How to Land a First Job In the High-Fashion World

by | March 10, 2009

As a teenager, Erin LaRose would spend hours gazing at fashion spreads in Seventeen and Cosmopolitan magazines -- and dreamed of one day working in the high-fashion world. While LaRose didn't enroll in a fashion school, she did fulfill her goal. Now an account executive at a public-relations agency, the 2002 Syracuse University graduate pitches story ideas to editors at those very publications and others about new clothing from apparel and lingerie makers.

Landing an entry-level job in this posh industry doesn't necessarily require a degree from a fashion school. There are numerous careers for graduates who study more traditional curriculums.

LaRose went to Syracuse's Newhouse School of Public Communications for her master's degree in public relations after earning a bachelor's degree in government from the University of Virginia. The 25-year-old learned of her job at Marina Maher Communications Inc. in New York City by cold-calling the firm, which largely concentrates on fashion and beauty accounts. In addition to wooing fashion editors, her duties include organizing product launches, preparing activity reports for clients and monitoring client-account budgets. LaRose earns about the annual average for graduates in entry-level jobs in public relations -- $31,739, according to a 2003 survey from National Association of Colleges and Employers in Bethlehem, Pa.

Job Shopping in High Fashion

High-fashion companies design original apparel and accessory lines, which are then made by manufacturers. To maintain the flow of business, they need graduates with degrees in traditional fields, says Marty Weizman, founder of FashionCareerCenter.com, an industry Web site that features job listings. Organizations that serve those companies -- manufacturers, law firms, public-relations agencies and others -- offer opportunities as well. In addition, entry-level jobs can be found at industry-related nonprofit groups and publications.

Here are a few examples of recent graduates who landed jobs in the high-fashion industry:

  • Lindsey Heller, 23, is an assistant production coordinator for Seventh on Sixth, a New York City-based organizer of the semiannual Mercedes Benz Fashion Week held in Manhattan and Los Angeles. She graduated from George Washington University in 2002 with a bachelor's degree in fine arts. Heller always admired the work of fashion designers and is now in constant contact with some of the world's most famous to schedule show slots, arrange payments and check that participants are properly insured. When it's show time, Heller works behind the runway as a liaison between the production crew and design-company staffs. She learned of the job by cold-calling the company.

  • At Tommy Hilfiger Corp.'s U.S. headquarters in Manhattan, assistant product manager Kristen Gullestad oversees the production flow of the design company's woven pants for young women. The 22-year-old graduated in 2003 with a bachelor's degree in economics from Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., and wanted to apply her major to a fun field. She found her job through a family friend who's a senior executive at the company and now helps schedule and track the clothing line's production, beginning with samples made overseas. When they arrive in the U.S., they're shown to retailers, who select ones they want. Next, fabric specialists analyze the samples to determine if the fabrics need special treatment. The items then are modeled for sizing and if alterations are needed, they're shipped back to the manufacturer for re-tailoring. Approved items go into mass production. Gullestad earns an annual salary of between $30,000 and $35,000.

  • Twenty-three-year-old Natalie Zmuda takes notes from runway sidelines and trade shows to report on footwear trends for the weekly trade newspaper Footwear News. The 2002 Ohio University graduate applies the writing and research skills she developed as a magazine-journalism major to her editorial-assistant job in Manhattan. She also assists senior editors with various editorial duties. Zmuda wanted to write for a professional audience and targeted fashion because she likes the industry. (Journalism majors earn an average annual starting salary of $27,646, according to the 2003 NACE survey.)

  • Christina Payne, 22, works as an advertising and promotions assistant at Vendura, a jewelry-design company based in New York. She earned a bachelor's degree in public relations in 2002 from the University of Rhode Island and landed the job through a networking tip. Her interest in fashion was sparked during college when she worked as a part-time sales associate at clothing retailer Banana Republic. Payne arranges for fashion-magazine editors to borrow the firm's pricey jewelry for photo shoots. This involves filling out insurance and payment forms and scheduling shipments. Payne also does event planning for Vendura and recently organized a dinner where the firm's jewelry was showcased to celebrate the 150th birthday of New York's Central Park. She earns an annual salary of between $30,000 and $35,000.

Small Companies; Many Applicants

Most high-fashion companies are small with annual sales in the $10 million to $50 million range, says Weizman. Large companies such as Liz Claiborne and Ralph Lauren are the exception, he adds. This means that most firms have small staffs, so landing a job may be challenging, especially in a cost-conscious economy.

Another drawback: Most U.S. high-fashion companies are located in New York City, with a few in Los Angeles, says Diane Clehane, spokesperson for Fashion Group International, a New York City-based nonprofit for professionals in the textile, apparel, accessories and home-dicor industries. Graduates who don't want to relocate to those cities may have better luck finding new positions at retail companies that create their own lines, such as Macy's or American Eagle Outfitters Inc., for example.

High-fashion companies pay relatively low salaries because the industry attracts so many applicants, but the perks are good, say recent graduates. They add that networking and persistence are key to landing a first job in the high-fashion world.

Consider Payne's job search. Immediately after college, she started working at a large public-relations (PR) agency in Manhattan. However, she still sought a public-relations position at a fashion-design firm. "I wanted to work in-house so I could work for one client as opposed to juggling various accounts," she says. Payne began networking with professionals she'd met from her internship experiences at fashion companies through e-mails, phone calls and lunch dates. One contact, a free-lance publicist, tipped her off to a job opening at Verdura and agreed to forward her resume to the firm's public-relations director.

A few days later Payne called the director to make sure she'd received her resume and offered to come in for an interview. She agreed to the meeting, but when Payne hadn't heard anything from her a week later, she called again. The director then invited Payne to interview with her a second time, which led to a third interview with Verdura's president the following day. Payne was offered the job that afternoon.

Other Hints

While internships are great for gathering networking contacts, they also can help enhance a resume. During her tenure at George Washington University, Heller completed five internships at fashion-design firms, public-relations agencies and fashion magazines, and, after graduating, she did a sixth. She landed them by e-mailing her resume to these companies and making follow-up phone calls. Heller used the same strategy to win her position at Seventh on Sixth.

But interning is so common for graduates pursuing careers in high fashion that it's essential to find other ways to set yourself apart from the competition, says LaRose. To land her public-relations job, she sent the firm's hiring manager an e-mail that demonstrated she'd done extensive research on the company in addition to interning at several public-relations firms.

Dressing as though you've just walked off the runway for fashion-company interviews isn't necessary, says Clehane. For example, if you're interviewing at Betsey Johnson, a designer known for her risqui clothing styles, "it's not a good idea to show up in a bustier and leather skirt," she says. "You want to look professional in a more conventional sense." Similarly, if you're interviewing at Giorgio Armani, "you don't need to bankrupt yourself by buying an Armani suit," she adds.

Filed Under: Job Search


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