How To Get Out of a Rut

Disclaimer: I don’t sugarcoat. I’m not good at it. I’m also definitely not pointing fingers to anyone in this post. Please don’t be offended by anything you read here.

“Don’t force it,” my brain tells me. I tell my brain that it’s starting sound like that “If you build it, they will come” voice–benign, but annoying. My brain doesn’t like this and starts whispering all sorts of other insane stuff: You’ll never design another great collection again. You’re a hack. You’re plateauing, my friend, and it ain’t pretty. Just because you are physically able to be a designer doesn’t mean you should.

Insecurities seep in, your heart starts listening to your brain. You yell “shut up!” to your brain so loud, you almost say it out loud. Careful, or they’ll cart you away.

It’s MAGIC time, which means most designers are absorbing as much input from the currently selling collection right now, wringing their hands that their blood, sweat and tears will not be for naught, while trying to come up with the next collection. Sometimes it’s easy–you’re a designer because you’re so full of ideas, right? Right?

There will come a time when you feel “tapped out”. It happens to everyone. You know the latest Dior Couture collection? The one everyone, myself included, swooned over? Everyone was also buzzing over the fact that it was done in just six weeks. I’d put money on it that that was because Mr. Galliano, also being human and all, probably was stuck in a rut, panning bad idea after bad idea before he was able to knock out this collection. Trust me, no one decides they’re gonna put together a 45+ piece couture collection in six weeks just for kicks.


Sometimes ruts happen after a “bad” or “not selling” collection. You’re insecure now, you don’t trust your gut anymore. Sometimes you’re not feeling challenged anymore. This isn’t as fun as it used to be. You can’t remember a time when it was still fun. Your last collection rocked so hard, you’re afraid you won’t be able to beat it. Store X is finally paying attention to you–this just has to be the best collection ever.

So step 1 in how to get out of a rut? Let go of your ego. Quit thinking you’re special. What I mean by that is just acknowledge the fact that it happens to everyone, it’s definitely not the end of the world, calm down.

Step 2: Get a life. Or more specifically, get a life beyond what you know and are comfortable with. The geekerati have this term “the echo chamber”, where the entire tech blogosphere is writing about the same thing for a short period of time. My husband has told me on several occasions that he loves the fact that we work in unrelated fields so that we don’t create an echo chamber at home.

Dismantle your own echo chamber. Go drive or walk around an unfamiliar part of town. (Of course, be safe, do this with a small group of people or in broad daylight–you know what I mean.) Go observe a welding class. Take a class in something you’ve never studied before–chemistry, glass blowing, obscure French lit. Go hit up stores that you’ve never been in before–I stopped by this really cool store with saddle-making supplies yesterday. Go read things you’ve never read before–not necessarily fashion related. Read some fun “love and relationships” blogs, funky gadget blogs, go read up on the potential dismantling of the North Korean nuclear program. Get out of your own head and be a sympathetic ear to someone else’s problems. Throw a party–maybe the theme can be “The person with the costume that inspires my next collection gets a prize!”, although that can be pretty echo-chamber-y.

Step 3: Release some physical energy. When a deadline was looming before me in school, it would suddenly occur to me that my bathroom was “filthy”, and I would proceed to scrub every inch within it for the next two hours, often in the middle of the night. Pleased as punch with my spotless bathroom, I could concentrate on my flats. It may sound weird, but you’d be amazed at how many of my colleagues could relate to this story with their own versions. One would decide, at 3am, that she wasn’t going to have time to cook the rest of the week, so she needed to make a big stew to eat through the week. She chopped her vegetables vigorously, imagining her hated illustration teacher was her carrots. I got so royally pissed I got a “C” on a particular project my freshman year, I took a kickboxing class. It was great.

Step 4: Do your chores. Take this time to submerge yourself in other aspects of your business. Never got a complete grasp on cost sheets? Mastering Excel is a better use of your time than staring at blank pieces of paper, and it’s still doing something to benefit your company. Have production issues? Read this blog’s archives. Take the time to pay your bills and analyze how much money you’re spending. Tinker with the pattern of that one dress you didn’t have time to get *just right* before trade show season. Return all those emails, clean your workspace, replenish your tool bin, go buy some more muslin, get your machine serviced. Ticking off items on your to-do list, no matter how small, gives one a feeling of accomplishment.

While these are not fool-proof tips (I’m a designer, not a motivational speaker), these tips have worked for me and for those I’ve told about this 4-step method. Take with a grain of salt, and I hope I can be of some help to at least one reader. It’s hard not to feel the least helpful with these amazing F-I writers around.

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11 comments

  1. WOW! Thank you for this post – it came exactly when I need it. I have been sitting on a collection I was supposed to send out a couple of weeks ago to my rep. I have been flipping out because I “don’t think it’s good enough, I’m not good enough, why did I decide to become a designer anyway?…” I’m fairly new to the game – so I thought it was just me. Thanks again!

  2. Suzanne says:

    This is a wonderful article. Thank you. Sometimes it’s hard to admit the insecurities and freezes we all get, but acknowledging them and working with them is more productive than letting them paralyze you.

    Now I’m off to vacuum…

  3. Karen C. says:

    I’m a bathroom cleaner too! It’s meditative for me. And I also just start reading books, magazines, watching movies–then it all starts flowing again.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    Has Galliano ever had a bad collection??? That man is a freak of genius! Even when critics put down his collections, they’re still inspired and excellently put together- and so unmistakably… his. Yeah, he’s my favorite, along with Christian Dior. Needless to say I’d wear anything Dior from any era. OK, I’m embarrassed now. Me Galliano dork. Blush.

  5. Karen C. says:

    I’m absolutely always amazed by Mr. Galliano’s genius and creativity. Especially to see how it all filters down into mass RTW in about 3-5 years. Would love to have his collection budget!

  6. J C Sprowls says:

    My day-job boss asked me today how much budget I needed to develop a collection. So, I gave her a range for 3 pricepoint targets. She was a little shocked!

    She had been perusing the London Fashion Week on Yahoo and was getting inspired. BTW… anyone been to that, yet?

    Back to the matter at hand… Zoe’s advice is excellent. I love that she covered the gamut of healthy & constructive means of expression.

    I especially like: “dismantle the echo chamber”. I find this to be key in all industries. The mutual admiration society, as I like to call it, stifles your creativity and makes you complacent faster than you might think. If you really want to help me, argue with me. Hold me to a higher standard. Demand that I be better than my last project.

  7. vickib says:

    When my oldest son was in middle school, one of his teachers said he wasn’t sure that my son was always using his full potential. It made me realize that no one can always perform at their very top ability, or, they will burn out very fast. That teacher must have known that,as he had never perfomed at the top of his abilities.

  8. Well, I’m so happy that I was able to help someone! Seriously–it’s the reason I blog here, to help people.

    >The mutual admiration society, as I like to call it, stifles your creativity and makes you complacent faster than you might think. If you really want to help me, argue with me. Hold me to a higher standard. Demand that I be better than my last project.

    I agree with this wholeheartedly. I’m always trying to get people to critique my work and often people are afraid of making me mad or coming off negative or jealous in front of others.

  9. maria says:

    Count me in as a bathroom cleaner. I did this just last weekend. I consider it “constructive procrastination”, and the meditative toilet-bowl scrubbing has yet to let me down. It’s kind of like when you have a word at the tip of your tongue, and you make yourself forget it: that’s when it comes to you– in the middle of the night.

    I was at work until 10pm last night making syllabi and semester charts. I came home in such a nit-picky organizational haze that I proceeded to pluck the living daylights out of my eyebrows. They look professionally done and they are actually cleaner than a wax.

  10. Kathleen says:

    I white-glove clean something, “german-lady” clean it as Eric says. Something. Walls. A room. Cats (uncooperatively). Definitely not my son’s bathroom tho because there’s something nasty incubating there. ebola, dengue fever, you know, minimally hemorrhagic fevers or something. The only way it gets clean is if I threaten to blog about his bathroom. [Blogging, a new parenting tool. Who knew?] My bathroom is too small to go hog wild. I’m more inclined to wet mop (boiling water and bleach) the floors. Our floors don’t have drains like the house I grew up in so I can’t get too crazy but basically, I’d hose it down (from the ceiling down, stripping everything) if I could.

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