Day 20 I am plugging along with my static wardrobe and it’s just as boring and also just as mind-freeing as I had imagined it would be. So I will depart from the static wardrobe tales for a day and talk about a question I get asked on a regular basis. Brace yourself: I am going to be straight up and honest with this question!
A few times a year I get asked by a mom of a high school daughter, “Can you talk to my daughter? She really wants to be a fashion designer. Is it a great career choice? Can you make money in fashion?” My friends and I laugh because if we were really honest when we were asked this question, many people would run away crying.
I attended arguably the best and the most competitive fashion design school in the world. It was a bit different for me because Mommy and Daddy were not paying for my school; I had to work to put myself through school. So I looked at the fashion industry as a vehicle for me to build my life and to make money. I joked that the Art of Fashion was for love, but actually designing a product that would sell was strictly for the money. In the Corporate America end of the fashion industry, many times you did not even like what you were making. It wasn’t about creativity or art – it was staying within the pre-determined lanes of your role and melding into the collective. I learned very early on that the fashion industry has a low glass ceiling: you have about 20 years to get into an upper management position, because if you are set on just designing then by the time you hit 40 you’re too expensive and nobody in the fashion industry wants an expensive old person unless you have had your own brand. But even then it’s almost impossible to find work. There are just too many young, cheap designers out there who are willing to take the abuse for little pay.
It may have been a warning flag for most people, but for me in my bright-eyed, bushy-tailed optimism I looked at it as preparation. The first design critique / fashion illustration class I took was wrought with fear. In the “no bullying” context of today’s gentler society, it would be considered verbal and emotional abuse. Every time our class met, at least three quarters of the students would leave in tears. The director (professor) had designed for one of the most famous couture fashion houses at the time. He took a little break from the fashion industry (the rumor was fashion broke him down and he needed an emotional respite by directing a program and teaching). He was a small Italian man with black slicked-back hair, fancy Italian suits and a high gravelly voice that carried through the entire fashion department. He would come through the dorms of the studio like a 5’4” Tasmanian devil with a sharpie. Flying down the rows of drafting tables furiously and loudly marking and publicly berating the hard work of the budding designers … eviscerating proclamations like “looks like road kill,” “you have no talent,” “did you do this in the hall before class?” “The worst I have ever seen, try again.” As you saw hard-working friends berated into a puddle, you were counting how many more until you were on the chopping block. Dreading the moment but hoping you would be the one to squeak through. We were warned of this, the first day of class they said to us by Senior year 15 out of the 150 students will make it through. I think 10 quit the first day. Then our savior Mr. Van Horne, an accomplished fashion illustrator and a refreshingly kind man, would come in to teach and ease our nerves.
This was just a plain foreshadowing (truth in advertising?) of the illogical abuse that followed in the design houses. One day you were the darling, the president loved your designs and you could do no wrong. The next day you were being pulled into a meeting with staplers and three hole punches (the big desk top ones) whizzing past your head and being lodged in the wall behind you (I’m not exaggerating, this happens in a supposed “professional environment”). Then when you ran downstairs to the coffee shop to ease your nerves, almost in tears, your coffee break would be timed and documented. Soon enough you would find a note on your desk saying, “you have been seen going down for coffee twice in one day and your total minutes was 13 minutes, this is unacceptable. I’m sure if you would like to keep your job you will bring instant coffee with you.” Day after day, story after story, my skin grew so thick and my compassion for other thinned to almost translucent. Some companies were worse than others, but generally the fashion industry would be among the bottom feeders of all “professional” occupations. By both personalities as well as the design of the organizational structures and the competitive pressures in the market, it preys on the hopes and dreams of young talent. Either you get sucked in and become part of that, or you get out. Left with work experience and a trade that translates almost to no other profession.
I have been out of the fashion industry for 14 1/2 years now, and since starting by blog I have just now felt the freedom to talk about it. For years, I have not told people I had been a fashion designer, but the word got around because my husband would tell people. I now realize it is a part of my story and a part of what makes me who I am. When my daughter or her friends show me their fashion sketches or tell me they would love to be a designer someday, I want to shake them and say, “NO NO Never do that!” But instead I smile kindly, say, “Oh, really?” … knowing the struggles that come with it will only perfect them if they in fact choose that path.