Careers in Fashion

by W. Randy Hoffman
Careers in Fashion

So what can you do in fashion?

Lead designers are the folks that most people think of in connection with the words "fashion industry." Their main responsibility is creative; they work up designs for individual pieces or entire lines of clothing and accessories. This typically involves several generations of sketches or computer-aided drafts; consideration of color, texture, material, and shape when worn; and supervision of final patterning and construction.

Some lead designers aim to set trends (and, with skill and luck, they often do); others do their best to follow and capitalize on trends that are already established, or simply to design very beautiful, comfortable, and/or useful garments. Their markets vary from department stores to boutiques and specialty retailers to individuals willing to pay large amounts of money for custom-designed originals.

While some lead designers are self-employed or head their own labels, many others work for apparel manufacturers, designing fashions to be sold to the discriminating few through high-end catalogs or to the millions who shop at discount super-centers.

Technical designers take a lead designer's creations from the prototype stage through to full production. They work up specifications for new clothing and accessories, have samples made, and work with marketing and production facilities to ensure that finished pieces are made correctly and profitably.

Technical designers need to uphold the quality of their company's brands, not just by making sure that garments are solidly and consistently constructed, but by maintaining "fit continuity": If they're responsible for a line of dress slacks (to choose an arbitrary example), all of the line's different slacks with the same measurements should fit customers the same way, and should fit customers very close to the same way as slacks with the same measurements that the company has released in recent years. Technical design might be done "behind the scenes," but it's tremendously challenging and important.

Once the designers have figured out what shapes and cuts of material to use for an item, patternmakers create the master patterns for those shapes and cuts that guide further production. In the modern fashion industry, this is mostly done on the computer, but it still requires a steady hand and a sharp eye.

Textile specialists and engineers. The fashion industry is driven by innovation just as other industries are, and for many of its innovations it depends on new and improved construction materials and procedures created by textile specialists and engineers.

Fashion and textile science have both come a long since the inventors of synthetic fibers unleashed nylon, rayon, and polyester on the world. Today, natural-fabric mainstays such as cotton and silk can be "tweaked" with desired properties, and original synthetics can be virtually custom-crafted to have just the right amount of stretch, thickness, wear, strength, fire resistance, etc. Textiles can also be processed in new ways; for example, to allow garments to be made with fewer pieces or less stitching. If blending art and science this way appeals to you, you might want to investigate this type of career.

Marketers make people want to buy new designs, new clothing lines, or even a designer's or company's entire output. They do this not just with advertising, but with every tool at their disposal. For example, they often try to get actors and actresses to wear their clothes in movies, in TV series, and at award shows; recruit NBA stars to wear and endorse their shoes; snag the best possible display locations at trade shows; arrange lunches, demos, and previews with influential members of the fashion press; and send free samples to people identified as trendsetters in hopes of generating positive exposure and word-of-mouth.

Marketers need to have a finger on the pulse of pop culture, so they can see where the trends are going, which designs are likely to be most successful (or need the most help to be successful), and which groups of consumers are most likely to buy the clothing they're selling.

Merchandisers. If one word could describe what merchandisers do, that word might be "presentation." They typically work for retail stores; it's their job to make the clothing that the store is selling (and for that matter the entire store or clothing department) seem as attractive as possible to the store's customers. They select which clothing items to sell (and which of those to prominently highlight), figure out the optimum amount of space to use for displaying them, what height to place things, which items to display together or next to one another, how to arrange any forms or mannequins involved, even what kind of signs and lighting to use and (sometimes) what kind of music to play.

Sourcing specialists, or "sourcers," work for apparel manufacturers, distributors, and retailers, contacting suppliers (usually in China or elsewhere in Asia) to find either the raw materials needed to make clothes (fabrics, leather, dyes, etc.), manufacturers who will make clothing to your company's specifications, or particular types of already-finished clothing that match what your company is looking for. Sourcers need to be diplomatic, tactful, and culturally sensitive, yet have a keen eye for bargains and trends, be strong negotiators, and be able to keep track of where lots of sample packages and other shipments are at the same time. Being computer-savvy and fluent in both English and Chinese are big advantages in this kind of position.

Buyers purchase clothing and accessories for their company, either on their own discretion or following the selections of the merchandisers or sourcers. They travel as needed to search for products at trade shows, preview new items that suppliers are offering, present these new products to company executives, negotiate prices and margins, and so on. They also track orders and make sure that purchased items are delivered on time to where they need to go. Just like most other fashion professionals, buyers need to consider target markets and key trends when they make their purchasing decisions.

Stylists put together wardrobes, coordinate outfits, and do whatever else it takes to make fashion models and their surroundings look good for the viewers and cameras.

All of the aforementioned people help get clothes onto the racks of a store or warehouse, but once a customer buys something, it's the job of tailors and seamstresses to take garments from "approximate fit" to "perfect fit."

Fashion writers, photographers, and videographers cover fashion shows, expositions, and the industry in general, keeping people everywhere in the world informed about styles, trends, and activity happening anywhere.

Costumers and costume designers create or select the costumes that actors wear in theatrical, film, or video-game productions. This is often normal contemporary dress, but can range from the period clothing of ancient Rome or Victorian England to the spacesuits of science-fiction epics. Some apparel companies employ cosmetologists to work with their models and stylists, and other firms that meld women's fashion with personal beauty and cosmetics employ cosmetic designers.

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