Fashion designers work on the design of clothing and fashion ranges. They typically specialise in one area of design, such as sportswear, children's wear, footwear or accessories.
Depending on their level of responsibility and the company they work for, designers may work to their own brief or be given a brief to work towards, with specifications relating to colour, fabric and budget.
Developments in technology mean that a design can be on sale as a finished product in the high street within six weeks.
Types of fashion designer
The main areas of work for fashion designers are:
- high street fashion - this is where the majority of designers work and where garments are mass manufactured (often in Europe or East Asia). Buying patterns, seasonal trends and celebrity catwalk influences play a key role in this design process. It is a commercial area and heavily media led;
- ready-to-wear, also known as prêt-à-porter - where established designers create ready-to-wear collections, produced in relatively small numbers;
- haute couture - requires large amounts of time spent on the production of one-off garments for the catwalk, which are often not practical to wear. Designs are usually created to endorse the brand and create a 'look'.
Tasks depend on the market the designer is working for, but core responsibilities include:
- creating/visualising an idea and producing a design by hand or using computer-aided design (CAD);
- keeping up to date with emerging fashion trends as well as general trends relating to fabrics, colours and shapes;
- planning and developing ranges;
- working with others in the design team, such as buyers and forecasters, to develop products to meet a brief;
- liaising closely with sales, buying and production teams on an ongoing basis to ensure the item suits the customer, market and price points;
- understanding design from a technical perspective, i.e. producing patterns, toiles and technical specifications for designs;
- sourcing, selecting and buying fabrics, trims, fastenings and embellishments;
- adapting existing designs for mass production;
- developing a pattern that is cut and sewn into sample garments and supervising the creation of these, including fitting, detailing and adaptations;
- overseeing production;
- negotiating with customers and suppliers;
- managing marketing, finances and other business activities, if working on a self-employed basis.
Experienced designers with larger companies may focus more on the design aspect, with pattern cutters and machinists preparing sample garments. In smaller companies these, and other tasks, may be part of the designer's role.
- Starting salaries in the fashion industry are often low. Design assistants may start at around £16,000 to £17,000.
- A junior designer can expect to earn approximately £25,000 a year.
- Typical salaries at senior designer and creative director level range from £42,000 to £85,000+.
- Salaries vary depending on geographical location and type of employer.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
What to expect
- Working hours typically include regular extra hours.
- The working environment varies between companies and can range from a Victorian-style factory to a modern purpose-built office or a small design studio. Freelance designers may work from home or in a rented studio.
- With the increase in online retailing, setting up in business or being self-employed is becoming more common, even straight after graduation. Extensive market research and business training are critical for any fashion business to succeed.
- The majority of opportunities are available in London and the South East and some large towns and cities in the North West and Scotland, with pockets of industry in the Midlands. Opportunities are beginning to spring up outside these areas.
- The pressure of deadlines and working unsocial hours to meet these may be stressful and can intrude on private life.
- Career success relies on a combination of creativity, perseverance, resilience and good communication skills.
- Travel within the working day, overnight absence from home and overseas work are occasionally needed. There is scope for travel abroad, for example to attend trade shows or to meet suppliers.
Although this area of work is open to all graduates, a degree in the following subjects will increase your chances:
- graphic design;
- clothing technology;
- fashion marketing and buying;
- art and design.
Foundation degree graduates face increased competition from BA graduates.
Entry without a degree is sometimes possible but is becoming increasingly unlikely and you would need to be able to prove that you have already gained expertise and experience in the industry.
Graduates from non-fashion/textile-related courses would also need to gain experience in the industry or a related area, such as fashion retail, in order to demonstrate their aptitude and interest.
A pre-entry postgraduate qualification is not a requirement, but an MA in fashion or textile design can improve opportunities, particularly for aspiring designers from other academic areas. Search for postgraduate courses in fashion and textile design.
MA courses in specific areas of fashion may offer different skills and experience and this can be helpful in gaining related employment. For example, children's wear requires knowledge of sizing and textile properties; menswear may require knowledge of pattern cutting and tailoring.
You will need to show:
- creativity, innovation and flair;
- an eye for colour and a feel for fabrics and materials;
- ability to generate ideas and concepts;
- design and visualisation skills, either by hand or through computer-aided design (CAD);
- technical skills, including pattern cutting;
- garment technology skills and knowledge;
- a proactive approach;
- commercial awareness and business orientation;
- self-promotion and confidence;
- interpersonal, communication and networking skills;
- ability to negotiate and to influence others;
- teamworking skills;
- good organisation and time management.
Companies may be reluctant to consider candidates without previous experience in the industry. Work experience of any kind in a design studio is highly desirable. Experience in retail can be useful too. New graduates could look at possible work experience in Europe or the USA before starting work in the UK.
Employers usually expect to see a portfolio that clearly demonstrates your ability to design and produce garments and accessories.
The majority of fashion and clothing designers work for branded/high-street stores and independent labels. They may be employed at an in-house design studio, based in either a manufacturing or retail organisation.
Others work in specialist design studios serving the couture and designer ready-to-wear markets and their work may include producing designs for a number of manufacturing or retailing companies.
However, the top design houses are a relatively small market compared with the high street fashion sector.
Some fashion designers find work overseas with designers based in Europe and the USA. If you are interested in working abroad a directory of fashion contact details, including companies and fashion organisations around the world, can be found at Apparel Search. In Europe and the USA Fashion United also has its own career centres.
Opportunities exist for self-employment. Freelance fashion designers can market their work through trade fairs and via agents, or by making direct contact with buyers from larger businesses or niche clothing outlets.
A number of organisations offer specific training and support for setting up a fashion business. A Business Support Network has been set up by the British Fashion Council, and courses and online resources on how to run your own creative business are offered by The Design Trust.
You can also find general business start-up advice at self-employment.
Designer-maker organisations such as Hidden Art offer new business awards and studio space for designers.
Competition for design jobs is intense throughout the industry, particularly in womenswear design. Other areas, such as children's wear and menswear, are less competitive because smaller numbers of fashion students specialise in these areas.
Look for job vacancies at:
Throughout the industry, employment opportunities are often secured via speculative applications and effective networking. It is therefore important to try to build relationships with more established designers and companies, whether you are seeking permanent or freelance openings.
Recruitment agencies, specialist publications and fashion networks are an important source of contacts and vacancies. There are numerous agencies that represent different market levels. These include:
For more agencies, see the Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC).
The training available to a fashion designer depends not only on the courses taken prior to employment, but also on the employing company.
Pre-entry fashion design courses aim to give students an idea of what to expect through practical teaching and industry links. The culture of the industry is very much that people learn on the job.
Initially, training is likely to be related to learning about the practical processes that the employing company uses and covering any relevant technological development. Self-development is important throughout your career.
Larger firms may provide business and computer training, which could include computer-aided design (CAD) or other specialist software, such as Photoshop and Illustrator.
A variety of short courses offered as part-time degree or postgraduate options are available.
A range of specialist short courses and one-day workshops related to fashion are offered by the London College of Fashion, part of the University of the Arts.
How your career develops will depend on the specific area of design you trained in, the work experience you have built up and your professional reputation. Another influencing factor will be the type of company you work for and the opportunities for career development within it.
Progression may be slow, particularly at the start of your career. Being proactive and making contacts in the industry is essential, especially in a sector where people frequently move jobs in order to progress their career and where there is a lot of pressure to produce new ideas that are commercially viable.
Typically, you will begin your career as an assistant. Design assistant roles differ widely, but common responsibilities include:
- sourcing and chasing fabric samples;
- making up sample cards;
- answering the telephone;
- making tea.
Progression is then to a role with more creative input, involving proposing concepts and design ideas, although you are unlikely to have much influence on major decisions. Other activities include:
- making up mood and trend boards and drawing up technical specifications for manufacturers;
- producing samples for ranges;
- assisting with the development of part of a range.
The more established designers in the team make the decisions on colour and mood for the season and design the more important elements of the range. It could take up to five years' related experience to secure such a position.
With several years' design experience, progression is possible through senior designer roles to the position of head designer. At this level, you will have considerable responsibility for overall design decisions and influences for the range, but as this is a management position others will do the actual design work.
Technical director and quality management positions represent alternative progression routes. Additional alternative career options in the fashion industry include:
- fashion illustrator;
- fashion predictor;
- fashion stylist;
- pattern cutter/grader.
Fashion designers are increasingly becoming involved in homeware and gift design, which can open up new career paths.
Designers may consider becoming self-employed or moving into related occupations, such as retail buying, photography, fashion styling or journalism.