Creative, independent, and stylish individuals may find meaningful careers in the fashion industry. While a challenging field to enter, fashion typically recognizes outstanding work and gives creative professionals the chance to create stimulating and challenging products while earning reasonable salaries. The field provides a home to both creative and business-minded professionals, as those with business sense can enter fashion on the buying and purchasing side of things.
With so much competition in fashion, students should plan on starting their job search as early as possible — likely, well before they graduate. Aspiring designers should create a portfolio of designs ready for interviews, while future buyers should prepare to discuss their business experience and interest in the fashion industry.
The following guide helps fashion students plan their postgraduate strategy and informs students interested in fashion degrees about all of their available options.
Skills Gained in an Fashion Program
Throughout a typical fashion program, students can gain multiple skills. In the following section, we focus on five of those skills: design, computer skills, creativity, foundational business skills, and communication. Each of these skills translates to both life and fields far beyond fashion, so graduates of these programs can function as professionals, even if they choose not to pursue a career in fashion.
Design is inherent to the fashion industry, as many graduates strive to create clothing. Students must become accustomed to creating ideas from scratch and executing those ideas in tangible ways. Fashion designers should become familiar with programs such as Adobe Illustrator.
- Computer Skills
Most worthwhile fashion programs teach students how to use Adobe Illustrator and other relevant applications. Students must also master basic computer skills such as email and Google Suite programs.
Creativity is a must in the fashion industry, as professionals in the field generally create new products from scratch. The industry requires professionals to constantly think up new ideas. For that reason, fashion programs focus on stimulating creativity in students through both group work and individual projects.
- Foundational Business Skills
Not all fashion program graduates become designers. Some decide to work on the purchasing side of things. For these professionals, most fashion programs include foundational business courses in accounting, marketing, and finance.
All fashion professionals must communicate, as they generally work with teams that include a purchaser, a manager, and a designer. Most fashion programs include frequent presentations and group work that require students to hone their communication and their teamwork skills.
Why Pursue a Career in Fashion?
People who feel an urge to use their creativity and take part in stimulating work often find rewarding positions as designers, while those passionate about fashion and a knack for business can often pursue careers as purchasers. Several skills that you can learn in the fashion industry are universal, allowing you to transition to other fields.
Additionally, many in the fashion industry find that if you do good work, you often receive the opportunity to grow and advance. If you design a great piece of clothing, you can progress to more important roles, no matter your background or your level of education. If you spearhead a great line as a buyer or a manager, you can earn renown in the industry and discover opportunities to challenge yourself further.
How Much Do Fashion Majors Make?
The following table outlines annual mean salaries for fashion designers, fashion stylists, and retail buyers at three different stages of their careers. As in other fields, several factors can affect potential salaries for graduates of fashion programs. Experience and education level are universal factors that affect salaries in all industries, and fashion is no exception.
In the fashion industry, location plays a major role, as most fashion designers work in hubs such as Paris, Los Angeles, or New York. As such, these professionals earn higher salaries but also deal with the cost of living.
How to Succeed in Fashion
In the fashion industry, all successful professionals must have plenty of creativity, initiative, and at least some education. Most non-retail positions require a candidate to possess an associate degree in the field, although a bachelor's degree opens up doors to more lucrative and fulfilling (e.g., designer) positions. Furthermore, master's programs can provide students with the business acumen to advance to the highest managerial positions in the field. Nevertheless, professionals need only an associate or bachelor's degree to get started in fashion.
In most cases, the fashion industry evaluates candidates based on their work. As such, college graduates with design portfolios, internships, or fellowships benefit from a leg up when going into interviews. Portfolios demonstrate a designer's actual work, skills, and style, and students should build them in classes, internships, or on their own time.
Concentrations Available to Fashion Majors
In the majority of fashion programs, students can personalize their experience and hone in on their career focus by choosing a concentration. Concentrations can differ from school to school and from program to program, but in general, fashion programs provide students with similar, industry-standard options. These include choices on both the merchandising/purchasing and design side of the industry, as well as some 21st-century options.
- Fashion Promotion: Fashion promotion focuses on both the marketing and negotiation side of the industry. The concentration prepares graduates to work as either marketing managers for fashion companies or as agents for models themselves. The curriculum generally provides foundational business skills delivered within a fashion industry context.
- Fashion Technology: A fashion technology concentration helps students prepare for the future of fashion by mastering the latest technological trends in the industry. For example, students in this concentration often participate in design labs in which they collaboratively design garments in three-dimensional spaces.
- Fashion Design: This concentration typically includes plenty of lab courses that help students design their own clothing and begin to create their professional portfolios. Enrollees can master tools like Adobe Illustrator and often take foundational courses such as textiles and color theory.
- Fashion Merchandising: Fashion merchandising concentrations prepare graduates to work as purchases or buyers within the industry. Coursework provides students with a thorough knowledge of marketing and consumer trends, in addition to general business skills.
What Can You Do with a Fashion Degree?
The careers available to a fashion major largely depend on the level of degree that each individual holds. For the most common and lucrative careers in the fashion industry, most professionals need at least a bachelor's degree. Nevertheless, given the skills and portfolio-based nature of the industry, professionals who succeed in entry-level jobs can quickly progress by producing outstanding work.
Students interested in entering the fashion industry can pursue associate, bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degrees in the field. If they want to jumpstart their careers and enter the field more quickly, they can choose to pursue professional certificates instead. In all cases, a student's work must ultimately speak for itself. No matter their level of education, fashion designers can advance in their field by creating remarkable clothes, and fashion buyers can advance to managerial positions by buying great materials and spearheading great designs.
Associate Degree in Fashion
The following table highlights different careers in the fashion industry for professionals who hold an associate degree in the field. A professional with a two-year degree can often find jobs either in the fashion retail space or entry-level positions in fashion design and merchandising. Since fashion is such a skills- and results-oriented business, professionals who succeed in these roles can work their way up to higher positions.
While not all fashion programs offer concentrations, we spotlight four of the industry's most common program concentrations below.
- Retail Sales Worker
In the fashion industry, retail sales workers serve a vital role, selling fashion on the floor at stores and showrooms and helping customers find pieces that they like. Although retail workers do not need degrees, a professional who holds an associate degree can advance more quickly to store manager positions.
- Costume Designer
Costume designers work on set for films and television shows. They create outfits for characters created by screenwriters and directors. Most costume designers live in and around Hollywood, although some designers live in other major cities. All designers must feel comfortable with long and irregular hours during shoots.
- Associate Fashion Designer
In some cases, entry-level fashion designer positions accept a candidate who only holds an associate degree. Associate fashion designers design clothing, including footwear and accessories, for companies and fashion lines. An associate degree can help these professionals get a foot in the door with major companies.
Bachelor's Degree in Fashion
The following table provides mean annual wages and job descriptions for five different fashion careers for professionals with bachelor's degrees in the field. These five options include both fashion design careers and fashion merchandising careers. While each option requires a bachelor's degree, most also require significant fashion industry experience and expertise, as professionals in the field generally work their way up from entry-level positions.
- Fashion Designers
Fashion designers work for labels creating different types of clothing, accessories, and footwear. Typically, they work at manufacturers or design agencies, spending most of their day drawing and sketching on their computers. Like most fashion careers, fashion design requires creativity and an understanding of public taste.
Purchasers buy raw materials for fashion designers to use to create clothing. Like many other fashion merchandising careers, they must use their best judgment and taste to procure the best materials. Many purchasers come from non-fashion fields, as their general business skills often translate.
- Fashion Buyer
Much like purchasers, fashion buyers deal with purchasing and materials. They take responsibility for all of the clothes that a fashion company sells. They help designers develop clothes that target a particular demographic or market to which that company sells.
- Fashion Stylist
Fashion stylists are hired by clients to dress them from head to toe. They proactively send clients pieces that they may like and often work freelance or in Hollywood.
Master's Degree in Fashion
The following table details fashion careers that students who earn a master's degree in the field can pursue. Most of them are senior or managerial versions of the positions that students with a bachelor's degree in fashion can earn. Though industry experience and skills play a significant role in promotion, an advanced degree can help you earn consideration for promotions earlier in your career.
- Senior Fashion Designer
Like regular fashion designers, senior fashion designers create clothing, including shoes and accessories, for companies or fashion lines. However, they perform these duties in more of a managerial role, having more autonomy in their work to oversee the work of newer, less experienced fashion designers.
- Senior Fashion Merchandiser
Senior fashion merchandisers perform many of the same tasks as junior fashion merchandisers: sourcing raw materials and requesting specific clothing products from designers that cater to specific demographics. Nevertheless, senior fashion merchandisers benefit from increased autonomy and power in their work, often overseeing teams of junior merchandisers.
- Fashion Company CEO
Often, fashion industry employees with an advanced degree, the right initiative, and plenty of skill and creativity can advance to C-level positions. Fashion CEOs oversee the big-picture direction of companies, often liaising with investors and providing high-level mandates to senior designers. They must possess strong business skills.
- Chief Fashion Designer
Chief fashion designers oversee the work of the rest of the designers. They maintain veto and final decision power over all designs. Generally, they start as entry-level designers and work their way up to managerial roles.
- Art Director
Art directors often coordinate the visual imagery for a fashion company's marketing materials, including advertisements and catalogs. They generally work closely with marketing managers to agree on a common vision for a company's brand and campaigns.
Doctoral Degree in Fashion
Doctoral degrees in fashion are much rarer than associate, bachelor's, and master's degrees, with limited programs around the nation. Nevertheless, students who do earn a Ph.D. or doctorate in fashion design or merchandising benefit from a significant leg up on their competition when seeking out first jobs or promotions. A doctoral degree in fashion demonstrates a capacity for original research and creation beyond that of master's students, and this extra edge can make the difference when seeking out a managerial position.
Individuals who hold a doctorate in fashion can also pursue academia, an option not available to students with an associate, bachelor's, or master's degree in the field. Professionals with doctorates can teach at schools such as New York City's Fashion Institute of Technology or fashion departments within other universities.
- Fashion Professor
As in other fields, a student who holds a Ph.D. in fashion design or fashion merchandising can teach their skills to college students as professors. Fashion professor jobs also typically involve publishing original research or contributing to the academic conversation in the field.
- Fashion Marketing Managers
Fashion marketing manager positions often go to individuals with advanced degrees. These managers must oversee the entire marketing operation for a fashion company, including branding, advertisements, and general direction.
- Fashion Product Development Manager
Although a rare job title in the fashion industry, product development managers evaluate how the products companies create translate to the market. They then make adjustments for future products (e.g., designs and fashion lines) to optimize their results.
Where Can You Work With a Fashion Degree?
Though New York, Los Angeles, and various European cities serve as hubs for the fashion industry, fashion professionals can benefit from many options for employment location. The following section focuses on four particular elements — location, industry, setting, and populations — that can affect and influence fashion graduates' careers.
Location plays a major role in determining salary potential and quality of life for fashion professionals. The fashion industry primarily inhabits major cosmopolitan urban centers like Paris, Tokyo, New York, Miami, and Los Angeles. As such, it generally costs more to live in these places, but fashion professionals generally earn higher salaries to compensate for the increased cost of living. Unfortunately, real estate is also expensive in these places, and in many cases, fashion professionals may need to content themselves with smaller homes in exchange for pursuing their passion. Most fashion professionals happily and willingly make that trade.
The term "fashion industry" refers to many different fields for fashion degree holders to pursue after graduation. Options include apparel wholesaling, Hollywood, sewing apparel manufacturing, design services, and management. Below, we take a deeper look at each of those five industries, providing job descriptions and data about average annual salaries. The level of job that graduates can find in each industry depends on the level of degree that they earn.
- Apparel Merchant Wholesalers
Fashion professionals can work in design or purchasing for large clothing stores. These positions, while sometimes less creatively stimulating, offer some of the best job security in the industry.
Average Salary: $87,530
- Motion Picture and Video Industries
Fashion designers and stylists who work in Hollywood often design clothing for movies and television shows. They may work irregular hours on the sets of movies, with long breaks in between these periods.
Average Salary: $86,110
- Cut and Sew Apparel Manufacturing
Fashion professionals in this manufacturing industry actually create the clothing in their warehouses as opposed to just designing them. The industry offers both design and purchasing jobs.
Average Salary: $95,560
- Specialized Design Services
Some fashion professionals work for specific design companies or for themselves as freelancers. This industry allows professionals to focus exclusively on design without any other obligations.
Average Salary: $95,560
- Management of Companies and Enterprises
The highest-paid fashion employees often work as managers or C-level executives, overseeing business operations for multiple fashion companies. To attain these jobs, professionals often need advanced degrees and plenty of experience.
Average Salary: $91,110
How Do You Find a Job as a Fashion Graduate?
Though fashion qualifies as a competitive industry, graduates who know the tricks of the trade can experience a better job search process than those who stumble around blindly. For each design interview, graduates should feel prepared to present a portfolio of their best design work. For design positions, a portfolio matters much more than a resume, which provides more relevance for buyer and purchasing positions.
As a people-focused industry, fashion also focuses a great deal on networking. Job hopefuls can join professional organizations and attend conferences or mixers to get their name out there. Additionally, fashion professionals can consult national (FashionJobs.com, StyleCareers.com) and local job boards (Nashville Fashion Alliance) in order to find their next gig in the fashion industry.
Professional Resources for Fashion Majors
The peer-reviewed and open source Journal of Aesthetics and Culture covers a variety of aesthetics and culture-related topics, among them fashion design and merchandising. The journal approaches fashion through a wide variety of lenses, including theory, editorials, and empirical studies.
The ASG provides a solid resource to fashion merchandisers and buyers, offering discounts on materials from certain retailers. Local chapters also offer meetups, conferences, and other networking opportunities for professionals just starting out in the industry.
Including both subscriber-only content and an open source, peer-reviewed section, the Journal of Global Fashion Marketing focuses primarily on case studies and academic papers that help readers to gain a better understanding of fashion marketing.
The CSA focuses on bringing an academic approach to the field of costume design. To accomplish that mission, the society awards grants to individuals to pursue study in the field and publishes Dress, a magazine that curates the best academic scholarship in costume design.
Originally founded by a group that included Eleanor Roosevelt, the FGI offers multiple networking opportunities to professionals in the fashion industry, including access to a member directory, discussion forums, and the proprietary Fashion Access Network.
Unlike nearly every other professional organization in the industry, the FIA offers free membership to everyone who registers on its website. The FIA features networking opportunities such as a membership directory and meetups. The association also offers professional development opportunities in the form of blog posts and publications.
The World Model Association helps models gain access to and connect with industry professionals such as agents and photographers. The WMA offers access to a job board and professional networking events to all of its members.
The Craft of Costume Design is a comprehensive survey course taught by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It allows students to try their hand at designing pieces such as hats, wigs, and armor. Students may download all of the course's materials from its website.
Another free, open-source online course, the Art of Glamour is available on the BBC's website. Students can learn about the way that fashion changed and grew during the decades leading up to World War II.
Published by the Textile Institute, the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology, and Education includes both subscriber-only articles and free content. Relevant topics include fashion design, apparel production, manufacturing, and purchasing.