Your Guide to Getting Started in Fashion Design

What Is Fashion Design?

Fashion design is the craft and art form of applying aesthetic and visual principles, along with garment fabrication skills, to the creation of clothing, footwear, and accessories. While humans have been crafting garments for millenia, the modern institution of couture houses headed up by a designer who oversees the creative direction has only been around since the mid-19th century, when English-born, Paris-based designer, Charles Frederick Worth, began affixing labels with his name to his garments.

Since then, the most common conception of a fashion designer has been someone who heads their own label and creates garments that work together to tell a story or evoke a certain attitude and look. However, not all fashion designers own their own labels. Many also work for other brands or fashion houses, and every garment that you see hanging on a shelf in a store had to be, to some extent, designed by somebody.

Fashion design is associated with creativity and self expression. Through the art of fashion design, a designer can express an artistic idea, explore facets of a culture, or even make a political statement.

Most garments also serve a practical function: we need clothes to protect ourselves from the elements and to go about daily life. However, when it comes to fashion design, the goal often goes beyond just the practical. There is also usually an aesthetic and artistic aim when designing a garment. A really well designed, well constructed garment can make the wearer feel confident and attractive, while a poorly designed one can have the opposite effect.

On the other end of the spectrum, some garments created by fashion designers are entirely impractical for real life wear, and serve an almost entirely artistic or creative purpose. These garments can be thought of as a kind of wearable art or sculpture.

For those who’ve always dreamed of hitting the runway with their imagined collection, fashion design is an exciting career path that launches you into the world of creativity and innovation.

Whether you’re looking to get started in your career in fashion design after having graduated from a program or you’re interested in learning more about the industry on your own, we’ve got the rundown of everything to help you get started—from the skills you’ll need to get hired to building an impressive portfolio website to showcase your best work.

Fashion design is a fascinating art form because it does a lot more than give us something beautiful to look at or wear. It’s at a unique intersection between aesthetic quality and practicality, which is exactly why many aspiring fashion designers are drawn to the practice.

What Is Fashion Design?

When it comes to defining what fashion design entails in practice, the designer has to do more than just come up with a garment idea and then try to create it. There are a lot of technical and business skills involved in fashion design, in addition to the creative aspect of the job.

The first step in fashion design is conceptualizing. Whether the designer is creating a single garment or a collection, they start out with a concept and determine the what the purpose of the garment is. If they are designing a ski jacket, for example, it will have to meet functional requirements for warmth, durability, weatherproofing and protection from the elements. However, if they are designing it for a luxury brand, the aesthetics of the jacket may be quite different than if they are designing it for a mid-market sport brand.

Once they have their concept, they’ll start drawing and rendering their idea. Here, the specifics of what the garment will look like start to come together. They may start out sketching by hand, but the final drawings and renderings are created digitally with software like Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator.

With the sketch complete, the designer will need to create the pattern. Patterns can be hand-drawn, but nowadays the process typically requires familiarity with specialized pattern-making software. Once that is done, their garment construction skills are applied to sewing and draping the garment.

The best fashion designers are able to go through this process with a strong knowledge of fashion history, as well as of different textiles and garment construction techniques. If they are making their own garments, they need to know how to operate a sewing machine, and likely need to have hand stitching skills as well.

While a working pro fashion designer may have support or be able to outsource various steps in this process, getting started in fashion design involves gaining at least some skills in all of these areas so that you can create high quality prototypes of your ideas.

Why Is Fashion Design Important?

From an economics standpoint, the global fashion design industry is a 1.5 trillion dollar industry expected to grow to about 2.5 trillion dollars by 2025, according to Statistica.

We wear clothing as a means to protect ourselves from the environment, for comfort, modestly, and for artistic expression. Fashion isn’t only a luxury—It’s a necessity that serves a function.

With the ever-growing concerns about climate change and the global clothing market’s impact on our environment, fashion designers are met with the responsibility of solving yet another problem about sustainability and improving practices within the fashion industry.

How Do You Become A Fashion Designer?

If you’re wondering, “can you be a fashion designer without a degree?” the short answer is yes.

A degree in fashion design isn’t a requirement, but having one is a huge advantage because these fashion programs teach you the technical skills, history of art in fashion, and can arrange internships that can help you get your foot in the door.

Legendary designers including Coco Chanel, Cristóbal Balenciaga, and Jean-Paul Gautier never went to fashion design school, but that didn’t stop them from creating iconic fashion houses.

Fashion design school helps you understand the industry, provides you with the skillset such as pattern making, sewing, learning how to spot trends, and business and marketing that will serve you well when navigating the industry.

Many fashion designers hold a bachelor’s degree in fashion, either in creative design or merchandising, which is more marketing-oriented.

When you go through an accredited program, you’ll be encouraged to develop a portfolio that can increase your chances of getting hired after you graduate. While it’s not impossible to create a career in fashion without going through a program, savvy business sense and a tremendous amount of your sweat equity to pull it all together are musts.

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What Skills Do I Need To Be A Fashion Designer?

There is so much more to becoming a fashion designer than having a love of clothing and accessories and the glamour that comes with it.

Whether you’re looking to self-teach or are curious about what you’ll get out of a fashion design program, here’s an overview of some of the skills you’ll need to become a successful designer.

Drawing & Rendering Fashion Illustrations

Fashion designers work on conceptualizing before cutting into fabric. Fashion trends often start out as drawings and illustrations. For many artists, fashion illustration is what got them into fashion design.

If construction isn’t your strong suit, knowing how to effectively communicate your ideas for your designs through sketches will help you bring your concepts to life working with pattern makers.

Adobe Illustrator & Photoshop

Although most sketch designs start with pencil and paper, working with your illustrations digitally is more sustainable because it uses less paper, saves time, allows for more creative flexibility, and it’s easier to share your work with others.

Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator are the most common software tools used to digitize your fashion illustrations. This practice is quite new in the industry, and more institutions offer classes on these programs, but you can also learn them on your own through paid online courses and free YouTube tutorials. Knowing how to use Photoshop and Illustrator for your design rendering may give you a leg up in your career in fashion design.

Construction: Sewing, Pattern Making, And Draping

Construction is the foundation of fashion design. It’s how you’ll take your ideas for a garment from sketches and turn them into a wearable and functional piece of clothing.

Sewing, pattern making, and the art of draping fabrics is a central curriculum at fashion design school, but you can also learn these skills outside of an institution. You can take sewing classes, learn from YouTube, and other online courses at your own pace.

Fashion History

You can learn so much by studying the evolution of fashion design and haute couture. The fashion trends you see today are inspired by looks from the past. Learning from master fashion designers and past trends can help you draw up inspiration for your work.

Open up those coffee-table design books, watch documentaries, tune into fashion week, and read the biographies of your favorite design icons. As someone who is genuinely passionate about a career in fashion design, this is likely an easy skill for you to develop.

Learn Your Textiles

Knowing which textiles to use to bring your sketch designs to life is a skill set you’ll develop with experience in the design process as you work closely with fabrics and draping.

Learning which material to work with and how they drape on the body is an important factor to consider when designing a garment.

Fashion Marketing And Merchandising

Most clothing is created for the mass market. Marketing and merchandising are developed strongly in fashion design programs, but you can learn them as you make your way through the industry.

Merchandising manages the flow of commodities (garments and accessories) to retailers, while marketing primarily focuses on the overall branding and advertising to target consumers.

Do Fashion Designers Make A Lot Of Money?

The fashion industry is one of the largest global industries, which means there’s also a wide range of salaries for fashion designers.

Freshly graduated students or those new to the industry may start in an internship position. If you’re lucky, you can find an internship in a paid role. Either way, it’s an excellent way to get your foot in the industry and navigate the different sectors in fashion to see where you enjoy working the most.

According to Indeed, the salary range for the lowest and highest 10% of fashion designers is $32,320 to $130,900 per year. These average salaries can vary depending on your location. Most companies hiring fashion designers in the U.S. are in Califonia and New York.

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Do You Need A Portfolio For Fashion Design?

When you’re applying for work as a fashion designer, you’ll be asked to present a portfolio. This gives the hiring manager or prospecting client an idea for your style and the results you can produce for them.

Traditionally, you’d present a hard-copy portfolio in your interviews. Today, portfolio websites are becoming more common as they’re easier to share, update, and provide you with more opportunities to sell and market yourself as a creative professional.

How Do You Make A Portfolio Website For Fashion Design?

Going to school for fashion design gives you a huge advantage as you’re guided through projects that you can add to your portfolio once you’ve graduated.

But just because you didn’t go to fashion design school doesn’t mean you can’t put together a portfolio. You can put together mood boards, fashion illustrations, or if you’ve made clothes, put together a professional photoshoot.

Here are some tips for getting started on building a portfolio website for a career in fashion design.

Focus On Quality Not Quantity

A portfolio is about putting your best face forward, not about your entire journey in fashion design.

Consider the type of work you’re looking for and cater your portfolio to speak to the brands you’re applying to. Only share relevant work that you think the hiring manager would be interested in or create new pieces specifically for that role.

Include Your Process

Make your portfolio more interesting to viewers by sharing your ideation process for the design. While the finished product might be stellar, it’s no secret that the fashion industry is notorious for stolen ideas.

Adding context to how you came up with the design, perspective, and originality could help you stand out amongst other applicants.

Share An “About Me” Page

An About page tells prospecting brands your story related to the fashion industry. Try not to make it too much about you—keep it concise and relevant.

You can share how you got into the industry, your experience, and where you envision your career. This gives visitors to your portfolio a better sense of what it would be like to work with you.

Contact Information

How can your website visitors get in contact with you about your work? Don’t forget to add a section or, better yet, a page on your portfolio on how a brand can get in touch.

We recommend creating a built-in form to make it easy for visitors to reach out to you directly on the website.

What Next?

If you’re looking to get started creating a professional creative portfolio as a fashion designer, Format members have access to over 70 website themes that allow you to drag, drop, and customize your portfolio to make it completely your own.

Not only is Format a user-friendly interface for those who have no experience with website design, but it also has built-in tools that help you sell products directly on your site, allowing you to create another income stream.

Unlike physical portfolios, a website portfolio can become a powerful marketing tool. Make sure you take advantage of Format’s search engine optimization tools that will help drive organic traffic to your website and get your work out in front of more people.

For more advice like this on marketing yourself as a creative entrepreneur, be sure to check out our other Format articles and build a website on a free trial today.

What Are Some Fashion Design Examples?

There is so much creative potential in the field of fashion design, and here you can find a selection of fashion designer portfolios to get inspired no matter what your style is.

Alexis Walsh

Alexis Walsh is a designer and artist based in New York City. Through the exploration of emerging technologies including 3D printing and digital modeling, integrated with traditional handcraft, Alexis utilizes an interdisciplinary approach to push the boundaries of fashion design. Alexis graduated with honors from Parsons The New School for Design, and has been awarded for her innovative approach to the creative potential of 3D printing in fashion design. Her work includes garments and accessories, and has been featured in many prominent fashion magazines.

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Cristobal Eolo

Cristobal Eolo is the fashion line of Mexico-born, US-based designer Cristobal “Lalo” Gonzalez. This portfolio showcases Gonzelez’s highly conceptual approach to his collections, with each having a well defined theme and featuring pieces that look like they were lifted straight out of his fantastical worlds. The whole brand aims to create gender fluid fashion pieces that embrace femininity and can be worn by anyone wishing to boldly express themselves. Gonzalez includes sketches with each collection, giving the viewer a peek into the design process that is usually not accessible to them.

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Linxi Zhu

A student at the Royal College of Arts in London, Linxi Zhu is a women’s knitwear designer based in China and the UK. While pursuing her BA in Fashion Textiles at the London College of Fashion, Zhu always aimed to challenge traditional approaches to knitting and establish a new perspective on how knitted textiles can be created by combining unconventional materials with yarns. Take one look at her portfolio and you’ll see that these definitely aren’t your grandmother’s knits.

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What Are The Different Types Of Fashion Design

While the fashion design process may be similar across different types of fashion design, from conceptualizing and sketching through to constructing and marketing, there are many different niches within fashion design that you can explore.

Haute Couture

Haute couture, French for “high dressmaking”, is the pinnacle of high end garment making. To qualify as haute couture, the garments must be limited in number and custom fitted for the client. These handmade garments are typically painstaking to create and are truly one-of-a-kind.

While the term may be used more casually, haute couture actually has a pretty strict definition. True haute couture has to be designated as such by the French government, and the designers must have a studio or atelier in Paris employing at least 15 people, along with guidelines about how many looks they must release each year.

Luxury Fashion

Luxury fashion, while still exclusive, is a little bit more accessible than haute couture. It lies somewhere between the ultra-exclusive and rare designs worn only by the rich and famous, and the more mass produced garments that are available to everybody.

Luxury designers create garments that are made with high quality materials and are usually considered to be of higher-than-average quality. While they are not one-off pieces like haute couture garments are, they are also not produced on the same scale as the everyday clothes we are used to.

Luxury fashion is too expensive for the average consumer, but there is an ever-growing market for it thanks to newly emerging wealthy economies around the world. This means that new designers are regularly hired to help support luxury fashion houses.

Ready to Wear Fashion

Also referred to as pret-a-porter, ready to wear fashion may come from luxury fashion houses or from more accessible brands, and it is mass produced for a broad consumer base. While haute couture is bespoke, ready to wear comes in standard sizes. Designers work with fit models, models who are typically representative of each size, to make their ready to wear garments fit well across different proportions.

Most high end fashion houses have haute couture, luxury lines, and ready to wear lines. The ready to wear lines typically make reference to the haute couture pieces, but they are versions that are much easier to manufacture. Ready to wear also tends to be more trend-driven, since these garments are often shown during the major fashion weeks for the season ahead.

Fast Fashion

The major apparel brands that are familiar to anyone who has ever shopped in a mall or on a main downtown street typically make garments that are called fast fashion. Fast fashion designers are tasked with creating trendy garments inspired by high end fashion shows that can be manufactured with a very quick turnaround, so the brand always has fresh items on offer at an affordable price. These are mass-produced garments that aim to bring trendy clothes to the average person at a low cost.

Due to the trend-driven nature of fast fashion, the garments created can be of relatively low quality and can look obsolete or dated within a few months of hitting the shelves. While this type of fashion has rightfully been criticized in recent years for its wasteful nature and unethical manufacturing practices, it remains extremely popular in terms of the number of dollars spent annually.

Sportswear

With the massive influence of sports brands like Nike and Adidas, and the tremendous popularity of streetwear and athleisure clothing in recent years, sportswear has become a very important niche within fashion design. Nowadays, sportswear designers need to create garments that are not only technically effective for being active and being outdoors, they also need to be in line with current trends and even experiment with new materials, silhouettes and styles the way a traditional fashion house might.

Eveningwear

As an evening wear designer, you’re tasked with creating garments for everything from glamorous parties to formal soirees. Designs include cocktail dresses, ball gowns, as well as suits and tuxedos for men. These designs can range from fast fashion mass-produced options to high end, bespoke options. There are many designers offering custom fitted evening wear that don’t necessarily count as haute couture, due to the strict constraints within the industry on who can use that term.

Fashion Accessories

Fashion accessories are a huge segment of the fashion industry at every level. Luxury fashion houses often make a substantial portion of their income on accessories because those are the items they can sell at scale. For example, Gucci may only be able to sell a limited number of $6000.00 dresses, but there are many more people who will spend $600 on a Gucci belt in order to have a little accessible piece of luxury for themselves. This makes accessories designers key players in the design team for fashion houses.

Of course, accessories are designed and sold by fast fashion brands as well, often with trend-driven styles that help increase the company’s bottom line each season.

Footwear

Footwear is another key driver of sales for brands ranging from fast fashion to luxury. Footwear designers have to have specialized knowledge, since shoe designs are constructed using different techniques than clothing garments. Footwear designers are also a very important part of the team for athletic brands, since sneakers have become a huge market with the rise in popularity of streetwear.

Lingerie and Loungewear

Lingerie is a specialized subset of fashion design that focuses on making intimate garments that range from practical to racy, while loungewear is more geared toward the clothes people wear around the house when relaxing. With the huge shift toward a work from home model that likely won’t abate any time soon, loungewear has seen an explosion in recent years and will likely only become more in-demand, making it a lucrative area for aspiring fashion designers.

Swimwear

Swimwear designers work with unique materials that aren’t usually used in other types of garment design, since they typically have a lot of stretch and need to have unique technical properties such as holding up to salt water, chlorine, and lots of bright UV light.

How Do You Get Started In Fashion Design?

The most important asset you should focus on developing in order to get started in fashion design is your fashion portfolio. People working with you will care a lot more about what you can actually create than what fancy fashion school you attended.

Having said that, having a great school on your resume can certainly improve your chances of getting hired if you’re approaching larger, established brands, because it indicates that you have a handle on the fundamentals of fashion design. Both approaches are okay, as long as you make sure you’re getting the key skills and creating work that showcases your capabilities.

Getting Started by Studying Fashion Design

As you have gathered by now, fashion design involves a lot more than being able to conceptualize and sketch a beautiful and interesting garment. There are also a lot of challenging and technical skills involved, including using software to create your designs and draft your patterns, a strong knowledge of different materials and how they can be worked and manipulated, the handy skills to construct your idea, and business and marketing skills in the fashion industry.

Fashion school can help make you a well-rounded designer by providing you with all of these skills. It can also provide you with a deep general knowledge of fashion history, which can help make you a better designer by informing your own approach to design.

The fashion business is a huge global business, and the best fashion school programs arm you with some of the business skills you’ll need to make it in the fashion world, from knowing how to market yourself to potential employers, to tips and considerations for starting your own fashion line.

Finally, many programs also include an internship with a fashion house, which can be a great way to get your foot in the door within a competitive industry. Even if your goal is to start your own fashion line one day, working at another brand or fashion house can prove to be tremendously beneficial in preparing you for the task of starting your own company.

However, fashion school isn’t for everyone. It can be expensive, and if you’re somebody who has developed strong technical skills on your own, you can take a more DIY-approach to getting started in fashion design.

Getting Started as a Self Taught Fashion Designer

If you decide that getting a degree in fashion design isn’t for you, it doesn’t mean you have to give up on your dream of being a fashion designer. Maybe you learned to sew on your own or from taking sewing lessons, and you’ve taken some online courses or watched YouTube tutorials about pattern design and other aspects of the industry.

At the end of the day, if you can put together an impressive portfolio that shows that you know your stuff, not having a degree is not necessarily a deal breaker when it comes to getting hired by a brand. If you want to start your own line, you don’t have to impress anybody except the potential customers buying your clothes.

In fact, if, like many up-and-coming fashion designers, you want to start a smaller, slow fashion brand that provides a more sustainable and ethical alternative to the throwaway culture of fast fashion, you don’t even necessarily need to construct the clothes yourself.

You can research clothes manufacturing in your area and see if you can find a manufacturing partner to work with. Many brands also create partnerships with sustainable, safe, and fair wage manufacturing facilities overseas. Since you won’t necessarily be creating all the garments yourself beyond a few prototypes, you don’t have to be the world’s best tailor to create a successful brand.

Establishing Your Career As A Fashion Designer

Whether you want to apply to work at another company as a fashion designer, or you want to create your own 100 percent original designs, creating a strong portfolio should be one of your highest priorities.

For anyone working with you, it will be important to see what you can actually create. They’ll want to get a sense for your creative vision, the types of silhouettes you tend to work in, the materials you tend to incorporate, and the quality of your work. Your online portfolio is a one-stop-shop where anyone who wants to can get this information.

You’ll also need to get the word out about your portfolio and your business. Social media can be an effective, low lost place to start marketing your brand or building a following.

If you are creating and selling your own brand of fashion garments, finding retail partners can help you expand your reach beyond the customers you can find online. While it may be difficult to fill large orders for big retailers, approaching a smaller boutique whose brand is inline with your brand values can be a good way to start and test out designs in the real market.

How Do You Price Your Fashion Design?

The potential income of a fashion designer will vary widely depending on what part of the industry they work in. Fashion is a massive global industry, so there is a wide range of possible salaries if you’re employed in the field and an equally wide range of potential prices you can charge for your designs if you are working for yourself.

If your goal is to work as a designer for a clothing brand or fashion house, websites like Payscale might be able to help you identify the average income of other people with the same title at the company you plan to work for or at other similar companies. This can help you negotiate a fair salary. According to their data, the average fashion designer in the US earns just over $66,000 per year, but this will vary depending on the geographical region and the employer.

If, instead, you plan to sell your own designs under your own brand, you’ll have to work out your price based on your costs to produce the garments, the target market you are going after, and your expected salary. The materials, quality, and style of your pieces will put some constraint on the prices you can charge. For example, if you’re designing hoodies, you probably won’t be able to charge as much for each piece as you would for, say, a more complex dress.

If you start your own business as a fashion designer, you won’t be paid per design as such. Instead, you’ll set a price for each garment based. You can work out the minimum price based on one of the following methods:

  1. Backwards Pricing. With this method, you take your target retail price and divide it by 4. If you can produce the garment for that amount or less, you can use that price. For example, say you want to make a cardigan and sell it for $80. As long as you can make it for $20 or less, that should be a reasonable and sustainable price for your business.

  2. Keystone Markup. This is a widely used method for determining selling price in the retail world. To arrive at your price, take your cost to produce an item and multiply it by 2 or 2.5 to get to your wholesale price. Multiply that again by 2 to arrive at your retail price. For example, if the cardigan costs $15 to produce, your wholesale price would be $30 or $37.5, and your retail price would be $60 or $75.

  3. Absorption Pricing. To calculate your price using this method, simply take all of your fixed and variable costs and multiply them by 2 or 2.5. To get all of your costs, add the cost to make the garment, plus your overhead costs such as studio rent, plus the profit margin you want to make.

These are just a few common ways to figure out your prices as a fashion designer selling your own designs. If you set your prices lower than the numbers you get with these methods, you may find that the costs of running your business make it unsustainable in the long run.

Remember, slow and indie fashion tends to cost more for a reason, because the practices that make fast fashion so cheap are unethical. The types of customers who will want to support your brand know this. Nowadays, with online shopping and a wider interest in discovering niche and interesting brands, the opportunities for a motivated fashion designer are plenty. You can get your designs in front of a potential customer on the other side of the world with much more ease that designers even ten years ago could have dreamed of. Now all you have to do is create that scroll-stopping portfolio.

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