Consequences of the fashion school bubble

Last June the New York Times published Oh, to Be Young and a Star, addressing the question of who deserves success. Reporter Eric Wilson mentions tension in the “generational shift taking place in fashion” writing there are “more than 350 designers showing collections during New York Fashion Week, compared with about 50 just two decades ago”. He also said (paraphrased) that today’s designers think they’ve had it harder than anyone preceding them.

I can see it both ways. In many ways it’s easier to become a designer today (barring the case of celebrity designers) in that a designer-entrepreneur only needs money because they can outsource the technical mastery. It’s a double edged sword though; without technical mastery, they must outsource requisite skills. [I know many of you are annoyed by people who call themselves designers when they have no training or experience but I’m only bothered if they imagine skills are commodities.]

I’m troubled by the consequences of the fashion school bubble -350 designers at NY Fashion Week being but one sign of it- the blame for which we mostly attribute to Project Runway. A similar thing happened with the TV show LA Law, law schools were inundated with applicants and our legal system is burgeoning with excessive lawsuits as the logical consequence of lawyers needing to make their student loan payments. Simplistically speaking, these are trend careers. In the same vein, Mr. Fashion-Incubator says many young people are studying to become forensic pathologists because of CSI and Bones. I think that is great because it makes science and math careers more popular. Anybody who can make the grades can find a fulfilling and rewarding career even if they don’t become forensic pathologists. Conversely, the problem with fashion careers is that few will find jobs.

Let me lay it for you. In order for a person to have a full time job as a designer -meaning an employee, not someone who also has entrepreneurial duties- there needs to be a given number of personnel to support that position. Based on my experience, you only need one designer for every 75-150 stitchers. Anything less than that, the designer has cross duties he or she is not happy about. However, we have a crisis in the industry in that we can’t find enough stitchers to fill demand -at least domestically. The short answer is, if we can’t get people in front of machines, we can’t hire any more designers.

Here’s a little chart I drew up to illustrate it.

design_hierarchy

We also have a crisis with sales reps.  Being more technologically astute, most of the people coming in to that side of the business are more interested in marketing via social media (twitter, FaceBook) or doing email blasts to showcase their lines to showrooms and editorial (traditional fashion pubs and blogs) but the vast majority of product lines will never be sold that way successfully. Sure, you can drum up interest in the social space but if you don’t have reps slogging samples to stores, consumers can’t buy it. So, even if we solved the sewing to designer ratio problem, there’s no way to get product into stores because road reps are decreasing because they’re getting older and retiring with no one taking their place.

Thus, if a designer is determined to get a job designing, most will not have that option unless they become entrepreneurs or unless they start working on the support positions problem. Unfortunately, there’s no Project Runway for pattern makers, production sewers or sales reps to drive interest in those support positions that make a full time design career a possibility.

Even when I went to school 30 years ago, a fashion career was competitive but it wasn’t as bad as it is now so I admit to being perplexed by the unabated interest in fashion degrees. While there is always room for someone who is good (85% of Gen Y thinks they are above average), there are few to no jobs in design unless you do your own line because at precisely the time we have the most design grads and outsourcing startups is when we have the fewest number of people actually sewing. Contrast this to the forensic pathology career; each of those jobs also requires support staffing but few of those support jobs can be outsourced as the needle trades has been.

Katja Grace recently posed the question of how thoroughly do you research your dreams? I responded that I didn’t research mostly because I couldn’t but if I could have, probably wouldn’t have wanted to know the ugly truth of it. [That’s also true of kids today so I have no business throwing stones while living in my glass house.] Vinnie said (oversimplified) that there’s no incentive to do the research. That kids, schools and parents are complicit because there’s no gain to being the dream killer. I thought there was a lot of truth to that -and explains why I haven’t published this post since I first starting writing it last June. Some things don’t improve with age but must be said anyway.

Even the entrepreneurial track with or without a degree is no guarantee. You’ll pay one way or another if you can’t do your own patterns and production. Now there’s tons of businesses that only exist to suck the money out of start-ups, specializing in consulting, marketing or outsourced solutions. If any of their customers make it, it’s a tiny percentage of what comes in the door (no different from fashion school, especially the for-profit schools targeting starry-eyed dreamers). It’s a numbers game, most everyone loses and mercenary service providers know it so they don’t become invested in anyone. You have no relationship at McDonald’s. You go in, buy whatever and leave. Maybe you come back maybe you don’t. That they have the high minimums and set retainers is because they know you won’t be here next season. Probably the worst ones are those who ran their own manufacturing enterprises into the ground and needing a gig, decided to become consultants to tell you how to run your company into the ground too do it.

I think you can be successful if you would have entered the industry anyway, the path I advocate is not easy and it’s hard work. Which is not to say new aspirants don’t prepare but returning to Eric Wilson’s point, it’s a generational difference. They get MBAs, marketing or graphic arts degrees. They write business plans and beg or borrow every dime they can. They have their IP attorneys on speed dial. Indirectly, it explains today’s obsession with intellectual property (and not incidentally, inverse product innovation). With so many new lawyers picking through the pie, the only way they could give everyone a piece is if the pie were made larger. There’s a lesson to take from that but I don’t know how we can make the designer’s pie bigger if we don’t have stitchers and salesmen to support those jobs.

What I worry about is disillusionment, cynicism and the internalized self blame of failure. I worry about the long term psychic and financial costs and how a dream-deferred, demoralized and resentful workforce can affect society. In part I think it’s due to the seduction of simplicity. We all want a big EASY button but in manufacturing, there is no such thing. Fashion isn’t a franchise. You can’t plunk down some money or finance it and buy the equivalent of a UPS shipping outlet in a protected territory. It’s not a turn-key operation run on auto-pilot, its duties worked in after dinner or while the kids are napping. Somebody has to do the work. If your service providers worked the 4-hour work week you imagine you can, nothing would ever get done. You know, like sewing. Nobody wants to sew anymore. I know some fear it because it seems like more complexity but it’s also common to find others who want to pass that off to the “little people”.

Returning to Eric’s point again, some people just want to be a star. They go validation shopping and give their money to people who tell them they can be anything they put their minds to as long as they want it badly enough. A one-armed man no matter how disciplined or self affirming, is never going to take the gold in Olympic swimming. If you believe people have consummate control over their successes, the flip side must hold true too. That would mean people are ultimately responsible for all their failures, that they have ultimate control over something they don’t. I’m reminded of this when I read narratives written by people who’ve beaten cancer. They say they fought really hard, that they put their mind to it. The reverse implication being that people who died must not have wanted to live badly enough. They didn’t fight hard enough when the truth of it is, nobody has this kind of control. That’s not the best analogy because the odds of being successful in  manufacturing are much better than beating cancer because cancer doesn’t care how smart you are or how hard you work.

So, our industry is dealing with a bubble, an influx of people with varying levels of training and competence for whom there are fewer jobs than ever. Thus, if a designer is determined to get a job designing, most will not have that option unless they become entrepreneurs. Even then, most of their job will be business owner, not designer. I don’t see any way around it.

However even as entrepreneurs, designers have hurdles -that again, we didn’t have before. For example, we had more domestic resources. Today, because we don’t have the stitchers, many can’t produce domestically (small lots, it’s the only sustainable way) even if they wanted to. So, what this has done is drum up costs overseas (more competition for production resources), chasing people without the means out of the market.

The only long term sustainable way to grow a line will be to produce it oneself. But again, many people don’t want to  buy the machines, hire and train stitchers etc -and that’s assuming you can find people who’d want the jobs. Many people don’t these days. All this talk of sweatshops (mostly unwarranted at least in the US) and factory work being demeaning has backfired. No parent these days aspires for their child to work in a factory even though that’s where all the jobs are. Three states (PA, OH and I forget who else) are respectively projecting shortages of 100,000 workers each over the next ten years.

So let’s say you’re in a position to take a long term view of improving the job picture for design school graduates. The best thing you could do would be to encourage more domestic production because that’s the only way they will have the support staff needed to produce their lines.

The other generational change we’ve seen is that many people these days think it is someone else’s job to create a more favorable climate. The thing no one seems to understand is that it has ALWAYS been the designer’s role to do this. Designers have always started companies that then become healthy enough to create opportunities for other people. That is the only way that 99% of companies ever started. Today many think it is up to someone else to create these opportunities for them, to create that infrastructure rather than building it for themselves. This expectation creates conflict in that new entrants believe they should be the first generation in the history of the industry to not have to create jobs for themselves. Then again it is understandable that they’re more risk averse. They’re saddled with school debt we didn’t have either. Rock and a hard place, I don’t envy it.

If you’ve noticed, my driver has always been job creation. I do love all of you but I’m using you to get what I want, which is really what you want even if you’re not there yet. I once thought of  starting my own factory to provide a few jobs but that was silly. As a friend kindly pointed out, I could have a much greater effect on what mattered to me if I focused on helping entrepreneurs start enterprises because they’d need to hire people. You know, another order of magnitude. It’s why my focus is training and education. If money was my singular focus and I had one lick of sense, I’d either focus on producing my own line or consulting, sourcing and offshore packages because those are DE spending priorities. So, people buy my book and that’s good because it pays the bills and keeps this site scraping by but I’m inspired to work with people who are interested in developing jobs domestically.

I like factories. I like to start and grow them. I’m proud of that, the littlest ones are my favorites. My favorite thing is to improve quality and make them better. My point being -circuitously- is that we share the same interests. I’m a one man band trying to grow domestic factories without which designers cannot get jobs. So in my opinion, what would really be great is if designers worked toward that end too. Hopefully more people will become interested in it before we’ve completely lost the vestiges of institutional knowledge we still have. I won’t be here forever. Like those stitchers and reps, I’ll retire too. I want to make marionettes and play the banjo.

I’ve digressed a lot. The summary conclusion is that today’s design grads have it worse in some ways than we did but there’s always room for somebody who is good and the ones who deserve success are the ones who work for it in meaningful ways -which doesn’t mean blowing start up capital by keeping an IP attorney on speed dial. And maybe not even by going to fashion school. One advantage designers have today is that they have more money than we did to start enterprises even if it’s only access to credit and also, disposable income has increased by quite a bit with a 300% increase of expenditures going to clothing. So, the only difference can boil down to how you choose to allocate your resources to greater advantage. I remain convinced that the apparel market is going to tighten up and people who produce domestically will have marked advantages over others come five or so years from now.

Related:
Which fashion school is best?
Which fashion school is best? pt.2
Should you go to fashion school?

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