I’ve worked in the fashion business for more than twenty years and passionate to share my knowledge with fashion students. What does it take today to have the skills you need for a successful fashion design career?
Fashion is going through a huge transition, and its a very competitive world. It’s also the most amazing and dynamic industry.
Students are already looking ahead and looking for insights so it’s been a great pleasure to be invited to guest lecture in various fashion universities, such Kingston University, UEL, LCCA, and Edinburgh College of Art and also filmed by Southampton University.
Students are usually surprised, as they expect me to talk about design. However, I know that the creative training they receive is already outstanding. I explain that although creativity is very important, there are so many other aspects to do with being successful in the fashion business and a lot of it revolves around personal skills.
I take them through my many years of working with different businesses, from multi-million luxury companies to fast-growing online retailers, right down to startups, and the lessons I’ve learned along the way.
A huge part of succeeding in such different environments is actually quite simple. The design is about communication first and foremost. To communicate it well you have to have great personal skills – i.e. be punctual, speak clearly, present yourself well, act professionally. These are a vital component to a graduates future success. It certainly gets them thinking!
Also showing willingness and being thirsty for knowledge. I believe the biggest challenge is to make students think more like entrepreneurs, find solutions. Teach them what I call “creative resourcefulness”.
“My key message – if you want to enter the business it’s a given that you have real talent, a given that you are full of drive and passion. However, that’s only part of the toolkit that you need to succeed.”
Fashion found me at an early age. Drawing and designing by ten, I had my clothes selling in a local store by fifteen, and my an outfit on a catwalk by seventeen. Thankfully, my academic parents were liberal enough to let me follow that career path as they could see it was my future.
At the same time I was already naturally entrepreneurial, hence why I’ve always throughout my career, I’ve been interested equally in the creative parts as the commercial side. Over the year my peers used to avoid any involvement in sales, nor were that interested in results. I was however very intrigued. Indeed it’s this mindset, that has brought great success to the companies I’ve worked with.
Fundamentally, I think the problem with the fashion education system right now is that there is an overproduction of fashion students. When I was in college, it was the only degree course in the whole of Scotland, with only a few graduating with a fashion degree. Now there are thousands.
Although talented as designers, they not educated about the mechanics of the fashion business and many ill-equipped to find jobs after they have graduated. In addition to this, after years of looking at catwalk shows, their job prospects for the majority on leaving is, here in the UK, high street or suppliers.
There is very little chance for them to experience or learn the high-level skills that it takes to work in luxury brands. It’s what they’re being taught to aspire to yet there is no channel for them to progress. Many resort to setting up their own label, but without business knowledge, it’s a massive risk.
There has to be a solution and here are my thoughts:
1. Fashion business basics – the nitty gritty, really should be folded into fashion degree courses – brand positioning, range planning, costings, and margin, what it takes to make a profit.
2. Teach them the production process, and how to work on a critical path.
3. Manage expectations and teach then clearly the difference between design-led and retail high street brands, they are such very different structures and how design sits within them varies hugely.
4. Fully explain that with great creative vision, there are SO many options other than pure design.
• If you have a talent for editing a collection you might consider a career in merchandising
• If they have a great eye, organised and are good with numbers you could become a buyer
• If you are great at trends and can pull great silhouettes together perhaps a career as a visual merchandiser for retail or perhaps a stylist.
• If you are good at writing then why not consider a career in fashion marketing
• And with digital opening up so many new types of job, there is a huge need for online content such as for online stores such as Yoox/Net-a-porter who are always looking for young creative’s.
• If you are wonderful at pattern-cutting or have great technical skills you might go into production.
There are so many different types of jobs, all which benefit from a degree in fashion design but are not pure design.
5. Test them to think outside the box, push them to challenge the norm, challenge them to find an opportunity or niche. In other words to think more like an entrepreneur. And an entrepreneur with great design skills.
6. Exposure to more industry experience but to a wider range of businesses. Not just big corporates but more relevant to what the student would like to do. I know many colleges do this already and I’m a huge advocate of forging closer links with industry.
That’s why as fashion business Yulan Creative has always been conscious to forge links with colleges and committed to helping them gain hands-on experience. We even sponsored a student through the Royal College of Art. We offer work placements and design positions giving graduates them hands-on opportunities learn professional work practice of design-led fashion business.
The three things they are always shocked by are the wide variation of the work and skills that are required, how fast and organised they need to be, and just how complex and time-consuming and meticulous the whole development process is.
Needless to say when they move on they have a very different head on their shoulders. To my great pride, my designers have gone on to work successfully with luxury brands, Armani, Paul Smith, Mulberry, Alexander McQueen, Roland Mouret to name a few. I’ve remained in contact with them all and some have even returned to work with my business.
I urge fashion colleges to teach them not just to design, but to be open thinkers and be more entrepreneurial. Teach them key soft skills, and to get them more industry ready. The truth is there will only be a few singularly talented designers like Alexander McQueen that graduate out of the thousands every year that are trained.
For the other graduates truly looking for a future in fashion, if they are more willing, more open, to use their skills in a different way, they will understand the broader opportunities and be better equipped to embrace the new and exciting era of the fashion business.
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Joanne Yulan Jong a Creative Director, Fashion Writer, and Author of the bestselling book THE FASHION SWITCH ‘The new rules if the fashion business’. She has been invited to be a regular columnist for WWD magazine.