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A destiny in design

Fashion design can be a tough career to break into, but perseverance and hard work can really pay off

Whether working on the branded, retail or supply side of the sector, good designers form the bedrock of the fashion industry. There's no shortage of wannabes; universities are churning out an ever-rising number of design graduates, many lured by perceptions of a glamorous career with lots of opportunities. But does the job live up to the hype? And what qualities do employers look for in potential designers?

Helen Taylor, the Nottingham branch manager for recruitment firm Fashion & Retail Personnel, says there is plenty candidates can do to improve their chances of landing a dream job, such as adapting to market changes. "I don't doubt candidates' abilities, but people must have realistic expectations and be flexible about where they work, and who for. They should also update their skills regularly," says Taylor.

Taylor argues that colleges and universities are failing to equip graduate designers with practical experience - for example, a working knowledge of CAD, or expertise in garment technology. This puts the onus on the employee to ensure they are one step ahead of the game by signing up for extra-curricular courses, or targeting employers that can give all-round experience.

Raffaella Di Maio, consultant for London-based recruitment agency Quest Design, says the market for designers is booming - a trend partly fuelled by the rising influence of the supermarkets. She says: "There is big demand from supermarkets, which often have a design team of up to 100 people. Many have not employed designers before but are now looking to recruit from the high street."

Salaries for graduate- to junior-level designers can be up to £25,000 a year, says Di Maio, with senior roles commanding £35,000 or more. The salary for a designer with a few years' experience falls somewhere in between, while areas such as menswear, footwear and accessories can demand a higher wage because there are fewer candidates. The supplier side of the industry can be more volatile, adds Di Maio, because of the reliance on key accounts that could be lost.

She also stresses the importance of being CAD-literate. "A lot of graduates study CAD at university and then lose the skill," she explains. "But it's vital to both new and senior designers."

CASE STUDY: DESIGNING FOR A RETAILER

Claire Rice, design manager for womenswear at Sainsbury's Tu

What was your route into this job?

I graduated in 1995 from Northumbria University with a BA in fashion marketing, and then went to New York for 18 months. I worked there as assistant designer for Calvin Klein; it was a brilliant start to my career and there was a constant demand for new, fresh ideas. It also entailed lots of long hours in a highly-strung environment. When I came back to the UK, I worked in the trend department for Debenhams, and then for Miss Selfridge as a formal designer. I then did a spot of freelancing before joining Sainsbury's Tu as senior trend designer in 2004. I was promoted last July to my current role as design manager on womenswear and am now in charge of three designers and five freelancers.

What is your advice to a young designer starting out in their career?

Try to get some hands-on experience. We have a lot of students who work here at Sainsbury's, who are with us from between two weeks to two months. We try to give them an understanding of the product, and help them learn how to draw. You should also make sure you have an inspirational, but commercial portfolio that is an easy-to-handle A4 size. As a final tip, I'd say it's important to be commercial and to think about what's wearable.

What are the challenges facing the industry?

It has got so commercial - the high street is competitive, and customers are really trend-savvy. They go into Marks & Spencer and Next, then expect to see trends duplicated at Sainsbury's. In some ways this makes our job easier - at the moment everyone is stocking printed smock tops, so we know we have to as well. The pace is much quicker. When I first started working in the industry there was a quiet period around Christmas and summer, but now I work three seasons ahead.

What lies ahead for the fashion industry?

Fashion will become more environmentally responsible. We are looking at fair trade and organic, plus the issues surrounding carbon footprints. This will all have a massive effect on our buying process - we are scrutinising where product is made, how it got to us, the chemicals and packaging used. In a few years, all these processes will be standard.

CASE STUDY: DESIGNING FOR A SUPPLIER

Maria Leto is senior designer at Crowther, which owns shirt brand Haines & Bonner

What was your route into this job?

During my degree, which was in fashion design and marketing at the University of East London, I did a placement in the design department at Debenhams. I learned CAD there and found myself designing shirt fabrics on the weave package they had. It was a natural progression to specialise in shirt design when I graduated in 2000, and I went back to Debenhams, specialising in the same area, working with the buyers across a range of brands. Then a job came up in St Albans, Hertfordshire, for a shirt designer with Crowther, and I joined as a shirt specialist working across Haines & Bonner and Pierre Cardin. After about four years I moved across to the casualwear side, where I am now. I head the department and am in charge of two other designers.

What is your advice to a young designer starting out in their career?

I strongly recommend doing a course with a marketing element. Sometimes students come up with lofty, pie-in-the-sky designs far removed from the realities of the high street. In my opinion, unpaid experience is blatant exploitation. My advice is: don't be a fool, there are paid placements out there. I am often flooded with CVs - there are a lot of good people out there, and things are competitive and getting more so. Be careful with obvious things like spelling errors, and include a page or two from your portfolio.

What challenges do you face as a supplier?

The industry has become much more competitive. With the growing success of own brands, working on a brand has become increasingly difficult. When you meet with buyers you are trying to fit into their pigeon- hole - you are filling a niche. They represent you, rather than you representing yourself to the customer. So it can be very restricting, and you are at the buyer's whim. We are also being squeezed on prices and retailers are ordering later and later, which makes it harder to make delivery dates. We are also being asked to keep back-up product at our own risk. Meanwhile, quantities are coming down, but business is tough so retailers still want the same prices. There is a spiral of discounting that has done nothing for retail.

What lies ahead for the fashion industry?

Retailers are beginning to acknowledge that discounting isn't helping, and are looking to change their ways. But there will be growing pains, and whether they will stick to their guns is another question. The high street needs to stand together and make sure discounting is kept to the Sales. The drive towards fair trade and corporate social responsibility will help this process.

CASE STUDY: DESIGNING FOR A BRAND

Andrew Melford is brand director at Criminal

You worked in New York for seven years. How did that influence your career?

I went to New York in 1998, and worked for DKNY, Calvin Klein and trend forecasting company Here & There. It was a great international experience and gave me the opportunity to work on global brands. It gave me the chance to see how they operate across different markets. I enjoyed the opportunity to work for structured companies and seeing the process of turning product into profit.

What motivated you to take your current design role?

I am in a much more creative role now, working for premium streetwear brand Criminal. I am creative director in charge of four designers. Before coming here I had reached a point where I had gained enough experience and wanted to give more. There are certain trends and areas I wanted to tap into that I couldn't with a big corporation. With a smaller brand, you are able to get the message to the customer far more easily.

What challenges do you face as a brand?

Working for a smaller brand means you have less money to play with and it's sometimes a risk for buyers to buy into a small brand. At this stage we are proving ourselves, so the challenge is to present product in a way that will make buyers invest. I try to do the best product I can, and make sure I am clear and focused in my direction. It's important to pick a lane and go with it.

What advice do you have for new designers?

My advice would be to realise that the job is not just about pretty sketching and wearing nice clothes. Get as many unpaid work placements as possible, and remember the money will come along later. Passion for the job is key - there will be plenty of late nights.

What lies ahead for the fashion industry?

It's getting more competitive for designers, with trends hitting the high street far quicker. You have to always be in contact with the marketplace. The media is following trends all the time and customers are more style-savvy. You have to be on the button, and you must live and breathe the industry. If you want a nine-to-five, this is not the place to be.

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