How to be a Fashion Designer without Going to Fashion School, Part 1

fashion school post one

Why Some Hard Work, Passion, and a Willingness to Learn Can Get You Just as Far as a 4 ­Year Program…

Fashion school is overrated. In fact, to be totally blunt, I think most college education is overrated compared to true hard work and real life experience. If anyone’s ever told you that you have to go to fashion school to be a fashion designer, they’re 100% wrong.

The industry is brutal,­ it’s cutthroat, hard to make it, and can often be just plain cruel. You need a tough skin (if you don’t already have this, you’ll develop one pretty soon), to be determined and passionate, and to know when and how to make decisions with your brain not your heart.

Don’t chase this dream for glamour because most of the time the industry is anything but glamorous.

But, while it’s extremely challenging, the rewards (especially when you navigate it DIY style) are insanely rewarding and worth all of the hard work you put in.

So, take your passion, determination, willingness to learn and the courage to figure it out and I promise, you can get further on your own with a lot less cash than you can with a fashion school degree and a load of debt.

There is a lot to cover and discuss in regards to this (somewhat) controversial topic of being a fashion designer without going to school, so I’ve broken it up into a 4 ­part series which will be released over the coming weeks.

What you’re reading now is part 1 and is a general overview of the discussion I am going to have with you. It is also an invitation for you to engage with me on this subject (scroll to the end of the post to see how you can become part of the conversation).

In the coming posts, I’ll cover specifics about the essential skills you’ll want to learn and familiarize yourself with in order to break into the fashion industry. Just as importantly, I’ll also cover the things you don’t have to worry about. If you know anyone who has gone to fashion school, you may notice some contradictions of what they’ve learned and what will be covered throughout the series.

Trust me when I tell you there are a lot of things you learn in fashion school that you don’t need to know, and a lot of things you do need to know that you won’t learn there.

Within the series of posts, I have made two assumptions about you as a designer:

  1. You already have inspiration about the creative side of designing, there are ideas in your head about designs you want to make. The point of this article is not to teach you how to be creative but rather teach you about the logistics of being a fashion designer.
  2. You know how to find factories and suppliers to get products made, because there are plenty of resources listed on StartUp FASHION. There is no point in reiterating knowledge is already available to you.

What we will focus on is (1) what you need to know about the key components of an actual garment, (2) executing the design and development of your garment, and (3) how to navigate the industry without feeling overwhelmed or intimidated.

In an effort to be absolutely transparent with you, I would first like to address a few things:

  • I did not attend fashion school (I do have a college degree in graphic design and marketing), but I know many designers who have gone through a four­ year fashion program. Most of what I know about what is and isn’t taught in fashion school is based on what I’ve learned firsthand from these graduates. Everything I have personally learned about being a fashion designer was knowledge I figured out on my own, gained from experience working in the industry (both as an employee and for my own clients), and gathered from asking every expert I ever meet as many questions as they’re willing to answer.
  • The majority of my experience and expertise is manufacturing product overseas. I have successfully designed and manufactured 100s of garments from start to finish both as an employee and for my own clients. While there are differences between manufacturing locally and abroad, there is quite a bit of crossover in terms of the skills and knowledge required for production. Within this article series, I am addressing all of strategies you can use to become a designer without going to fashion school to the best of my expert ability, and invite you to contribute your own tips and ideas if you have some to share. Scroll to the end of the post for details on how to become part of the conversation.
  • While the content and advice in this article series is geared towards designers who are interested in launching their own fashion brand (we are on, afterall!), quite a bit of this advice can be taken if you are trying to get a job as a designer. There are some exceptions to this and they will be clearly noted throughout the coming posts.

With those disclaimers out of the way, here is exactly what we will cover in the next 3 parts of the series:

Part 2 — THE ACTUAL GARMENT: What you need to know about sewing, construction, and textiles so your garment is made correctly.

  • How you can be a fashion designer without knowing how to sew or draft a pattern
  • Why you must understand garment construction, and the easiest trick to learn this that no one will ever tell you
  • How to learn the basics of textiles so industry professionals will take you seriously

Part 3 — THE DESIGN & DEVELOPMENT: How good of a sketcher you need to be + why you can’t do anything without a tech pack.

  • How to draw your designs…even if you don’t know how to draw
  • Why a few basic Adobe Illustrator skills will save you tons of time and money
  • Why a tech pack isn’t really that hard to create and simple ways to figure out how to make one

Part 4 — YOU & YOUR COMMUNITY: How you can be a designer no matter where you live, but the one thing you must do to make this happen.

  • Why gaining some first hand experience can be the best investment you’ll ever make
  • How to become part of a community even if there are no resources where you live
  • How to convince other designers to teach you everything they know

While the above lists outline what I am going to cover throughout series, I also want to hear directly from you so I can answer your specific questions.

I invite you to become part of the conversation, and there are 3 ways you can do this (see note below regarding deadlines):

  • Post your question(s) below in the comments section
  • Tweet at me: @sewheidi
  • Send me an email: sayNOtoFashionSchool at sewheidi dot com

Ask me any specific questions about how to be a fashion designer without going to fashion school, and I’ll do my best to answer them in the coming posts. If I can’t give you a fair and honest answer from my own experience and knowledge, I’ll try and find an expert who can.

Please note that in order for your question to be considered for next week’s article, the deadline to submit is Friday, February 26th, 2016 at 10am EST (NYC time zone). If you are reading this and have missed the deadline, I still invite you to be part of the discussion and comment below or reach out to me directly and we can continue the conversation.

Excited to get started? Me too! I’ll see you here next week to teach you about THE ACTUAL GARMENT: What you need to know about sewing, construction and textiles so your garment is made correctly.

Read Part 2 of this series here
Read part 3 of this series here
Read Part 4 of this series here


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.

  1. Obafemi Boluwatife jude

    For someone like me …. I wake every morning feeling bad that my fashion ambitions can never be met because I’m from somewhat a poor family we don’t beg though… Everyday I feel like I’m throwing my dreams away as I have a lot of ideas that I’ve even not seen in the market yet that I know will be a big product… the question here is that for someone like me who has nobody to sponsor his fashion ambition “what do I do?.. I need help!!! ???

  2. Salma

    Hi heidi!! i just read this article&it really motivated me but im a newbie@school plus m running a law programme in nigeria&i dont know where to start from please help

  3. Laura Savage

    Hi, im from New Zealand and im wondering where to start in the Fashion industry. Do i have to go to University or get a degree? I am quite young but i do have University entrance. I am independent and ready to start a career in Fashion. What do you think i should focus on and think deeply about? As well as where do i start and what do i need to do with the use of going to Uni or not. I feel Uni isnt going to get me anywhere but i need your experties so i can think about the start to this path.

    • Heidi

      Laura – have you read all 4 parts of the series? Some of your questions lead me to believe you haven’t yet. Go ahead and do that, and then let me know – what do you think you should do?

  4. Jasmine

    Hello I am just looking for part 1 the actual garment. Thank you so much for this post

  5. tonya

    Hi Heidi i have a very creative mind for design in fashion, decor an inventive productts which i ‘ve created already but havnt got the prototypes..but back to fashion i dont sew but i want to be successful with my designs online.
    Can you give me advice on a smart way to start there? Im looking for a good seamtress as we speak.
    Im also going to go be a personal fashion designer to those that want modern clothing made and made to FIT well.

  6. Victoria Kageni-Woodard

    Hello Heidi,
    I have been sewing all my life.Was a student at SCAD,but started a family before I was done 🙂 I am burnt out from sewing little projects for friends and family.I need to make a good go at this .Want to be part of the conversation and this looks like the best place for me.I have a sewing studio/on-line store/blog.I need a clearer path from sketch ,muslin,prototype,manufacturing.How ,is the question ?

  7. radia

    Thank you for the great and relevant article !
    I am giving my fashion business a second try . I have been lucky enough to do it before both in Morocco and India where there are great factories and tailors etc for the range of woman clothing and accessories I want to make. I’m in my first samples production process. My biggest concern today is the next stage. My sales will be online ; I don’t know how to calculate the number of pieces to be made so that ibdonr have too less or too much stock. Any advice on that point . Thank you so much!

  8. Shaina

    Hi, my name is Shaina, I have so many sketch books filled with variety of designs, and I am close to 40 years old and I can’t keep these inside anymore, they just keep popping, and I have my job. So, I am stressed that I need to start my own design line of women’s clothing but I don’t have resources and I don’t saw very well, I know basic sewing but definitely can’t do it professionally.
    Any ideas, help please?
    I also want to bring fashion trend shows to CT and I am thinking of having shows right here in CT so I can inspire other conservative fashion designers that are in the same situation as I am, and if I have the show here in CT we can grow together and develop our business, ideas together.
    Please help/let me know what do i do, or which end do I start with?

  9. Alicia Hdez

    Hi Heidi! Your article is great and insightful. I’m an aspiring fashion designer of women’s wear. Since we all have to start somewhere I’ve tried seeking a manufacturer to sell illustrations to. I’m not sure if it’s a possible but it’s movement and experience I could gain. Any advice? Also, how do you feel about crowd funding a fashion label?


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