Should you go to fashion school?

I’ve been getting this question a lot lately, does one need to go to fashion school? I think it depends. What are your goals? Do you want to get a job or become an employer? Do you want to be a designer or do you want to be a service provider such as a contractor, technical designer or pattern maker? Or, are you a highly creative someone who thinks fashion is a great way to generate income? Let’s sort this out according to this criteria:

  • I want to work as a designer
  • I want to produce my own line
  • I want a technical background to be employed or to employ others
  • People who are not suited to own a fashion business

Goal: Technical
The last is easiest so I’ll do it first. If you want to be a pattern maker or technical designer, you should go to fashion school, no doubt about it. You should know how to sew before you start. If you can’t sew, learn that first. If you can’t motivate yourself to do it, this isn’t a fit for you. The advantage to learning sewing is that if you find you don’t like sewing, you will have saved yourself a lot of time and money. Once you’re sewing, a two year course at a community college focusing on the technicals is great. Afterward,  you really have to work for a company or companies before going out on your own; it’s not enough to do custom work for individuals.  Speaking of, I’ll be doing a class on production pattern making soon.

If you want to be a sewing contractor, technical education is useful but not required. I say that because most contractors fall into it (a family business); it’s not something they plan for. I don’t know what would possess a non-sewing person to decide to become a contractor but were it to happen and you don’t have the background, you’ll need the money to hire someone who does. The worst of it is, if your background is limited, it’s hard to know if the people you’re hiring are any good. In any event, a non-industry person who became a contractor would need a solid business education more than a design background.

Goal: to become a designer (employee)
If you don’t have a track record and you’re the average person who wants a job designing these days, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree in fashion because employers use it as a weeding method. Now, a celeb doesn’t need to go to fashion school but then they won’t be reading this either. Most celebs don’t design, they license their name to a line of clothing someone else designs. You’d be surprised at how many emails I get from people who think they don’t need a degree because Lindsay Lohan doesn’t have one.

I have worked for employee-designers who didn’t have fashion degrees and it worked out well but this was before it got so competitive that a non-fashion degreed person couldn’t get in the door. However, the designers usually had a degree in something art or design related even if it wasn’t fashion.

By the way, you don’t get into this for money; fashion pays very poorly. A beginning fashion designer only makes about $45,000 a year -in New York City. A highly experienced designer earns roughly twice that but that still falls short in a high rent city.

I want to produce my own line:
The kind of education needed depends on which of two paths you’re on. One way or another, you have to have skills and money. If you don’t have any skills, you’ll have to hire someone who does (you need more money). If you have some skills and can do a lot of the work yourself, you’ll still need money but can do a lot of the work yourself in the beginning. Hopefully you’ll know when it’s time to pass it off to a competent professional who won’t mind teaching you a few things in the process.

I don’t think you need a degree, fashion or otherwise if you’ll become an entrepreneur because it really depends on the person. I do think an education -however you get it and however you define it- is invaluable but a business background is probably more useful than fashion. A few fashion courses (merchandising and retailing) to augment the business course load will help tremendously. Most of the successful entrepreneurs I know have hard math or science backgrounds and often an advanced degree. I’d say the common thread is intellectual rigor which speaks to the matter of tenacity. Producing a line is difficult and challenging.

A lot of people think that getting a fashion degree is the best path to become an entrepreneur but it rarely works out for the average person in the short term. At least when I went to school, the idea that one might start their own line was rarely discussed. It’s not that professors are mean people but their job is to teach the considerable downsides so the impression you’re left with, is that it’s too difficult to do this on your own. Also see Why fashion colleges don’t teach entrepreneurship.

Regardless of your background, my book will be invaluable because neither fashion nor business school will prepare you adequately. The problem with business school is that it can impart a false sense of security. I know that business schools don’t teach the process of manufacturing because their students have complained to me about it.

Fashion driven but no money
If you wanted to start your own fashion driven line and weren’t in a big hurry, fashion school would be great. Optimally a two year school focusing on the technicals, transfering to a four year college for a business major. Or, get a four year fashion degree with a business minor. Then get a job and work in the industry for ten years before you go out on your own. By then your loans should be paid off, you’ve established relationships and accumulated some capital. It might help to go to one of the top flight schools. Not so much for the education as for the connections you’ll have the opportunity to cultivate.

You’re making sewn products with no money
Hopefully you have an intellectually rigorous education (math, sciences etc), you sew well or well enough and you have good business instincts. You can wing the rest. Most of the successful entrepreneurs I know fall into this category. It also seems that they tend to stop sewing (or making patterns) themselves fairly early on and hire others to do it. I don’t think the relationship between success and outsourcing services early on is coincidental. With a strong background in logic, one tends to calculate value, ROI and factor the cost of throwing good money after bad sooner. I think some people wait too long because they have inappropriate expectations; they think they must or should do it themselves. What’s the goal? To make money or to say you did it all by yourself? Just remember, hiring it out is a sign that you’re more of a professional, not less of one.

You have money and education (but not in fashion):
People who’ve made their own money are usually the best bets. They were smart enough to figure out how to accumulate capital and those skills carry over. The only limits they have can be summarized by how well they make purchasing decisions (of skills etc) if they don’t have a background in apparel manufacturing. This group has a downside in that they tend to favor the trappings that resonate with their value system. In other words, they’ll hire a firm with a slick web site and business-like verbiage rather than polling for the skills that matter most. The end result is that they tend to spend too much until their expectations are re-calibrated.

There’s a subset of entrants who are working a full time job and want to do this on the side. It’s hard to do this part time and not pay a premium for hand holding. I call this the “wanting your cake and eating it too” tax. It’s a toll on your family and free time but this is the best option if the pay off outweighs the risks and sacrifices.

The least likely to survive:
Generally, the people least likely to make a go of this are artists who either inherited money, married it or sweet talked an investor. Education seems to be irrelevant but it’s usually in liberal arts. This is not an indictment of artists generally; I’ve known several artists who were business savvy enough to have made money and thus fall into the former category. It’s like anything, if the barriers to entry are too low (ease of access to capital and resources) there’s no rigor to test an individual’s staying power.

In summary, successful fashion is less the art of design than the art of business. Only you can determine your educational goals accordingly.

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