There are as many different ways to embark upon a fashion career as there are styles of design. Ralph Lauren's Polo empire was founded on a small tie collection that he sold to Bloomingdales. Helmut Lang decided to open his own clothing store when he couldn't find a t-shirt that he liked. Michael Kors built up a network of customers by selling clothes in a trendy NYC boutique. However, most people find that the best foundation for a design career is to get a fine arts degree in fashion at a prestigious school. Besides teaching you the craft, a good school will also add credibility to your resum�. "We live in a brandname society, and having the name of a good school behind you really does help," says Carol Mongo, Director of the Fashion Department at Parsons School of Design in Paris.
There are a lot of colleges that have fashion programs, but only a handful has the kind of reputation that can really push your career. (See separate listings for addresses and web sites.) It's hard to enter these schools as competition is high, and they tend to be very selective. You apply by sending a portfolio of drawings of your designs. "We can't teach you how to be creative -- you have to bring your creativity to us and let us lead you on your way," says Carol Mongo. She recommends students to get some sewing experience before they apply. Drawing is also an important skill for a designer -- it is the way you communicate your ideas. In order to build an impressive portfolio it's a good idea to have some experience in sketching; taking art classes will help you understand form and proportion. But you don't have to be an expert drawer to get accepted to a school. "The most important quality that we look for in our students is that they are truly passionate and exuberant about fashion," says Mongo. "If you have wonderful ideas but can't draw, there are always ways to get around it. You could for example put your designs on a mannequin and take pictures of it."
Most fashion programs are three to four years long. During that time you will take fine arts classes and study drawing, color composition and form. You will also learn pattern making, draping and cutting techniques. One of the most important advantages of design schools is that they work really closely with the industry. Parsons, for example, have "designer critic projects" where successful designers like Donna Karan and Michael Kors work directly with the graduating students. Ambitious students also have the chance to win prestigious awards and grants, which bring them a lot of attention as well as financial support. One very important event is the fashion show at the end of the last semester, when graduating students show their collections. A lot of important people from the fashion industry attend these shows to scout new talent. It's also an opportunity to be really outrageous and get noticed by the media. Hussein Chalayan, for example, became instantly infamous when he showed rotting clothes that he had buried in his backyard for his graduation show at Saint Martins.
"Let's be realistic," says Carol Mongo at Parsons, "School's not for everyone. If you're just looking to get a job in the fashion industry -- not a career as a designer -- you probably don't need to go school." If you want to work as a seamstress or a patternmaker, the best thing is probably to apply for an internship at a fashion house and work your way up. However, there are many examples of famous designers who started out as interns with no formal training. For example, Dior's brightest new star, men's wear designer Hedi Slimane, had a degree in journalism when he started working with men's wear designer José Levy. Balenciaga's Nicolas Ghesquière is another example of a brilliantly successful designer who learned the jobs hands-on, as an assistant at Jean-Paul Gaultier. Usually, you apply for an internship by sending a portfolio to a fashion house you're interested in. But it's a good idea to call them up beforehand to see exactly what they need. It's also important to note that competition is fierce, and unless you have personal connections, it's very difficult to get an internship without an education. There are also designers, like Luella Bartley, who started their own business after working as stylists for several years, thus building an industry network as well as a good marketing sense.
Unfortunately, it's not enough for a designer to be creative; you also have to have some business sense. As fashion gets more and more corporate driven, it's important to be aware of the business climate and understanding the mechanics behind it. By religiously reading trade papers like "Women's Wear Daily" you will get a lot of valuable information. If you want to run your own company, you need to be extremely organized and learn at least the basics of economics. A lot of fashion schools are currently increasing business classes in their curriculum. "Our students have to be smart enough to know how to negotiate a contract, or to pick a business partner," says Carol Mongo. It's perhaps telling that many of the designers that are really successful today, like Calvin Klein or Tom Ford, are involved in every aspect of the business -- from licensing strategies to ad campaigns to actually designing the clothes.