In this article
What does a fashion designer do?
A fashion designer is a creative and technical individual who designs and creates new and original clothing, fashion ranges and accessories. There are many different types of fashion designers, and they typically work in three main areas: high-street fashion, haute couture and ready-to-wear. They can also specialise in specific types of clothing, e.g. menswear, womenswear, sportswear, footwear and accessories. Therefore, what a fashion designer does will depend on the fashion they specialise in and where they work.
A fashion designer can work in various working environments, such as offices, design studios, workshops, manufacturing facilities or from home. They will carry out many tasks, including predicting, identifying and analysing trends, following design instructions/briefs, creating designs by hand (i.e. sketching) or with computer-aided design (CAD), producing mood boards, selecting suppliers, estimating costs, showcasing their work, etc.
A fashion designer’s main aim is to research and keep up to date with the latest fashion trends worldwide and predict what will be popular with consumers. Their designs should be original. They must also be careful not to plagiarise (imitate) other designers’ work. Overall, being a fashion designer is about designing unique, beautiful garments/accessories that are popular with consumers while building the designer’s reputation within the fashion industry.
Fashion designers can work alone as freelancers or as self-employed workers. They can also be employed and work with other colleagues, such as design team buyers, forecasters and production teams, e.g. sewers and tailors. They will also liaise with external stakeholders, including suppliers, manufacturers, customers, clients, models, retailers and other designers. They can work in different sized establishments, from small businesses, e.g. independent labels, to organisations with a few hundred employees, e.g. high-street retailers.
A fashion designer’s responsibilities will depend on many factors, including who they work for (employed or themselves), the market they are targeting and the area in which they work.
Some examples of their duties may include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Following and working to design instructions/briefs.
- Predicting, researching, identifying and analysing trends in fabrics, materials, colours and shapes, and keeping up to date with emerging trends.
- Creating designs by hand (i.e. sketching) or computer-aided design (CAD).
- Producing mood boards (a collection of images, photos, shapes, colours, notes, colour samples, fabrics and more that convey a visual concept and capture a mood).
- Sourcing inspiration from themes, trends, items or styles to create original designs.
- Planning and developing themed fashion ranges.
- Choosing the most appropriate materials and fabrics.
- Developing basic shapes (‘blocks’) through patterns.
- Estimating costs for materials and production.
- Identifying and choosing fabric and other material suppliers.
- Negotiating with suppliers and customers.
- Supervising fabric and material purchases and the making up of sample items.
- Overseeing production until completion and ensuring the product is of the required quality.
- Presenting designs to other business areas, e.g. marketing, finance and merchandising.
- Showcasing designs at fashion shows and other events.
Fashion designers may have to take on other tasks, e.g. cutting and sewing, if working alone or for smaller companies. In larger companies, they are likely to concentrate on designing.
A fashion designer can expect to work 40–42 hours a week, but they can do more or fewer hours depending on the requirements of their role and if they are self-employed. It can involve working unsociable hours, e.g. evenings, weekends and bank holidays, especially when meeting tight deadlines or attending appointments or events.
Fashion designers will usually travel frequently to meet with suppliers, manufacturers and customers, which can lengthen the working day. There are also opportunities to work away from home and overseas.
What to expect
There are many positives to being a fashion designer, especially if an individual has a passion for fashion and a creative flair. The role allows individuals to be innovators by experimenting and being creative with designs, almost like an artist. Designing beautiful garments, footwear or accessories that are popular with consumers, seeing the designs in stores and being worn, and getting recognised in the fashion industry can be an exciting, satisfying and rewarding experience.
Being a self-employed/freelance fashion designer and having an opportunity to be your own boss can be attractive, as it can give individuals the independence to take charge of their working day and overall career progression.
There is no shortage of fashion designing roles – jobs are available nationally and internationally, and individuals can choose to be employed, self-employed or freelance. An individual has the choice to work from anywhere.
Boredom will never be a problem for fashion designers, as their work is very varied and fast-paced, and they will interact with many people during their working day. The role can also involve extensive travel nationally and internationally. They may also be working in a design studio one day and being part of a fashion show the next.
Even though there are positives to being a fashion designer, there are challenges and cons, e.g.:
- Competition – the fashion industry can be very competitive, so individuals must be prepared to work hard to enrol on courses and get jobs. They must thoroughly research, keep up to date with trends and build their reputation. There is no guarantee of making it big in the industry, so if an individual is looking to make millions, they may be disappointed. However, respectable jobs with decent salaries are available for hard-working, ambitious and creative individuals.
- Physically and mentally demanding – fashion designers may have to work long hours to meet tight deadlines, including when attending shows or meeting suppliers/customers, so they must be able to juggle different demands. They may also face harsh criticism from difficult customers, which can be demoralising, distressing and stressful for some people. Being able to take criticism is essential.
- Computer/desk work – nowadays, fashion designers spend most of their working day at a computer screen or desk instead of doing a lot of hands-on work. Therefore, if individuals do not fancy sitting down at a computer, it is probably not a suitable role.
- Self-employment costs – if a fashion designer decides to be self-employed/freelance, they will have various costs that can quickly add up, e.g. tax and National Insurance. Freelancers are not guaranteed regular work, so there may be times when they are not earning, and they may need to supplement this with another job.
Every career choice has pros and cons, and prospective fashion designers must know what to expect before deciding whether it is for them. Dealing with harsh criticism and juggling different demands can be challenging and stressful. It is physically and mentally demanding, there is a lot of computer work, and the hours may be lengthy and unsociable. However, there are many positives too, and those who become fashion designers really enjoy their work, as it allows them to express their creativity and ideas.
When considering whether to be a fashion designer and the type of role, individuals should look at the pros and cons. They should also ensure they have the right personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.
Personal qualities needed to be a fashion designer
Some of the personal qualities a fashion designer requires will include (this list is not exhaustive):
- A passion and enthusiasm for fashion.
- Knowledge of design and current trends.
- Creativity, innovation and originality.
- An eye for colour, form, texture, shape and a feel for fabrics and materials.
- Commercially aware and business-minded.
- Communication skills, both written and verbal.
- Design skills, e.g. sketching and CAD.
- Technical skills, e.g. pattern cutting, sewing and tailoring.
- Thinking and reasoning skills.
- Organisational and time management skills.
- Interpersonal skills.
- Negotiating and influencing skills.
- Networking skills.
- Being thorough, accurate and having attention to detail.
- The ability to identify new ways of doing things.
- The ability to work to tight deadlines.
- The ability to be flexible and open to change.
- The ability to work well with others in a team and alone using their own initiative.
- The ability to work well with their hands.
- The ability to accept criticism.
- The ability to work well under pressure and remain confident and calm in stressful situations.
- The ability to use IT equipment, e.g. computers and hand-held devices.
There are many different ways to become a fashion designer, e.g. university or college qualification or enrolling on an apprenticeship.
Course levels – foundation degree, higher national diploma, undergraduate degree and postgraduate degree.
Foundation degree or higher national diploma (one or two A Levels or equivalent).
Undergraduate degree (two or three A Levels or equivalent).
Postgraduate degree (at least a 2:2 degree) and a supporting portfolio of practice.
Example courses – Fashion Degree, Fashion Design and Technology Degree, Fashion Design Degree, Fashion Design with a Foundation Year, Higher National Diploma in Art and Design (fashion) and Fashion Design Masters (MA). There are also courses in garment technology and textiles.
Course levels – level 2, and 3 courses and T levels.
Level 2 – two or more GCSEs at grades 9 to 3 (A* to D) or equivalent.
Level 3 and T Levels – four or five GCSEs at grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) or equivalent (including English and maths for a T Level).
Example courses –
Example courses – Level 2 Certificate in Fashion, Level 2 Art and Design (Fashion and Textiles), Level 2 Fashion, Business & Retail, Level 3 Fashion Design, Level 3 Fashion Design and Production and Level 3 Extended Diploma Fashion & Textiles.
T Level in Craft and Design starts in England schools and colleges from September 2023.
There is an apprenticeship route to becoming a fashion designer.
Intermediate level – some GCSEs, usually including English and Maths or equivalent.
Advanced level – five GCSEs at grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) or equivalent, including English and maths.
Further information on the Fashion Studio Assistant apprenticeship can be found on the British Fashion Council’s website. It lasts approximately 18 months.
On the job training and volunteering
Most employed fashion designer roles will require relevant qualifications and/or experience. However, there may be an opportunity to work as a junior or assistant fashion designer in workshops and studios and learn on the job by shadowing more experienced fashion designers. The fashion industry is very competitive, so qualifications in fashion design will help individuals stand out from others.
There are some fashion internship opportunities available, which usually require no experience. They can range from a few weeks to a few months and give individuals an insight into the industry. They can also help them meet people, which may result in paid work in the future. There is also an initiative, the National Saturday Club, run in partnership with the British Fashion Council, which introduces young people to the industry and teaches them valuable skills.
There is no substitute for practical experience. Volunteering can also help individuals understand what is involved in being a fashion designer and help them build their knowledge and skills. Individuals could volunteer with charities, such as the Fashion & Textile Children’s Trust (FTCT) or others in retail fashion or fashion sorting. There may also be opportunities to volunteer at fashion shows and events. There is information on volunteering and local opportunities on Do-IT, NCVO and Volunteering Matters.
Having any work experience relevant to fashion can be beneficial and can help an individual work towards becoming a fashion designer. Even amateur community courses covering different aspects of fashion designing can count, e.g. dressmaking and sewing, fabric design and textiles printing, and jewellery making.
Learning does not stop with experience or once someone becomes qualified. Attending relevant training courses and having additional certifications can help fashion designers enter the profession, enhance their employability and give them a competitive edge. Many colleges and accredited private training providers can provide relevant training courses.
Some examples of relevant courses that may be useful for fashion designers include:
- Computer-Aided Design (CAD) for fashion and textiles.
- Copyright and intellectual property.
- Sketching for fashion design.
- Customer service.
- IT, e.g. Photoshop and Illustrator.
- Business management.
- Social media.
- Time management.
- Mood board creation.
There are also courses in specific areas of fashion designing, for example:
- Upcycling fashion skills.
- Fashion drawing.
- Technical drawing for fashion.
- Fashion portfolio.
- Sustainable fashion.
- Patternmaking and garment construction.
- Professional sewing.
- Understanding fabrics.
Professional bodies and trade associations, such as the British Fashion Council, UK Fashion & Textile Association (UKFT), British Academy of Fashion Design, and Chartered Society of Designers (CSD) can also advise on reputable training courses. Some also provide events to help individuals become fashion designers, giving them the means to continue their professional development.
The type of training required will depend on what employers are looking for and the areas and products in which fashion designers specialise. It is worth looking at several job advertisements to identify the training required for specific fashion designer roles and specialist items. Jobs are on websites, such as GOV.UK find a job service, Indeed, LinkedIn, Drapers Jobs, FashionUnited, BoF Careers, RetailChoice.com and other job sites. Also, look at recruitment agencies, as they may offer fashion jobs.
If fashion designers have more relevant training and competence (skills, experience, talent and knowledge), it will open up more opportunities. Refresher training will also be required, as it keeps an individual’s knowledge and skills up to date.
There are additional responsibilities associated with being self-employed, for example:
- Having the correct insurances, i.e. public liability and home/car business. If employing anyone, employer’s liability insurance will be required.
- Registering with HMRC.
- Filing tax returns.
- Registering with the ICO to hold personal data (to comply with the Data Protection Act 2018 and the GDPR).
Further advice and guidance on being self-employed can be found on GOV.UK.
Creating an original fashion design portfolio will help individuals at course and job interviews, as it demonstrates their skills and willingness to succeed in the industry. In fact, some course providers and employers will ask to look at a portfolio as part of the selection process.
A portfolio may contain:
- Mood boards.
- Technical drawings.
- Completed garments/accessories.
It is important to build on a portfolio, as it showcases an individual’s work. There are short courses that can help individuals with their portfolios.
Where do fashion designers work?
Fashion designers can work in workshops, design studios, offices, manufacturing facilities, and at home or in rented studios. There may also be opportunities to travel nationally and internationally as part of the role and work at events, such as fashion shows. Therefore, where fashion designers work will depend on the company they work for or if they are self-employed.
Most fashion designing jobs are in cities such as London and large towns. Some fashion designers may be able to be based in more rural areas if they have an online business. However, travel is likely to be a requirement.
Fashion designers can work for (this list is not exhaustive):
- Part of a fashion house.
- High-street stores.
- Independent labels.
- Haute couture firms.
- An in-house retail design team.
- Clothing manufacturers.
- The entertainment industry, e.g. film and TV.
- Themselves (self-employed/freelance).
How much do fashion designers earn?
A fashion designer’s salary will depend on their skills, experience, geographical location (i.e. London supplement), specialist area, employer and whether they choose to be self-employed, for example (these figures are only a guide):
- Starting salaries – £14,000–£18,000 a year.
- Experienced fashion designers – £25,000–£30,000 a year.
- Senior fashion designers – £45,000–£50,000 a year.
Self-employed/freelance fashion designers will need to factor in various expenses when considering the salary, e.g. tax, National Insurance, travel, other insurances (business/liability), equipment, materials, etc.
As an apprentice, the salary will depend on an individual’s age and how long they have been in their apprenticeship. Apprentices must earn at least the current National Minimum Wage (NMW). Some employers will pay more than this. However, it will depend on the organisation and role on offer.
Types of fashion designing roles to specialise in
There are many different areas in which to specialise in fashion, such as:
- High-street – most designers work in high-street fashion, a commercial area heavily influenced by celebrity styles and seasonal trends. It is highly led by advertising and the media. Affordable clothing and accessories are mainly mass-manufactured overseas, e.g. Asia and Europe.
- Ready-to-wear (prêt-a-porter) – these are small numbers of highly sought-after ready-to-wear collections produced by established designers. They are usually expensive and presented at fashion week by fashion houses.
- Haute couture – designers work on high-end unique one-off garments that take a significant time to design and produce. These garment designs promote a brand and create a ‘look’ and are usually shown on catwalks.
A fashion designer can also choose to work on specific items, such as (this list is not exhaustive):
- Wedding clothing.
- Accessories, e.g. jewellery, bags, millinery (hats) and scarves.
There are also fashion designing roles in the entertainment industry. Individuals can design costumes for theatre, film and TV.
All different fashion designing roles will require differing knowledge, skills, experience, talents and qualities. However, all fashion designers must have creative and technical skills and be able to work to briefs, sketch, use CAD, research trends, produce samples, choose textiles and fabrics, work to tight deadlines, negotiate with suppliers and customers, etc. Any additional areas of expertise will depend on what a company is looking for (if employed) and the specialist areas a fashion designer wants to work in. Further training will usually be necessary for specialised areas.
If fashion designers do not carry out their roles correctly, it can cause issues for clients and customers. If designs/items are not as expected or there are delays, it can seriously affect businesses and a designer’s/company’s reputation. Therefore, fashion designers must be able to design garments and other items competently. They should also know the limits of their competency.
Fashion trends, technology, techniques and laws are regularly changing. Therefore, fashion designers must keep abreast with the latest developments and changes to comply with the law, e.g. copyright, and ensure they carry out their roles effectively and correctly. Continuing professional development (CPD) gives fashion designers the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with these changes and understand their responsibilities. It also helps them to stand out in a competitive industry and progress in their career.
Joining a professional body and association can help prospective and current fashion designers enhance their skills and overall career. The British Fashion Council, UK Fashion & Textile Association (UKFT), British Academy of Fashion Design, and Chartered Society of Designers (CSD) offer different levels of membership, CPD and access to industry contacts and networking events.
There is ample opportunity for career progression for fashion designers. With more qualifications, experience and recognition, they can become a senior designer, a head of a fashion department or a design/creative director. They can also decide to become a fashion designer in high-end fashion or move into marketing or buying. Alternatively, they may choose to become self-employed and start their own fashion business or freelance for other companies.
Knowledge, skills and experience from being a fashion designer can also lead to a career in different areas. For example, they could teach fashion design in schools, colleges, universities or for private course providers. They could also move into other industries, such as homeware, gifts and lifestyle, or fashion journalism.