A fashion designer is a highly creative individual specializing in sketching and drawing outfits and accessories that are pleasantly looking but also functional and comfortable.
Fashion designers sketch designs for clothing, accessories, and footwear, select fabrics and patterns, and provide patternmakers and finishers with instructions on creating prototypes for clothing manufacturers.
The job of a fashion designer is called fashion design. Most fashion designers work for prominent fashion houses, large clothing manufacturers, and wholesalers of apparel and accessories.
There are also independent (self-employed) fashion designers who run own clothing brands or outsource their one-of-a-kind designs and expertise to fashion brands and manufacturers of mass-market apparel.
As of July 25, 2023, the average fashion designer wage in the United States was $105,528 annually.
What is a Fashion Designer?
A fashion designer is a highly creative individual with expertise in sketching and drawing pleasantly looking outfits and accessories in line with past fashion styles or current fashion trends while retaining function and comfort.
Fashion designers understand aesthetics, patterns, motifs, shapes, matching colors, materials, fashion styles, trends across geographies, seasons, consumer segments, and cutting and sewing techniques.
Responsible for creating the look of a garment through unique combinations of shape, patterns, motifs, color, fabric, and trimmings, fashion designers start with a vision and turn it into a sketch, eventually turning it into a prototype by patternmakers and finishers.
Compared to artistic designers, who focus only on the creation’s aesthetically pleasing aspect, fashion designers must ensure their creations (outfits and accessories) are functional and comfortable to wear.
From world-renowned couturiers to anonymous fashion designers working for ready-to-wear houses and online fast-fashion marketplaces and stylists tasked with minor modifications to existing designs, they all fall under the category of fashion designers.
Origin of Fashion Designers
Charles Frederick Worth, the Callot sisters, Jeanne Paquin, Jacques Doucet, and Jeanne Lanvin are hailed as the first modern fashion designers.
Charles Frederick Worth is also considered the father of haute couture and the first fashion designer to open a couture house in Paris in 1846.
Claire McCardell’s industrial and rural clothing style in the States granted her the ‘creator of the American Look’ moniker.
Evolution of Fashion Designers
In the postwar economy, fashion became big business, and the designer’s role changed with designers working closely with stores to identify customers’ preferences and lifestyle needs.
Designers like Hattie Carnegie, Vera Maxwell, Bonnie Cashin, Anne Klein, and Tina Leser shaped the casual American style and sportswear.
From the 1940s through the 1990s, most European ateliers and American design rooms had teams of designers, assistant designers, sketchers, patternmakers, drapers, finishers, and sample makers.
The clothing industry grew, and fashion and design schools were established in Paris, London, and New York City.
Some of the earliest and most famous schools for fashion designers were Parsons in 1896 and the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in 1944.
Nowadays, fashion houses run smaller design teams comprised of a head designer, an assistant, and a technical designer who creates tech packs.
A tech pack comprises the designer’s vision resketched by the technical designer, whose role is to include all garments, patterns, and materials and detailed instructions on how to put them together.
Tech packs are sent to low-cost clothing manufacturers located offshore, in China, India, Bangladesh, and Hong Kong, to create the initial design samples and complete production lines.
What Do Fashion Designers Do?
Fashion design is the work of a fashion designer, achieved by sketching and drawing designs for clothing, accessories, and footwear, selecting fabrics and patterns, and instructing clothing manufacturers on how to make products according to the sketches provided.
Fashion designers are also in charge with the creation of costumes for the performing arts, movies, and television, children’s apparel, sportswear, outwear, evening wear, maternity clothing, lingerie and intimate apparel, and accessories like handbags, suitcases, belts, scarves, hats, hosiery, eyewear, and footwear.
1. Study the Latest Trends
Fashion designers study fashion styles and their unique aesthetic patterns created and adapted by subcultures across the globe.
Designers stay current with contemporary fashion trends to ensure their designs are relevant and appeal to consumers.
Designers in the twenty-first century are very good at identifying emerging fashion trends, finding inspiration in classic fashion styles, and reimagining them with patterns and motifs from previous fashion styles in new fabrics and colors.
2. Choose the Theme of the Collections
Fashion designers determine the central theme of their collections according to their analysis of the current fashion trends and street styles.
For their collections, fashion designers draw inspiration from art, media, existing fashion styles and subcultures, current fashion trends, market studies about future fashion trends, and studies from fashion industry trade groups.
3. Generate Designs
The most important task of a fashion designer is to generate a fashion design.
In the past, fashion designers used pen and paper to create drawings and designs.
Nowadays, designers use dedicated digital tools like computer-aided design (CAD) programs, allowing them to see their work on virtual models.
In the digital environment, the designers can try different patterns, colors, motifs, and shapes, see them “live” on computer models, and make the required adjustments, saving time and costs compared to working with actual fabric and people.
The design stages vary according to the type of fashion design involved and the final product, whether a haute couture creation or a mass-produced t-shirt.
4. Create Prototypes
Once the initial idea is sketched and designed, the vision is realized as a prototype created from less expensive fabrics and materials than those to be used in the final product.
There are instances when fashion designers collaborate with other designers, couturiers, pattern makers, and stylists to create prototypes and test products that go through several reiterations.
The prototype is then worn by fashion models, allowing designers to spot potential design flaws and adjust them as needed.
At the end of these collabs and tests, fashion designers present their drawings, sketches, and prototypes to creative directors to ensure the final results match the company’s overall direction and suit clothing retailers.
5. Choose the Fabric
Once the creative director accepts the prototype, it is time to choose the fabric.
Fashion designers visit textile trade shows to get samples of fabric and clothing manufacturers to select fabrics, coloring, and embellishments that ensure overall product quality.
6. Make Final Samples of Designs
Fashion designers produce final samples with the actual fabrics.
The final samples will be presented to the creative director or showcased at trade and fashion shows.
If the samples receive good results, they will be used in manufacturing.
7. Showcase Designs
If independent or running their brands, fashion designers decide on the lines and collections to be presented at catwalks and trade shows.
Larger fashion houses are headed by a creative director, who commands several fashion designers specialized in clothing, footwear, or accessory design and decides to present final designs at fashion shows and fashion weeks.
8. License Designs
Most celebrity designers draw the initial vision and let the assistants and technical designers bring the collections that will eventually bear their name to reality.
The process is called licensing, where fashion designers license their names to products to reap royalties and increase their brand identity.
A significant trend in the fashion business is the use of iconic athletes and music idols to sell fashion goods.
In such cases, the celebrity’s name is critical, and the fashion designer’s name becomes irrelevant; hence, manufacturers hire anonymous designers to create apparel.
9. Market Designs
Fashion designers market their unique creations via own shops or third-party fashion retailers and stores.
Nowadays, fashion designers can offer their creations outside of traditional brick-and-mortar stores with the help of online manufacturers and e-commerce clothing stores that ship directly to consumers.
How Much Do Fashion Designers Make?
According to Salary.com, as of July 25, 2023, the average fashion designer in the United States makes $105,528 per annum.
However, the salary of a fashion designer in the United States in 2023 ranges between $55,596 and $155,459.
The salary varies depending on position, education, certifications, additional skills, and years spent in a profession.
According to Payscale, the annual salary of a fashion designer in 2023, in other countries, is as follows:
- United Kindom: £30,500 (source: payscale.com)
- France: €39,150 (source: payscale.com)
- Italy: €33,727 (source: payscale.com)
- Spain: €32500 (source: payscale.com)
- Australia: $73,750 (source: talent.com)
- India: ₹426,250 (source: talent.com)
- South Korea: ₩63,261,093 (source: erieri.com)
- Japan: ¥7,149,272 (source: worldsalaries.com)
What is the Working Environment of Fashion Designers?
According to IBISWorld data, 33,242 fashion designers were employed in 2023, in the US alone.
The largest employers of fashion designers were as follows:
- Apparel and accessories wholesalers (35%)
- Management of clothing companies and enterprises (18%)
- Self-employed fashion designers (27%)
- Clothing and leather goods manufacturers (9%)
- Motion picture and video industries (3%)
Most fashion designers work in-house for large fashion companies, clothing manufacturers, and apparel, accessories, and footwear wholesalers via offline and online fashion stores.
Independent (self-employed) fashion designers work for their clothing brands or outsource their expertise to fashion houses as high-fashion, one-of-a-kind designs, or mass-market apparel.
According to the contractual agreement, the designer’s name might or might not appear on the clothing line.
Fashion Designer Job Outlook
Employment of fashion designers is projected to grow by 3 percent from 2021 to 2031, slower than the average of all occupations.
Despite limited employment growth, about 2,300 openings for fashion designers are projected each year, on average, over the decade.
Most of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force to retire.
Social media influencers and online retailers selling directly to consumers have accelerated the demand for a constant flow of new fashion designs.
Growing consumer demand for sustainable fashion has also increased fashion designers creating with eco-friendly and sustainable materials.
However, there will be fewer opportunities for self-employed fashion designers, unable to compete with large-scale clothing production.
Fashion design is demanding, with designers known for working extreme hours to meet production deadlines or prepare for fashion shows.
Regardless of the employment terms, freelance, contract, or fully employed, most fashion designers have to adjust to clients’ schedules and deadlines and, thus, long workdays.
The Future of the Fashion Designer
Compared to early creators, twenty-first-century fashion designers use innovative technologies such as body-scanning for custom fit and smart materials that can change color, giving design a new dimension.
Future fashion designers will work with high-tech textiles that can heal wounds, provide sun protection, and other unique qualities.
But, regardless of technological advancements, the role of a fashion designer will always be drawing shapes, patterns, aesthetics, motifs, and colors in a cohesive final product called an outfit.
Related Occupations to Fashion Designers
- Graphic Designers – create visual concepts using computer software – or by hand – to communicate ideas that inspire, inform, and captivate consumers.
- Industrial Designers – combine art, business, and engineering to develop early concepts for large-scale manufactured products.
- Jewelers Designers – experts in cutting and modeling rare stones and precious metals.
- Visual Design Editors – responsible for the visual style and images used in fashion magazines, newspapers, product packaging, and movie and television productions.
How to Become a Fashion Designer
To get a job as a fashion designer, candidates must have at least a relevant (fashion, arts, business) bachelor’s degree.
Fashion design or fashion merchandising programs that teach students about textile fabrics and how to use them are at the top of the list.
Technical knowledge of computer-aided design (CAD) technology, fashion history, aesthetic patterns, clothing, accessories, and footwear manufacturing helps, but it’s not mandatory.
The National Association of Schools of Art and Design accredits more than 360 postsecondary institutions with programs in art and design that award degrees in fashion design.
However, most of these schools require students to have completed essential art and design courses before entering a program and the submission of a portfolio showcasing their creative capabilities.
The fastest way for future fashion designers to gain experience in the fashion industry is through internships, ideally as assistant designers.
Fashion internships allow aspiring fashion designers to experience the entire design process, consolidate knowledge of fashion styles, aesthetics, patterns, motifs, colors, and textiles, and learn about the industry’s workings.
Overall, employers will prioritize and hire fashion designers based on past creative track records and current portfolios.
A fashion designer portfolio containing a collection of design ideas demonstrating drawing abilities and unique styles and participating in amateur design contests is essential.
- Drawing ability – One of the most essential qualities a fashion designer must have is the ability to sketch and draw ideas for clothing, garments, and accessories. As such, every fashion designer should be able to express their vision through compelling designs and illustrations.
- Communication skills – Throughout the design process, fashion designers must be able to communicate and share ideas with other designers or instruct pattern makes about the preferred construction of the garment. Communicating effectively and efficiently is another crucial skill a fashion designer should possess.
- Computer skills – Any modern fashion designer should be prolific in computer-aided design (CAD) programs and familiar with graphics editing software like Adobe Suite.
- Creative decision-making – When working with other designers or large teams of creatives, fashion designers are exposed to several design ideas regarding patterns, shapes, motifs, colors, and materials. As such, designers should be able to decide which ideas to incorporate into their designs to create unique, functional, and stylish pieces.
- Detail-oriented – Fashion designers must have an obsessive approach to details regarding color shades, stitching, sewing, pattern lines, angles, etc.
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After years of managing hundreds of fashion brands from London's office of a global retailer, Mandy has ventured into freelancing. Connected with several fashion retailers and media platforms in the US, Australia, and the UK, Mandy uses her expertise to consult for emerging fashion brands create top-notch content as an editorial strategist for several online publications.