I would say it's taking our graduates two to six months to get
a job in the [fashion] industry, so I just tell them to keep
pounding the pavement and hang in there. - Pam Zuckerman,
director of career services, Fashion Institute of Technology
Pam Zuckerman has been helping to launch the careers of young
fashion designers for more than 16 years as director of the
career services office at New York's Fashion Institute of
Technology. Here, she shares her insider advice on starting
out in this competitive industry.
experience: How important is it for a designer to
have a fashion-related
Pam Zuckerman: You don't have to have a degree to
make it in fashion, but it helps. If you're not going to
start your own company immediately, a degree will help you
get your foot in the door of a famous design house like Donna
Karan or Calvin Klein. It will also give you the skills you
need to make it in a competitive marketplace. There are
famous designers that don't have degrees, although most of
them have studied at a professional design school at some
experience: Besides FIT, what are some of the best
schools for fashion?
PZ: Definitely the Rhode Island School of Design,
Parsons, the Philadelphia College of Textiles, the London
College of Design, and the Polimoda Design Academy in
Florence. Many of our students like to study at the design
academies in Europe, but they find that it's difficult for
them to get work visas if they decide to stay there after
graduation. They usually wind up coming back to New York to
experience: Why is New York still considered the
fashion capital of America, and is it always necessary for
aspiring designers to work in New York City?
PZ: New York is the fashion capital because of
Seventh Avenue (in midtown), which is also known as the
Garment District. All the big U.S. designers have their
showrooms and design studios there. They also tend to have
their flagship retail stores in New York. Fashion is a
$20-billion-a-year industry in New York, and it's currently
the largest manufacturing industry in the city. I think it's
extremely important for a young designer to spend some time
working here. If you really want to make it, you have to get
New York market experience.
experience: What do you tell students who are looking
for their first job in fashion?
PZ: They often want to work for the big fashion
houses, but I tell them that most of the jobs are with
smaller companies - over 85 percent of employment in the
fashion industry comes from firms with less than 20
employees. The fashion industry is composed primarily of
smaller, lesser-known companies, so networking is extremely
important. Seventy-five percent of jobs are not advertised,
so you really have to meet people by going to industry
events, doing internships, etc. It's extremely competitive. I
would say it's taking our graduates two to six months to get
a job in the industry, so I just tell them to keep pounding
the pavement and hang in there.
experience: What's the typical entry-level job for a
PZ: The typical entry-level job is being an assistant
designer, either for a "name" company or for a smaller
mom-and-pop operation. You do flat sketches (which are
sketches the factory uses to produce the garment). You may be
corresponding with factories. There's a lot of pressure
because you're juggling several tasks at one time, and the
hours are long. You'll help launch several lines each year.
The salary starts in the mid 20s. If you've done internships,
you'll command more money. When you get promoted, typically
your job title will be something like "associate designer" or
"junior designer," and then you move up to "designer."
experience: What new trends are you seeing in terms of
PZ: New media and technology are the biggest growth
area in fashion. Design firms are all using CAD (Computer
Aided Design) systems and are looking for employees who are
creative and can draw freehand, but also know how to use this
technology. We're also seeing a lot of graphic design
positions in fashion: web site development, logo design, etc.
I encourage students to learn about e-commerce and how to
create web sites.
experience: Are you seeing more students going the
"indie" route and starting their own labels immediately after
graduation, rather than working for other companies?
PZ: Not necessarily. But I am seeing more students
freelancing for different companies rather than taking one
nine-to-five job. More and more people like working from
their homes, and working project-to-project. Some of them
accumulate enough clients that they can build their own
businesses. Because the economy is good, there are more
opportunities for freelancers. Most students work in the
industry and get experience and then start their own
companies. John Bartlett is a perfect example. He worked for
Willie Wear and then started his own label. A talented
menswear student named Ufuk Arkun started a successful
company right after graduation.
experience: What does it take to start your own label
and make it as an independent designer?
PZ: Since fashion is everything now - it's music, it's
advertising - you need more than just design skills; you need
marketing and sales skills. A business background is so
important. One of the biggest obstacles to launching your own
label is getting financial backing, because producing
garments is big bucks. There are many aspects involved in
running your own line-for starters, you need to know where
production of your product should take place and how to
source raw materials. You have to have the passion to really
make it because it takes tremendous amounts of hard work. You
have to live, breathe, and dream fashion.