How to Succeed in the Fashion Industry
... without being a top designer
By Ysolt Usigan
When Allison Berlin was a little girl, she would sketch clothes and make her mother buy the big September issue of Vogue the minute it hit newsstands. "The photography and images were so beautiful," explains the self-proclaimed shopaholic.
"To this day, I remember being 6 or 7 [years old], going to Bloomingdale's in Manhattan, and hunting for my must-have skirt of the season."
Berlin was so passionate about fashion that it was no surprise when, years later, she became a style expert. However, it was only after years of schooling and paying her industry dues that she achieved the career of her childhood dreams.
Today, Berlin is the founder of Style Made Simple, a business venture in which she's hired as a personal shopper and image consultant, translating the latest trends into everyday, wearable looks for clients. She's been featured as a style expert on "E! News," "Fox News," the "Today" show and other media outlets.
Many people aspire to a career in the fashion industry. But with so many individuals vying for jobs in an industry with a limited number of opportunities, success may come from exploring careers beyond the runway.
The fashion challenge
"It's not easy to break into the industry," explains Angella Hoffman, academic director for fashion marketing and management at The Art Institute of California in San Francisco [an MSN Encarta advertiser]. "Some executive training programs [in fashion] get around 5,000 applications each year and accept only 10 students."
Once these students complete their programs, they go on to get jobs as fashion merchandisers, retail buyers, fashion marketing executives and purchasing agents.
In order to set yourself apart from the rest of the pack, you must demonstrate persistence, passion and dedication, Hoffman says. "The fashion industry requires a lot of hard work," she explains. It's not the glamorous gig depicted in movies and TV shows.
Mary Gehlhar, author of "The Fashion Designer Survival Guide," agrees. "In the media, you often only see the glamorous side of fashion -- people at parties, traveling the world -- but the reality is that fashion is a business and it's a lot of constant hard work," she explains.
"The designers you see in Vogue are also the designers that visit factories, work tradeshows and spend hours analyzing Excel spreadsheets," says Gehlhar.
The key, says Hoffman, is focusing on your fashion education. "Fashion programs are definitely growing. Ten years ago, it was hard to find a school that offered fashion-specific degrees."
Today, popular fashion-related courses of study include fashion marketing, fashion merchandising, and fashion and retail management.
Most programs emphasize the importance of coupling classroom learning with internships and other in-the-field opportunities.
"An internship, externship or apprenticeship is crucial in the fashion industry in order for you to network," says Andrea Roth, director of career services at Bauder College, an Atlanta-based school that offers fashion programs in areas such as merchandising and design, as well as marketing and business.
"The industry is so small and everybody knows each other. Networking can really help you."
Roth also recommends joining professional affiliations and organizations such as Fashion Group International, which has student chapters worldwide. Plus, she says reading fashion magazines is a must in order to stay current.
The making of a style expert
Having a second degree in a non-fashion-related field may also come in handy.
Berlin earned a Bachelor of Science in communications from Boston University [an MSN Encarta advertiser] before heading to the Fashion Institute of Technology for an associate degree in fashion merchandising management.
Being at a fashion-focused university helped Berlin build a portfolio. "A lot of entry-level positions in the fashion industry require you to have a portfolio to accompany your résumé," adds Roth.
Many fashion programs, including Bauder's, offer instruction on how to present your portfolio to potential employers.
Then you have to pay your dues. Berlin got a job -- not her dream job, but close. She worked in the fashion office at Bloomingdale's, where she honed her skills in trend forecasting by selecting merchandise for stores, catalogs and print advertising.
She eventually moved up within the company to directing fashion shows, and later served as a magazine market editor as well as at Saks Fifth Avenue, working with top stylists in wardrobe selection for photo shoots and TV segments.
Her contacts, experience and networking eventually led to the founding of Style Made Simple.
Becoming a stylist
Erin Stafford, a Los Angeles stylist and image consultant, got her start in Hollywood.
But it was her degree in political science and international communications from the American University of Paris in France that gave her the skills to succeed.
"It was a great coming-of-age experience in such a fashion-focused, culturally rich place," she says. "It shaped who I am."
After graduation, Stafford worked in advertising. "I began at an advertising agency in London, then worked for MTV UK," she says.
The turning point in her career was landing a gig as an assistant to a celebrity stylist. "I learned how the industry worked, how to be a better stylist, about tailoring, about designers, and how to work fast," she says.
Her career took off and she broke out on her own as a celebrity stylist less than a year later. Stafford's client roster reads like a Hollywood who's who, but dressing the stars didn't come quickly.
Although Stafford didn't go to school for fashion, she stresses the importance of getting a degree.
"The process of being in college really helps you learn how to work hard, stay focused, study, write well, interact with people," she says.
Of course, you need to know the history of style, too. "Learn about tailoring, familiarize yourself with fabrics, know what influence the great designers (Chanel, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent) had on fashion."
Andrea Roth offers this encouragement to aspiring fashion workers: "This is an art [and] many people may try to deter or discourage you from going after a career in this field. Don't listen to them -- if this is what you want to do, then go for it!"
After the proper training, internships and networking, that is.
Related Articles From Encarta