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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  1. Trudy says:

    “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.”

    A ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

    Sorry if that sounds cruel but that has really amused me. Especially having just seen the trainwreck of a collection Ms. Lohan sent down the Ungaro catwalk.

    Hey wait a minute…if ‘celebs’ like LiLo can ‘design’ a ‘collection’…does this mean I can act? No? Oh well, just a thought…

    Trudy from HotPatterns…working like a dog in the Florida humidity

  2. When asked this same question, I usually have a simple analogy that helps…

    If I wanted to be a dentist, would I just open an office, start drilling people’s teeth and call myself a dentist? No way! I don’t have the technical knowledge that a real dentist has learned in school. I have been brushing/flossing my teeth my entire life so I have some basic knowledge and experience in teeth maintenance, (just like people who have been taught to sew and make their own clothing from their crafty mom…they have basic knowledge of how to sew a garment and some can even make basic patterns.) But, that doesn’t mean I know anything about how to properly do fillings or crowns.

    I get this question a lot and I am amazed by how many people think it’s so easy to be a designer or start their own clothing line. This is definitely due to the rock star status that designers have these days and the celebrity designer trend. I see people who barely know how to sew start a small, one-of-a-kind clothing line, throw a few pieces in a local fashion show and then feel comfortable giving themselves the title of “Fashion Designer”. I also see so many people think they can start a full, mass produced line without understanding the money that is required. They think that they can get a bank loan or that they can use a couple thousand dollars to do it and they don’t realize that it takes sooooo much more.

    I went to school for Fashion Design and worked in the industry in LA for years and finally started my own line, but it still took a very long time until I was comfortable and confident enough to actually call myself a Fashion Designer. The things that you learn in school and while working under a real designer are the things that you probably couldn’t learn from your crafty mom who taught you to sew….. what a sloper/block pattern is, how to make production patterns, what grading/marking is, what a “send out” is and how to handle it with the proper paperwork, industry seam allowances for different machines, and how much money it takes to even get a sample line ready due to fittings and pattern adjustments and re-fittings, etc….

    Like you said….It just comes down to this:
    You either need school and industry experience OR you need a lot of money to pay people to do the things you can’t do yourself.

  3. Solongo says:

    Thank you Kathleen for posting this entry! I was one of those people pestering Kathleen about this issue.

    I have a bachelors in Business Management and Finance and I want to become a manufacturer/entrepreneur. Since the age of 16 I worked at various small fashion companies in the business end of things in NYC. I always wanted to learn the specifics in the design department, but was unable to because I did not have a design background. After being laid off since this summer, I thought about getting a design background and started doing research on schools. More and more I read the forum here and Kathleen’s blog; I am weighing my decision carefully as I don’t want to waste time and money.

    Now, after reading the blog I am considering learning the technical skills more than a fashion oriented training. I don’t want to become a designer in the way they are depicted in society. I am interested in creating a profitable and stable small business. I have always done well with math and science; so technical learning is not an issue for me. I think I will start exploring pattern making courses; even though Kathleen said they are not what they used to be….but I need to start somewhere.

    Thank you Kathleen again for the informative post. Even though you don’t personally know me; you say it like it is!

  4. Lisa Bloodgood says:

    I learned to sew in 8th or 9th grade–even though I knew a few things because my mom and grandma sew–and I still sew. In ’95, I got a BA in Romance languages. I’ve always been an artist. From ’01 to ’04 I went to design school; have a BS in apparel design. I’m glad I went because I really knew nothing about pattern making, draping, illustration, etc. and I learned a lot. (I have learned a lot from here that wasn’t covered in school, of course.) I make my own patterns, but I’d really like to know more. We had pattern making 1 and 2 and advanced patternmaking, on paper and each a term long. We had 2 terms of computer pattern making, but it was learning the program and making the same stuff we’d learned on paper. Even though I come from an art type background, I really like the math/science of making patterns. I really am bad with all other math, though. I don’t feel I’m really good at designing stuff, but much better at doing things custom or copying historical costumes or combining bodice A with sleeve B and neckline C.

    I think you should have some sort of education, in that you shouldn’t just come out of high school without having taken some sort of related classes and expect to just jump in. We don’t, unfortunately, live in Utopia.

  5. Nora says:

    A lot of people unfortunately confuse designer with being an artist.
    I believe design knowledge and business knowledge go hand in hand. In the end you are selling a product. If you don’t know or understand the process of making a garment, you have no product to sell. If you don’t know how the business world works, you can’t sell your product. The best way to find out what area of the fashion business is the most interesting and suitable is through interning. That way you can tailor your education accordingly.

  6. nadia mendoza says:

    first thanks to ur websit it helps question is i dont have a knowledge in fashion and dress making and sewing but since i was young i would love to have a nice and cute clothes i really want to make it for myself and a small bussiness in the future,should i need to go to fashion school?? but is too expensive,im just looking for basic or vocational that it takes for 3 to 6 months,thansk for ur help…

  7. shadell says:

    Hi i have a question an i would love someone to answer it for me.. i love fashion i understand fashion i believe that if i set my mind and dedicate myself to my dream i can accomplish anything i know the fashion field is a competitive thing and i understand that hard work is needed to make it and that i would have to start from the bottom and work myself top therefore i wanted to ask if a bachelors degree in fashion would be enough to become some sort of editor of journalist or even a stylist.. i recently joined iadt wich is an art school and i will be getting my degree there. I just want to know if im making the right choice by going to a fashion school rather than a regular college because really my ultimate goal is not becoming a designer its working for a highly respected fasion industry . Can anyone help me with my question?

  8. kathleen says:

    Nadia: Education is an investment in money, time and hard study. Fashion is a far cry from brain surgery but it’s not any freer than medical school. You can get loans, most of us have. Luckily, you can study sewing on your own using books from the library to learn how to sew. That is free.

    Shadell: You’re asking whether a bachelor’s degree is enough to become a [fashion] editor, [fashion] journalist or a stylist? If you really want to do any of those, you don’t even need a high school diploma if you’re really really good. Anna Wintour is a high school drop out. I’m no slouch but I didn’t graduate either. By the same token, you could have a nice degree to hang on the wall and no job to show for it. Generally, I’m not wild on for profit fashion colleges, I don’t think those are a good value. Quite the opposite. You also say your ultimate goal is not to be a designer but to work for “a highly respected fasion industry” but I don’t know what you mean by that. Like Nadia above, if you’re interested in writing or editing, practice. A lot. Start a blog. Read about writing. Practice the mechanics. Good luck

  9. Some sort of editor of journalist says:

    Imagine how you would feel if you developed a love for, say, basketball. You have a deep appreciation for the way that people create offensive opportunities despite very strict rules on how many steps you can take without dribbling, whether or not you can dribble once you have stopped, whether you can keep possession after stepping out of bounds, and so on. Imagine if you were to get your dream job: coaching the Los Angeles Lakers. Some kid comes along and asks, or perhaps demands, a place on the team. The kid doesn’t appear to know the traveling, double dribble, out of bounds, three seconds, or any other rule.

    That is exactly the reaction I have to reading the two comments above. We have rules in writing: grammar, punctuation, capitalization. Are they hard to learn? No. To master? Perhaps. Can you break a rule once in a while? Yep.

    Comments, e-mails, and professional communications shud not luk lyk lolcats, k? r not txt msg. We capitalize “I” when we are referring to ourselves, singular first person. We try to match a subject and a verb and we call this combination a “sentence”. We break up sentences with commas, and separate two sentences with a period (just one, please, because three is an ellipsis and two is just wrong). Written English is not the same thing you use when speaking with your friend when you’ve had three skinny mocha lattes and you are just running on and on and talking about whatever comes into your head and then something else catches your attention and then you talk about that OMG! have you seen the new People it has Lindsay Lohan and OMG! she looks sooooo skinny plus I saw -hey, ponies!- this guy in the mall the other day and he was wearing jeans that were soooooo baggy that you could see his crack from all the way down to his knees. Anyhow, what was I saying before Moon Unit friggin’ Kerouac interrupted?

    Oh yeah, … There are some other rules, like how to use prepositions, conjunctions, and other parts of speech (or is it speach?). Reading things that follow these rules is like watching Michael Jordan play basketball: it’s smooth, fast, brilliant, and creative. Good writing, unlike my own, is clear and direct, like Mike takin’ the rock to the hole. Reading things that don’t follow these rules makes me cringe, like watching, say, me play basketball. The best way to become an editor is to learn to write really well, and the best way to learn to write is to (1) write (and maybe get some feedback by someone who will tell it like it is – txtng duznt count), and (2) read lots of material written by brilliant writers.

    My $0.02.

  10. Holly says:

    I have gained a lot of insight reading this blog and much appreciate it. My 15 year old daughter is a very high achieving student who has two, seemingly opposed, very big goals. First, she would like to attend a top 10 university and second, become a fashion designer in NYC. Very few top universities offer a fashion design major–Cornell, The University of Washington in St. Louis and RISD/Brown are the three that we have learned about. One major question we have is whether being away from NYC would be a major disadvantage. The opportunities for internships, jobs, connections were she in NYC seem very important. Her other idea would be to attend Columbia (should she get in!) where she is interested in studying business and art history. From there, she could take classes at FIT or even enroll there after obtaining a B.A. from Columbia. By the way, she currently takes sewing classes and is the president of her high school’s fashion club. She’s a very bright, extremely driven girl whom I want to help steer in the right direction. Any further help would be much appreciated!

  11. Kathleen says:

    Hi Holly
    See this previous entry on kids as designers. The comments are helpful.

    The plan I prefer is that she attend Columbia, major in business & art history and take classes on the side at FIT. The industry is in a great state of flux just now and nobody really knows how it will pan out over the next few years. It’s incongruous that there is more interest than ever in fashion as a career at precisely the time there are the fewest jobs.

    Most of the people who succeed in the business don’t have fashion backgrounds but business or something technical (sciences etc). It requires more intellectual rigor and tenacity than the public imagines.

  12. Temitayo says:

    Hello Kathleen,

    I have a tremendous love for fashion and a great stylist. I have dreamt for a very long time about starting a clothing line that would someday sell in the department stores. Or even open an online store to sell my own products. For a while now, I’ve been sketching designs (a novice but jots down exactly what I needed from fabric to color to measurement), researching fabrics, and learning fashion lingua just by reading.

    I have two degrees already: BS Chemical Engineering and MS Project Management. Honestly I don’t think I can take anymore schooling except if something is offered as a Ph.D (80% sure I wouldn’t take it). I also believe if I have the right team to work with I will be fine because of the burning desire I have for fashion. I’m very creative, logical, analytical, fast learner and believe that with guidance from someone that is knowledgable I should be able to survive.

    Did I mention this is what I wanto do? I feel so unfulfilled not I’m not walking in these shoes already.

    Do you think I really need a school? If yes, what classes do you recommend that I take? If not, I have a few questions. I have sketches and would like to deliver them into samples. So what steps do I need to take to go from sketch to sample? Should I use a regular seamstress or a company that does it all – pattermaking, grading, e.t.c.? How much does it roughly costs to make a sample from a sketch?

    Or do you think I’m going about things the wrong way? Please enlighten me!!!

  13. mahima says:

    hi, im having a same dilemma as above. i already have a bachelors in fashion design from Nepal. i came to united states to study further in fashion. but they didnot allow me to enroll in masters program because i didnt have a equivalent credits to match us education system which is 4 years degree plan. In our country 3 yrs degree plan works well to get a bachelors degree. few colleges i went asked me to do different buisness degree or start over with fashion design( which i think is dumb to do) because i already have a undergrad degree.) but the problem is noone will hire me for the degree i have from other country here in united i feel like the degree i got there is a waste. i know im potential,creative and quick learner but it just seems impossible for me to go out and explore myself in this field without a fashion degree form here…
    i really want to achieve a higher degree and work in fashion because thats what ive been doing since last 10yrs back in my country.
    what do you suggest me to do? if you could help me with this..i would be very grateful.

  14. Chaudhary says:

    Hi, I just immigrated to Canada I have a Bachelors Degree in Commerce. I can sew well I am good with designing as well. I want to start my own clothing line. But the thing is that I have no idea about Canadian fashion and Industry. I am thinking to get into school for some fashion managment Diploma do you think thats a good idea? If not then what would you suggest me to do. I would really appreciate your help :)

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