Do Fashion Schools Make Successful Fashion Designers?

by | Jan 5, 2018

How are you planning to make it as a successful fashion designer?

Attending top fashion schools or university programs seems to be the quick and easy answer for many aspiring fashion designers.

But how does it work for fashion design students after graduation?

Who needs to graduate from Central Saint Martins in London or New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology when a homemade outfit can go viral on YouTube with millions of hits?”

Suzy Menkes

International Vogue Editor, Condé Nast

This statement from that famous fashion journalist is indeed provocative, but it is meant to make you think.

Fashion schools are one way to try to be successful in the fashion business. What are the results?

Statistics reveal that numerous aspiring fashion designers will never become fashion designers and will not even work in the fashion industry at all.

Maria Van Nguyen, a student in her senior year at Parson’s, was interviewed in 2015 by Jessica Scheffer, a blogger at Who What Wear.

What do most students do immediately after they graduate?
Some people continue to work in the fashion industry, not necessarily as fashion designers but another position related to the field. A few get amazing jobs, go on and make names for themselves and/or win great competitions and awards—you can usually predict who these people will be because they tend to stand out throughout their time at school. However, a lot of people don’t end up working with fashion at all.”
Maria Van Nguyen

Student in her senior year at Parson's, 2015

What can you expect from a fashion school?

The reality is simple: Fashion schools educate too many aspiring fashion designers for too few jobs.

Is Fashion Education Selling a False Dream? is the title of an article from The Guardian written by Imran Amed and Robin Mellery-Pratt in 2017. The two authors conducted a survey amongst more than 4 000 students and alumni.

And afterwards, many disappointed students report that they end up taking jobs outside of fashion, or not finding jobs at all. With BA tuition fees costing an average of $18 000 per year and MA tuition an average of $23 000 per year, students are clearly looking for a better return on this significant investment… While many young people are attracted to working as fashion designers due to the growing visibility of the industry on television and social media, the growing popularity of fashion education has not been matched by a corresponding increase in fashion design jobs. ”
Imran Amed and Robin Mellery-Pratt

The Business of Fashion

Fashion schools have no obligation to deliver results. Consequence: you may end up paying a lot of money for your fashion education for no guarantee regarding your future.

What are the real figures?

According to the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), around 10% of the total job pool graduate every year with degrees in fashion design and try to enter the industry. Not only this is already an oversupply, but there are also more and more fashion graduates and fewer and fewer job offers.

In the UK, the data also shows that while more than 85% of fashion design graduates will end up finding a full-time job at some point, most of them will never work as fashion designers.

IThat traditional path fashion schools are part of consists in graduating from one of them, starting to work as an intern for a fashion brand or business, trying to get noticed among the interns to get a permanent job.

From there, that should lead those young fashion talents to get better jobs at bigger brands to maybe someday be successful and recognized enough by the fashion industry to find some financing and start their own brand.

But did you ever notice that many fashion designers didn’t follow that path at all?

The fashion industry is full of stories of designers who chose alternative routes to success.

What are your alternatives?

Some successful fashion designers are autodidacts.

Like Jaquemus.

As a teen, Michael Kors began to design clothes and sell them out of his parents’ basement. He then went to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology but dropped out after a few months. He never graduated. He became a salesperson in a fashion store and then started his own brand at the beginning of the 80s, selling it at Bergdorf Goodman.

Helmut Lang is another fashion autodidact too and started his fashion studio in the late 70s and his first store shortly after.

It’s even easier today to learn things yourself without any school or teacher. With the Internet, access to information has never been that quick and that easy.

You can also start out as an intern with no formal training.

Some others did an apprenticeship to learn the technical skills much more thoroughly than in any fashion school. There was a time when there were no fashion schools.

At the time of Christian Dior and before, the only way for young people wanting to work in the fashion field would be entering as an apprentice and learning everything on the spot with experienced workers.

Hedi Slimane never went to any fashion school either but completed a tailor apprenticeship at a men’s designer house. He acquired all the technical skills needed there and didn’t need any other type of fashion class to be very successful at Dior and Saint Laurent, and now Céline.

Nowadays, it’s true that it’s very difficult to enter any glamorous fashion brand and learn everything from scratch there because the competition is too fierce. But you can still do apprenticeships in more modest fashion companies and potentially benefit even more.

It is obvious for everyone there is a huge gap in knowledge between what you learn at school and what you learn on the spot while working for a company.

You may assume that having completed a design degree, there are no skill gaps there. However, the design process in a business can often feel very different to that of the design process in school, where you don’t have to worry about things other than the product.”
Imran Amed

Founder and Editor in Chief, The Business Of Fashion

Be aware of school limitations

It’s difficult for any fashion school to keep up with the pace of the fashion market and all its changes.

Fashion programs may not be aligned with the needs of fashion companies today.

Being successful in fashion, like any other business, requires some skills that are taught in business schools.
Some fashion schools just scratch the surface regarding the technical skills as they prefer to make students work on style.
Some others are highly technical but don’t cover the business skills needed.

Creativity is the essence of fashion, but without a good business sense, it is challenging to sustain a fashion business and keep it profitable. Many talented fashion designers have ended up bankrupt because they had a poor understanding of fashion’s financial side.

In the survey conducted by The Business of Fashion, the participants reported that they felt unequipped with the practical business skills and training they need to start their own businesses or even for full-time employment.

Having a fashion degree is, by far, not sufficient at all to make it. It’s just basic knowledge.

No fashion program can be complete. No fashion school is able to give you the full knowledge needed to start and run a fashion business the way the fashion industry expects it today.

In April 2017, the article “Aspiring Designers: To Degree or Not Degree” from Not Just A Label was interviewing Joan Arbuckle, the Dean of the School of Art and Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, on that dilemma. When she was asked: “Can you be a successful designer and never attend a college?”, her answer was:

Absolutely! Many will graduate with an enviable education, although few will continue towards a successful career.”
Joan Arbuckle

Dean of the School of Art and Design, The Fashion Institute of Technology

Fashion schools are very proud to have a few alumni who made it to the top but forget the ones who didn’t.

In 2016, Michael Kors said in a live chat:

I got to school, and I had been sketching since I was really small, and I had such firm ideas about what I liked, so I was fighting with the teachers. I don’t think that there’s a rule in fashion in how you have to chart your course.”
Michael Kors

Fashion Designer

Several renowned fashion designers have degrees in entirely different fields. Rei Kawakubo studied art and literature. Raf Simons started to work as an industrial furniture designer. Miuccia Prada studied political science and then, theater, as she was planning to become a mime artist.

What remains essential is education

Education is required and vital all life long.

For everyone. For every business owner.

But learning not only can be done in many other ways than in fashion schools but also goes way further than any fashion degree will ever provide to you.

“What do you need to become a successful fashion designer?”

For Joan Arbuckle, “you need to have talent, and you need to be a lifelong learner.” Period.

Some fashion investors are critical about fashion education.

Designers have been set up to fail. It’s everything from education to mentorship. The rules of the game just don’t work.”
Lawrence Lenihan

Venture capitalist and an investor in early-stage fashion brands.

What do Michael Kors, Helmut Lang, Jaquemus and Hedi Slimane have in common apart from the fact that they never graduated from any fashion school and were all very successful with their designs?

  • They worked very hard to follow their dream. So do many of you.
  • They have talent, undoubtedly. So do many of you.
  • They did it their own way, not following the main road. So did many others, successfully. So can you.

You can become a fashion designer today, whatever your educational background is.

What are your plans? We would love to know.

This article is about the 1st fashion myth of our essential guide for aspiring fashion designers called: 7 Fashion Myths – How to avoid wasting time and money. If you would like to know all those misconceptions of the fashion business, you can download that guide for free here.

(Photos from Unsplash: Igor Ovsyannykov, Eddie Garcia).

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