You don’t have to be born into design royalty to become a successful fashion designer. In fact, some of the biggest names in fashion began their careers in the most humble of circumstances. Michael Kors started as a sales assistant in a trendy New York City boutique, Alexander McQueen worked as a tailor’s apprentice, and Coco Chanel began as a simple clerk in a hosiery shop. Whether you aim to land a job at a top fashion label, start your own business, or work as a freelancer, your background won’t matter as much as your commitment and determination to succeed.

Before You Start

What Type of Designer Do You Want to Be?

Before embarking on your journey to become a fashion designer, it’s crucial to decide what type of designer you want to be and what type of work you want to do. This decision can help you determine the specific skills you need to focus on and the type of education or training that will be most valuable to you.

For example, a bachelor’s degree in Fashion Design can be beneficial for those who want to work for major fashion houses, as many of these employers require a degree as a prerequisite for employment. But, for those who want to work as a Pattern Maker or Seamstress – neither of which requires a degree – the best approach may be to focus on developing their technical skills and working their way up in the industry through internships and apprenticeships. This is why the first step in your journey should always be to decide what type of designer you want to become.

Option #1

Earn a Degree in Fashion Design

The most traditional route to becoming a fashion designer is to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Fashion Design. A degree in Fashion Design provides a structured and formal education in the field of fashion, covering everything from the technical aspects of garment construction and pattern-making to the creative elements of design and concept development.

At the typical American fashion school, you will spend three to four years taking fine arts classes and studying drawing, color composition, form, pattern making, fabric selection, draping, cutting, sewing, costing, promotion, and production techniques. You will also take courses in computer-aided design (CAD), textiles, figure drawing, and the history of fashion design, all while learning how to take your ideas, develop them, and refine them into an entire collection.

Why Earn a Fashion Design Degree?

Earning a degree in Fashion Design offers a unique set of benefits that is difficult to replicate through self-study alone. For example, most students can gain a firm grasp of how to draw flats, how to sew, how to construct a garment, and how to produce a collection, through self-directed learning. But few develop the acumen needed to succeed in the business side of fashion without the guidance of an expert professor or the experience of studying fashion design in a structured environment.

This is where fashion design schools really separate themselves from self-study programs. In a fashion design program, you can expect to learn about the business side of the fashion industry – what goes on behind the scenes, with classes about business practices, finance, manufacturing, retail sales, consumer behavior, product development, and marketing. In fact, many top fashion design schools bring in employers from the design industry, including designers from world-famous fashion brands, to work directly with students – a benefit that is virtually impossible to replicate in a learning environment outside of school. 

Option #2

Become a Fashion Designer Without a Degree

It goes without saying that school is not for everyone. These words are especially true if you are trying to start your own design business, become a freelancer, or get a job in the fashion industry in a non-design role. The truth is, you can go to school to pursue any of these career options, but realistically, you don’t need to.

If studying fashion design in school isn’t for you, remember that there are numerous examples of famous designers who entered the field with no formal training. You will still need to educate yourself, but most of the concepts and techniques you learn in four years at fashion school can be learned in a self-taught environment.

1. Create a Plan for Self-Directed Study

The fashion industry is a highly competitive and often cut-throat environment. However, if you are willing to put in the extra effort and work hard, there are plenty of ways that you can become a successful fashion designer without a degree. The most important thing is to make sure that you have the right skills and knowledge necessary to be successful.

The remainder of this article is dedicated to the skills and subjects you must learn if you want to work in the fashion industry today.

2. Study the History of Fashion, Design, and Costuming

Typically, fashion and design schools require at least a few courses in art history, costume history, and in some cases, more niched electives, like Broadway costume history. If you’re studying independently, you’ll want to cover at least the basics. Be sure to study the top fashions in each decade, particularly the 20s, 60s, and 70s.

Look at how silhouettes, fabrics, and color schemes have changed over time, and pay attention to how fashion history tends to repeat itself. Branch out into international fashion and study the history of clothing and style in Japan, France, and other fashion-forward countries. A robust background in fashion and design history will help create a solid career foundation on which you can build.

3. Learn the Design Process

“Design process” is an approach for breaking down a large project into manageable components. In fashion design, it’s the process of taking your ideas, collecting information, brainstorming, gathering feedback, and refining your ideas to create designs and assemble a complete collection.

As a designer in training, you must learn the key processes, teach yourself to recognize good design, and develop your own methods if you want to grow. Once you are a working designer, you won’t have time to elaborate on every step of the design process, so it’s critically important for you to practice each step until you become much faster and more efficient.

4. Develop Proficiency in Drawing and Illustration

While you don’t have to be Vincent Van Gogh to have a career in fashion, learning basic art concepts and how to create figure drawings and fashion illustrations to bring your designs to life is critical. Here are three important types of art that are important to the fashion industry and how you can develop your skills in each.

Figure Drawing

First, you’ll need to learn how to draw figures. Invest in some basic but high-quality art supplies, including a sketchbook, pencils, charcoal, and good erasers. Look for figure templates that you can print out and use to trace until you get the hang of how figures should look on paper.

Drawing Clothes on Bodies

Next, you’ll want to learn how to draw clothes on your figures. This can be challenging because you’ll need to use a variety of art concepts like shading and depth to make fabric and accessories look realistic. In fashion school, you’ll have the benefit of watching an instructor use certain techniques and to learn by doing. Independent learners can look for instructional videos on YouTube, which often teach the same skills.

Fashion Illustration

Once you’ve learned how to draw figures and the fashions to go on them, you’ll need to bring them to life with color. Watercolors, pastels, high-quality markers, and other mediums can help you illustrate the color stories in your designs and collections. Make sure to invest in good quality materials with rich pigments that allow you to depict slight shifts in color and shade.

5. Study Color Theory

Next to fabric, color is one of the most fundamental aspects of fashion design. In fact, every design or art major studies the theory of color and how it’s used in their industry. In fashion, color tells stories and evokes emotion, and it’s often the first thing that consumers look for when choosing a garment. If a garment is absolutely perfect in fit, fabric, and price, but is the wrong color, the consumer will most likely not make the purchase.

Fashion colleges talk about color theory and stories in every class and for every project. Independent learners should start with the color wheel and dive into published resources on color theory. Look for articles on color usage in fashion published by reputable art and design websites. There’s also a wealth of videos on YouTube and similar streaming services that cover color theory and how to use color in fashion design that you can use to expand your knowledge on color theory.

6. Explore Fabrics and Fabric Manipulation

Fabric is the core of the fashion industry. Drawing sketches and fashion illustrations is simply a way to visualize the designer’s piece; the fabric is their true medium and the finished garment is the work of art. It’s critical for fashion designers to be well-acquainted with various types of fabrics, what they feel like, how they move, and what it’s like to work with them.

Start by visiting your local fabric or craft store. Look at:

  • What fabrics cost compared to each other
  • How fabrics feel
  • Different types of fabric (satin, silk, twill, cotton, polyester, spandex, etc.) and fabric blends
  • Fiber content
  • How fabrics stretch
  • Which fabrics wrinkle or fray more easily
  • How fabrics need to be washed and dried
  • Fabric breathability
  • Fabric comfort

Study both common and uncommon fabrics, which fabrics are frequently used for which projects, and which fabrics are often used together. Use your collection ideas to further your knowledge about particular fabrics.

For example, if you’re developing a bridal collection, you can study satin, charmeuse, and chiffon in detail. At the completion of your project, you should be well-versed in how to work with these materials. Your next project might be women’s winter outerwear, or children’s wear, which will give you an opportunity to experiment and learn about an entirely new set of fabrics.

7. Study Garment Construction

Most fashion designers are adept with a needle and thread, but some aren’t proficient in sewing beyond the basics. Whether or not you need to learn how to sew well largely depends on the type of fashion designer you’d like to be.

Sewing Basics

You should learn how to sew a few basic stitches by hand, as well as operate a simple sewing machine. You should be familiar enough with sewing and pattern draping to be able to communicate well with the team producing your samples and finished products.

A great way to learn about garment construction is to visit clothing stores. Try things on and feel them with your hands. Notice the fabric, the cut, and the stitching. Look at what materials are used for lining garments like jackets and dresses and evaluate the quality of each piece compared to its price. Make sure you visit stores in-person — browsing online won’t give you the tactile information about garment construction that being hands-on will.

Advanced Sewing

If you plan to work under another designer or for a company, you don’t need to have robust sewing skills. If you’d like to start your own line, however, it’s important that you be proficient enough to sew your own samples.

The more you know how to do from the start of a design project to its completion, the more creative control you exercise over it. When a production team creates your samples, there’s a chance that a few precious details get lost in translation. If you know how to sew well, you can push your creative boundaries and increase your chances of success.

8. Learn About Product Development and Technical Design

When a design has been completed, the product is ready to be developed. This process involves learning how to draw fashion flat sketches, how to create a tech pack using a template, and how to spec out garments.

Fashion flat sketches also called flat sketches or just “flats” in the fashion industry, are technical drawings of the front and back of a garment if it were laid out flat. The sketch shows details like seams, hardware, and topstitching, and is necessary for every design that goes to production. A tech pack is a sheet of information given to manufacturers that includes all the necessary technical specs for the garment to be made. Tech packs typically include materials, colors, measurements, labels, and other production details.

Learning how to create good flats and tech packs can also help fund your career as you continue to learn how to become a fashion designer. You can sell templates or commissioned pieces to other designers who want to focus on the creative aspects instead of the technical.

9. Master Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop

Success in the fashion industry today requires the ability to use computer programs (CAD programs) to render fashion designs, tech packs, flats, and more. The most commonly used design CAD is Adobe Illustrator, and it’s a must for any aspiring fashion designer.

Other design programs are available, like Procreate, but aren’t nearly as widely used as Adobe and most likely, you’d end up needing to learn how to use both. If you do choose to learn an alternative program, make sure the files are compatible with Illustrator. You’ll also need to develop basic photo editing skills to insert your flats into your tech packs and line sheets, as well as a wide variety of other situations.

10. Learn Business Practices and Apparel Manufacturing

Becoming a fashion designer, especially one that is well known, requires more than just indulging your artistic side. Sales, production, merchandising, and distribution are equally important to establishing your brand. This means that in addition to learning how to become a fashion designer, you’ll also need to learn how to operate a business. The more you know about shipping, cash management, and profit and loss, the more control you will have over the production and sales of your designs.

You don’t necessarily have to be a business mogul to be successful, but you do need some basic entrepreneurial skills if you want to create your own line. Look for books that summarize the basics of running a business that can be adapted to the specifics of the fashion industry. This provides you with a foundational skillset that can be built upon over time with experience.

11. Study Sustainability in Design

In today’s political and economic climate, sustainability in fashion is no longer an option — it’s a necessity. Many fashion schools don’t do much to cover sustainability, or they may not stay current on the latest eco-friendly design trends, leaving both traditional students and independent learners to discover sustainability in fashion on their own.

Delve into current textile news and resources to learn how to create sustainable designs. Learn about eco-friendly fabrics and other materials, production processes that are less harmful to the environment, and ethical approaches to garment production. Look for published content from reputable sources on low-waste pattern cutting, water waste reduction, and fair-trade sourcing.

As you learn sustainable practices, apply them to your designs over time. There’s no need to suddenly become a completely ecologically sound fashion designer in one fell swoop. Simply keep sustainability in mind as you grow your career and look for new opportunities to apply eco-friendly practices.

12. Research Your Customer

Knowing your audience and understanding fashion trends is the key to success in any apparel business, not just fashion design. Since clothing and accessories are so personal, and many people use fashion as an expression of themselves, it’s even more important that designers understand the end customer.

Basic market research (even on social media) can help you learn what your ideal customers earn and how much they spend, where and how they like to shop, and their lifestyle preferences. You should have a solid grasp of your target audience’s needs and wants, in order to develop marketing strategies aimed to meet both.

Consider talking with a stylist to learn about what their customers are asking for and what consumer trends they are following. Speaking to other professionals in the fashion industry is useful because it helps you incorporate other opinions and learn more about the market you are targeting.

Additional Resources for Fashion Designers

How to Become a Fashion Designer FAQ

Fashion designers typically spend four years earning a bachelor’s degree before beginning their careers. A bachelor’s degree provides students with an essential foundation in the field, including knowledge of fashion history, design principles, brand development, and CAD software.

Earning a degree is not the only route to becoming a fashion designer. Many fashion designers are self-taught or have completed short-term training programs. However, most design firms prefer candidates who have demonstrated their talent and commitment to the field by completing a formal education program.

Fashion designers use math extensively when creating patterns, measuring sample garments for fitting, and creating trim pages for the factory. In addition, they often use mathematical formulas to calculate fabric yardage requirements and prices. Fashion designers also rely on their understanding of math when working with buyers and merchandisers to negotiate prices and quantities.

Geometry is also used extensively in the daily work of a fashion designer, particularly when designers are draping fabric on a form to create a garment or mapping a two-dimensional pattern that has to fit on a three-dimensional body.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recommends that fashion designers earn a bachelor’s degree from a post-secondary institution accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. Fashion schools with NASAD accreditation are considered to have met the highest standards for educational quality in the field.

Along with academic degrees, aspiring fashion designers should seek out opportunities to gain real-world experience through internships or other hands-on learning opportunities. These experiences can provide invaluable insight into how fashion designers work and the day-to-day reality of the job.