Ask around the fashion industry and you'll find people who dreamed of working there all their lives and people who stumbled into their positions by chance. One associate designer maintains, "To get into the creative end of the industry, you need a proper education. You need to study design. Technical people such as buyers and inventory planners, on the other hand, are more likely to have 'fallen' into their jobs." No matter how they got there, however, fashion professionals admit that having industry contacts is often more important than having talent. "To find a job," reveals an employee from Federated, "it's important to use the people you know. I found my first job through contacts, the next by sending an exploratory note and the third was luck -- I got it out of a newspaper advertisement. I'd say my first job was the easiest to find."
While many people -- and fashion students in particular -- might feel dismayed by this need to know the "right people," one insider says worry is unnecessary. "Students often think they cannot make connections while confined within college walls," says a career counselor from a top New York fashion school. "This is a myth. Connections is just another word for relationships. You have relationships with other students, professors, career counselors, the school administration and many others. At fashion schools, most of the teachers have previous experience in the fashion industry." What does that mean? An acquaintance at your school or workplace might already have valuable job information! It all comes down to networking. To find the right fashion job for you, it is necessary to discuss your job search with the people you know -- and with the people they know. Ask questions, inquire about openings, and request informational interviews. Fashion students should attend as many college-sponsored events as possible and seek relevant internships. After a fashion internship has ended, they should keep in touch with their managers. A fashion career counselor confirms, "Those who serve as intern advisors often grow very fond of their interns. They want to know that you've graduated; they want to help and advise you."
Most fashion internships are in design, marketing, and production -- and unpaid. Like the entertainment industry, actual education isn't as important as work experience. You will need some education to get in the door, but after that your resume or connections will get you farther. If you want to go into fashion or retail, get an internship or even a part-time job in sales or merchandising to get started. Each experience on your resume will help land a better internship or full-time job the next time. Although some internships are posted in the trade papers (check the Publications section), many internship searches are self-directed because many are never publicized. If the position is at a popular company or designer, the internship will never be posted since everyone will want it on his or her resume.
Make sure to express your desire to learn and help the company -- even if you think your level of responsibility is not as high as you would like. Once you are in the company, you can find out about other positions before they may even be open. Build your resume, and you can get the interviews and introductions. Of course, your initial job in the fashion industry may not pay well. There are several options here -- you work to get the experience or to learn enough to start your own business. If you are thinking of the latter, take any experience you can. It will pay off later.
While different fashion positions require different skills, most insiders agree that the industry overall calls for "initiative, patience and a strong degree of independence." One insider adds, "It's also great to have a boss who is going to be a good mentor and who will push you." Despite the glamour, prestige and job satisfaction, insiders have their gripes. "It's too competitive -- both within the office and within the industry as a whole," says one informant. "People are sometimes unethical. For example, they might give you a commitment, but then drop the ball. Sometimes, clients cancel orders and I end up losing thousands of dollars -- in one day." Fashion insiders toil long, strenuous hours. "It's a huge time commitment," offers another contact in buying. "I often start early and stay late -- and I also travel a good part of the time. You lose perspective after so many hours." A different buyer adds, " I often spend 12 hours at work and eat lunch at my desk. Burnout. There's a lot of burnout."
Getting the job, acing the interview
There are two schools of thought in regard to moving up the fashion ranks. Some insiders swear that it's necessary to switch companies in order to climb. According to one knowing source, "Many companies have non-mobile positions, where employees are "pegged" in certain roles. In other words, if you're an assistant, everyone will always perceive you as an assistant." Others contend that it's best to stay put. "To move up the ranks, you have to be a hard worker, know the right people or lie on your resume," says one informant. "I was a hard worker. And I had a great boss who served as my mentor. By staying right where I was, I ended up moving up into key roles."
Once a job interview has been arranged, candidates should do extensive research on the company. Examine company literature and read the company web site. Browse through a periodical guide for the most recent articles on company developments. "Go to the library of a fashion school," advises another insider. "Ask someone to help you if you don't know how to find your information. In order for you to carry on a dialogue with the employer, you must know exactly how they work and what they do." Last, and perhaps most importantly, go shop the brand or retailer. You should know what type of products the company currently sells and carries. Also research the company's biggest competitors. General knowledge of key fashion players is also important. Insiders recommend brushing up on your mental database of trendsetters: Prada, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Alexander McQueen and Ralph Lauren, among others.
On the big day, establish a rapport with the person who is interviewing you. "You can't be a bump on a log answering questions, even if you have a great resume and portfolio. Let your personality show through, because the interview is also about fit. Also," she continues, "don't ask about salary -- at least, not on the first round." Ask intelligent questions about the company, position and even the interviewer's experience. Even if you lack experience in a particular area, an employer may hire you if he or she thinks you are quick and willing to learn.
As for dress code, insiders recommend careful consideration. Employers will certainly notice what interviewees wear and how they wear it. "As soon as they catch a glimpse of you, they make their decision," admonishes one theatrical designer. And while this scenario might not always hold true, it is a good idea to dress well. "Nothing radical," says another insider. "Unless you're a designer and they're looking for strange and futuristic looks." Another good tip: It's generally better to be slightly overdressed than underdressed.