When I was a little kid, being a fashion designer seemed comparable to being a Hollywood actress – something that isn’t very practical to pursue and the chances of making it are slim to none.
So I stuck with sewing as a hobby and made my own clothes to express my creativity. I loved combining different textiles, mismatching prints and patterns to create unique looks, and re-mixing vintage styles.
High school came and went, and I had to start thinking about real life decisions like going to college. Fashion school wasn’t something I even considered – again, it just didn’t seem like an option. So I settled on pursuing a degree in business…per the suggestion of my very business-y and not so artsy dad.
I really didn’t know what else to do, and that seemed logical – anyone can go to school and get a job with a degree in business, right?! But OMG was I bored to death!
I realized soon that I could not physically suppress my creative drive. You know as well as I do, it’s something you’re born with and something that does not go away. So the least I could do was to wear crazy clothes, dye my hair funky colors, and decorate my dorm room with “personality”. But I wanted more than that, I didn’t want to just express my creativity externally – that wasn’t enough.
I wanted to actually CREATE for a living.
Finally, a classmate introduced me to graphic design – which was something I had never even heard of. I know that sounds crazy nowadays – how could a young college student not know what graphic design was? Well, you see this all happened a while ago…as in way back before everyone knew what “just photoshop it” meant. So graphic design was a very new concept to me – but regardless I was super excited about it. Since it was a combination of art and technology, I thought it would be the perfect happy medium of “creative” and “practical”.
But my parents did not agree. I remember the phone call vividly when I told them I was declaring a new major. My dad screamed on the other line, some 1500 miles away, and in my mind I could see his face turning red: “I’m paying HOW MUCH for you to study ART?!?” Private school is not cheap and he was not the least bit impressed. I argued my side of things passionately, showing him all of the every day items that graphic designers create (restaurant menus! websites! tissue boxes! everything!). We finally compromised by adding a minor in marketing and Spanish, and it was settled.
I was going to be a graphic designer, and I was so excited.
I studied my little heart out and graduated with honors. And then, there I was, “all grown up” with a very expensive degree in my hands, and I landed my first “real” job……as a receptionist. Don’t ask me how it happened. To this day, I can’t really explain why it went down that way. I was capable of so much more, but that’s what happened.
In the meantime, I continued to sew, design, and create with every spare minute I had. I loved fashion so much that I couldn’t stop – and I was so bored at work I had to get my creativity out somewhere. I started to sell my designs, and people bought them! This was really happening. I was slowly but surely becoming a fashion designer “on the side”. But that wasn’t enough. So I took a huge leap of faith…and I quit my boring desk job to pursue my dream full time.
I worked day and night on my own collection, designing, sewing, selling. Rinse and repeat. And I loved every minute of it – but it was really hard work…as any artist or designer can attest to.
And then, something crazy happened.
I got a job offer that I couldn’t pass up. I was going to be a fashion designer. As in designing clothes that were professionally made in bulk (not piece by piece with my own two hands) and sold in retail shops worldwide. Don’t get me wrong, I loved working on my own brand full time, but I’m not going to lie, it was tough.
The opportunity to get experience inside an established company was something I couldn’t pass up…and this is how excited I was!
How did that happen? I had no formal training in fashion, my degree was unrelated, and I was just some nobody living in Denver, CO with “experience as a receptionist” on my resume. And not to mention, how in the world did they find me?
You see, back when I was working at the reception desk, I went on a job hunting binge (you know the kind). I applied to anything that sounded remotely creative or at the very least better than what I was currently doing. I scoured Craigslist nightly and sent out tons of resumes…never to hear back from most of them. Six months or so passed, and I had forgotten about all those resumes and cover letters. I had no reason to think about wanting a better job: I was finally doing what I loved, working on my own brand full time.
But then the phone rang, and it was the lifestyle and golf brand Tehama, Inc. on the line. They didn’t think I was a good fit for the job I had originally applied for, but kept my info on file. When a new opportunity arose, they re-evaluated my website and info and knew they had to bring me in. It turns out that I had just the right computer skills, work ethic and passion to be a perfect candidate. Oh, and of course an eye for design.
I don’t think I could have planned it better. My Illustrator skills – which I learned in college – paired with all the work I had done for my own collection really impressed the hiring manager. You see, the interesting thing I learned after the fact was that students coming out of fashion school weren’t being taught Illustrator. This was a big problem since computer skills had started becoming a requirement in fashion – just like the rest of the world, this industry was becoming more reliant on digital creation. Recent grads had fashion skills and design sense, but lacked the ability to put it all together on the computer.
Companies needed designers who could create everything digitally, from repeating patterns to fashion flats.
Luckily, I knew Illustrator enough to figure out how to do all of these things. And after some a while, I was an expert at using Illustrator for fashion design.
So that’s how I landed my first job as a fashion designer – the career that once seemed like a pipe dream. It didn’t happen overnight and it wasn’t easy. Yes, my skills “luckily” wound up being a perfect match for what the industry needed, but I also took a lot of scary risks and worked my butt off. In the end, I’m convinced the reason it all happened is because I wanted it so badly that I never stopped reaching for it.
Heidi’s eye for design and expert Illustrator skills carried her from an associate level designer to partner at a fashion design firm in less than 4 years. As an educator and advocate for designers, she helps them more effectively use modern design tools as a natural extension of their creativity. Learn more at www.sewheidi.com.
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