How to be a Fashion Designer Without Going to Fashion School, Part 4

fashion designer without fashion school

YOU & YOUR COMMUNITY: How you can be a fashion designer no matter where you live, but the one thing you must do to make this happen.

Living in NYC as a fashion designer is amazing.

It’s also really freaking hard. It’s expensive. It’s congested. It’s noisy. And it’s simply exhausting.

Now, if you have the opportunity to do it, I do suggest you try it on for size at least once in your life.

But by no means do you need to live here, or in any other “fashion hub”, to make it as a start­up designer.

I currently live in the heart of NYC, in a teensy tinsy apartment, and I have a love hate relationship with it. The rent is insane. Food is pricey. You have to save up quarters and walk a block to do laundry. Things just cost more. However, you do have access to everything at your fingertips, whether it’s fashion-related or anything­-you-­could­ever-­want-­in­-life-­related.

But let me present you with this argument…

It can be much cheaper to make a trip here a few times a year for your business (*which you can use as a tax right off!) than to afford to live here full time.

Before you read on, I’ll remind you that this is the last in a four part series of articles about how to be a fashion designer without going to school. This all may have a little more context if you get caught up on part one, part two, and part three and meet me back right here once you’re done.

Ok, now that you’re ready, let’s get started. I’ll talk a little more about why where you live doesn’t really matter that much and tell you the one thing you’ll want to do no matter where you are.

(Oh, and be sure to read through to the end for the bonus content I added after receiving a wonderful email from a very engaged reader!).

Q: Do I need to live in a fashion hub (NYC, LA, Paris, etc)?
A: I will reiterate ­ NO! While this can facilitate the development process, there is a lot going on elsewhere and tons of online resources you can tap into.

No matter where you live, you can do this. The one thing you want to remember however, is that you won’t be able to do it alone. Whether you live in the heart of the garment district in NYC, or on a farm in the middle of the countryside, the one thing you must do is connect with other people in the industry. There are tons of amazing resources available both online (hint: and in person, and accessing these, meeting like minded people and experts in the industry will help you move forward more quickly and easily.

No matter what you do, don’t sit behind the comfort of your computer screen browsing, reading, but not talking to anyone or taking action. Become part of a community and I guarantee you’ll see greater success and have more fun. You’re not alone in this venture, and meeting other like minded people who feel just as lost as you do or who have tons of knowledge to offer will boost your confidence and get you moving ahead.

Exception for designers looking for a fashion design job: While you don’t have to live in a fashion hub to get a job, it will be quite hard if not impossible to do so from the aforementioned farm in the middle of the countryside. But, do know that there are many fashion companies located around the world and outside the big fashion hubs. They may not be as “glamorous” as working in NYC or Paris, but there are plenty of great opportunities out there, and often the competition is much less fierce. I got my start in the industry at a small lifestyle apparel company in Denver, CO, and the experience I gained from that job allowed me to launch my own design agency and take my career to a whole new level. Don’t discount opportunities just because you think the company name isn’t brag worthy or recognizable by all of your friends.

Q: Do I need to have first hand experience working in the industry?
A: Not required, but this can be tremendously beneficial.

Before I landed my first job in fashion, I had my own collection and figured everything out DIY style. Once I landed that first full time gig as a fashion designer, I learned more in my first few months there than I had learned on my own over the past year. Granted, I had gone from creating my own small collection to mass manufacturing overseas ­- it was a whole different animal compared to what I had been doing.

The point is, nothing beats hands on experience. See if you can find a small local company or another independent designer that will allow you to do a part time apprenticeship or internship, and learn as much as you can. Be willing to work hard -­ show them that you want to be there, you’re not above doing menial tasks at times, and that you’re passionate, and in return they should be happy to educate you as much as they can. Most people are happy to teach those who are excited to learn -­ so make sure you’re truly willing and interested, and your hard work will be rewarded with loads of knowledge and experience.

Exception for designers looking for a fashion design job: Getting first hand experience through an internship or apprenticeship can be the biggest advantage you can give yourself. Some of these opportunities may turn into part or full time work, can help connect you with other people in the industry, and will improve your resume.

Bonus Content!

I got an email from start­up designer Orian in response to this article series. What he wrote was so great and relevant, I didn’t think this last article would be complete without including some notes from it. I think you will find it relevant and interesting as well.

Orian shares:

“I am a former fashion design student who after three years of major decided to drop out. In my opinion, school gave me the chance to get involved in the field, learn about design principles and textiles, helped me improve my sketching skills and even got me to understand enough about sizing and patternmaking, for me it was an exciting and nourishing experience. Besides, it made me connect with people that had been doing this for years, and as you may know, experience is priceless. There I found some valuable mentors. Though I wasn’t much satisfied about what I was getting from this Institution and figured out maybe I could go along from here myself.

I completely agree with all the tips and hints you’ve pointed out so far. In my humble opinion, I think it would be helpful for everyone to mention how important is to find guidance to come out with their own brand identity, and definitely taking good quality pictures once the final garments are done, starting from simple but effective catalog pictures as the ones required for selling on ASOS Marketplace. This pictures may serve for showcasing their collection on social networks and the internet.”

I love all of the points that Orian brings up, and want to discuss two of them in more depth.

1. Do Not Discount the Value of Relationships & Get Experience Where You Can
“…connect with people that had been doing this for years, and as you may know, experience is priceless.”

The timing of his statement is perfect as it summarizes a theme that I’ve thread throughout this series.

You cannot do this alone.

Connect with industry experts! I discussed this in more depth in part two if you care to re-­read that, but I’ll summarize here. Do not sit behind the protection of your computer screen using email as your only form of communication. Instead, pick up the phone and call people! Do your research upfront, and then learn everything you can from people you come into contact with. You may be surprised at how much experts are willing to share as long as you are willing to learn (and I’ll reiterate ­ you must show that you’ve done your research up front).

Become part of a community! Technology is amazing. We live in a world where we are finally able to do anything from anywhere. Tap into these resources and use them to your advantage. Join StartUp FASHION. Find like minded people to help you navigate this scary endeavor. Again, no matter where you live, you can do this- ­ just not alone.

2. Do an Exceptional Job
“…taking good quality pictures…”

I want to take what Orian brought up and expand on it quite a bit.

I know it sounds obvious and simple, but doing an exceptional job is essential to success. Unfortunately, I think that many people don’t do this. The fashion industry is a crowded one, and it’s easy to get dismissed anywhere along the line if you’re not exceptional.

Now, let me be clear about something. I don’t want you to take this so seriously that you never finish anything. If you do that, you’ll never get anywhere. But I do want you to put in 100% effort and make sure you’ve done your best job.

And I’ll tell you right now, doing an exceptional job may mean that everything takes twice as long as you thought it would. And that’s ok! Don’t rush it at the expense of doing a mediocre job; you may only have one chance to work with the factory, impress the buyer, or make the sale ­- so don’t lose it because you didn’t do the best job you could.

And remember, while first impressions matter, you’ll want to maintain this level of exceptional standard throughout the entire time you work with people and throughout everything you do.

If you hold yourself to this, you will sky rocket ahead of everyone else who’s just average and I promise that you will be the one who gets noticed. As Orian points out, good quality pictures are important, but I’ll emphasize that they mean nothing if your product isn’t exceptional. They mean nothing if your presence as a designer isn’t exceptional. Take the word exceptional and apply it to your entire business.

The brand identity you define.
The product you make.
The line sheets you create.

Every little thing you do, down to the emails you send, should be exceptional. I add this last note about emails because a lot of people overlook this one, but it’s SO important! As I’ve mentioned before, we live in a digital world. While I encourage you to pick up the phone and talk to people, the truth of the matter is that a lot of your correspondence will end up being done via email.

Email inboxes, like the fashion industry, are a crowded place. It’s an easy place to get dismissed and ignored. I personally get a lot of really mediocre messages from aspiring designers and I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that Nicole (founder of Startup Fashion) does too. They don’t seem to have a real point, are littered with grammatical errors, and it’s obvious they’re sent out in haste without much thought. I physically do not have the capacity to respond to these.

But, I also get exceptional emails. They come from designers who want to share their story, ask for advice, or are just looking for a bit of encouragement. These are the ones I pay attention to, that I take the time to respond to.

Orian’s email was just this. I could tell he spent time on it ­ making sure it read well, didn’t have typos, and

was relevant. He even went so far as to mention this in the message, “I wanted to take my time to read the blog before approaching you and really have something nice to talk about.”

All of this is why I not only responded to him, I chose to feature his comments to close out this series of articles.

If you do an exceptional job on everything you do, you will stand out like a wildflower among a field of weeds. Sorry for getting all cheesy inspirational on you, but the visual surely is powerful.

Key Takeaways

Review these key takeaways and click here to download The Free DIY Fashion Education Checklist: Part 3, You and Your Community for a more thorough and printable list.

  • You don’t need to live in a fashion hub like NYC, LA or Paris
  • You cannot, however, do this alone
  • Become part of a community ­ connect with people who can help you along this journey
  • Firsthand experience in the industry can prove invaluable
  • Do an exceptional job ­ the best job that you possibly can

And this is where I’ll leave you. We’ve covered a lot of ground, and I hope you’ve enjoyed every bit of it. I’m not saying goodbye forever, and remind you that can still reach me at any time via email (sayNOtoFashionSchool at sewheidi dot com) or on Twitter (@sewheidi). But as a friendly reminder, if you want a response, think about what you have to say, and please make your note to me exceptional.

*I am not a CPA and am not providing you with tax advice. Please consult your accounting or tax professional for guidance with what you can and cannot write off.

Read part 1 of this 4 part series.
Read part 2 of this 4 part series.
Read part 3 of this 4 part series.


Guest post:
Heidi  used her Adobe Illustrator skills to go from an associate level designer to partner at a fashion design firm in less than 4 years.

She knows the fastest ways and best tricks to use Illustrator for fashion…and she’ll teach you how to do the same. Check out her website at SewHeidi.



StartUp FASHION is an online community where independent designers and emerging brands are coming together, helping one another, forming friendships, collaborating, letting off steam, sharing victories, and belonging to a network of people who get it; who are doing it too. We’re a place to access and discover the tools and information you need to build your fashion business. We help you define your path and give you the guidance, encouragement, and resources to follow that path.