Fashion Education Options

Hardly anyone I know is self-taught. When I say “self-taught”, I mean someone who took some fabric and tools, bought some clothes at a store they want to sell at, and started messing around until they “got it”. Now, there’s “self-educated”, those who read books and surfed the web. There’s the “schooled”, those who took several classes, or even went on to get an AA. And then there are what I call the “baffers”, those girls who went through a four-year program and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts at a prestigious design school.

No method is better than the other. (Do you hear that? That’s the sound of my alma mater’s collective screeching.) There’s a right method for you, and it all depends on your learning style and what your goals are.

Let’s look at our career options, shall we? Warning: I’m diabetic. I don’t sugarcoat.


A. You want to start working at an established fashion house. You figure you can start off as an assistant designer somewhere and work your way up to a bigger design position.

Go baffer. Go to school and go to a good one. Go to one with a name everyone knows. Kick some major butt at your senior show. Be on good terms with your department admins, especially your career services office.

B. You want to work for an established fashion house and you hate school. You’re willing to start from the very bottom if you have to, but the thought of more school makes you want to grind my bones to make your bread.

Look for an internship somewhere. Offer yourself up as a free slave willing to do nothing but clip loose threads for year if they’ll give you a chance. In all seriousness, they will take you, but you have to be willing to work for free or bare bones minimum wage for a while. Even then there is no guarantee that they’ll eventually hire you with a real salary.

C. You want to start your own company. You want to something small, you’re not interested in getting involved with the slick and slosh of the fashion industry, but you want to design and produce clothes for a particular niche market, in Anytown, USA.

Read lots of books on various aspects of the industry, especially in regards to professional manufacturing processes. You can take a lot of technical classes for garment construction, or apprentice somewhere. You can also go the baffer route, but they won’t teach you about what to do when you can’t find anyone who’ll do your pathetically small quantities. Prestige of your alma mater means nothing. If you want to go to school, you need to find one that suits your needs.

D. You want to start your own company. It’ll be fantaaaabulous, dahling. You’re going to be the next Alexander McQueen!

The baffer route is a good choice. The baffer route with some experience working for someone else works better. If you don’t go the baffer route, you had better have some amazing PR people backing you up, and they don’t come cheap. No baffer cred, you have to have background work history cred. Or, have none of the above, but have someone bankroll you.

While I’m on the subject, I want to take a few moments to dispel some stereotypes and myths out there.

1. Not all non-baffers are lazy, not talented enough to get accepted into a prestigious school, or too geeky and dowdy to mingle with the fashionistas. They aren’t less dedicated to the work, they aren’t lesser designers. They just opted for a different way.

2. Not all designers bankrolled by Daddy, or those who inherited the business through family are shiftless, lazy, designer wannabes. Yes, a lot of them are, but not all of them. I used to work for a designer bankrolled by Daddy and if I worked 12 hours a day, she worked 13. No one worked harder for the success of that company than she did. Mocking people because they have more money than you is also a form of bigotry.

3. Don’t ever say “oh, she got that job cuz she’s from X school.” Maybe that’s true. Most likely, it was because she was she displayed the skills she learned in school. Yes, famous schools have better PR engines, but nothing is more powerful than word of mouth from alumni and the vast majority of alumni are honest when asked about their school experience. In this country, getting into a school is lot easier than actually completing a degree. It takes drive, money, major life reprioritizing, and energy.

4. Celebrity endorsement of your line guarantees nothing. It’s what you do with that extra PR is what matters. I work for a company that used to clothe the Grateful Dead, President Clinton, and Joe Montana. No one remembers this today.

5. Just because you’re a baffer doesn’t mean the world is going to bow down to you. It will open doors for you, but it’s up to you to keep those doors open.

I can also write a follow-up post detailing my experiences at my alma mater if there is enough interest. Please let me know in the comments section.

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18 comments

  1. Virgie says:

    I’ve almost always been interested in designing clothes, but I chose along with my husband of almost fifty years to live in the country. And I’ve worked in garment factories most of my working years. Now, that I’m retired I have many, many hobbies–sewing for myself and home, quilting is my latest (for the past three years). I’ve read books all my life to find out about what I wanted to know, and now with the internet there is so much out there to learn from. Thank you so much for being there. And yes I would like to hear more about your experiences at your alma mater

  2. Janyce Engan says:

    Great Post!

    I’m in the self-schooled catagory – but my goals don’t really match any of the above – probably the closest is C.

    I tried the school route – but at my age (48!) starting as a freshman at a fashion school, going part time would take me almost 10 year to become a baffer . . . let alone pursue a masters . .

    Other self-schoolers and I tend to share the same pitfall – of not feeling confident in our work because we haven’t learned from a “professional source”.

    Could you give us some resources for the self-schooled to take it to the next level?

    For instance, I taught myself how to drape and hand grade .. .and I can draft a moulange from measurements and fine tune a skin-tight fit.

    What I haven’t figured out (or found a good book on) is how to add the right amount of ease to make a pattern from a moulange wearable.

    Since my area of expertise is historic fashion – I spend a lot of time draping early victorian patterns on my Wolf form to size them up . . but don’t know where to go from the close draping on the form to get the pattern to a place where the garment can be worn on a real person.

    Regards
    Janyce Engan
    http://www.vpll.org

  3. Rebecca says:

    Outstanding post! You just have a way of condensing pertinent information and making it personal. I am interested in whatever you want to write.

    (Once upon a time I may have aspired to be a designer, but that was many moons ago. Now, I just want to be an artistic “what to wear” blogger.)

    BTW, my favorite line? “Mocking people because they have more money than you is also a form of bigotry.” So true!

  4. jinjer says:

    You have a fab knack for answering the questions I’m still trying to put into words!

    I wonder if those readers who are baffers out there would answer a follow up question: What’s the job market like nowadays, for someone with a degree from a decent school who busted their ass for their senior show?

  5. This is great! I am a fashion school graduate and I must say that this is the most accurate thing I’ve heard in a long time…

    “You can also go the baffer route, but they won’t teach you about what to do when you can’t find anyone who’ll do your pathetically small quantities. ” HA! So true.

    This is why experience and working for someone else to learn the ropes is as important as schooling.

    I must say that I would have never been able to fall under the self educated catagory. Everything I learned in school was difficult, technical, totally overwhelming to me and I needed all the teachers I could get to teach it to me. I couldn’t have done it without them. My pattern classes alone were 6 hours a day! So, those out there who ARE self taught and are pulling it off…you are amazing and probably naturally gifted!!!! Pat yourself on the back because the technicals of fashion design and production are not that easy to learn.

  6. Mariamne Moore says:

    Regarding Janyce’s comment about going to school at 48, I did that. I already had a 4 year degree, so I only had to take a one year course full time at FIDM (although it was so intense that I had to go one more term to finish). If you can manage to go full time, it’s worth it. I was 50 when I finished, but I figured I would be that old even if I didn’t do it, so what the heck. I agree with Angela that the technical aspect is not something you should try to learn on your own, unless you are just planning to pay someone who did go to school to make your patterns. Even so, you may not be able to detect a bad pattern. I must say, I admire the guts it takes to go into business without the schooling, but it could lead to some expensive life lessons.

  7. This was great – I was a self educated – 3yrs! Would love to be in the D category for swimwear! I really didn’t learn much tech stuff – just how the industry works, learned a lot about getting my idea across thru drawing & measuring, and found great people to help & guide me along – Not to name names, but Sally Beers has been the reason I have managed to get where I am. I am finally going to a trade show in July – Lets hope for the best! Maybe it will be great or maybe I will just have to keep going!!
    Thanks

  8. Kathleen says:

    Barring the technical topics and provided one has a previous business background, a DE can be self-taught. The caveat is the technical topics. A DE must hire someone who knows what they’re doing. And it’s not that a DE can’t learn patterns over a (long) period of time by themselves it’s that even among those who took intensive pattern classes at school -we were *not* taught production pattern making either! You only learn that on the job in an established, practiced facility with people in a position to provide oversight to your work.

    The biggest problem I see in DE companies are DEs who make their own patterns. Over and over, it’s the same thing. Assuming one has had classes and practice, it’d still be worth the effort to find a mentor to smooth out the rough spots, assuming you’ve never worked as an industrial pattern maker.

  9. Sharon Alexander says:

    I just wanted to say that i found your comments very interesting and would enjoy hearing more of your experiences. It is freshing to listen to someone who has a realistic view , mixed with a non judgemental way of looking at how someone goes about educating themselves.
    I myself attend college for design, and find it amazing the more people I have meet that have or are making there mark in the fashion world by attending part time courses, and creating their lines by indepentent learning .Makes your ohnestly and wonder what road is better, or if there just as equal. If maybe all you need is desire and streetsmarts to make it on your own. Keep your Blog going , it’s the most interesting one I have read yet.

  10. Karen C. says:

    I agree–great post. I’ve kinda done a combo of studies to get where I am, from being taught to sew as a child, to my Home Economics classes, then years later formal design classes in Italy (short course) to my industry reading study (starting with Kathleen’s book in Oct. 2002. But I must say my education in the last 7 months since finding this blog has increased tremendously! Especially when it comes to the technical aspects of construction. Without the education this blog has given me, I doubt I’d be ready to go to a professional for my production patterns, which I will be doing this weekend. It’s a real milestone for me, as I decided to start my company almost 6 years ago–and I may finally be able to produce a saleable product by the end of July. So all of you just hang in there, no matter which road takes you there.

  11. Judith says:

    2nd the outstanding post. I’m a C. I would be scared to death to go to school to be a baffer. Iam trying to do 2 things with my life. I know I’m probably crazy. I’m an esthetican, but I still want to have my own vintage clothing bussiness. I have been trying to do what C said to do. I live in Crappyville so I have limited resources. Iam reading Kathleen’s book.

  12. farnigirl says:

    I’m presently working on my Associates in Fashion Design in San Diego California. I have to admit SD is nothing like Phoenix has become and I truley miss every one back in the valley of the sun.
    I’ve met some great people here and try to keep all the business cards I’ve collected along the way. Through networking I have also learned a lot about the industry.
    I am attending a junior college and I’m a bit concerned that any future trade school I attend for my bachelors, won’t accept my credits. I’m sure it depends on the school but has any one ran into this problem?

  13. claire says:

    My name is Claire, and I’m sixteen years old. I guess I’m a lot younger and more inexperienced than most of you, but I guess at this point that might be a good thing. You all seem to have a lot of knowledge about sewing, design, and the career choices involved.
    I have always loved fashion! even when I less than two years old, I would cry if my mother didn’t dress me with the right diaper cover! Over the years, I have slowly taught myself the basics of sewing, and have enjoyed sketching various gowns, and other ensembles, and recently designed and created my prom dress. I have realized that this may be what I want to do as a profession, and I don’t know how to prepare or where to begin. I would love some advice about schools, internships, and publicity. My e-mail is clairebelle007@hotmail.com
    Thanks so much!

  14. J C Sprowls says:

    Claire,

    Welcome!

    My question for you is do you live in a metropolitan area? The reason I ask is because the town where I grew up (Pittsburgh, PA) didn’t have a fashion program, per se. Now, I don’t know what is feasible for you to do. But, in a metropolitan setting, more options are available. My recommendation would be to seek out and volunteer in the costume departments of universities and/or theatres, especially the ballet theatre & opera because they tend to have industrial equipment and seasoned staff from whom you can learn.

    The experience will provide an overview of the development lifecycle in bursts that you can digest (pre-production). Understanding the lifecyle of concept, design, sampling, reiteration/developing patterns, construction and finishing is relatively universal. It’s simply the scale of the project that changes(and adds a few more checkpoints). Somewhere around the 3rd or 4th production, you’ll begin to see the lifecycle emerge and be in a position to develop informed opinions.

    What you may find is that there are certain aspects of the costume shop that you enjoy more than others. This is fine because you will have lived and breathed a solid overview and discovered your niche. What’s important is that the background will help you decide if a formal fashion education is what you seek, or if you want to modify the course of your future studies.

    Kathleen posted an article about job seeking for patternmakers. That should help you assemble a basic portofolio to take with you when you speak to these folks about volunteering. Whether you are seeking a post for pay or not, practicing your presentation skills and professional courtesies will bode well for your future, regardless the field.

  15. Claire says:

    Wow! Thanks for the warm welcome! I live in Bloomington, IN (not exactly what I’d call metropolitan). But Indiana University is really quite a good school and has a great music school. I imagine that the opera program would be a wonderful thing to get involved with, but I guess I’m a little frightened because I don’t know what to do, where to begin, or what it might entail. Should I write a resume? I don’t really have any credible background with this kind of thing, so I don’t know what I would say.

    Also, I had an interesting and very inprobable idea posed to me the other day. My freind, whos loves my clothes and who is friends with the owner of a little boutique downtown, suggested that I arrange a portfolio of my clothes and present it to the owner. This would be an amazing opportunity for me should they choose to sell or display my clothes, but it would involve so much more than I know how to do. For instance, I would need to handle the business aspects, produce more items than I am used to, and possible have to worry about making multiple sizes and doubles of certain items (which is something I have never done before).

    I am both excited and terrified by this idea, and these conflicting emotions have kind of paralyzed me from making steps towards any action. What do you think I should do?

  16. J C Sprowls says:

    Claire,

    I’m really not in the best position to advise you on this decision, simply because I don’t know what is reasonable for you to expect of yourself.

    If I were in your shoes, I would recommend that you take things slow. You can always run faster once you have gained confidence in your skills and know what realistic expectations you can have of yourself.

    I don’t think a resume is required if you want to volunteer for a theatre – though, it couldn’t hurt. In my past, I’ve simply shown up with a sample, a pattern, and sketches (mine are horrible). From there, I asked if they wanted or needed pre-production help. Just be honest and frank, let the situation find you.

    If you’re still teetering on whether to produce for the boutique, I’d highly recommend you order Kathleen’s book, ASAP. I say this because it will help you understand what will be expected from you if you produce a line.

  17. Erin says:

    Claire,

    I don’t know if you’ll catch this comment 2 months later, and I hope you’ve made progress this summer. I’m a costume designer / technician for a children’s theatre, and we sometimes have teenage volunteers, as well as paid interns. My best advise is to take the first step (as in any project) seriously – the commitment step. Figure out when you can be there, and be there, regularly. Call if you can’t come, and you will be appreciated, and not get a reputation as a flake. Protect your reputation! This alone will get you a reccomendation, and only when you are *there* can you learn anything and get the experience you want. Also be willing to do the grunt jobs. Sweep up, sew on buttons – there are infinate details to be taken care of in any production. Also look to community theatres – you may end up designing for them, as they are always desperate for costumers – only don’t spend your own money!
    And think ahead – a letter of recommendation may get you a work study job in college in the costume shop, and keep you from scraping plates in the cafeteria, even if you decide you want a degree in something totally different. Trust me, you want to eat with your friends, not scrape their plates.
    If you want that letter, you should be prepared to put up with all kinds of personalities (not abuse! just personalities!) to get it. People are wierd, funny and just plain strange. If you can deal, you might learn something from them. And remember, most people pay to learn, at a internship or voulunteership you are learning only at the cost of you time. And hanging out here at fashion-incubator is the same!

    Good luck!

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