How I Got Started

I’ve been getting a lot of emails lately asking for advice on how to get started in this biz, how to put together a portfolio, how to get a job, whatnot. Let me just state for the record: I do not feel comfortable giving budding designers any advice. I don’t feel qualified. I know what I know, and that may not necessarily work for anyone else. I only have my own story.


Rewind with me, if you will, to 1995. It was freshman year of high school and I enrolled in my first drawing class. (Up until then, the closest I got to art classes was a Korean calligraphy class at the Korean Education school I got kicked out of for my, um, behavior. Hey, man, I was 8. Anyway, I had wanted to be a fashion designer forever, drew on my own for hours on end, but all my spare hours were devoted to classical music studies. Don’t ask, long story.) I just figured it was high school, prep time for the real world, and all that jazz. I think I must have taken 12 art classes while in high school, including the ones I took at the local university. Drawing, composition, ceramics, color theory, painting, printmaking, jewelry making, everything.

The gifted education program at my high school had a mentorship program for their seniors. Growing up in Anchorage, Alaska, my counselor had a heck of time trying to place me. Finally she found a spot for me interning at the local operahouse costume design department. It was an amazing experience. A paragraph doesn’t do the experience justice, so I’ll write a separate post on that year. That was pretty much the first time I sewed anything, and even then I didn’t sew that much. I didn’t really learn to sew until sophomore year of college.

Right out of high school, I moved to L.A. to attend Otis College of Art and Design. How did I pick that school? I read an article in W magazine announcing the winners of a college competition held by the CFDA. The schools of the winners were also posted next to the names, so I applied to those schools. Yup, I really didn’t do much research. I just figured those schools must be the top dogs. I pick Otis because they threw the most money my way and I had family in L.A.

Otis is basically a weeder school. It doesn’t take much to get accepted, but they will put you through hell and back several times if you want to graduate. The fashion program is incredibly intense. For proof, let me cite some numbers for you. I was in school from 1998-2002. When I started, we had a total undergraduate population of 900 students and almost 400 of them were freshmen. Freshmen all take the same classes, basics of drawing, color, 3-D design, etc. We matriculate into our majors sophomore year. Seventy sophs went to fashion with me, but only 24 graduated.

While in school, I didn’t do much in the industry. I had one short summer internship at a contemporary womenswear company doing about $10million a year. Another summer, I went to London to take classes at Central Saint Martins. Yes, that one. That too deserves it own post. I would have preferred to have a year-round internship during school, but I couldn’t. I was making anywhere from 3 to 10 times more at my part-time gigs as an English tutor, both for the Otis Liberal Arts Department and on my own. I needed that money for fabric and books. My senior year alone, I must have spent about $5000 on materials.

What did I do after graduating? Not a whole lot. I watched the World Cup. That was fun. I freelanced. I slept. I was tired and maxed out on fashion for a bit. I had devoted 90+ hours a week to schoolwork and had 3 part-time jobs all the while. I half-heartedly started looking for full-time work. I freelanced some more. I started getting more connections, freelancing more and more. Finally, it was almost a year after graduation and my biggest freelance client dropped me because they decided to build an in-house design team in Italy. Oy.

A month into intense jobhunt mode, a classmate friend of mine calls me. Summer of 2003 I started at Eva Fortune, a tiny tiny startup that produced beautiful, kimono-inspired clothes. Unfortunately, the business end of things weren’t well organized and Eva Fortune went bankrupt a year later. Back to the jobhunt it was.

I don’t want to delve too much into my personal life, so let’s just say that living in L.A. grew less and less appealing every minute. It had been heading down that negative spiral for a while, but I felt powerless against the tide of events. I desperately wanted to leave L.A., but was broker than dropped china. (FYI, fashion designers don’t get paid very well and I had crippling student loans despite the scholarship money.)

It was July of 2004. The tide had turned and I was standing at a crossroads. I don’t mean it to sound so melodramatic, but the summer of 2004 really was a pivotal summer for me. On the one hand, I had L.A., a few good job offers, and a whole lot of problems. While most problems don’t function this way, I knew once I left, I could free myself from a lot of stress. On the other hand, my boyfriend was asking me to move in with him in San Francisco, a city with tons of friends, better weather, freedom, but no career-advancement opportunities.

I was and still am an ambitious, career-oriented, goal-driven nutcase, but there are times when you have to make sure you’re okay too. So I chose sanity and San Francisco and unemployment. I never worried about money so much in my life. I was never happier.

I started looking for a job, any job. I temped here and there to make ends meet. It had been almost a year since Eva Fortune had gone bankrupt and I still had no full-time job. The job market in the Bay Area was fierce in all categories, but that didn’t stop me from feeling like an out and out loser.

One day, in June 2005, I responded to an ad for a production assistant position available at a leather company. You can’t even imagine the happy dance I did when I got hired. A job! It paid more than my last job! I was working again! (I am SO not made for a life of leisure, even if I could afford it.) AND I was working in the industry again!

The past year has been a whirlwind. All the plans I had for my career were finally coming to fruition. I had proof that I was made to be in this industry and that all my hard work wasn’t for nothing. In just the past 12 months, I won 2 design competitions (I won a local one before Gen Art), got promoted to the head designer position at work, started blogging (in November) and met all these amazing women in fashion, built up my portfolio. And just as important, I’ve built some great friendships here, my physical health has gotten better, my life has become practically drama-free and I have the absolutely best relationship with a man I love dearly.

So you want advice from me? I got nothing. You want my opinion? If you want to be in this business, you have to prepare for a lot of hard work, a lot of disappointment, a lot of heartache, unexpected twists, not getting paid a lot, and more hard work. Each time you accomplish a goal, enjoy the moment, but remember that this is a fast-paced industry that doesn’t give you a lot of time to bask in the glory. (Case in point, after the high of the competition win, I’m now spending every waking moment working on The Dress of A Million Construction Nightmares.) Your love for this industry has to surpass every other thought or feeling about this world. And you can only stay in this industry if you can’t picture yourself doing anything else. Really.

And don’t forget that mistakes are just another opportunity to learn. As you can read here, I’ve not always made the best decisions, but I’ve learned a lot from my [many] mistakes.

So, there you have it: my history in this biz, as succinctly as I could write it. I’ll be posting more in-depth posts about different points either at here or at my own blog, verbal croquis.

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15 comments

  1. Danielle says:

    Oh my god, I love you Zoe. Here I am feeling like a total loser because me whole job-hunt/freelance thing is progressing in fits and starts in between days of total inertia (I’m reading instead of watching the world cup, but it’s the same sort of thing). I always imagined you as this indefatiguable (sp) force that never slowed down. This post makes me feel better. Thank you. If I ever get a job I want to write a post like this.

  2. Kathleen says:

    wow, cool post Zoe.
    Makes me think I should publish my own “how I got started” story. Maybe we should have Miracle do one too to fill out the roster.

  3. Jill says:

    Yes thanks!! This has been an inspirational post…I have had some similar experiences in my past and right now I’m feeling down because it has been over a year since I had my last real job in the industry which coincidently was a leather company that has since gone under. I guess it was meant to be because it has fueled me to go back to school to further my education in the industry. Very soon I will be back in the swing of things :) I can’t believe you are only 26/27ish?? Wow you have accomplished so much and you are incredibly talented and intelligent. I only recently started reading this blog but I am glued to the screen when reading your posts. I am hooked now, and plan to read through your archives!

  4. Kathleen says:

    Jill, this blog has 3 authors, Kathleen (me), Miracle and Verbal Croquis (Zoe). Zoe joined us very recently; her first post was May 2nd when she did a guest entry for FI. She decided to join us officially on May 9th. Unfortunately, Zoe is very busy so we don’t get as much of her as we’d like but I am always thrilled when she can contribute. Miracle’s been going through heavy stuff lately and hasn’t posted in awhile so the majority of entries on site are written by me and I’m an old hag (45). If you just want to read Zoe’s past entries, these are as follows:

    Working as a freelance designer
    Producing a catalog
    Fashion Education Options
    Constructing Sparkle

    and of course, today’s entry.
    Welcome to the site!

  5. Jill says:

    I would too, I love hearing about everyone’s experiences.
    Sorry Kathleen about the mix-up earlier…I love reading your posts everyday and would love to hear more from Zoe and Miracle.

  6. Beverly says:

    I’m always blown away hearing of the hoops everyone has had to jump through, and no matter what, still able to rise and shine! Truly the cream rises to the top! Great post, Zoe, thanks for sharing.

  7. Thanks for the compliments! And yes, Kathleen is the real superstar of this blog. And yes! Kathleen and Miracle should definitely write similar posts! I’m dying to read them.

  8. Kathleen says:

    Zoe, you don’t post often but your posts are very popular when they do come out. I think you have an honesty and directness that people appreciate and really like.

    It’s kind of hard to be that personal to tell your own “how you started story”. The road is never even, there’s a lot of set backs and it all looks so easy when you’re reading out there.

    I haven’t heard back from Miracle. She’s a very private person but maybe she’ll go for it.

  9. Karen C. says:

    Great post today, Zoe. I sooo agree about your statement that you need to have a passion/love for this business 24/7 to make it through the rough spots. And what really helps me is to remind myself each and every day (before I enter a pity party) is every little accomplishment. Like this week, my fabric labels arrived, I have a number of seamstresses to interview for my sample making, I found (maybe) a local supplier for my bamboo fabrics, published my fictitous business name, working on my web page, hang tags, found a supplier for care labels that’s reasonable, etc. (ok, now I’m even impressing me!). But most of all finding this community of fashion people has helped me by leaps and bounds. Thanks to all of you!

  10. Judith says:

    Yay Zoe!!! Thankyou for sharing all of this with us. Iam glad that you are feeling healthy-er. Stress can sure take a toll.
    Kathleen I look forward to your posts everyday. I’m biassed you are close to my age.
    Karen C: It sounds like you are doing great. I need to do what you are doing. I’m not sure where to begin. I need to find someone to help me do a web page. Reading this blog has helped me so much.

  11. gary wassner says:

    Passion is the word. I agree totally. Without it, what’s really the point anyway? If you are going to choose a career path that is creative and embodies your desires in life, then you have to forsake something as well. But it’s worth it! It’s when life’s obligations get in the way that you have to make the sad and serious choices. Even then, you don’t need to compromise. Design and creativity don’t stop because you’re not getting paid for them.

    I run a business and I write books that have nothing to do with my business whatsoever. I wasn’t always able to do both, but I never gave up my passion and my desire.

  12. Rebecca says:

    I just found this site and thought “How I Got Started” seems like good place to statrt reading. And, to my amazement, you’re an Anchorage girl?! I’m a graduate of Steller, and I just finished my sophomore year of college at Bennington, where I’m doing design – mostly graphic, but a bit of costume and fashion. I’ll definately have to keep my eye on this blog, methinks :D

  13. Rebecca says:

    (My brother was East ’03)

    All the posters (there are three, right?) seem very interesting. And any blog that has an Alaskan who actually went out to DO SOMETHING is good by me :P

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