A Fashion Designer Speaks from Experience
Find out what a fashion design career is like from an experienced professional.
Self-Employed Fashion Designer
Over 30 years in the business
How did you get started in fashion design?
As a child I fell in love with “Little House on the Prairie.” My mother taught me to sew and we made a sunbonnet. After that, I made all kinds of doll clothes. I had a powerful inner reality. Later, I sold clothing I designed in my parent’s store.
I went to Syracuse, which had a pretty good art school and a good writing program, but by the end of my freshman year I realized I couldn’t do both. Eventually I transferred to Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where I majored in illustration. RISD had a program in Italy, which was the best place to do an apprenticeship.
What happened after you finished college?
I lived in Italy for 10 years, freelancing. I illustrated record covers for RCA, sewed for boutiques and sold my own designs. I met a guy who worked for Anne Klein and he became my mentor. He told me, “Unless you have American corporate credentials as a designer, nobody’s going to take you seriously.” It took 3 years to get a corporate job. I worked with Jones New York, and another company that did private labels.
I started doing a hand-knit line in 1986. But after a while the hand-knits got way too expensive. Then I hooked up with a domestic knitwear manufacturer, and I’ve been selling my own designs since then.
What do you most enjoy about your job?
I really enjoy dressing people. When people come into my store, and I put an outfit together for them and they look fantastic—they’re really happy. I like knowing that someone’s life is better because of what I do. One woman told me, “Your clothes allow me to go out into the world.” She had some figure problems, but the clothes allowed her to feel that she could face the world. I also enjoy the act of creating clothes. Working with color and fabric are still things that really drive me.
What is most challenging about a career in fashion design?
I’ve learned that I can’t do everything. I handle sales, but it’s not really my thing. Also, it’s difficult to know when to fight for things. Sometimes I’ll have a vision of a really fantastic design, and it doesn’t make it through the product development process. And sometimes it doesn’t sell, it doesn’t work.
What do people need to know about a fashion design career?
You have to be really stubborn. It took me three years to get an American job, and how nuts is that? But I had set my mind on getting into the industry and I persevered. Perseverance isn’t just a garment industry issue, it’s a life lesson. Excellence comes from having vision and passion.
To be successful as a fashion designer, it helps to have formal training, especially drawing and sewing skills. You have to know fabrics, and you have to know enough about construction to be able to communicate what you want. There’s a lot of technical knowledge involved in designing.
What other skills are important?
There’s a surprising amount of math, and a lot of verbal skills. So much production is in Asia, and you have to be able to explain what you want, in words and pictures, to someone whose native language isn’t English.
It helps to have some experience in a really good boutique or retail store. See what clothes look like on people, get experience in image consulting or styling. What you see in a magazine has nothing to do with what looks good on a body.
Any closing thoughts?
Fashion is different from other fields. It’s about living in the now. Every day when you get dressed, you’re recreating yourself. That’s an amazing thing. Sometimes no matter how together you are, you hit a point in the season, or in your life, where none of your clothes feel right. Maybe they don’t fit, or your life has changed. When you go out and find clothes in new sizes or shapes, clothing can help you reinvent yourself. Your clothes are the tool that helps you get through those transitions. It’s why fashion continues to be viable for me.