Maybe you’ve been obsessed with fashion for as long as you can remember. Maybe for you, accessories are artistic expression and an outfit is your favorite form of free speech. But are you ready to make a go of it as a professional fashion designer? While passion is an important place to begin, fashion design is a multifaceted career, and to succeed in the industry, you’ll need skills in art, computer programs, sewing, design, and even math. Here, we’ll touch on exactly what a fashion designer does—and what skills you’ll want to acquire to do it, too. 

By Skillshare Originals teacher Robert Geller
By Skillshare Originals teacher Robert Geller

Art and Fashion

A fashion designer is an artist first. All the dresses you see on the red carpet began as drawings on paper. Fashion sketches, or illustrations as they’re also called, are the first step in the long process of turning ideas into real-world objects. If you’re interested in fashion, this is usually the step that has you most enamored. 

Fashion sketches are drawings of a garment on a model. They’re all about finding inspiration and capturing the mood of the imagined outfit. The next step is where things get technical: Those fashion sketches are converted to “flats,” thus named because a designer must draw the garment as it would look lying flat on a table. Flats are technical drawings that map every detail of a garment: seam placements, style lines, darts, and more. 

Drawing flats is an important skill in fashion design because it is the language by which the designer communicates with the actual garment maker(s). To do fashion illustrations and flats, not only does a designer need to know how to draw with pen and ink, but he or she should also be comfortable with tinted mediums like colored pencils, watercolors, and gouache. 

Learn to Sketch Flats

Join designer Robert Geller to learn the fundamentals of fashion design and flats.

Computer Programs and Fashion Design

Fashion designers increasingly depend on Adobe Illustrator and other software for much of their design work—including designing flats—so it might seem realistic to think that a fashion designer could get by without drawing at all. But while these CADs, or computer-aided design programs, are considered essential tools for designers after the sketch phase, they’re not necessarily replacements for it. Designers who lack drafting skills can find themselves in tight spots when they need to make on-the-fly alterations to a design, or roughly sketch out an idea during a client meeting.

Still, digital design programs can make some of the most cumbersome steps of the design process much more efficient, and a basic understanding of applications like Adobe Illustrator has become somewhat of a requirement for fashion designers. Illustrator can help budding fashion designers make a portfolio of their best designs—a must for anyone who wants to break into the industry and find employment. And established designers regularly use the program to create “range plans”, or visual overviews of an entire collection. Range plans include all the necessary details of production: fabrics, colorways (the range and combinations of colors used for each design), cost of production, and selling price. Illustrator makes it quicker and easier to assemble these projects, and the final product is far more shareable than large, floppy portfolios ever were. 

Sketching Fashion Collections

A crash course in mood boards, choosing fabrics, and building a cohesive collection.

 Color Theory in Fashion Design

It isn’t enough to be able to draw your sketches with pen and ink and put them into Illustrator: Fashion designers must also be masters of color theory. Colors communicate mood and tone more loudly than lines and cuts do. One color scheme might make a dress whimsical, feminine, and suitable for spring, while another can make the same garment dark, brooding, and just right for fall. A fashion designer must determine the mood they want to achieve and then be able to use colors in relationship to one another to achieve that mood. This makes the color wheel a must-have tool: Colors have “neighbors,” and complementary colors—colors on opposite sides of the color wheel—make one another look more vibrant. 

 Sewing Patterns and Prototypes

The next step in the production of a garment is to develop a sewing pattern from the initial drawings and produce a prototype sample. Some designers outsource this step, but being able to create a prototype yourself, especially at the beginning of your career, can be especially advantageous. A designer who can’t sew their own garments is largely dependent on a garment maker just to test ideas: If there’s a problem, the designer must go back to the drawing board before waiting on the garment maker (again) to see if the problem has been corrected. That back-and-forth can take weeks. Meanwhile, a designer who also sews prototypes can solve problems at a much quicker pace, saving time, labor, fabric, and money. 

But even designers who do know how to sew their designs occasionally call on garment makers for this step. There are many different niches in the fashion design industry, after all, and a designer’s specific role at a company will determine how much of the production process he or she performs. Those who work for manufacturing establishments, wholesalers, or design firms, may spend the majority of their time producing flats and range plans that are later passed off to garment makers. While these more specialized roles may not look exactly like the careers glorified on Project Runway, they tend to allow for a saner work-life balance. Because so many people are involved in the production process, roles at large companies often require a more narrow set of skills and can be perfect for new or up-and-coming designers who are still gaining new skill sets. 

Introduction to Fashion Design

Nolan Bellavance and Ava Hama of Bellavance NYC share tips on sketching your own designs.

Geometry and Math in Fashion Design

Fashion design might be known as a creative field, but it involves plenty of math, too. The field has a lot in common with architecture: They’re both forms of engineering that transform immaterial ideas into two-dimensional drawings and then into three-dimensional objects. Whether you are building a skyscraper or want to design your own t-shirt, careful measurement and precise dimensions are crucial to the success of the finished product. Fractions, geometry, and even algebra are all used in the various processes of fashion design. Getting it right is essential in purchasing materials, calculating labor costs, and balancing the books.

Knowing Your Fabrics

While most designers aren’t required to be intimately familiar with the appearance, texture, and performance of a wide variety of fabrics, gaining that experience can separate the competent from the great. The same design with the same measurements can produce dramatically different garments based solely on the fabric used, and costly mistakes are often made by failing to predict the way a chosen fabric will behave. Designers who know their fabrics avoid these expensive blunders, spend less time revising range plans, and—when they’re not making the designs themselves—cultivate better relationships with garment makers.

From Bellavance NY
From Bellavance NY

How to Get Started 

Now that you know what a fashion designer does, the next step is to get started. Given the wide range of skills that fashion design requires, it’s easy to see why most aspiring fashion designers go to design school. But a degree is just one way to gain knowledge and skills. Work experience is another: Many successful designers have gotten started by seeking out internships or apprenticeships with designers they admired. To catch the attention of a seasoned professional, you’ll need a strong portfolio and a demonstrated passion for the business. Do your research and practice your craft as much as possible as you seek your first opportunity.

While some designers find work at large companies, specializing in a single aspect of garment production, many rising stars make their way as independent contractors, designing custom clothing for private clients, or as self-employed designers, selling their designs directly to consumers. To find success on your own, you must be skilled in all of the steps of garment production, from beginning to end, but you’ll also need to understand the finer points of running a business—or partner with someone who does. 

Fashion design is a competitive industry with razor-thin margins and little room for error. But while breaking out on your own can be grueling, unpredictable, and involve greater risk, it can also potentially yield a greater reward. Get started today with classes on sketching flats, launching your own label, or mastering finance tips for creatives and bring your dream of being a fashion designer to life.