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.