Couple a graduate’s need for professional validation with the cutthroat, high-stakes, revolving-door culture of the US fashion industry which attracts designers from all over the globe in search of the big salaries, and the pressure to become a success and live the dream can be overwhelming right out of the gate. Many fashion students, buoyed by praise of their senior collections, might leave school with runway dreams but end up with a cubicle reality. They can become seduced by solid starting salaries, promises of promotion, benefits and perks––all the things their peers sacrifice in order to work for the cool emerging young designer--but their creativity takes an unforeseen turn. I asked Isaiah Isaac, who graduated from an Associates Degree in Fashion in 2012 about his experience, and thank him for his candor as he describes his move from classroom to corporate...How have you found the transition from fashion design student to working designer?
The transition was more or less seamless for me. I was fortunate enough to get a job in the industry shortly after graduating. I started with a 3 month tenure at J Crew, and then moved on to Macy's as the Men's Assistant Designer in Hard Pieces and Wovens. After 2 years of Macy's I moved to freelancing and had a 3 month tenure at Ralph Lauren designing and consulting for Men's and Women's Handbags.What do you find has been the most glaring difference/s between what you did at school and your experience in a corporate company?
What I find to be the most glaring would be the "hands on" experience we had in school compared to the hands off, "minds on” experience in the work place. Corporate America teaches you to only electronically illustrate your designs. You also have fittings, but that is as close to the patterns as you get. Unless you are very close with your technical designers, you will not be able to experience "real design" as I call it, in the corporate atmosphere. I found that my design superiors looked to me to provide actual applicable information, e.g. how a facing should work, and if an understitch is necessary. I design based on actually making a garment. In my experience of corporate America, they design, of course to make money, but they don't necessarily go into it with the knowledge of how garments are made properly.
School could definitely have done more to prepare me, for instance, teaching PLM, or how to do tech packs from start to finish. We could have used a more in-depth view of how to merchandise, as designers, for the consumer. Runway is great, and it is what I aspire to achieve. However, I would have liked equal precedence given to mass market designing.What was your office workspace like?
J Crew was great. They have open, communal spaces. However one of my workplaces was very depressing, dark grays and small cubicles, I sat in a corner on my own for the entirety of my stay there, not a very good team feeling overall.Did you have to meet a certain dress code? Did you feel your appearance change as a result of working there?
I did have to meet a certain dress code. This may seem not very commonplace, but in many companies, women have more leisure to dress casually or more geared towards their personality. Again J Crew was very open and lenient. In one place, women, including my superiors could wear sneakers and leggings, jeans and t shirts, etc. But the men were either dressed in suits or a collared shirt everyday, no sneakers, only denim on Fridays, and it was suggested to be black. I tried to push the boundaries, of course, as much as possible. I was approached and asked to dress more appropriately. Mind you, I wore a collared shirt almost every day, and I don't like denim.Was the company strict regarding time to start work, have lunch, finishing time etc, and were you often asked to work late hours?
While one company claimed to promote a work-life balance, the team I was on did not adhere to that. I spent a lot of time working through my lunch, or eating while working. I was never directly asked to work late, however I was expected to get my work done, and would be left to my own devices, resulting in late nights at the office. Start time was very important, only if we had meetings, but sometimes on regular days too depending on supervisors’ personal moods etc. There wasn't much equal respect. I believe in respecting any human being as I would another. Hierarchy, pay grade, status, that doesn't affect how I treat people. That’s not the norm in corporate America, I found.
At Macy's, get in, check your email and respond for hours, or however long it takes. Go over any submits of qualities (fabric swatches for the season), or color and tri submits. If we were in season to design, make sure the sketches are done, see what meetings we have, if it was a buy, update all of the spread sheets and Style Trackers. Make sure the Print and Pattern Tracker was up to date. If we had to send things off, we would be making tech packs all day, or sending things out to be duplicated by overseas. In corporate companies, we go comp shopping to see what’s in the market, so we could knock it off for a lower price and cheaper fabric. Not much design, just creative copying.Were you content with your salary and how it compared to the salaries of your peers and fellow graduates?
I was told, that for entry level in the design industry, I was being compensated very well. Design does get paid less then Product though, something to keep in mind.Do you regret accepting this job over trying to find a "more creative" one?
In hindsight, I have no regrets. I have learned the business. I know how to run a business, read selling reports, predict what the customer will do and want. I know how to make tech packs and converse with overseas factories. I have made many contacts that I can use for my personal work. As well as many more perks that came with working in that environment. Would I have wanted a more creative job with the same perks? Of course, but that's in the past and I have learned from that. Going forward, I will not settle for a full time job, helping a large company trick people into buying the same thing over, and over, and over again.Have you been a designer in more than one corporate company and, if so, were there differences between them? Describe.
Yes as mentioned before, J Crew, Macy's and Ralph Lauren. RL is by far the best. They were all so sweet and focused. They respected me and my opinions, I had a lot of say as to what went on that directly affected my work. They were communal and open minded, down-to-earth real people.Describe the moments when you felt most creative in your job?
I felt the most creative when I was sketching, but I always had to dumb down my designs, as I was countlessly told they were to High Fashion, Luxury, and Contemporary. I, of course, took these as compliments...Describe the moments when you felt least creative in your job?
When I had to change my designs to look similar to last season’s. The slogan at one particular company was literally "Same but different."
If we're dreaming here, I would love to be the Creative Director of Celine Menswear. I want to personally champion Menswear lines in design houses that exclusively sell Women's clothes. Other designers, Proenza Schouler, The Row, and Jacquemus.Do you believe the above experience/s will help or hinder you in getting that position?
I think the above experience is paramount to who I am today. I know what I want, always have in a way, but I settled for money, never settle for money! But it has helped me to know my ambitions, and how much I really want this, how much I live for it. I cannot stop thinking about it. Everyday in the office I was saving inspiration and writing down design ideas, documenting concepts for future collections and custom pieces I wanted to make. It made me hungry, and allowed me to realize what I was missing out on. I have to work for myself. I can consult, and contribute in a small scale to some companies and help other people’s dream, but my main focus is my work. I suppose I am a multi-disciplinary creative. I have been focusing on Photography and Design as of late. I would be able to design for the aforementioned labels because I love a challenge, and I have faith they would give me creative freedom while working within their aesthetic. That's real, and its important. And I can't let go of that, can't give up on myself, or my dreams.Do you believe you need to have certain qualities to succeed as a designer in a corporate environment?
Yes. If you can follow the rules and learn how to do things how someone else wants them done, then it’s for you. You have to be an “executer” who does't really even know there is a box to think outside of. You have to like sitting at a computer for 85% of the time and clicking and typing and copying etc. If you like to do things with your hands and create with your mind, then knuckle up, make little money and try and design for a label you love. I cannot stress this enough, it's worth the sacrifice. I have recently been contracted to start someone’s accessories label for them. Tomorrow, as I write this, I am resigning, as I cannot make someone else’s dream come true, not over my own. I have only been two weeks on the job, so I caught it quick, but I fell into it again. Money is very pretty. But it is not worth it in the end when you're tired from ten hour days with not enough energy to work on your own projects. I have accomplished a lot in my short 5 years in New York, but I thought to myself, what would I accomplish if I went all in? And we're about to find out. I couldn't be more excited. You can follow my journey at IsaiahIsaac.com, and check out my new label Uno-Solo.com. Check with me in five years, and we'll see if it paid off!
All images from Isaiah’s portfolio
By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.