Students interested in fashion design often don’t realize the myriad positions available to them within the fashion industry. While programs like “Project Runway” have popularized clothing design, there are many additional exciting careers awaiting fashion design graduates. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2012 there were over 22,000 professionals working as fashion designers receiving a median salary of nearly $63,000 annually. Those in the top 10 percent of the pay scale earned over $126,000 per year.
With so many different programs and concentrations, finding the right fashion school can seem daunting. Our guide will provide the inside scoop on the types of degrees available, curriculum options, specializations, possible careers, what to look for in a great school and more.
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Fashion Design Snapshots
The Fashion Institute of Technology has also played a significant role in producing some of the best: past students you may have heard of (or worn their designs) include Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, Nanette Lepore, and Carolina Herrera.
Wondering where your favorite designers completed their educations in fashion? Parsons New School of Design has been turning out iconic designers since long before Tim Gunn started telling the designers to “Make it work.” Notable alumni include J.Crew darling Jenna Lyons, Marc Jacobs, Alexander Wang, Jason Wu, Donna Karan and Prabal Gurung.
Not all designers entered the world with plans to break the fashion mold: Miuccia Prada started out as a mime artist before launching her iconic line of handbags. Vera Wang was a competitive figure skater before moving into the editorial side of fashion. She started her design career as a fashion director for Ralph Lauren before launching her own brand.
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Fashion Design Schools and Programs
Fashion designers are visionary individuals who combine their creative skills with business acumen to design and create garments, footwear and accessories. Whether working as merchandisers, designers, buyers or assistants, individuals with the skills, knowledge and passion necessary to succeed in this field have fascinating and fulfilling careers. The rapid nature of the industry demands professionals who thrive under pressure and can be fluid in the midst of constant change.
If this sounds appealing, undertaking a fashion design degree is often the first step of breaking into the industry. It is important to select a curriculum designed to build both the technical and creative skills needed; additionally, graduates who actively chase opportunities outside the classroom will be competitive candidates for design firms upon graduation. The majority of fashion schools tend to be in New York or California, but numerous options exist throughout the U.S. and further abroad.
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Vocational fashion schools are typically divided into two forms: high schools and adult learning centers. Vocational high schools emphasize teaching students a trade alongside a core curriculum while adult learning vocational schools place sole emphasis on the trade of interest. At some vocational schools, students can elect to take general education courses to supplement their fashion design certification, resulting in an associate degree. Fashion design programs at vocational schools are often delivered in an immersion style, allowing students concentrated study of a single subject during each term block. Certificates can be completed in two years and cover a range of topics including construction, textile manufacturing, patternmaking, draping and apparel computer systems. Graduates of vocational programs enjoy careers as assistant designers, production managers, pattern makers, technical designers and more.
Students choosing to study fashion design at an art school have the unique opportunity of being completely surrounded by fellow artists, no matter the medium. The atmosphere is highly creative and many students thrive on the inventive energy. Conversely, competition can be tougher as everyone is working towards the same goals. While there is still a general education component, it is very focused on liberal arts and a higher number of hours are devoted to fashion design courses. Many internship and experiential learning opportunities run alongside the coursework. While classes offered are similar to those in traditional university settings, learning tends to be more focused and in depth.
Many community colleges offer Associate in Applied Science degrees in fashion design with a variety of concentrations available. Popular specializations include fashion merchandising, design and retailing. Core courses begin with basics such as clothing construction, design, patternmaking and using design technology before moving into advanced topics on apparel production and how to design collections. Some programs will require an internship component as the culminating project, allowing students to select a designer or fashion company within their area of interest. Graduates find work in a variety of positions, including as designers, fashion journalists, buyers, patternmakers and tailors. Most programs can be completed in two years of full-time study.
In contrast to attending an art school for fashion design, students looking to study this degree but seeking a traditional college experience should consider undertaking a program at a four-year institution. Typically, degrees are offered as a BA or BFA, with a strong liberal arts component acting as a foundation to degree specific courses. Most programs will require an internship component; additionally, given the typically larger-scale of universities, most will have study abroad options in a variety of fashion centers such as Paris, Milan or Tokyo. Aside from independent design work, students holding a bachelor’s level fashion design degree are qualified to pursue careers as technical designers, fashion merchandisers and assistant or associate fashion designers.
In addition to the options listed above, there are a few institutions devoted exclusively to training future fashion designers. On the East Coast, New York boasts the Fashion Institute of Technology. Aside from offering programs in fashion design and related topics, FIT also provides students a larger understanding of the industry by incorporating courses in visual arts, textiles, business skills and marketing.
On the West Coast, Los Angeles has the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. Multiple fashion-related programs are available, including costume design, merchandising, footwear design and jewelry design.
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College-bound students with a flair for style and a desire to turn their passion into a career may consider enrolling in a fashion design program. A quality online fashion design school will teach students to create apparel that meets the expectations of constantly evolving trends. To help students find the right school, we analyzed each fashion design school and college in the country based on our methodology to compile this list of the best options. Explore the top fashion design schools and colleges.
At Ursuline College, students interested in pursuing a bachelor’s degree in fashion will join a nurturing community of peers and faculty members that will help to facilitate student artistic advancement and career success. Although progressing through a degree program can be time consuming, students will be able to take control of their schedule by utilizing Ursuline College’s online classes; these courses are beneficial to students who are living out of state, students who have families to take care of, and students who are employed full time. Financial aid packages in the form of scholarships and grants also help to alleviate the stress that might accompany earning a college degree.
At Mount Mary University, students looking to pursue a bachelor’s degree in fashion design will be given the chance to tailor their program to best fit their career aspirations. As this program encourages students to explore all aspects of their creativity, it is taught by faculty members who have taken their own creativity and attained successful careers in the fashion industry. Several classes in this program—as well as numerous Mount Mary programs—can be completed through a combination of online and in-person courses. Online learners will find that they will achieve equal levels of success as their traditional-learning peers, but without the stress that accompanies trying to find time to attend in-person classes.
St. Catherine University prepares its students to enter the competitive field of fashion design with its bachelor’s degree program in apparel design. Students enrolled in St. Catherine’s fashion courses will learn both basic and advanced techniques of creative clothing design, as well as manufacturing techniques that will help to guarantee they are successful in their pursuits. Several students may face time constraints when looking to enroll in a college program; if this is the case, they may wish to consider learning in an online format. In addition to the benefit of flexible scheduling, online students will also be able to approach their schoolwork in a timeframe that best fits their daily routine.
The University of Delaware offers two bachelor’s programs that prepare students for entry into the fashion industry: a bachelor of science in apparel design and a bachelor of science in fashion merchandising. By utilizing the curriculum provided in these programs, students will receive a competitive edge in their post-graduate job hunting. The faculty in charge of these programs have each worked in the fashion industry for several years, ensuring students will be receiving the most useful knowledge possible. Class sizes at UDEL are typically small, allowing students to enjoy a personalized academic experience without feeling like they're falling behind.
Santa Fe Community College offers multiple learning opportunities for students interested in pursuing a career in fashion; students interested in continuing their learning at a four-year school may be interested in considering their certificate in fashion design. Students in this program will learn the foundation principles for fashion design and entrepreneurship necessary to succeed in their competitive future careers. Online courses are available for students interested in reducing scheduling conflicts. These online courses contain the same quality information administered through traditional learning, and are taught by the same experienced faculty members. Students will be able to organize their academic plans with academic advisement and career counseling services.
Baltimore City Community College offers a two-year associate of applied science degree in fashion design that prepares students for immediate entry into the fashion industry after graduation. Curriculum ranges from design principles to business management techniques, as well as an interwoven set of general education courses that provide students with a solid educational foundation for their future pursuits. As is the case with several of the programs offered at BCCC, students will be able to satisfy their curricular requirements through either in-person or online courses. Online learning at BCCC is characterized by convenient and accessible course material that allows students to develop personal initiative and time management skills.
Students who express an interest in pursuing a career in fashion, but also have interests in the dramatic arts, may benefit from pursuing an associate of arts degree in fashion studies with an emphasis in fashion design assistantship at Santa Rosa Junior College. As this program falls under Santa Rosa’s broader umbrella of theatre arts degrees, students will be able to prepare for entry into a four-year institution to pursue a bachelor’s degree that will lead towards a career in either fashion or the dramatic arts. Santa Rosa also provides its students with the chance to do their learning from home with a wide variety of online courses.
It is often the case that one of the most beneficial qualities of an educational program is the academic community that is developed by like minded individuals: such a community can be found when studying to earn an associate of applied science degree in fashion merchandising and design at Johnson County Community College. Students will be instructed by faculty members who have already accomplished several years of on-the-job experience and hope to help their pupils to attain similar goals. These same faculty members are also put in charge of providing course material through online classes, allowing student to work through their program at a rate that best fits their academic needs.
The world of fashion is a highly competitive environment. One way students can make themselves stand out is by ensuring the fashion school they choose has the right elements for success. Here are a few things to look out for:
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The National Association of Schools of Art & Design (NASAD) will accredit a good fashion design program. Employers will know which schools are and are not accredited, so selecting one with proper certification is of utmost importance.
Ask any professional in the fashion industry and they will tell you it’s not enough to simply design beautiful pieces: Graduates need to have a solid understanding of business and communication skills to get noticed. Look through degree curricula to see if these skills are taught alongside core design topics.
Work Experience Opportunities
The fashion industry is all about paying your dues; most entry-level positions require 2-3 years of experience, meaning students need to be taking advantage of internships, assistantships and work experience programs while in school to be competitive for positions upon graduation.
A great design program will hold student fashion shows, attracting the attention of local media and industry insiders. Making it as a designer means getting noticed for your creations, so ensure potential programs offer this avenue of exposure.
It may seem obvious, but take time to research program alumni. They don’t necessarily have to be internationally recognized, but how many graduates are actually working in the industry? Understanding this data will help ascertain if the education they received at that institution successfully propelled them into the field of fashion.
Fashion Design Degrees and Certificates
Associate degrees are an excellent option for those who wish to work as design assistants or retail professionals and provide a thorough review of design fundamentals. Bachelor’s degrees will allow students to claim entry-level roles in the industry such as merchandisers, buyers, junior visual merchandisers or editorial assistants. Professionals who already have successful careers in fashion typically undertake master’s level degrees to either concentrate their knowledge on a specific area or to become more competitive for managerial roles in design firms. This is also an attractive option for those seeking to move towards an academic career. While no doctorate program in fashion design currently exists, complementary programs such as apparel design are offered at a few institutions.
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FASHION DESIGN CERTIFICATES
A variety of options are offer for certificates in fashion design. Whether your goal is to learn the basics of fashion or learn about a specific area, programs exist.
A number of institutions offer certificates for students seeking to learn the fundamentals of fashion design. Many of these will only require a high-school diploma or GED, making them an appealing alternative to full degrees. Certificates of this depth are also applicable to professionals from other industries looking to change careers. These can typically be completed in two years of full-time study. Courses could include sewing fundamentals, figure drawing, patternmaking, construction, embellishments and silhouettes.
For students with prior education or experience in fashion design, these programs offer focused study in a specialized topic. Certificates in areas such as haute couture, ladies tailoring or children’s wear will often require students either have pre-existing education in design or that foundation courses be taken prior to admittance. The length of these programs range from three months to two years depending on the scope and intensity of study.
Some of the certificates relating to fashion design available to interested candidates include:
This certification will outfit students to produce visually stunning styled pieces ready for store windows or photo shoots. Courses include styling tricks of the trade, fundamentals of fit, working with still life, hand sewing and in-depth fashion show studies.
Students with a flair for flashy headwear will enjoy this certificate focused on developing skills for the creation of fashion-forward hats and head accessories. Studies include learning about fabrics and other materials, construction, special occasion headwear and seasonal wear.
GRAPHIC DESIGN IN FASHION
Understanding how to use design-specific technology is crucially important in the fashion industry; students undertaking this course will learn how to use the software most often associated with design including Microsoft Excel, Illustrator, Photoshop, Kaledo, WebPDM and NedGraphics.
A passion for fashion doesn’t always translate into a desire to design pieces. For students who love the industry but want to work on the organizational side, the fashion business certificate will develop skills in finance, marketing, retailing and information technology specific to the fashion industry.
FASHION DESIGN ASSOCIATE DEGREES
Lots of interesting options exist for students looking to pursue fashion design at the associate degree level. Typically offered as an Associate of Fine Arts or an Associate of Applied Science, these programs attract many professionals who already have a college background and are seeking a career change. Most programs are 32-36 credit hours, can be completed in 1-2 years and do not require any prerequisites. Given the immersive nature of associate programs, classes are similar to those at bachelor’s level are but exclude a general education focus. Some of these could include:
Focused on equipping students with essentials of construction, this course covers principles of scale, sketching, draping and construction of tailored garments.
Color is analyzed from every perspective during this class; students will come to understand the cultural, social and psychological implications associated with colors. Specific theoretical frameworks are taught, including the illusion of transparency, contrast and patterns.
The entire process of creating a garment is reviewed in this course; from cutting to construction and fitting to finishing, students will have an understanding of the full development. They will also be immersed in learning how to use industrial sewing machinery and selecting the appropriate types of fabrics.
PATTERNMAKING AND CONSTRUCTION
Offered as beginner and advanced classes throughout the degree, this course teaches students about both flat pattern design and two-dimensional methods of garment design. Concepts such as slash-and-spread and pivot techniques will be reviewed and students will likely have project requirements relating to proper form and fit.
FASHION DESIGN BACHELOR’S DEGREES
Two options exist for fashion design degrees at this level. While a Bachelor of Arts will emphasize a liberal arts underpinning supported by studio practice, a Bachelor of Fine Arts will require a creative thesis project such as designing a collection. While most schools do not have prerequisites at this level, demonstrable interest in fashion or design will help potential candidates stand out for competitive programs. Internships are a vital component of most degrees and will give students hands-on experience and networking opportunities. Study abroad options are also sometimes available in international cities of fashion. Core classes generally build upon basic design and patternmaking skills learned in the first two years before moving on to more advanced topics. Programs are typically completed in four years of full-time study. A sampling of popular courses is given below.
INTRODUCTION TO FASHION TECHNOLOGY
Students will learn the basis of design software used within the fashion industry, including the use of bitmap and vector tools. In addition to skills in digital drawing, topics on industry expectations will be covered.
Provides an overview of techniques, including patternmaking, draping, sizing and sewing a complete project.
HISTORY OF COSTUME
Usually offered in survey format, the course reviews costumes throughout the ages, touching on moments of history ranging from the Ancient Greeks and Shakespeare to modern day theatre and film designs.
This course introduces concepts of proportion, silhouettes, body types, movement and detailing while exposing students to varied forms of mediums. Emphasis is placed on both traditional drawing techniques and digital methods.
FASHION DESIGN MASTER’S DEGREES
Master’s degrees in fashion design prepare graduates to move from assistants to primary designers, buyers, merchandisers and more. Most programs do not have fashion-related prerequisites or admissions criteria but more competitive departments may require a portfolio. Hours required for completion range between 36-42 hours depending on the program and the student’s choice of capstone project. Hands-on practice in a structured environment forms an important component of master’s degrees in fashion design and nearly all will require some form of field experience such as an internship, assistantship or other work experience. Core courses will involve fashion history, drawing, materials, silhouettes, tailoring, draping and other specialized topics. Some of the master’s level courses students could expect to take include:
FASHION BUYING & MERCHANDISING
Gives students an understanding of the processes, operations and best practices in the retail arena; topics could include inventory management, seasonal planning, pricing schemes, markdown theory, and understanding profitability.
Introduces students to the scholarly study of fashion as pieces of history and culture; students will engage in discussions on how fashion has informed and shaped generational change and examine how their own designs fit into (or break) the mold of current trends.
ENTREPRENEURIAL STUDIES IN FASHION
A key course for those aspiring to have their own brand, this course prepares students to conceptualize and plan for starting a line and typically includes the development of a comprehensive business plan.
TEXTILES & MATERIALS DESIGN
This course is often divided into lecture and studio practice portions, examining the history and concept of materials in design and allowing students to learn about material creation techniques. Common skills acquired during this course include weaving, knitting, crocheting and printing and will involve both traditional and digital methods.
FASHION DESIGN PHD OR DUAL DEGREES
While PhD programs specifically in fashion design do not currently exist, several similar options are available. Students seeking to pursue a fashion education at the doctoral level should research programs in apparel design, textile and apparel management or apparel science. Do note that, given the level of hands-on design and development work required of these degrees, it could be hard to find a program offered fully online.
Fashion Design Toolbox/Checklist
What to look for
In addition to the expected skills of sketching, draping, silhouette design, garment construction and sewing, interested students should seek out programs offering a design curriculum balanced with courses in business, finance, communication and other practical skills that will help them market themselves and their designs.
Increasingly, conceptual design is done via digital platforms. It is imperative for graduates to have a firm grasp on the common software used within the industry. Some of these include Microsoft Excel, Illustrator, Photoshop, Kaledo, WebPDM and NedGraphics.
Internships and experiential learning play a crucial role in fashion design education; as most entry-level positions will look for at least two years of work experience, students should actively seek out any and all opportunities outside the classroom.
Undertaking a certificate in fashion design related-topics can serve two purposes. For students looking to learn the basics of design, a fundamental design certification can introduce them to all the baseline skills necessary. Alternatively, professionals already working in the industry could take advantage of an advanced certificate to build their skills in a concentration.
Skills & Personality
While it is a given that all designers have a creative streak, they also need to be able to communicate. Whether working with investors, design assistants, photographers, stylists, casting agents or merchandisers, designers must be able to communicate their vision and execution plan in order to be successful. Determination is also vital; new designers will be expected to pay their dues and many hone their craft for years before achieving recognition. Students considering this career must be passionate about fashion and prepared to work hard doing what they truly love.
Fashion Design Specializations
No two days in the life of a fashion designer are ever the same; the fast-paced nature of the industry means designers are expected to think on their feet and adapt quickly. One minute they could be sketching out a new design and the next they could be handling a shipping crisis. For students identifying a specific area of the industry appealing most to them, numerous concentrations are offered to help them excel in their chosen field.
For those who love fashion but want to work on the business side, a concentration in merchandising prepares students to be high-powered buyers, visual merchandisers, fashion show coordinators, stylists or product developers and managers. Students will learn the basic concepts associated with clothing design and manufacturing alongside core courses, allowing them to be versatile and indispensable fashion professionals.
Students interested in outfitting the future generations should consider a concentration in children’s wear. After undertaking core design courses common to general fashion design programs, students will specialize their skills in children’s apparel through courses on designing for children, understanding common children’s fabrics and children’s wear licensing.
For students with a passion for fashion who also love theatre and film, a costume design concentration will allow them to marry their interests into a fulfilling and exciting career as a costume designer. In addition to core design classes, students undertake interdisciplinary courses on topics such as acting, movement of actors, history of costume, set and lighting design and interpreting genres.
Jamie Atlas, the Dean of the Fashion Design program at O’More College of Design
1. What should potential students be aware of before applying to a fashion design program?
Project Runway does not provide a realistic look into an accredited fashion design program or the detailed and meticulous process of design. The work is rigorous and far from glamorous. However, student designers do not mind the intensive projects and workload because it is a progression leading to a successful career in the industry they love.
2. What are common traits of designers who have achieved success?
Successful fashion designers that include but are not limited to Ralph Lauren, Billy Reid, Vera Wang, Tory Burch, Michael Kors and Nanette Lepore are excellent communicators and businessmen and women. Each of them found a niche and understood the importance of targeting that market. Accomplished designers are competitive and do not take no for an answer.
3. What can potential students and young designers do to make themselves competitive?
Focus on communication skills and take as many business courses and/or workshops in entrepreneurship, financial management, manufacturing, sourcing, branding, marketing and social media. In addition, intern with a variety of large and small businesses. Entry-level positions in the industry look for 2-3 years of experience, and internships can provide that experience.
4. What advice do you have for those considering a career change into the fashion industry?
It is never too late. Typically the strongest students and graduates made a career change or decided to pursue a fashion design degree while working towards a different degree. It is important to love what you do, and if you can make money doing something you love, it is well worth the extra time working towards that goal.
5. What should students expect when enrolling in a fashion design program, both in terms of what will be expected of them and what they can hope to gain?
An accredited fashion design program is a demanding degree that will require a lot of sleepless night working on projects, but students loving what they are working towards beyond graduation enjoy and take in every minute of learning.
After Fashion Design School: What’s Next
The fashion industry is known for being a highly competitive environment; graduates are expected to gain hands-on experience during their studies and should take advantage of any internship or assistantship opportunities available. Upon graduation, even entry-level positions will require at least two years of experience. Job titles available to new graduates include junior visual merchandiser, assistant buyer, editorial assistant or design assistant.
Above all, graduates trying to break into the industry should be extremely passionate about the field, dedicated to working hard, prepared to work long and unsociable hours, and understand that it could take a number of years before they are in their dream position.
The types of employers graduates could find themselves working for are wide ranging. Some of the most popular include stylists, photographers, designers, casting agents, textile manufacturers, retailers, costumers or a variety of publication outlets.
Use technology and sketching to create designs for clothing and accessories. Fashion designers are able to follow fashion trends and even forecast future fashion trends. They should understand a variety of fabrics and how they work as clothing. They may specialize in on facet of clothing such as costuming, children’s wear, handbags and shoes, and more.
Fashion writers may write about fashion and the fashion world for fashion magazines, blogs and online publications. They may be required to travel to cover designer collections and fashion shows. They have knowledge of fashion and strong research skills.
Keep abreast of the latest fashion trends and anticipate future trends, have connections and insight into the fashion world, understand the history of fashion, and understand business principals as well. They are able to combine those skills to discern what fashions should be obtained for sale in their organization or company. They should understand textiles and fabric and understand how these aspects of fashion appeal to customers, along with overall design.
Advice from A Fashion Designer
“You will never get bored with fashion design. The industry is fast-paced and never stops.”
Jamie Atlas, Dean of Fashion Design at O’More College of Design
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