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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  1. Sherry says:

    Thanks Zoe, for this wonderful information. I am not a designer, but I felt that this information was valuable.

    This was great for people who were considering manufacturing and would have to outsource the designing.

  2. Beverly says:

    You’ve done a great job explaining the nitty-gritty of a designer’s workload, and gave us a vaulable insight into the rewards, as well as the pitfalls. I am always amazed at the quality of posts coming out of this site.

  3. Question on freelance design

    From my mail: Since I graduated from design school two years ago, I’ve been doing some freelance projects here and there [as well as] posting some random work on my site. Recently, I was approached by the manager of a…

  4. habib atta says:

    zoe and kathleen thanks for these write up,it was really educational for me as i want to be a freelane fashion designer as of now i have over two million of my sketches in over 50% of fashion items i love fashion and i admire unique designs but need more asistance,i believe some of my designs and ideas if not produced would;nt be created in another 10 years

  5. anini says:

    I graduated from design school in 1996 and have never officially worked in the industry; primarily because I live in Houston and there is virtually no fashion industry here. I would like to know how jump in feet first as a freelance designer (sketcher). I would simply like to seel my design ideas to companies looking for new ideas.

  6. Melissa says:

    Great write up! I recently resigned from my full time design gig after 12 years in the business. I have always worked corporate-A&F, Hollister, Quiksilver, Chip & Pepper. It is great to hear that there might still be venues for me to use my experience! I had always considered freelance, but never really heard any in depth information such as yours. Thanks! And wish me luck…

  7. Rosie says:

    Hi, I’m also a fashion designer, I’m very interested in freelance design, at this moment I do not want to leave my job, but want to go into design until I’m able to leave my current job, I would like to know what is the paying rate for a freelance fashion designer at this moment but I have no one to ask this question to and I don’t want to ask the question to the person to whom I want to sell my designs to, I would greatly appreciate it if you have an answer for me and write me back to my email, If you cannot give an exact price please give me an aproximate so I can sell my designs
    thank you in advance

  8. Molly Mboijana says:

    Thank you for this article Zoe. I quit my office job 3 years ago thinking of going back to fashion design (my original degree). However I think I started it all wrong. I spent a lot of money and time on inventory and art crafts for a boutique only to realize I couldn’t afford one. Then I tried the eBay and that wasn’t too successful either. So now I’m thinking of freelancing and am glad I came across your piece. What is the going rate for a designer who comes with finished samples? And what would you charge for the cutting and grading only (as opposed to the fabric, accessories, and making)?

  9. Victoria says:


    I came upon your blog on a search engine and I found the information you have is very helpful. I had a baby 2 years ago and I haven’t been back working the industry plus I moved to Phoenix,AZ from Seattle, WA so there is really no job in Fashion for me here but after reading your article I feel like there might be hope for me to do some freelance work. I want to know how to get started and where to look for clients though. Please email me if you get a chance. I would really appreciate the info.


  10. J C Sprowls says:

    Director of Product Development (!)
    Creative Director
    Design Manager
    Director of Operations
    Director of Manufacturing
    Chief Operating Officer

  11. Tamara says:

    Hi Zoe
    I live in Switzerland for the last 1 year and i’m very interested in fashion desing and latly in trying freelance.Iam an autodidactiv person,I have learned designing clothes by my self,also i’m working on my portfolio and trying to muster the pattern cutting.more or less,i would like to know if there is a chance for me in this business as self tought fashion designer or the title is realy a nessesity.I’d be very thankfull if you could answer my dilema.Thank you in advance

  12. deb daley says:

    First of all, thank you for the article. It was very useful, informative info. I am a sportswear designer. My company manufactured domestically and sold product nationwide. I am now years later interested in freelance design. Could you suggest a good design software program to augment my sketches? May be i should be asking if you think it is beneficial (or necessary) to go that route? Thank you ahead of time…deb daley

  13. Cally Van Der Schyff says:

    Hi Zoe, I’m soooo glad I came across this website! I’ve been sketching from a very young age and my dream has always been to one day open my own Boutique. However, I more of a Bridal Gown/Evening Wear Designer, but I haven’t heard of any Freelance Designers in that field. I am a qualified Pattern Grader and I had worked in the industry for 8 years until I migrated to Australia (from S.Africa) in 1997. Got married, had two children and now that I’m ready to get back to work, I’m finding it very hard to get anyone to hire a 39yr old woman. Then I thought of freelancing, but I have no idea how to start or who to approach with my designs! Please help! I make clothes for myself and my two boys and also designed and made my wedding dress. Bridal dresses are my passion!! I would love to get feedback from you and help me solve this dilemma of what to do as a career move. It’s either Design or get an office/admin job which I know I will hate, but I need to contribute to the household budget and get a job. If I could just sit and sketch all day, that would be my ideal job, so even if I could sell my sketches, that would be fantastic!

  14. Shanda says:

    Hi Zoe,

    I am moving to New York City by the end of August 2007. I only have a few sketches, but would like to know how do I get started in the freelance/illustration design business. I get sketches in my dreams a lot. I really don’t want to attend fashion school though. Is this possible and how do you get clients to buy? Thanks

  15. Cath says:

    Thanks for the great article!
    I have a question on how to decide your fee.

    When pricing your freelance services, is it unusual to ask for a percentage of the profit made on your designs?
    For example, if you design a line on contract that goes on to make millions for a company, how can you prevent being stuck with only the comaparatively smallish fee that was initailly negotiated?
    What would be a reasonable royalty to ask for?

  16. Kathleen says:

    Re: deciding on a fee.

    Other than that there’s some other issues that have to be dealt with in answering this question (hate to sound like a broken record but it is in the book), we usually don’t give specifics on proprietary topics like this on the blog. Once the abc’s of professional freelancing standards are understood, it’s more appropriate for discussion in the member’s forum.

  17. Lisa Mathews says:

    Hello. My daughter just graduated from school. She was chosen out of several students to submit designs to a company for a possible job. She was chosen. She has been offered a freelace job. The company wants her to give them a price for 5 designs they like and then they want her to make the first samples and will pay royalities. How do you determine what to charge for all of this?

  18. Kellen says:

    I enjoyed your article, and am impressed by your vast knowledge! I too am from SF, and have recently been asked to freelance for a small bridal company, revamping their existing patterns. They have a sewer and a pattern maker, so I would be sketching, choosing fabrics from their stock, and making rough patterns. They would like to pay me a small percentage of profits from each new dress that sells, but it seems that everyone I’ve spoken with recommends charging an hourly rate, or an hourly, plus the percentage. Any advice?

  19. Theresa says:

    Hi Zoe,
    It is really great for you to share all of this information. I just graduated fashion design and am working as a pattern maker, though it is not very creative. While I am putting in my time I dont want to loose my creative zest, I was thinking of some type of creative freelance- Do you have an advice?


  20. Mia Simone says:

    Zoe, you are a life saver. You answered the most important questions so simply. I am a designer that has offered too much for too little for too long. No more. Thanks

  21. Tammy says:

    You did a great job here. I was totally fascinated and really needed to see this. I am busting at the seams! I am lost in Ohio and I am struggling to make it as a designer/illustrator. Fashion is dead here. I want work but, I cannot find it or don’t know how to find it. I just have to design. I just have to illustrate.
    I used to have a design business- out of my house-but I kept getting the wrong customer…only alterations, little design work, little pay, noone wanted my full menu. But, I loved working with them and made efforts to go the extra mile and got some referrals. If you know what I can do to help……HELP! (I am getting that book!)
    Thanks for this blog.

  22. michelle taylor says:

    Hi there
    I was wondering if you can recommend a good website for freelance work? I have been surviving well as a freelancer for the last 3 months but could do with more outlets for my work

    thanks for all the advice

    very entertaining and very helpful!!

  23. elijah cane says:

    hi zoe…just wondering if you can provide some assistance on how to present fashion design sketches to fashion houses or design firms. any information will be greatly appreciated.
    elijah cane

  24. Stef says:


    I just want to thank you so much for some very helpful points and information. I is good to know that their are others out there that are willing to share and help others

  25. Joanne says:


    In high school I wanted to be a fashion illustrator in the very worst way. The newspapers at that time were loaded with the most fabulous illustrations done for Carson Pirie Scott, Marshall Fields and Lord & Taylor. I still to this day have all the ads I cut out of the newspapers.

    Fashion Illustration eventually gave way to photography. In any event it really wasn’t my forte. I did become an interior designer and do illustrate interiors….a bit off the mark, but fine.

    This morning, by accident I came up with an interesting item to wear. My question is, I wouldn’t know what to do about it! Reading your comments it seems designers have to see their designs through from start to finish….sounds like it would require a good deal of money.

    I am sure some of the designers trying to break into the World of Fashion have some wonderful designs. It is a shame that there isn’t a trustworthy source that will look at
    fashion designs and be the benefactor basically financially of seeing these clothing items through from prototype to where it ends up selling.

    Am I dreaming or is there a source like that? If not there should be! What a wonderful way to make a group of investors wealthier!!!I love what I had mistakenly designed today and wouldn’t care if they sold it at Target or JC Penny!!! I would definetly purchase this item if I saw it!!!!

    I would love to hear comments on this really I would as for some reason this industry keeps really talented people very isolated somehow.

    Thanks for reading…

    From someone who doesn’t know the first thing about sewing!
    (Almost went to Parsons, but didn’t, LOL)


  26. Kathleen says:

    It is a shame that there isn’t a trustworthy source that will look at fashion designs and be the benefactor basically financially of seeing these clothing items through from prototype to where it ends up selling…Am I dreaming or is there a source like that?

    There is a system, it’s called freelance fashion design -the topic of this post.

    for some reason this industry keeps really talented people very isolated somehow.

    People are only isolated when starting out. Once they learn the inroads (this site is a major one), they’re only isolated if they choose to be. And many do. They’re happy enough going it alone.

  27. Sonia says:

    HI Zoe,

    That’s a lot of great tips from your blog. I graduated with a fashion design degree in 92 and has been working for the garment and toy industries. I have been trying to make a living with illustration (well, the traditional kind – marker and paint; not with the computer). BUt it has been difficult to get myself to the public. It seems that the price has gone way down as lots of people are hiring illustrator with computer work. So, I have started myself with a new business of making handcrafted silver jewelry. BUt I still enjoy the design and fun part of illustration.

    Your tips is great! I will love to find out how go let other know of my works and may truly consider doing more freelance fashion illustration and design work.

  28. mel says:

    Hey. I am a freelance pattern cutter/toilist/ designer. have just moved to australia, melbourne. have more than 20yrs experience with well known labels in london -when had kids concentrated on freelance- love being freelance. often end up with the same customer for years. that helps. or have several permanent people at the same time. If i could offer anything it would be to have a knowledge and education of the whole industry – from the factory floor to retail. so hard to offer a design if you can,t follow it up with any technical know-how or at least be able to hold a conversation with a pattern cutter and know what they,re talking about.relationship so important between the two.
    A bonus of freelance is not getting involved in politics – in fashion this can be huge.

  29. svenja says:

    thank you for this information. I want to start as a freelance fashion designer and was looking for some proper info about payment. I never got an answer from anyone I asked so far, instead they tried me to become a member and then they will let me know and so on. They were all acting like it is a big secret. I only wanted to know how much I can ask for a fashion sketch. Finally, someone was this open to write down some proper numbers.
    if anyone has some more information about it, please let me know.

  30. Kathleen says:

    if anyone has some more information about it, please let me know

    I suspect you mean if someone should have more FREE information about it to let you know because Zoe left plenty of resources. Quoting Scott, here are good reasons why few professionals are going to help you:

    Is this person asking me to create a future that I’m going to feel obligated to be a part of? Is the level of help this person is asking me to offer commensurate with the type of relationship I have with them? If you don’t set healthy boundaries for yourself, other people will set them for you. And then they will violate them. And then they will tell all their little friends that it’s okay to do the same. Are you sacrificing your life by spending too much time being everybody else’s dream machine?

    We don’t keep everything a secret but because there are tens of thousands of aspiring designers and so few of us, we are selective in choosing who to help. We help the ones who stand out. The ones who stand out are people who have taken steps others have not, namely read and followed the advice in Zoe’s post (to start with). And why would we care? For that I quote Zoe who wrote in this post:

    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.

    You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again. This whole industry, like many others, is built on relationships… Remember that who you refer is a reflection on you as well.

  31. Ludie says:

    I’m a professional freelance fashion stylist/consultant and makeup artist. I’ve assististed for a long time and I’m now a lead stylist. I’m looking to develop relationships with department stores and book more work.

    Please point me in the right direction.


  32. Steve says:

    Hey Zoe,
    I have been a freelance activewear apparel designer for 4 years now. It’s funny because alot of what you stated above has been different for me. I never touch a garment. I charge only for the sketch, consultation and tech pack. I charge a flat fee per style. My rates vary depending on if it’s a start up or an established company. I deal with start ups mostly though. If you have a flat rate it is a lot easier then hourly because flat rate allows the customer to know exactly how much they are spending and they can have a total before the job starts. I can then charge in 3rds. 1/3rd to start. 1/3 to receive 1st designs and then 1/3 to receive tech packs. This method insures I get paid instead of praying they pay me in a timely manner at the end of the job. Hope this is helpful :-)

  33. Lindsey says:

    Thanks so much for this great info! I am a children’s fashion designer. Girls primarily. I am really interested in how to contact companies and what to say. Is there a certain person at the company to whom you would want to talk with to see if they could use a freelance designer? Any info would be great! Thanks again!

  34. Kathleen says:

    Hi Lindsey, I would suggest the first step is knowing what expectations an employer has of a designer. You might read the entry I wrote about the commonalities of the best designers. If you work for a smaller company, they probably won’t have all these requirements but the need for given competencies will be even more critical -such as being able to source fabrics and labor. Which is why it is actually easier to get jobs via pattern makers (who are approached with these requests every day) than it is to hunt down employers directly. It logically follows that it helps to have working relationships with pattern makers in order to be on their short list since they will have experience working with you. The best place I know of for all this is our member’s forum so you might look into that if you are serious about moving into this direction.

  35. Sapir says:

    Hello Kathleen,
    I am looking for children’s fashion designer, GIRLS. me and my sister wants to open up a girls line collection.
    There is any way i can contact Lindsey, she is what me and my sister are looking for.
    and if not can you help me where can i find in Los Angeles CA, area ?
    Thank you very much.


    This was absolutely super helpful!
    I have on question though, I usually charge by hours.
    And dont apply an extra fee if they chose some of the design sketches I have given
    Because usually I ask how many sketched they want, and they say maybe 50 sketches, and few get selected to go further for production. Is it normal to charge an extra fee for selected sketches?

    Thank you!


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