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Ten Tips for Designers to Excel in the Fashion Industry

By Jackie Mallon

Aug 3, 2016

Maybe you’re a few years into your career in the fashion industry and the relief at being one of the few from your graduating year who got a job is beginning to fade. Maybe you’ve been entrenched in a job for too long but when you peek outside your cubicle, you no longer see the forest for the trees. Either way, you’re ready to rise, get promoted, earn more. But how do you make that happen?

Ten Tips for Designers to Excel in the Fashion Industry: No hopping

Strategize your exit. While Millennials are known to job-hop after graduation until they settle into their groove, which apparently is viewed favorably by the industry as it demonstrates adaptability and social ease, the same cannot be said for professionals who are more established in their careers. Resist the urge to move too often as potential employers will view you as flighty and unserious, possibly even doubting your commitment to followthrough on projects. If an employer decides to invest in you, they want reassurance that you’re a solid prospect who will be around long enough to show a return on their investment. Your resume will tell them that.

Are we exclusive yet?

Always keep in touch with your preferred recruiters, providing them with an updated resume and let them know if you’re looking to move. Remember, recruiters are putting multiple candidates forward for the same job. Individual companies also work with multiple recruiters to increase their chances of getting the best candidate. By the same token, you should build relationships with multiple recruiters. The relationship only becomes exclusive when you have received a job offer as a result of a recruiter’s introduction and have decided to take it.

It’s still comes down to who you know

Personal introductions can fast track your transition. If you apply for a position through HR, your name may languish in the company’s database for weeks, but the right connections can have you in front of the hiring manager first thing in the morning. HR managers relying on key word searches to locate suitable candidates are not always kept up-to- date with the immediate needs of the design team. They mightn’t always know how to interpret your resume, overlooking some unique accomplishments that would intrigue a creative director enough to invite you for interview. Be proactive and recognize opportunity wherever it crops up because no one is as motivated as you in your job search.

Ten Tips for Designers to Excel in the Fashion Industry: Defy labels

The industry, particularly in the U.S. will attempt to pigeonhole you. If you have spent the past two years designing only shirts, you will be packaged as a shirt designer and will have to fight against this branding, even if you designed other categories before shirts. If you’ve been working in menswear, your desire to return to womenswear will be questioned. This only increases if you’ve done a long stint in childrenswear, swimwear or another niche category, and wish to return to ready-to- wear. To break free of these labels, tailor your portfolio thoroughly to demonstrate the extent of your abilities even if it means creating new work focused on where you see yourself now.

Rise up from the projects

As you move up the ladder, there is more at stake. With salary increases and new titles, employers expect more. At the beginning of your career your resume was not enough; you needed a portfolio. But there comes the time when your portfolio is not enough. Companies seeking to fill a position often ask shortlisted candidates to complete projects for them but offering minimal guidance on what they are hoping to see. The project is your chance to impress and you should demonstrate your understanding of the company’s DNA, its customer and market position, innovative design and slick presentation. There is no other industry I can think of which requires its professionals to produce work for free like this, yet it has become common to the hiring process. The more positions you apply for, the more projects (work for free) you will do. Look at it as portfolio building.

Ten Tips for Designers to Excel in the Fashion Industry: Be Fresh

Put culture above the cult of celebrity to boost your credibility with those that matter. Your superiors might be anything from 10-40 years older than you and referring to the Helmut Lang S/S 1999 collection in which the designer mixed reflective techno fabric, marabou feathers and minimalism can score you major brownie points over someone extolling the wonders of Beyonce’s shoes on last night’s red carpet. Bring the outside world into the cubicle: museum inspiration; books and articles you’ve read; photos from your travels...As a new, possibly younger, member of the design team, step up and be their ear to the ground. Relish the responsibility of keeping things fresh and it will be appreciated.

Beware Divas and Dollar Signs

The heady mix of unchecked egos and the industry’s multibillion dollar turnover can lead to behavior that wouldn’t be tolerated in other fields. Buyers have as much influence as designers, particularly in the U.S. Old styles that have sold well will be endlessly repackaged bumping out new experiments which for a creative can be frustrating. At a morning meeting, your “super-cute” idea can be gushed over, yet it’s canceled by mid-afternoon. People in our industry change their minds based on whims, sales feedback, fear. Many employers will expect you to respond to emails as soon as you are awake right up until the moment you fall asleep. Why? Because they do. The industry’s culture of second-guessing promotes neuroses and possibly insomnia. Don’t take anything personally; it’s just business but find ways to navigate these prickly phenomena that go with the territory.

Embrace you Senior Moment

It is widely agreed among my design peers that while the industry itself has bounced back from recession, the salaries here in NYC have never quite returned to their pre- recession heights and the upper middle design positions have all but dried up. Hiring one candidate to do several people’s jobs is now commonplace in many companies. Bulking up from the bottom, hiring a handful of junior designers together with intern manpower instead of hiring a senior designer has become acceptable practice. So if you get that offer to fill a senior design position, snap it up but be prepared to wear many hats.

Feed the starving artist in you

Keep a sketchbook, paint landscapes in your downtime, cultivate lifelong curiosity. Allow your creativity to flourish outside your job and you will find you will bring more to your job. Too many mass market companies reduce the design process to ripping looks from magazines or from competitors’ collections and riffing off them. Whether early in your career or seasoned, you will inevitably land such a job and it can sneakily undercut your creativity to the point that you become conditioned to think in this reduced way. Then when you upgrade for a more creative environment but exhibit this approach, it can be a big turn-off to your new employer. The onus is on you to stoke the fires of your creativity or others will snuff them out.

Ten Tips for Designers to Excel in the Fashion Industry: Flex your expertise

Strive to become an expert in your field. Look beyond the job requirements prescribed by your current position, don’t get comfortable, and keep your skills in top condition. Seek to realize yourself as an individual as well as part of a workforce because the industry’s fast pace and hamster on a wheel nature can dry up your creative juices but make you feel like you can’t get off. It is an industry in which keeping a job is not always a measure of your talent but your tolerance. Take charge and steer your career consciously. Look laterally for ways to apply your expertise that keep you excited. Perhaps you learned that you have an eye for photography, a head for event organization, a leaning towards PR, a penchant for styling, a compassion for mentoring, a head for fashion journalism... Embrace these as opportunities to branch out and explore your creativity to the max. The fashion industry can be immensely generous to those who know how to reap its rewards.

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.

Photos and sketches: Jackie Mallon

During the month of August FashionUnited will focus on Work in Fashion. For all reads on on the theme, click here.

Read the first installment from the series: Calling All Fashion Students; How to Make it as a Designer.