9 Career Tips for Emerging Designers

So you want to start (and fund) your own line? Here's what you need to know.
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Nora Crotty
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So you want to start (and fund) your own line? Here's what you need to know.
Panelists at our "How I'm Making It in Fashion" conference on June 27. Photo: Will Fenstermaker/Fashionista

Panelists at our "How I'm Making It in Fashion" conference on June 27. Photo: Will Fenstermaker/Fashionista

Starting your own fashion line involves a lot more than having creative ideas and knowing how to thread a needle -- there are also the very important matters of financing, public relations and marketing.

At our "How To Make It In Fashion" conference in NYC this past Friday, we were lucky to have a panel of industry insiders -- including designer Misha Nonoo, IMG Fashion Events & Properties's Jarrad Clark, the NYC Fashion Production Fund's JoBeth Tananbaum, the CFDA's Johanna Stout and Launch Collective's Shira Sue Carmi -- to share their career advice with the fashion industry's up-and-comers. 

Read on for their top tips for breaking into the biz -- including what Stout calls the "single most important thing" an aspiring designer should do.

Apply for a mentorship program.

Nonoo, who is currently in the CFDA incubator, said there is "no value you can put" on the life-altering experience. "In terms of the support they give you, it can change your career. It has for me," she said.

"There's a lot of noise out there, and a lot of competition -- but the questions you're asked [in the program] really force you to think about what you bring to the table.”

Can't get into a program? "Don't wait to get a mentor assigned to you -- go get your own!" said Clark.

Look for outside inspiration. 

In order to launch a successful line, Stout recommends seeking guidance elsewhere. "Go learn from somebody else, go work for another brand, go work on their dime," she said, citing Prabal Gurung as a prime example of a designer who succeeded by doing just that. 

"Figure out what you want to do in the fashion space before starting your own company."

Making mistakes is fine -- as long as your learn from them.

"It's great to make a mistake at someone else's expense!" Nonoo joked -- but Tananbaum said that that really is the case. In order to convince Tananbaum to help you back your project financially, she said, "If you've made mistakes, I'm OK with that -- but I want to see that you've learned from them.”

Don't forget to keep track of everyday costs. 

It's not all about saving up for a runway show twice a year. "You really need to think about expenses, which will recur every month, every season, etc." said Carmi. 

Tananbaum elaborated: "As a lender, I'm expecting you to know [your role] in a lending relationship. Knowing where your dollars and cents are in the beginning makes a HUGE difference."

Nonoo confirmed the importance of tracking finances, explaining that, in the fashion industry, one spends "20 percent of the time designing, and 80 percent running the business."

Consider finding a business partner.

If numbers aren't your strong suit, it might be in your favor to find someone who's eager to do them for you. As per Carmi, "As a creative person, you should go out and look for that business person who can complement your aesthetic." 

And if you're a business-minded person eager to hook up with a creative, there are several schools (including New York University) that offer courses and programs in fashion business. 

Use social media to your advantage. 

Facebook is for more than posting party pics and cat videos. "Your brand is an extension of you," explained Nonoo. "[Social media] gives people the ability to really see what's going on behind the scenes -- think Riccardo Tisci out in Brazil, partying!" It can also aid in the design process: "You can gauge what people do or don't like by the number of likes the photos get."

Stout agreed, saying that social media "allows brands to release info that used to come through editors, only unfiltered." 

But make sure to filter when necessary, because, as Tananbaum revealed, "Your online persona is important to lenders." They will snoop you out online before giving you dough. 

Stand out from the crowd. 

Technology has made things easier for young designers, but standing out can still be tough. "The 12-minute fashion show used to start and end at the tent," explained Clark. "Now it's got media, longevity and a long reach to so many more people, so much faster." His words of wisdom? "Be who you want to be, and not who you think they want you to be."

Know exactly what your brand is, before you start marketing it. 

Prior to sending out email blasts and handing out business cards, take time to fully understand your product in every sense. "Craft your message before you send it out," said Stout. "There needs to be a strategy and a thought before you reach out to your potential consumer." 

The simplest (and most useful) way to do this, according to Clark, is to put it all in a book. "Putting together a portfolio is the best way for you to see where your brand is going," he said -- and how far it's come.

And the best thing you can do for your career as an emerging designer is... 

(Drumroll, please...) INTERN! 

"The single greatest thing you can do is intern," said Stout. "It's the best way to get your foot in the door, to learn about industry, and make contacts and relationships."

And rules of interning are more fluid than you might realize. "You can intern under a specific person, not just an entire brand" -- a helpful tip, especially if you have a very specific career goal in mind.

In the end, success is all about your attitude. "Learn to be gracious and persistent, and don't give up just because you don't hear back the first time," Stout explained. "Learn about the gracious followup -- and embrace it."