How to be a successful designer

… a designer’s job is sitting in an impeccably decorated high rise office, dreamily sketching all day while petting fabrics that salesmen bow and scrape to bring them. And then going to cocktail parties with editors at fashion magazines when “work” is over before they’re limo-ed off to their country estate for the evening to dine with their jet-setting millionaire spouse and conferring with the nanny of her photogenic well behaved children. Tell us the truth. We won’t hate you. Your life is just like that.

I wrote this, teasing one of the newest members of our forum, a long time designer at big brands who’s now starting her own line. I didn’t expect her response. It’s hilarious. Maria says I can reprint it here for you.
Being a designer that just sketches and pets fabric while salespeople are pounding on their door is 1) not reality and 2) BORING! The devil is in the details and if you don’t know all the details, how they affect your garment, line and cost then you are not going to get very far. You’ll just help put money in other people’s pockets for a short time. The fun part of being a designer is getting down and dirty. The fun part of being a successful designer is knowing that every single person you work with is your EQUAL. Plain and simple. You cannot have an ego. Confidence and ego are two different things. Confidence will keep you moving forward and help you to make quick decisions. Ego will keep you from listening and learning and dig you into a hole.

If a buyer doesn’t like a style or wants to change something, that’s great! They like what they see but their game is a numbers game. So maybe they know what could sell better for them. Get over it. If it’s doable and doesn’t affect the integrity of your line (ie ugly as heck)…do it. Turn it into a private label piece and charge a little more for the customization and set up some terms to protect you in case it doesn’t sell. And do it with the biggest smile on your face. It could turn out to be the biggest selling style of your season! Or not. What do you have to lose? You’ll be building a relationship at the same time.

I was a dog at the beginning of my career and after all these years I still run like a dog looking for a bone. I RAN around the offices of the companies I worked for looking for trims and fabrics for the designer, begging the pattern maker to make/change/fix a pattern “ASAP” and then begging the cutter and sewer to please put it at the head of the line. Doing favors for other designers and assistants so that I could borrow something, cut in the sample making line a week before market, etc… Before digital cameras were everywhere I took polaroids of everything, made line sheets with sketches and the polaroids, made a bazillion copies, only to find an overlooked error and then have to redo the process (I LOVE computers now), pack the line for the showroom, etc…

My offices or cubicles have never been ‘impeccable’. Piles of fabric everywhere, magazine tears all over the walls, sketches and tons of paperwork all over the desk in an organized mess – that was my office and I love it. Salesmen have a million places to be …waiting for me all day doesn’t exactly make them money. Cocktail parties with fashion editors? Country estate? Millionaire spouse? Hee hee. If you have dinner events it’s usually with a buyer which means YOU are paying (budget, receipts, expenses, whoo hoo). And after pulling the ridiculous hours at the office, going to dinner and schmoozing someone is not my idea of fun. I can’t tell you how many dinners I have gone to where I was counting the minutes until I could get home to my cramped apartment with nonexistent closets that were bulging with clothes and shoes (no country estate) and throw on my elastic waist sweat pants, wash the makeup off, pop out the contacts, put my glasses on, pour a glass of wine and turn on the tv for some mindless entertainment.

As you mentioned, designers are not the best paid people in the industry. Rarely, if ever, do you get a commission. Your job is to design a salable line. It sells, you get to keep your job. It doesn’t? Well, you’re only as good as your last line.

My husband works just as hard and is just as tired at the end of the day. Who isn’t? Our daughter who has been at a day care all day (nannies are expensive!), learning songs and words from other people (read “guilt”) only wants your undivided attention for the rest of the evening. You feed, play, bathe and put her to sleep. Only to do it all over again tomorrow.

BUT I WOULDN’T TRADE IT FOR THE WORLD. I knew my whole life that this is what I wanted to do. It IS fun and glamorous – but not the way it’s portrayed in movies. It is a totally different and more exciting. If the above doesn’t stress you out just reading it then you’re doing the right thing for you. Just be sure to manage your expectations. Trust me, you’ll meet many others who are just like you and loving it too!

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  1. Brenda says:

    Ha! I interned for a “successful” designer in Miami a couple of years ago, he does evening and bridal wear, everything is done in house: patterns, samples, cutting and sewing. As a fashion student I found it to be BORING but at the same time I knew why he was making money. First: He had a great business partner who understood the bottom dollar, they were located in a nondescript warehouse space by the airport, the furniture was as old as the company, about 25 yrs old. The computer systems were old (all DOS systems, not web based) but got the work done. He had minimal staff that wore many hats (in the office). I only saw one salesperson come by to meet with his assistant because they always used the same vendors they trusted. I never EVER saw him in any of the “fashion” publications in the area, in fact the only time he traveled was to present a new collection at his showroom in NYC. They were all family oriented people and they went home after a long day everyday.

    Bottom line: It was not a glamorous job at all but they did a great job at delivering those 3k-5k dresses everyday!

  2. Thank you for posting this, and Maria, for writing for us. It reminded me of Kathleen’s comment in her book regarding big apparel manufacturers, that they aren’t smarter or better than we on the smaller end, they just have more money to waste. (sorry if I bungled that, my book’s in the other room). When I mention to others that I am a designer starting my own line of clothing, they generally get an excited gleam in their eye….and teen girls usually add, “Oh, that’s so cool!!” It is fun to see that even “big brand” designer’s are immersed in the happy chaos, deadlines and stress just like everyone else. For me, the only difference is, at the end of the day I would choose a package of those little, chocolate-coated, Hostess brand donuts and an adsorbing book.
    –Andrea D.

  3. Sandra B says:

    I recently caught up with (actually, was brushed off by) a former friend who moved to another, bigger city and became a “stylist to the stars”. He gave a talk, and sat on the stage doing the “I’m so glamourous” pose and being witty (in a not funny, sarcastic way). He’s the one living the high life (he told us that he’s flown on John Travolta’s jet, whoo hoo, I don’t care who’s jet it is, I’d still need a sedative to take off without getting hysterical) and there is NO WAY I want what he’s got. I like my scrappy, edge of the seat, creative, insanely hard working designer friends. All he does is kiss famous people’s *** and tell ugly rich people they are “divine, dahling”.

    The funny thing is, he was always like that, but it wasn’t quite so obnoxious when he was poor and it really was a pose, not a lifestyle.

    Although, my kids are well behaved, and quite photogenic when I find time to get their hair cut.

  4. ClaireOKC says:

    This is so refreshing and so true….but she will be successful for one reason – she loves it! And therein lies the secret to life – love what you do. It’s all hard work, but when you’re having fun doing the work, somehow it doesn’t seem that hard!

  5. Nora says:

    My heart just rejoiced reading this. Whenever I tell, I’m a designer, I ALWAYS get the ‘oohs’ and ‘aaahs’ and ‘I wanted to become one, too’s’. If they only knew how little time you actually spend time sketching. I used to work for a company where the owner/head designer sat in her office and everyone else was coming to her. Pattern makers and sewers were NOT equals and were treated as if they didn’t know anything. I was the oddball, running around like a maniac between the factory floor and sample room, helping out with the pattern making and sample sewing itself, which was unheard of. As I said, the designers were ‘upper class’ and everyone else ‘lower class’. Many of my technical co-workers were absolutely surprised I even knew how to make pattern and sew, as it was seen as ‘low class’ trade.
    You don’t even want to know what went on at my college. The stars of the school were always the ones that drew the prettiest pictures. When it was time for construction it was either not possible or a mess.
    So to everyone out there who just want to sit and sketch all day, become an Illustrator, not a designer.

  6. sarah says:

    So many that talk to me and want to be in the industry just want to draw pictures all day. Well, they could get a regular job and draw pictures all day. Somehow they’ll have to pay for all those people they’ll need to hire to turn those drawings into reality. And so many hate to sew. I say good luck to you, I wish I could have the luxury of someone sewing all my stuff for me and sharing there innovations and understanding that came up as they constructed. I have found the need to be involved in every aspect, research, design, vendor hunting and gathering, pattern making and sewing, pretty satisfying. I love doing fashion shows and I hate doing fashion shows! They suck up two of the most precious resources, time and money. Especially if you’re not showing in a fashion center. But they give good documentation and some moments of glamour;) I street cast models and find hair and make-up; grab up photographers and gab up the press. At this point, it’s more than an expensive hobby, sometimes I even make money. SALES is what I have to work on now. Getting the flow of activities established and product out the dor and off the shelves. The dishes will get done, the bills will get paid, but yeah, probably in my jammies!

  7. Suki says:

    I love this article…and you hit everything on the head…I am at the beginning phase of this business and I can tell you already its definitely no “party”…but I sure would love one day to finally see my own exclusive pieces at my own store…living the dream…lol…its definitely not what most think its cut out to be…but I love it because its who I am…

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