Today’s post is a special post – I’m sharing a (slightly) shortened version of an article I wrote this past spring for a freelance writing course. I’m extremely grateful to Amber Schrotenboer, Dara Branson, Prina Bagia, Jess Hanebutt Snell, and Candace Pina for taking the time to share their experiences and opinions with me.
We sat together on her lofted bed, eating snacks and taking pictures of ourselves on the first camera I ever owned—a shiny silver clunky Kodak. The lamplight shone against the room’s neon lime walls, a stark contrast to the pitch-black late night sky out the window. It was my freshman year of high school. My friend, flipping through one of her many fashion magazines, mentioned casually that she was thinking about being a fashion designer when she grew up. Having always been an avid lover of clothing and fashion, something clicked in my head and a light bulb went on that has never gone off. Ever since that chilly November night, that was what I wanted to be, no doubt about it: a fashion designer. I would go to fashion school, get a job as a designer at a big apparel company, and work my way up until I was the top designer in the company. I imagined going shopping and being able to pull a shirt off the rack that had been designed by me, the innovative and successful fashion designer. Little did I know how difficult, frustrating, and heart wrenching it would prove to be.
From an outsider’s perspective, the glamorous runway shows, bright camera flashes and the glossy magazines make the fashion industry look like a dream— a fun career for anyone creative enough that is sure to lead to success and possibly even long-lasting fame. Talk to those involved, however, and you’ll hear stories about the long hours, the lack of profit, and the frantic pace. Moreover, breaking into the business might be the hardest part.
“There’s a lot of people that want fashion jobs, and the industry right now isn’t doing the best. So there’s more demand than there are jobs,” says Amber Schrotenboer, Design Assistant for Maggie London in New York City. Amber graduated from Purdue University in 2013 with a degree in Apparel Design and Technology and that fall did what many designers are afraid to do: she moved to New York City with only an unpaid design internship lined up, which she supplemented with a job in a restaurant while continuing to apply for design jobs. Teen Vogue Editor-In-Chief Amy Astley says in order to work in fashion on a high level, moving to New York is paramount.
Amber sits silently for a moment, swirling the red wine around in her glass and tilting her head to the side as she reflects on her days of job searching after college graduation. “A lot of the difficulty that I’ve found when I was applying is a lot of the jobs required 1-3 years of experience entry-level, and it’s like okay, I’ve had some internships, but I can’t really get experience until I do that. And it was hard too- a lot of the internships in New York, the ones that they wanted to do unpaid, or paid, were for school credit only. You couldn’t even apply if you had graduated. So that was kind of tough when I first started, trying to get an internship or a job, I couldn’t apply for the internship because I wasn’t a student, and I couldn’t apply for the jobs because I didn’t have enough experience.”
Amber’s efforts eventually paid off the following summer with her design position at Maggie London, where she still is today. Speaking about her job, she says, “We do dresses mostly for department stores–Nordstrom, Macy’s, Penney’s, a few. It started off as kind of an assistant role. I wasn’t really doing any designing. And now, I’ve kind of been brought into the sketching process and kind of been given that vote of confidence. Not that I’m designing, you know, I’m still assisting, but just to be kind of included in that process has been great and a good learning experience coming from where I started, where it was mostly copy making, prints, like charts, stuff like that, so that’s been great.” Amber’s burgeoning success story because of her tenacious move to New York is an excellent example of what it takes to make your own path in this exclusive industry.
Dara Branson, also a 2013 graduate of the Apparel Design and Technology program at Purdue University, aspires to be a full-time designer who also specializes in custom work on the side. However, having moved a few times already because of her pilot husband’s job, her career has taken a different path. “I worked a lot of retail jobs, kind of in between now and then [graduation]. I briefly had a design/seamstress job making athletic apparel in Indianapolis. That didn’t last very long and it was kind of boring. It was mostly just as a seamstress so not really as creative as I wanted it to be. And then, we moved to Milwaukee where I took a job still in retail, but with a focus on visual merchandising, so there was a lot more creativity involved. I did that for a year and then we moved to Memphis and I actually took a visual management position for a year. So kind of the same thing [as Milwaukee], just really focusing on the look of the store and how that translates to sales. I’m still kind of looking right now since we moved to Nashville, for something full-time. Right now I actually have two part-time jobs. I’m working at Beija Flor jeans in Edgehill, just outside of downtown [Nashville]. And I’m working, just as a sales associate, at Victoria’s Secret.”
Dara’s goal of leaving her two retail jobs and working as a designer hasn’t proved to be easy. When asked what her biggest disappointment was so far in her career, she replied, “Everything.” The word tumbled out of her mouth and she laughed softly, as if it were a listless attempt to make light of the real and deep frustration her career has brought her. “I want to work with designers or like have a mentorship or something, and maybe it’s just because we’ve moved so much, but I feel like outside of like New York and LA, there’s not really the support that you need to become a designer. I mean, even finding textiles, finding notions, small things like that just kind of add up. So you don’t really have the tools or the mentorship or anything that you really need to kind of figure out what you’re even doing. Cause even in Nashville, there’s so many small designers, and in Chicago there’s so many small designers, that there needs to be more of like a community for those people where they can kind of – I mean, there’s small programs kind of popping up all over the place, but I still feel like there’s not a lot of information shared between designers.” One of the most well-known forms of a small program in the industry is a fashion incubator- a nonprofit program that provides designers with an office, manufacturing workspace, and a showroom at minimal cost to them. However, fashion incubators are difficult to get into—not only are there not very many of them, but they are only available to a select few designers within that city, and just for a two-year period or less.
On the other hand, Jess Hanebutt Snell, owner and designer at Rockin’ B Clothing, does live in LA, one of the fashion hotspots in the U.S. Rather than working for one of the companies based out there, however, she owns her own business designing vintage western wear for women and has a different perspective on the fashion industry. “I do think that there’s plenty of room for people like me who are really passionate and want to do their own thing and start their own company. They just have to be really prepared to work hard and, you know, not be making tons of money for a long time; I mean that’s the reality of it.” Jess knows all too well about not making tons of money for a long time – she admits that, after nearly a decade since she first started Rockin’ B Clothing, she still is unable to support her family and has to rely on her husband’s income for support. “I mean- at this point there’s no way I could support my family with what I do. It’s just not possible. You know, I’m not making that kind of money unfortunately. However, that’s my ultimate goal- I would love to get to that point where, yeah, I’m bringing in enough revenue and profit that I could, in theory, support myself and my family, as well as employees.”
Jess’ personal struggles with making a substantial profit are all too common in the industry, including names that are more famous. “You know, Betsey Johnson just declared bankruptcy, gosh like two years ago, a year ago. Isaac Mizrahi was, you know, he’s super famous and he does really cool stuff, but his business was not solvent, and his label with his name went bankrupt pretty quickly after he launched, with grand success, with supermodels walking down the runway and stuff. So I think a lot of people are challenged to see beyond the glamour of runway shows and all this, and realize that at its heart it’s a business, and it’s a business that, you know, we’re competing with overseas production, overseas labor that’s very, very, very cheap, with fast fashion and things like that. And to be making something of a luxury product and trying to convince people in America to buy it and invest in it as a piece for their wardrobe- that’s pretty challenging.”
The words flow quickly, smoothly and with conviction from Jess as her extensive knowledge of and experience with the industry is evident. In regards to fashion students, her advice is to try things that are outside your comfort zone. “Just try hard things, try new things. You’re in this incubating environment right now that’s very nurturing for you as a student with professors and instructors who know what they’re doing and have seen a lot of things. So why not try new stuff that’s really hard and challenging, that you have no idea how to do, because that’s how you learn.” The long road that Jess continues to travel on towards profit for her company has only fueled her determination to succeed and her love for what she does. She says in regards to her dream job – “I’m actually doing it right now.”
Having grown up in the Chicago area, designer Prina Bagia has decided to stay there, but she says it has been her biggest career disappointment so far. “I would have to say actually as much as I love Chicago and I love the area, I’d say staying in Chicago was probably one of my poor career choices. I wish I had gone to New York or California or just probably another place that would have more of a fashion scene. Just creatively being available to other people in the same situation as me, and you know understanding different aspects of the design industry instead of having to learn the extreme hard way by staying in Chicago.”
Prina owns her own business – PRIN, a luxury women’s brand that she designs and creates. She also works as a buyer for Claire’s, a position that she allows her to create products, but on the business side of the industry, which she said she took, “just due to the fact that Chicago has a very small fashion scene.” She offers advice from her own life for those having trouble finding a job in the fashion industry. “Stick to the business side. Because honestly, once you’re kind of in the business end of it, the creative aspect is always going to be there. You’re never going to lose your skills, your skills are always going to be there, you know, no matter what. I would kind of say focus on the business aspect and learn different aspects of the industry, and then you can always segue from there. Once you’re within a company and you see different parts of it, you may spark different interest, as well as make more connections within the company to segue to other branches.” Prina’s strong belief that it’s all about who you know is similar to the theory that careers are built on not only experience but also networking. “You have to be well connected. If you don’t have connections, you’re not going to get anywhere in the fashion industry. It could be a small connection, but if it’s something, if it’s a small connection that leads you to another connection- but I think you have to have connections, otherwise you pretty much are by yourself. Like you’re not going to get anywhere.” She credits connections from her previous retail job with landing her the role at Claire’s.
Candace Pina also lives in the Midwest – she’s a senior CAD/Print and Pattern designer for Lane Bryant in Columbus, Ohio. Her extensive career spans across designing for companies in both New York City and Columbus. However, she took a couple of years off after moving to Columbus while getting a master’s degree online in Apparel Merchandising and starting a family. She calls getting another job in the industry after her time off was “my greatest professional accomplishment. And I guess also, you know as far as education, being able to go to, re-enter back into school after taking several years off from doing that, and come out with a 4.0 GPA was a pretty big accomplishment as well.” Her current concern is for the future of design positions in Columbus. “Kind of something that I’ve been experiencing in this market, like as far as Columbus is concerned, is that so many of the design positions are being moved out of state to New York, including my company. Half of my design team, since I’ve started, has lost their jobs because their positions are being relocated to New York. And it’s just disappointing for the industry and it’s disappointing for jobs in Columbus, so yeah, that’s probably the biggest- and then wondering what’s going to happen to my job, the unknown. Because I feel like eventually my job will get moved, I’m not sure when, I don’t think it’s anytime soon, but just that kind of not knowing.”
Candace’s concerns about having a successful design career outside of New York or LA echo those of Dara and Prina. Her advice for current fashion students? Get in wherever you can. “The industry is tough right now, and I would say, just get your foot in the door. Don’t say this is what I want to do and I’m not taking any other jobs until I get this one. I say it’s really important just to get your foot in the door, especially with these major corporate retailers. They want to see what you’re all about, just to get in and, have that recommendation from, you know, if you want to move on from design to print and pattern design, if you’re a designer and once you’re designing and you find an opportunity within your company. That’s the best way to move on instead of just waiting for it to happen from the outside. Once you’re in a company, it’s a lot easier to move around than just to get in, if that makes sense.”
Her advice reiterates that of designer Cynthia Rowley, to “say yes to everything. I think in life, saying yes to things, whether it’s scary, or new, or different, or uncomfortable: Just say yes. Just do it. It’s only going to bring good things to your life. If you say no, that’s the end. If you say yes, it might be bad – or it might be amazing.”
A decade later after that career-defining sleepover, I sat at my computer, where I’d been sitting for the past few hours, feeling an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and despair. I was part of the nearly 14 percent of people my age without a job. This day was not unlike most other weekdays for me. A couple months before this, my mornings would begin with me being hopeful that surely today would be different – today would be the day one of my dozens of applications, or emails, or messages would get a response. Or today would be the day there would be a perfect job opening for me and I’d apply for it and land it in no time. But by the time morning turned to afternoon and afternoon turned to evening, hope would leave me as another day passed with no replies, no new openings, nothing. Eventually I stopped feeling hopeful, even in the mornings. My husband’s alarm would go off in the morning for him to get up for his job, and as soon as it woke me up my heart would start pounding and I’d feel panic wash over me as it hit me that my unemployment had extended through yet another day. The fear that my career was a failure was something I battled every single day.
As I sat there that day at my computer, I thought back to the fourteen-year-old me who was excited about finding what she wanted to do in life. That high schooler was not going to try to become a fashion designer- she was going to be a fashion designer. All through high school and college, the thought that I might not actually get to be a fashion designer still never crossed my mind. My time as a student in the Apparel Design and Technology program at Purdue University deepened my love for design and taught me the skills I needed to know. While I was in school at Purdue, I would hear stories about what recent graduates from the program were doing- and it soon became clear that only a select few of them were actually designers. This surprised me, but I just attributed it to the fact that most of them just didn’t really want to design.
After graduation, I was able to secure a paid design internship, which turned into a design job. Since then, however, I’ve relocated twice and now live in a city where there are design opportunities, but haven’t been able to work as a designer. Being in an online master’s program through the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design, having an extensive portfolio, good grades in undergraduate and graduate school as well as professional recommendations is apparently not enough to be a designer. I say this not to brag of my achievements- as you can see, they haven’t gotten me to where I’d like to be quite yet. I also say this without bitterness—it is simply a statement of fact and how it is for a lot of designers. “I know it’s super super easy to get bogged down and frustrated and honestly depressed,” said Jess. “It’s really hard on us as human beings to not be doing what we’re called to do, career-wise. And I know that depression can really creep in there, but I would say that, you know, actively fighting that and recognizing that’s what’s going on in your mind is a good thing, and taking therapy if you need to is a really good thing. And just keep pushing forward no matter what, you know. Just don’t stop. That’s the death note, is if you just kind of stop trying and you’re like, well, it’s never going to happen, you can’t let that happen, you have to keep trying.”
Jess’ words rang true with me. The fashion industry is hard, and the positions for designers are few and far between. I may always consider myself to be a fashion designer and never actually get to be one again in my career. But did I give up? No. I haven’t given up on my career; instead I took a job that is in the corporate retail industry but not in design. My own personal story of finding success in the fashion industry looks like it may very well be on a path that isn’t design.
And I’ve found that I can live with that.
I don’t need to submit my resume to use my own sewing machines. I don’t have to wait to hear back from the HR department to create new garment drawings in Illustrator. I don’t have to follow up with an application to play around with fabric drapes on my dress form. I can still design—just not at work.
At the end of our interview, I ask Candace what her dream job is after nearly a decade in the industry. She laughs and says without much hesitation, “You know, I thought it was dressing celebrities. Now I think it’s just owning a hotel on the beach somewhere. So, that’s where I’m at in life.” And maybe in the end, that’s what most designers are working towards.
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