In the field of fashion design, art is something you wear, not something you hang on a wall. Fashion designers make their living by creating the clothing items people wear. They choose the look, feel, fabric, color and details of apparel ranging from everyday jeans and t-shirts to formal gowns and tuxedos. Fashion designers work on clothing, but they also create the designs for accessories, footwear and even costumes for films and live theatre.

Why Do You Need a Fashion Designer Degree?

A passion for fashion design can take you far, but not far enough. Unless you’re a celebrity, you have the right connections or you’re independently wealthy enough to afford to launch your own fashion brand, you’re most likely going to need a college education to get started in this career. Your inspired designs could very well stop fashion moguls in their tracks—but only after you’ve managed to get your foot in the door of this industry.

No matter how amazing your artistic skills in fashion design are, you also need to develop the technical skills and knowledge to succeed in this field. For example, earning a degree in fashion design allows you to learn the technical considerations of choosing material and planning the construction of clothes and other fashion items. College programs in fashion design also allow aspiring designers to develop their skills in the most widely used computer-aided design and drafting (CADD) software programs, which O*NET reports include Digital Fashion Pro, Trimble SketchUp Pro, StartingAClothingLine.com and Autodesk Revit.

Fashion designers should also be familiar with graphics and photo imaging software programs like Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, Corel CorelDraw Graphics Suite and Lectra Prima Vision Print Repeat, as well as basic presentation and spreadsheet software programs, according to O*NET. 

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Fashion Designer?

If you want to be a fashion designer, the first thing to consider is what level of degree you will need. The most common level of education reported for fashion designers is the associate’s degree, which accounted for 36 percent of the field, according to O*NET. Another 25 percent of fashion designers reported having “some” college education but never completing a degree, while 24 percent of the occupation held a bachelor’s degree. Although a large chunk of the fashion design occupation reported not having a bachelor’s degree, career opportunities are better for aspiring designers with a four-year degree, and the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) considered a bachelor’s degree to be the preferred level of education for entry-level work in the field as of 2020.

If you want to work in fashion design, pursuing a degree program in fashion design specifically will most likely put you in the best position to achieve your dreams. However, students may consider alternative degree paths. A degree in fashion merchandising is an option to think about, according to the BLS, and you might also opt to major in more general areas like purchasing and supply chain management, graphic design or marketing. 

While there are other levels of study in the field of fashion design, such as certificate programs and master’s degree programs, these educational options aren’t among the top three most common levels of education reported, which make up a combined 85 percent of the profession. 

What Subjects Are Needed to Become a Fashion Designer?

When you major in fashion design, you should expect to take classes in the areas of art and design, textiles and fabrics, computer-aided design (CAD) technology and the business of fashion. For example, arts-related classes for fashion design majors might include design essentials, the fundamentals of drawing, and figure drawing techniques for fashion and the history of fashion, art and costumes. Additional design courses might include flat pattern design, 3D design and draping design.

The fabrics-related coursework might encompass studies of textiles for fashion design, materials exploration and a survey of the textile industry. Studies in the use of CAD or CADD technologies may include classes dedicated to computer-aided design for patternmaking, advanced CAD for fashion illustration and technical design for the fashion industry. Students may also take business administration courses in areas like marketing, economics and management, as well as more specialized coursework in the business of fashion. 

While a formal education in fashion design is important, developing a compelling portfolio might be even more vital. The portfolio is how prospective employers will judge a fashion designer’s skills and creativity. Building your portfolio over the course of your education is just as important, if not more important, than the degree itself. Students of fashion design typically have ample opportunity to visit galleries for education and inspiration and to work in design studios and laboratories creating the designs which they will later add to their growing portfolios. 

A good portion of a fashion designer’s education happens outside the classroom. An internship experience with a fashion company can help aspiring fashion designers build their portfolios. Work experience in a role like assistant designer and also be valuable, allowing aspiring designers to learn the logistics of how clothing and accessories are made.

Ultimately, to succeed in the position of fashion designer, you need to excel in each of these areas: artistic design, technical skills and business logistics.

Other Degree Options for Aspiring Fashion Designers

Realistically, many more people dream of becoming fashion designers than actually succeed in doing so. Only around 27,800 people actually work as fashion designers in the United States, according to the BLS, and more than a quarter of them are self-employed. Going to school for fashion design specifically and pinning all of your hopes on this ambition of becoming a fashion designer can feel risky, especially if you have to take on student debt to afford an education. It’s not at all unusual for people who want to be in fashion design to choose a broader major—or to double-major—so that they end up with a more versatile degree.

Fashion Merchandising

If the business side of fashion appeals to you as much as the design side, you might consider majoring in fashion merchandising. Generally, students of fashion merchandising take some of the same courses as fashion design students, such as fabric for fashion, but they also take a lot more courses focused on areas like merchandising concepts, retailing and digital tools for fashion presentations.

Students in this major might also take a broader array of courses in general business subjects, such as economics, finance, accounting, management and business law. With this background, you might work as a fashion editor, fashion advertising director, fashion event coordinator, retail manager, advertising copywriter, fashion buyer, or pattern maker—or, of course, a fashion designer.

Purchasing, Logistics and Supply Chain Management

To have a wider range of career opportunities, consider expanding your focus on fashion merchandising to the areas of purchasing, logistics and supply chain management. Generally, purchasing degree programs lean more toward the aspects of inventory management and purchasing strategy, while logistics and supply chain programs emphasize the analysis and coordination of production, warehousing, shipping, distribution and other aspects of the product life cycle.

Buyer, purchasing agent or manager, logistician, supply chain specialist and supply chain manager are a few of the job titles you might hold with this background. If you still want the option to pursue a career in fashion design, consider pairing this major with a minor in fashion design and tailoring your elective coursework and your internship experiences to focus on the fashion industry.

Graphic Design

Is it the design of clothing and other fashion items that appeals to you so much, or is it design in general? If the latter, consider opting for a graphic design major. Graphic design is a much larger field than fashion design, employing more than nine times as many American workers, according to the BLS. Although the job outlook for graphic designers is slower than average during the 2020 through 2030 decade, the field is still expected to add thousands more new jobs compared to the fashion design occupation.

Students of graphic design study all kinds of design principles and techniques, as well as the use of computer software to create images and visual representations of messages. Again, you could pair this major with a fashion design minor to keep your career options open.

Marketing

Without the right marketing, fashion designers’ creations might never make it into the hands of consumers. Fashion marketing is another area to consider if you have a passion for the fashion industry. Marketing involves consumer research into what people want to buy and how to best persuade them to purchase a product, as well as coming up with and coordinating the execution of marketing campaigns to boost sales and brand reputation.

If you, like most people, tend to think of fashion design purely in the context of the artistic components of the field, you have a lot to learn about the technical side and the business side of fashion design. 

what degree do you need to be a fashion designerIMAGE SOURCE: Pixabay, public domain.

What to Expect From a Career With a Degree in Fashion Design

A fashion designer must be familiar with current fashion trends as well as classic looks. These professionals need to figure out what clothing consumers will buy and develop these pieces from sketched designs into finished articles of clothing. This process includes not only drawing the initial designs but also figuring out how to make them a reality.

Fashion designers have a lot to consider, especially when the clothes they’re designing aren’t meant exclusively for the runway but rather for real-life wear. For example, you need to think about the cost of producing the item of clothing or accessory and how it compares to the amount of money people will be willing and able to spend on that item. You must also factor in the practicality of what you’re designing.

That’s not to say that people won’t wear an impractical shoe or outfit on occasion for the sake of fashion, but it’s still important to think about the purpose of the item you’re designing. Does anyone want a bathing suit made of the same down-filled fabric used to create puffer jackets or a heavy winter coat with sheer cutouts throughout the body and arms? The special stitches, embellishments, fabric choices and other details you use in your designs must align with what consumers want, or your designs won’t be profitable.

While many fashion designs still begin as hand-drawn sketches, they don’t stay that way. Today’s fashion designers are responsible for using computer programs to make visual representations of their designs and to modify these designs throughout the process until they arrive at a final product. Once the design is complete, the fashion designer needs to choose the details that will make the article of clothing unique. These details include the fabric, colors, patterns and embellishments, the BLS reported. Making physical prototypes or samples of the clothing helps the designer to fine-tune the designer. The fashion designer must develop the instructions that manufacturers will use to produce the apparel for retail sales.

Fashion designers made a median wage of $75,810 annually as of 2020, according to the BLS. Fashion design is one occupation in which the industry in which you work can make a big difference in pay, the BLS reported. The difference in median salary between the lowest paying and highest paying industry for fashion designers was nearly $15,000 per year.

The 9 percent of designers who worked in the motion picture and video industries—also known as costume designers—made the most, with a median wage of $86,240. Next most lucrative is the management of companies and enterprises industry, which employed 13 percent of fashion designers and paid a median wage of $79,580. The 6 percent of fashion designers who worked in apparel manufacturing reported a median salary of $75,120, while the median wage for the 25 percent of fashion designers employed in the apparel, piece goods and notions merchant wholesalers industry was $71,990.

Fashion design is a competitive field, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. The BLS predicted little to no job growth for fashion designers during the 2020 through 2030 decade, despite anticipating a 4 percent increase in opportunities for all art and design jobs and an overall 8 percent increase in jobs across all occupations. Still, as fashion designers in existing roles retire, advance into administrative positions with less design responsibility or otherwise move through or out of the occupation, there should be an average of 2,500 new job openings each year during this time, according to the BLS.

Generally, candidates with a bachelor’s-level fashion design degree, experience working in the industry and a portfolio that stands out from the crowd will have the best chances of breaking into the field of fashion design. With a four-year degree, some industry experience and a striking portfolio, you could take your first step into the world of fashion. Fashion designer is one creative career that won’t require you to be a starving artist – so go ahead and follow your passion.

The largest share of fashion designers in the United States—27 percent—is self-employed. However, launching a full-scale fashion design company requires a great deal of capital to pay for the textiles, notions, labor and the logistics of distribution, not to mention negotiating contracts with retailers to carry your clothing items. 

Additional Resources 

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