Working as a freelance fashion designer

My name is Zoe and I’m a fashion designer working out of San Francisco. I also blog at verbal croquis. The goal of my blog is to show what it’s really like to work as a fashion designer, post my work (unrelated to my day job), and spark interesting conversations about design and the industry in general. I am currently the head designer of a leather outerwear company. I’ve also worked many other markets, costumed burlesque shows, and private tutored design, illustration and garment construction. For 2 years, I made my living solely as a freelance fashion designer and illustrator.

When Kathleen asked me to write a post on working as a freelance fashion designer, I had a list of topics I wanted to cover in my head, and then the questions poured in, so for this post, I’ll focus on answering those questions individually. I have read the section on freelancing in Kathleen’s book, and found that it covers the basics very well (see pages 18-21). Because I don’t want to bore you with an excessively long post, I will try to not cover topics already covered.

I know that some designers offer full package services. By that I mean that they’ll design stuff and hire a pattern maker (or do it themselves) and produce a sample to represent the product ideas to the customer. In these cases, what does a designer charge? Obviously they’ll get a sketch fee and expenses but what’s a package deal run? Is it easier to get clients if a designer offers full services? How common is that.

I have never offered a full package service. If I were to offer one today, I would cost it out like any other garment: figure out cost of materials minus what the client offers (“I’m going to provide the fabric because this is what we’re working with for Spring 07”), the cost of the spec package for future production, the cost for time and maybe services you wouldn’t do yourself (perhaps a samplemaker), overhead (transportation, use of equipment) and add your markup. Before marketing yourself for these services, you can sit down and cost out some basics to give your client a general idea of your prices. Every single job I’ve had required a “conversation” about prices; very few will just pay what you originally quote, so pitch high, but not ridiculously high. Make your services cost-effective for your client. You will lose out if they decide it’s cheaper to use someone else or if they can only afford your sketches.

I know it can sound stupidly obvious, but I’d like to point out that you should never market yourself and promise anyone that you can offer services you’re not ready for. If they want a full package, you have to ask yourself “Do I know how to draft patterns? Make a sample? Do I kow people who will do one for me? Do I even want to do that?”

And remember that good patternmakers are always paid more than a designer. Garbage collectors are probably paid better than designers. Don’t cringe, I’m sure you already knew that. We designers are compensated by the glamour of our jobs. Right? Right?

Also, do designers develop styles independently (including down to the sample level), keeping these concepts in their “portfolio” and present them to clients as they get them?

I’ve personally never sold anything out of my portfolio. I’ve had many clients who say “Oh, I love this, but I want a toned down version for the “tween market.” Mainly, they have a specific idea on what they want before they even call you. However, it’s very very important to keep your portfolio fresh and updated, even if you feel like you’re getting plenty of steady work and have no time for it. Make time. New and repeat customers always want something new. This also applies to designers who have a full-time design job. At some point, you’re going to be looking for work and all of a sudden you’re completely embarrassed by your outdated offerings and you feel overwhelmed and compelled to stay at a job you hate. The cycle is nasty and oft repeated. The vast majority of clients do not want the work you’ve done for them be included in your portfolio. Sometimes you can strike a deal and offer to wait until the product is already out in stores, but don’t rely on your current projects to update your portfolio automatically.

I also have questions about how a freelancer would manage their relationships with clients. Do you get a retainer? Do you charge a flat rate or hourly rate? Do you have a contract with specified deliverables? How does it all work?

I have only heard of retainers in field like high tech. Most will pay per project, per sketch. Illustration work is all done per sketch. Define what a “sketch” includes (how many figure views, flats, presentation board formatting, etc.) before quoting a price. Design development is trickier. I have worked hourly for designing, making sure I keep meticulous track of how many hours I spent researching, shopping for trims, sketching. Always have a contract. It doesn’t need to be fancy with all sorts of legalese. Create a form contract, fill in blanks with your client on product, price, terms (super important!), delivery date. Have both parties sign and stick to it! You don’t have to get nasty, but when they say net 10, make sure they pay you within 10 days after you’ve delivered.

I knew a DE who used freelancers quite a bit. She was only buying sketches. Is this typical? She told me that freelancers should have a range of prices based on the sketch. She was paying between 100 to 600 dollars each (10 years ago).

Yes, many companies find it cost effective to use freelance designers instead of an in-house design team but already have technical and production people (I got totally sunk when one of my best clients decided to incorporate an in-house design team. In Italy.) and yes, it always depends on the sketch. Busting out a dozen t-shirts is never going to be as pricey as a dozen evening gowns.

Lastly, one thing I don’t understand is do people try to get a look at your portfolio but then not buy anything and then end up copying some of the ideas anyway. Is this a problem with the “average” customer?

It happens. It hurts. You hold a personal boycott against the label and you preach it to anyone who will listen. I kid, I kid. Seriously though, it does happen. You can not let it get to you. You do what is in your control (not let some guy take your portfolio into another room because they want to show someone something real quick) and let it go. It’s happened to me before, but not often. It’s more important to not let paranoia dictate your actions. See pages 10, 15, and 22 in Kathleen’s book for more on paranoia.

Oh, and what about sourcing? How do you charge for providing referrals?

I’ve never charged for referrals. I’m sure people do, but I never did. When I’d give out referrals, I’d call the vendor and say something like “Hi David! This is Zoe. Remember me? Well, I just talked to this guy George at this company called Black Sheep and he’s going to call you about some linings. Treat him nice, okay? He’s a really nice guy. Oh, and make sure you show him those really beautiful rayon stripes you showed me last time. Well, he paid me on time so I’m assuming he’s good about those things.”

You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again. This whole industry, like many others, is built on relationships. I would much rather give them a freebie, connect them to a good vendor, let everyone know I’m making those connections, keep my name involved. Consider it a customer service tactic. Obviously this only works when the connecting 2 companies that are both kosher, so to speak. What goes around, comes around. A few years down the line, when I want to start my own company, I can call David and chances are, he will remember me, appreciate the business I sent his way and help me. And George at Black Sheep will appreciate the freebie, and want to work with me again in the future.

Remember that who you refer is a reflection on you as well. If you don’t know anyone that’s “good” or you think the client is shady, politely plead ignorance.

Where do you get your fabrics for your fabric stories? Will the jobbers do or must it be more formal, like sourcing? For colours, do you select specific pantone swatches? Or are these things usually the client’s domain?

Depends on the job. One of the best things about freelancing is that no two requests are alike and it keeps you on your toes and having fun. Some will provide swatches because they have their line done but they need jackets and they want all their jackets in these swatches. Some will want the exact specific one to be included. Some will tell you that they can source fabric but ask you to include a basic swatch for visualization purposes. Just make sure you clarify before you start or even agree to do the gig.

If they want something specific, you can not use a jobber because their quantities are completely unreliable for mass production. If you need to source, you can visit or call vendors and ask for swatches. They’re free. See pages 50-51 in Kathleen’s book on basic principles in sourcing fabrics.

I’m always dying to know, when you refer to buying a sketch, what is a sketch? Like, does a front and back view count as one sketch or two?

That’s included in your negotiations. Always be specific. $125 for front and back swimsuit figures is okay, but include extra for flats, multiple views, detail shots, swatches, specs, graded specs, etc.

Do you have any special tips for handling long distance orders? Have you ever worked over the internet?

Get everything on paper. A paper trail is a surefire way to make sure there is no misunderstanding. You can chat on the phone all you want, but definitely email or fax them. “Per our phone conversation, it is to my understanding that you have agreed to my price of $1000USD for the full set of 5 dress designs, including front and back figures, flats, and swatches, to be shipped to you by April 30th. Terms are COD as agreed by you. Please confirm.”

When working for different markets, do your clients provide trend forecasting material or do they expect you to have access to it on your own?

Personally, I’ve never received trend forecasting material. They request that I do the research myself. Sometimes, they’ll be very specific. “I want to know what the Limited is doing. Go check them out. I want 10 denim skirts that will fit in their store.” Because trend forecasting materials are so expensive, they’ll assume that you don’t have access. They’ll ask, if it’s important enough to them.

Do you promote yourself beyond hustling? It sounds like you represent yourself, is that common for freelancers or are there agents who usually do that work? Do you do promotions, do you target specific companies you want to do projects for? Besides the referral services like 24/7, how else to you hook up with work?

Freelancing is not a job -it’s a way of life. The busiest freelancers network in their sleep. Don’t rely solely on headhunters they charge fees and have restrictions on their sourced jobs. The whole point of freelancing is to be independent. That said, they’re a great service, but only if you live in one of their headquartered cities. Once again, this industry is based on relationships and 75% of my jobs, freelance or permanent, have come from industry referrals by people I worked with before, not the want ads. Be professional and nice to EVERYONE, including that guy who makes piping out of a dingy factory in the middle of nowhere. Keep business cards with you at all times, but know when it’s appropriate to offer one.

When pricing by the hour, and they want to know how long it will take you, how do you estimate that? Is there a ball-park for what should be a reasonable amount of time to design something?

The most important skill for a freelancer is the ability to think on your feet. Think about how long it takes you to do something, on average. Or, you could say, you don’t know how long it will take, your aim is a max of X hours, and come to an agreement about a cap. Make sure you keep a log of your hours. Don’t pad. Be truthful. Karma can be a vengeful harpie. Besides, shady business practices are just not cool.

If you want to be a freelance designer, is it essential to have a design school degree? I mean, do the people who buy sketches (just who are these people?) usually care?

It looks good on your resume to have a degree, but they’re more interested in your work history and your portfolio. References are important, and how you present yourself in person is also. That said, there are definitely people who won’t give you the time of day if you don’t have a degree, especially if you’re first starting out. People think of school like work experience -a four year degree is equated to a few years in the work force. If you have scant work experience and no degree, your people skills better be amazing and your portfolio top notch.

Freelancing is not for everyone. It’s a lot of risk taking, thinking on your feet, networking, sleepless nights interspersed with low-cash-flow periods. But it’s also the fun of working a variety of markets, meeting new people, and not dealing with interoffice politics. You just have to figure out what gets you going in the morning and decide according.

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