is unparalleled,” said Michael Kors, former FIT student and world-renowned fashion designer. “Since my days there it has evolved and become even stronger. It makes me so excited to see the potential talent that has been helped by this school, and I look forward to seeing that continue.”
- Accreditation: Accredited by the Commission on Higher Education of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, National Association of Schools of Art and Design, and Council for Interior Design Accreditation
- Specialized Degrees: Undergraduate programs include Accessories Design, Fabric Styling, Fashion Design, Textile/Surface Design and Menswear. Graduate programs include Fashion and Textile Students and Global Fashion Management. FIT offers a variety of online classes as well as a one-year associate’s degree in Fashion Merchandising Management.
- Industry Perception: A fraction of famous FIT alumni include Reem Acra, Carolina Herrera, Calvin Klein and Michael Kors.
- Cost: $4,200 to $9,198 annually for in-state tuition and $12,600 to $16,704 annually for out-of-state tuition
- Financial Aid: FIT awards an average of $582 in scholarship money to 17 percent of its students. Students are eligible to receive state and federal aid.
Academy of Art University (San Francisco)
“She was the person that drew me in and I owe everything to,” said Jewelry Designer Anna Sheffield of Charlene Modena, her jewelry teacher at AAU. “She hammered me into shape and forced us to evaluate why we used materials we used and why we made decisions we made. (She made me) think about things from start to finish and how you were going to package something and how you were going to present it.”
- Accreditation: Accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges
- Specialized Degrees: Online and offline associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degree programs range from textiles to fashion journalism. The school also offers an Online Award of Completion program for students who wish to acquire new skills without enrolling in a degree program.
- Industry Perception: This is the only fashion design college that shows at New York Fashion Week. The Academy became a household name when Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag of MTV’s “The Hills” met on the show as freshman in 2004.
- Cost: $21,088 annually
- Financial Aid: The school offers grants to area teachers for continuing education and Pre-College Art Experience Programs for high school students.
School of the Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago)
“I had been a painting major for two years at another school, and I wasn’t sure if fashion design would be my cup of tea. I wanted a school that was known for fine art,” said Cynthia Rowley of her decision to enroll at SAIC.
- Accreditation: Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and National Association of Schools of Art and Design
- Specialized Degrees: Students can received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Fashion or Master of Design in Fashion, Body and Garment.
- Industry Perception: According to the SAIC website, this school has produced the most Fulbright Scholars over the last decade among all art and design schools and is one of the oldest accredited independent schools of art and design in the country.
- Cost: $38,340 annually for undergraduate programs and $40,680 annually for graduate programs
- Financial Aid: During the 2011 academic year, SAIC awarded more than $29 million of its own money in scholarships and grants.
Parsons The New School for Design (New York)
“Every day was like a fashion parade,” said Marc Jacobs of his years at Parsons. “There was a little troop of us. It was me, a girl named Susan Martin, Chris Iles, and Tracy Reese. The four of us were inseparable. We were the overachievers. We would do five times what was required just because we really enjoyed it.”
- Accreditation: Accredited by the Commission on Higher Education of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, National Association of Schools of Art and Design, and National Architectural Accrediting Board
- Specialized Degrees: Associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s programs are available in topics ranging from fashion marketing to fashion design and society. The school also offers Pre-College Academy for students in grades 4 through 12, and Summer Intensive Studies programs in Paris and New York.
- Industry Perception: Parsons alumni are some of the biggest names in the fashion world, including Anna Sui, Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford.
- Cost: $39,280 to $40,300 annually, depending on degree program
- Financial Aid: Students applying to any program are automatically considered for scholarships based on merit. The New School for Design also participates in federal and state financial aid programs.
Part III. Launching a Career in Fashion
Now that you have school figured out, start planning your career. Don’t wait until senior year to apply for internships. Many successful professionals started their on-the-job training as early as high school. The experience gained from these positions will set you apart from your peers and help you land a job after college.
Organizing the Job Search
- Portfolios: Think of your portfolio as a visual for your résumé. It should showcase your best work and unique skills. Some schools have specific portfolio requirements, but you can easily find guidelines and creative ideas online.
- Cover Letters and Résumés: Having a professional, organized cover letter and résumé is as important as the portfolio. These are critical tools for getting your first internship or job. Students should use the career counseling services available at school as a starting point. Talk to professionals in your desired field to find out what they are looking for in a new hire, thoroughly research the company you are interested in working for, and tailor your cover letter and resume accordingly.
- Personal Branding: Building a personal brand takes time, but it will help you stand out in a sea of fashion industry hopefuls. If your positive reputation precedes you, you are more likely to land an interview. Self-branding is easier these days with plenty of advice online.
Top 5 Tips From Industry Insiders
- The most important advice I would give to somebody who is young is if you don’t love it, if you’re not obsessed, don’t do it, because it’s actually quite hard. – Jenna Lyons, J. Crew president
- Intern. Even if it’s not fashion-related, doing something can help you find out what you like and don’t like. And it’s important to know everything that’s happening online, like street-style and shopping blogs. – Sarah Meikle, Glamour Magazine’s fashion market director
- What’s worked for me is not quitting and being passionate about what I do and not giving up. And when I don’t believe in myself, turning to others who believe in me. – Marc Jacobs, American fashion designer
- I’m you, just a few years later. I fought, I dug, I did everything I had to do to get here. It’s just so much work. – Derek Warburton, American fashion stylist
- It’s not just who you know. I’ve hired people without connections who love (Rachel Zoe Inc.’s) brand and sent résumés on LinkedIn. Include links to your Tumblr, Pinterest, whatever. We hired someone because we fell in love with his personal pages. – Mandana Dayani, vice president and general counsel of Rachel Zoe Inc.
If you still need more advice on how to break into the fashion world, check out these tips from Publicist Kelly Cutrone and fashion news site Fashionista.
A Labor of Love
Education and job placement aside, pursuing a fashion career is about doing what you love. While keeping up in this highly competitive industry requires a hefty dose of grit and determination, those who succeed are the people who find their path naturally. Keeping up with trends, maintaining an open mind, and following your heart will set you in the right direction. Welcome to the world of fashion!