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Is It Really This Hard to Be A Fashion Designer?

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(Instagram) @elenavelez

So you enjoy the ‘art’ of fashion, you want to be a designer. Sorry, I mean creative director. That’s the career buzzword that everybody is after these days. Well unless you’re an established celebrity with a hefty amount of influence or you have a large Instagram following and have proved your ability to sell buckets of clothing and generate revenue, you’re not going to be hired by one of the big boys. They no longer take risks. However, if you do satisfy either of those criteria, then now may be your time to enter the fashion game. Although, Lindsay Lohan didn’t really work out for Ungaro and Ludovic de Saint Sernin didn’t really work out for Ann D, so actually no guarantees there.

Other options to an envious career in fashion have you engage in modern slave labour renamed ‘internship’ which have you slowly work and slither your way up through the industry. You spend your time increasing your contact list, working for others under the guise of gaining experience and love of the game (not an enjoyer of financial and mental stability), next to people who compete for the right to say that they were the last ones to leave the studio last night because they worked so hard. In fact, they were there first the next morning. Hopefully, this path will result in you working for yourself under your own label whereby you go on to propagate the standards by which you were treated. 

My labelling of internships as slave labour is not a dig at the people who run independent brands and take advantage of newcomers to the industry. I’ve come to understand the myriad of financial problems that they face, but that does not detract from the fact that internships still are often mindless and exhaustive work for very little to no pay. It is not entirely the brands’ fault. The issue at hand is a commonality with all things wrong in the world at this point, it’s a systematic issue. And systems are hard to change.

The Problem

The conglomerates at the top of the fashion food chain own 90% of the capital and the remaining individuals who are in the industry for the love of the game (or the love of the fame and lifestyle) are one bad season, or one stockist pulling out, from going bust.

Yet so many people continue to go to fashion schools each year, to study the art of clothing for up to 3 or 4 years. Great art takes time, but I have always found the length of art courses to span on a little too long for what they’re worth. You’re paying for someone to hold you accountable to making your art and giving feedback on said art. When you could spend 4 years making it on your own, learning from the internet and books and finding feedback there. At this point in time, a degree is less important than a large social media following to make it in fashion, if that is your goal.

I came from the world of science and even from my two years studying chemistry, I found that the most valuable experiences were probably working in the labs with expensive equipment that wouldn’t be worth buying myself. But the lectures were mostly regurgitated from the textbooks, and the textbooks could be found for free, online. Everything can be found online, you just need to know where to look and who to trust.

I was poor which made me fortunate enough to have my studies funded for me by the government. But I saw friends around me working to pay for a degree in something more menial, that was even more available to be learned online like Philosophy or English. Although I get it, we also go to university, particularly art school, for the connections. To be surrounded by people who are also creating and to see those perspectives bloom. I see negatives and positives in learning like this in the same way that there are negatives and positives to every path that you choose including not going the college route. But the path of third level education has those airport human escalators built into the ground pushing you down it for all of those fortunate (or unfortunate) to have it as an option (or a pressure).

In the case of fashion, I would bet that you have more of a chance in reaching success  selling clothing independently (or at least reaching it faster and without the pain of the industry) by starting a YouTube channel and then selling merch for that YouTube channel. One step closer to working in the fashion industry but still hovering outside it, would be by getting a degree in some form of marketing and then hiring designers off of Fiverr to make crappy graphics that you then sell via whatever the most recent marketing trend is like user-generated content. It’s almost like the industry is the problem.

A lot of what is given off on the surface of high fashion is fake. The luxury and high art-ness of it all is built off struggle and debt. This is reality for many independent brands anyway. Someone who worked under Walter van Beirendonck told me that his brand is run by him and a few interns. Nobody gets paid.

I currently live in a student dorm style building in Antwerp (I’ll talk about it in a future article further). Many students who live here are interning for free at various Antwerp based brands that run almost entirely on interns. And the brands tend to be heavily in debt.

If you go over to the US, the numbers become astronomical due to the nature of costs over there. Let’s look at a few case studies of independent brands that on the surface, appear to be doing well.

Elena Velez

Elena Velez is based in New York City. Her eponymous label has 73,000 Instagram followers. She’s dressed celebrities that evoke her rebellious, challenging aesthetic like Rosalía, Solange Knowles and Julia Fox. All of this is pointed out in an interview she did with The New York Times that delved into her career. It begins by bringing up the laudatory reviews about her most recent collection FW23. 

“Reviews from Vogue and others called her “urgent,” “provocative,” “delightfully deranged,” a “rare talent.” Three months before, she’d been named emerging designer of the year at the CFDA awards, the industry’s version of the Oscars.’ Sounds like she’s living the dream.

Elena Velez SS23

But the article is titled “Should Making It in Fashion Be This Hard?”

“That triumphant runway show, held in a Brooklyn warehouse and opened by a model-musician who lurch-walked as if she’d been summoned from hell, cost Ms. Velez’s company almost $40,000, she said, most of which came from her mother’s retirement fund.”

My impression from the interview is that Velez runs her company on lucky breaks. From large sum purchases that come from celebrity stylists at random times. Her mother, who raised her by herself, supports her dearly. Her mom sold their family home in order to finance her fashion education in New York City.

Velez raises her two children while she scrambles to hold her brand together, but that doesn’t mean that she degrades her integrity for an easier time. She produces her clothing in the US and dreams of setting up the infrastructure to start manufacturing in her home state of Wisconsin. She stood up for her guest at the Met Gala when they were denied entry. And “When Elle (magazine) asked to borrow an Elena Velez dress for a cover shoot with Karol G, the designer declined, in part because she didn’t think the pop star aligned with the brand.”

“In April, after the Fashion Trust U.S. awards, she estimated her debt to be about $90,000. Her creditors include factories that are starting to get mad, she said, but also people central to her team, like the designer Andrew Curwen, who is owed a few months’ worth of invoices. He helped create some of her February show’s most memorable pieces”

At this point Velez claims that “she is more interested in making an example out of her own “crashing and burning,” for the greater benefit of the system.” So there you have it. Getting your bachelor’s degree at a prestigious fashion school like Parsons, and in Velez’s case, add a graduate degree from Central Saint Martins on top of that, does not guarantee you the ability to create your own clothes under your own brand and be financially stable. I also want to point out how having an extremely supportive mother does not even tip the scales in your favour. Maybe Velez’s story sounds appealing to you in whatever twisted way you want to perceive it as, but I do not want to replicate that stress in my own future.

Peter Do

Peter Do SS23

Let’s move a bit up the ladder to another New York based brand, Peter Do. Do, the creative director of his own eponymous label, did an uncensored interview with @brendashashtag of 032c, and talked about the glamour (or lack thereof) of the behind the scenes workings of his brand. Do is another designer like Elena Velez, he came from nothing. He has a strong moral compass, he values his friendships and just wants to live off this passion that burns so deep within him.

According to Do, “The reason a lot of brands don’t survive, no matter how talented, is just how this industry does things, It’s high risk and unfair. You just spend so much.’ Enough said?

I found the following exchange between Do and the interviewer to display the plights of the industry most fervently.

– 

Interviewer: How often are you paid on time and how late can payment be sometimes?

PD: If the majority of stores don’t pay on time, that makes us late with payments for our factories. Then the factories pay their suppliers late. It’s a vicious cycle.

Meanwhile I’m selling to all these fancy stores, we do beautiful shows, but there’s immense stress behind the scenes. If a store cancels, we take all that product in. If

factories are a day or two days late from delivering the product, I would never cancel the product or make them pay for it. That’s just not who we are.

We all work so hard to make beautiful products with these factories and they’re people that we want to support and it’s getting harder and harder for me to stay positive.

But we’re so small. I don’t really have a solution.

– 

In their first season of sales, Peter Do had to decide whether to go with Barneys or Net-a-Porter, who both wanted the brand as an online exclusive. Do went with Net-a-Porter. He went on to build a close relationship with the retailer and still works closely with them today. Barneys filed for bankruptcy in 2019. Peter Do could’ve been a brand that never got off the ground and sunk with Barneys.

You might begin to wonder how brands could run for cheaper. I spend a lot of time theorising. It’s easy to look to the 90’s, high fashion’s unofficial golden era. But nowadays, things are more expensive in some regards. Back when Margiela was hosting runway shows, he had them in suburbs or in playgrounds with kids running around. That must have been cheap. The location was free, by the sounds of it. Today, there are more stringent safety standards and regulations which prevent authentic moments like that from happening. It’s annoying but in the grand scheme of things, people’s safety is more important than clothing, right? Because of how things are, Do hires a production agency to handle his shows because that’s than cheaper than being sued.

With all of this in mind, it should not be a surprise to see Do taking the role as creative director at Helmut Lang. Although he did note in this 10 month old interview that being a part of a bigger narrative, from a brand that is not his own, was something that he would welcome along his personal career trajectory. And I’m sure that the contract he was offered will be a huge help to his personal brand.

There are plenty of reasons as to why designers are attracted to conglomerate owned brands. Depending on the designer, ego could definitely play a role but the amount of money offered is often insurmountable. That’s Arnault’s strategy anyway. I’m sure that Helmut Lang’s owners, Fast Retailing Co. Ltd, has plenty of money from Uniqlo to give to Do to revitalise the brand back to at least some of its former glory, as we’ve seen happen when brands hire actual designers with fresh perspectives like Glenn Martens at Diesel. It’s a good thing that Do will be able to channel his pay back into his own personal venture, but it’s at the cost of giving his talent to a profit driven conglomerate which will only go on to further separate those at the top with everyone else. What Do was paid, Fast Retailing Co. Ltd will see back multiple times over, given that it goes as planned. 

Fashion is full of these catch-22’s. I think that you have to be a bit delusional to work in this industry if you have your heart in the right place, and that’s from my relatively outsider perspective.

Eli Russel Linnetz

Sometimes fetch-22’s (yes, I’m shortening ‘fashion catch-22’ to ‘fetch-22’ #meangirls) can work the other way around such as for Eli Russell Linnetz, founder and creative director of ERL, who claims to have been disinterested in fashion since the very beginning. Yet, opportunities and stockists just flock to him willy-nilly. That’s typical in fashion, right?

Coincidentally, The New York Times did an interview with him, a couple weeks after their interview with Velez. The contrast between their positions is what got me thinking about the state of making it in fashion. His story is laughably idealistic. The interview takes place over a video call, showing Linnetz’s new residence, the Venice Beach boho/industrial home built by actor Dennis Hopper that he bought recently.

Other than a fashion designer, The New York Times classifies him as a photographer, screenwriter, stage designer and music producer, who only began to dabble in the fashion industry in 2018. A true 21st century polymath. A jack of all L.A trades but, arguably, master of none. Debate me on that, go ahead. 

So how did his brand skyrocket to a Dior collaboration and guest showing at Pitti Uomo over just 5 short years? Chance? Talent? Hard work? Connections? Let’s look into it.

ERL Pitti Uomo 104

Some background information on the L.A polymath should lead us the right way, he started out as a child actor with Disney credits. He quickly decided, as a child, that he did not want to act. Coincidentally, he went to the same synagogue as famous American playwright David Mamet who invited 15 year old Linnetz onto one of his sets. Lo and behold, Linnetz became a sort of assistant to him. After his teenage stint working on Broadway, Linnetz went on to major in screenwriting at U.S.C, where in his senior year he made a short film starring Stephen Spielberg’s son. It seems like Linnetz’s filmmaking career failed to take off after college, so he dipped his toes into 3-D animation. Through some of his other disposable connections, he began working for Kanye West.

I’m sure you’ve spotted a trend. I think it’s fair to label him as just another member of the nepo baby club, mix and matching careers like there are no repercussions because for him, there aren’t any.

Throughout the interview by The New York Times, Linnetz paints this picture of reluctance, as if he just fell into what he’s doing now, by chance. Impossible.

In an earlier 2018 interview with Dazed, he said that he was always into fashion, and that he paid his tuition fees by sewing costumes for the opera department (sure thing). How did he get his big break in fashion? He started with a big break. He was introduced to Adrian Joffe through a friend, Ronnie Cooke Newhouse, someone with a 30 year long career in fashion that has done creative work with brands ranging from Louis Vuitton to Comme des Garcons. Joffe asked him to design a bag for DSM LA’s opening. He (‘reluctantly’ remember) seized the opportunity and quickly came back with a whole collection to sell at the opening. It obviously sold well to the LA crowd, otherwise we would not see ERL stocked at DSM today

Call me ignorant, but I think it is extremely easy to sell decently designed commercial clothing if you have eyes on it. That’s fashion’s modern fight, scratch that, everyone on social media’s modern fight, the fight for attention. The substance of the clothing doesn’t matter, it’s about who it’s from. If you’ve seen some of the stuff that some of the most popular musicians sell as merch, you’ll understand. The grand opening of a new DSM store brings a lot of eyes.

Linnetz is aware of this yet he apparently doesn’t know that he is, “If you do something bigger, you’re suddenly confronted with the ridiculousness of everyone’s desperate desire to go viral or have a crazy moment”. The interviewer follows up with, “said the man who once put Kid Cudi in a wedding dress and veil.” Oh snap.

Yes, Linnetz’s come up reeks of nepo baby privilege but that is not inherently wrong, just unrealistic for everybody else. Stories like his are one in a million, he was born in the right place at the right time to the right parents. That’s not to say he did not have to work hard to get to where he is, he talks about how all he does is ‘work’ and that he does not go to parties. Fair enough but I would still like to see a better attitude and self-awareness from him.

But his path to success felt like he was walking on stepping stones that were all naturally set in place for him to hop and skip to at his own pace. Just one of the people he met on his path could have completely changed the career trajectory of a nobody like Do or Velez. So really, Linnetz hasn’t done anything wrong, in fact you could say that he got unlucky in life for having to deal with people like me calling him a nepo baby. It also doesn’t help his case that it’s my personal belief that people who have grown up with harder lives have the more interesting stories to tell. To prove that belief, you only need to glance at the work of the designer’s that I have talked about today and compare the quality of their bodies of work to their life’s journeys.

Opinions may vary but I hope you get the point.

The alternative?

So is there a way for a nobody to justly and fairly earn a stable career, working independently in high fashion today? I’m sure there is, after all, there are more brands than ever these days. Most are scraping by, however, I think that you have a better chance at a more stable career working for someone much bigger, or going the commercial route if you want to remain in the current system and follow tradition.

But that’s not what you want. Fashion is an industry full of the most passionate people, and even as that passion is sucked away over the years, these individuals remain entrenched in it. I know for myself that whenever I went looking for other areas of design to specialise in (as my faith in fashion as a feasible career dwindled), everything I wanted to create and the way in which I thought always returned to clothing. My problem has never been with the medium, it’s with the system. The problem with all art forms, I know. Yet, if I recall what first drew me to wanting to pursue fashion as a career, its alleged position as the most commercially viable medium of art (at least in my head), reminds me that I am also interested in the business of fashion (lol). As much as I love the artistic side of fashion, I’ve come to see how important it is to focus on the business aspects in order to let the artistic side succeed. That’s where you’ll find answers to achieving a satisfying, stable career, not in making the best clothing that the world has yet to see, that’ll come in time.

I think if you come to accept certain compromises regarding how you plan to run your brand and abandon the tradition that Bernard Arnault has ingrained in everybody about fashion, then you have a much better chance at succeeding without the need of rich parents or to be hit with a gross amount of debt. To start, a compromise to understand is that majority of the revenue from the industry comes from very commercial goods like hand bags, shoes and basics that do not reflect the avant-garde in any sense. That does not mean that you cannot ever make experimental clothing, we need avant-garde ideas, now more than ever. But to solely engage in it increases the amount of risk that you take on. I’m sure you already had this compromise in mind.

Another compromise may come in the form of runways. Nobody wants to be labelled an Instagram brand but many Instagram brands have better chances of succeeding (or at least failing with less debt) than traditionally run fashion labels since they don’t have to take on the huge charge of runways, one of a high fashion brands’ largest expenses. The next compromise to consider is not living in New York, London or Paris. To reiterate, all of these compromises don’t have to be definite for the span of your career, they could be goals that you achieve later as you build your brand slowly and safely. Or maybe you’ll do just fine your entire career without ever engaging in these things and realise that you never had to in the first place.

With the way that everything is progressing to an online world. The ease of access to manufacturing, marketing and even learning how to create your own one person business all online, lays ahead so many opportunities for a successful, independent career. I think that’s the future, and one of the most valuable skills that you can have for this future online, is knowing where to look and who you can actually trust. This is the path that I have been taking, I think it’s been going pretty ok in helping me build my personal brand. And it’s really not as lonely as it may sound. When it starts to work, people will come.

I’m still quite young and I understand that my perspective is skewed and short sighted. I don’t think that means that I shouldn’t share that opinion, I think it is up to you to build your own perspective on everything from multiple opinions, including the distasteful, misinformed and young ones. With this blog and my opinions moving forward, I want to share my honest truth about what I observe about fashion and current culture. Because it doesn’t feel like there are many that do that and the picture that was painted to me of fashion is so different to what I know now. I’m always open to criticism because all I want to do is learn and use that knowledge to change fashion by even 1%. It’s a bold goal but that’s what dreams are for. So if you’re interested in what I have to say in this regard, I hope that this fiery first article has convinced you to hear me out some more about some of the topics that I touched on in this article and topics beyond them (they won’t all be this high octane).

Michael.

5 responses to “Is It Really This Hard to Be A Fashion Designer?”

  1. henge avatar

    Hi Mr. FashionLover the 4th,

    I’m excited to see what you put up on here, and also curious what blogs you follow that are in this vein. Especially keen to know if you have any apps or tools for putting all those blogs into a feed for convenience.

    I would be interested in a video / blog post on how you curate your fashion media intake.

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Michael Lukyanov avatar

      I do not have a way of filtering the blogs and news outlets that I follow into one feed but that sounds like a great idea and I’m sure something like that exists. Thanks for the idea I’ll look into that.
      I will definitely do an article on fashion media intake as well.
      Thanks so much!

  2. Maryam avatar
    Maryam

    Like this is one of d most illuminating article I have read. I believe that almost every thing can be found on online if you know the right places to look and research. Would u mind recommending resources?

    1. Michael Lukyanov avatar

      It depends on what it is that you’re trying to achieve? Feel free to email me to share more details and get more info!
      Thanks for the kind words.

  3. big farto avatar
    big farto

    poo poo fart

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