Many people dream of doing something they love professionally. But for creatives, it can be tough to find an outlet that is both fulfilling and profitable. Making a living as an artist takes hard work, well-honed skills, and a customer base that’s willing to pay for your craft. That last one is good news for aspiring fashion designers: The market opportunity for fashion designers and apparel manufacturers is enormous, and Americans spend billions of dollars on apparel each year. Most fashion designers make a living by either working as employees for larger entities in the fashion industry or by starting their own fashion businesses. Here, we’ll touch on both types of career paths—and the education, networking, and business smarts required to pursue them successfully. 

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Fashion Design Degree Programs

A formal education in fashion can include a two-year associate’s degree, a four-year bachelor’s degree, and/or a master’s degree in fashion design.

Associates in fashion design study the fundamentals of pattern making, sewing, and fabric manipulation. These students generally receive exposure to training in business operations and marketing. Students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in fashion may learn the same initial curriculum, but will ultimately expand their studies to become more experienced sewers, tailors, or creative directors, often learning to execute a fashion line from design through distribution and marketing.

Those pursuing master’s degrees in fashion design are required to design, sew, and present a fashion collection before earning their diplomas. An MFA in fashion design prepares graduates to manage all aspects of an apparel business.

Some online and community colleges also offer certificate programs in fashion design. These generally focus on a specific skill or set of competencies, with less focus on overall business skills or industry studies.

Working in the Fashion Industry

Finding work with a fashion company, large or small, is a great way to learn about the business and potentially benefit from the example of a successful mentor—while also making a living. In many cases, you’ll have access to professional-level tools, equipment, and materials on the job that will allow you to deepen your skill set and grow more familiar with the latest processes. Independent designers, major design houses, and apparel manufacturers each have different criteria for hiring people at entry-level positions. Some require formal training in fashion design, while others are more willing to hire scrappy, self-taught hustlers who know how to work.

Whatever level of education you gain in fashion design, you will likely still begin at a relatively low level in the industry. Don’t let this discourage you: If you pay attention, the lessons you learn at the bottom of the ladder will create a firm foundation for future growth. Participating in a business while your degree of responsibility is relatively small will allow you to observe, learn, and experiment—with minimal risk.

Study the work of those around you and absorb as much wisdom as you can. You never know who might pass on a lesson or a piece of knowledge that will make you invaluable to a future project.

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Starting Your Own Fashion Business

There are no rules for starting your own fashion business—you can build your company any way you want to. But there are a few common-sense ideas to keep in mind as you get your first project off the ground, and you’ll want to keep an open mind throughout the process. Even if you plan to be your own boss, consider new education options at each step of your career. You may find that your work could benefit from online classes to expand your skill set, or that investing in a traditional course on fashion management would help your business run more efficiently.

Outside of the classroom, learn everything you can about the competitive landscape. Does the market need your product? Has someone else already discovered your idea won’t work? Make it your business to know everything about what already exists in the marketplace before committing to an idea for your own line or product. 

“One great physical act that you can do is to go to other stores that carry something similar to what you’re going to be making, and actually take the time to look at what they have available,” says Greg Armas, a designer at Assembly NY and the instructor behind Skillshare Original Introduction to Starting Your Own Fashion Label. “[Look at] the colors and what sizes they have, and then also look at the sale rack and see what hasn’t sold within your category. Take the time to speak with the salespeople and ask them why those items didn’t sell. Why were they not popular?”

Make it a point to attend networking meetings in your industry, too. If you can’t find any local events, consider starting your own or looking into online communities that will allow you to network virtually. Once you make connections in the fashion industry, be careful: Don’t burn bridges, and be cautious before embarking on a joint venture with a new contact. 

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Clear Your Workspace

When you’re designing and producing a physical product, space is everything. If you plan to start your business from home, get extra or unneeded physical items out of your way. Consider using a free software, such as SketchUp, to lay out how you can use your existing space more efficiently. Where will you store completed designs? Do you have room to shoot photos or meet with potential clients? You’ll need space to create your garments and an empty surface to package items for shipping. Staying organized and being deliberate with your space and time from the beginning will help you skip awkward growing pains as your business takes off.

Image via Bellavance NYC
Image via Bellavance NYC

Determine Your Sales Channels

As a clothing designer, you have many options for selling your designs. For your business to flourish, you’ll need to consider all of the different ways you can reach potential customers. Here are some common avenues. 

Reach consumers directly through your own traditional retail store or website. This method puts you in control of every aspect of your business, from design to marketing to sales—which can be a dream or a nightmare, depending on your perspective. You may need to learn how to set up an online store or brush up on the fundamentals of bookkeeping. You’ll also need to continue to find new customers, and build loyalty with the ones you’ve already got. 

Create your own online stores under the umbrella of marketplaces like eBay, Etsy or Poshmark. Online marketplaces offer convenience for both buyers and sellers, with slick platforms that allow you to post and sell items, collect payment, and print shipping labels. But these platforms charge a percentage of your sales price for these benefits. They also control how buyers find your merchandise: Sales here are driven by search results, and the platforms control how searches are returned.

Sell your goods at craft fairs, farmers markets, trunks shows, or other pop-ups. Smaller items like t-shirts, purses, belts, shoes, and jewelry can yield great results from in-person sales. Pop-ups and temporary venues appeal to consumers’ sense of urgency, offering something unique that might be hard to find again once they walk away. But if you have clothing that requires a dressing room or garments that could be easily damaged, these venues may not be a fit for your business, so consider your specific needs before booking a new space.

Supply your designs to traditional or online retailers. Working with a retailer allows you to focus on producing clothes while the retailer puts their focus on selling them. But to sell to retail buyers, you generally need a proven, well-developed line, and you must be able to deliver your work on a regular basis. “It’s best if you already have some ammunition to bring to the table,” says Armas. “To produce sales with your collection and get the interest of press and buyers, your one largest weapon is to have clear and interesting photos of your garments.” Build a strong portfolio and when you approach buyers, be prepared to prove the demand for your work. 

How to Build an Online Store

Feach customers with an online store thanks to tips from Kate Miss, Dan Christofferson, and Sarah Anderson of Big Cartel.

Get Started 

With hard work, training, the right contacts, and a good attitude, you can craft a successful career as a fashion designer. As a student, work on building your portfolio, understanding the essentials of design, and building contacts with peers and potential mentors. If you’re breaking into the industry with an entry-level job, look at every task as a learning experience, building a mental list of what to do (and, perhaps, what not to do) when you’re eventually running a company yourself. And once you feel ready to strike out on your own, mind the less flashy parts of your business, like finances and market research, while considering new ways to reach customers and constantly seeking inspiration. Enroll in a fashion design course and start learning today.