Becoming a Fashion Designer
Say something. I’ve found myself repeating those two words over and over again throughout my life in fashion. I’ve said them while waiting for emerging designers’ first shows to start. I’ve said them clicking through look books that all look like Celine or Gucci knockoffs. I’ve said them watching the most expensive and elaborate shows with the most boring clothes. There is a lot of noise and glamour in the fashion industry. There is also a healthy amount of nepotism, politics, who’s who, and who you know. While those things endure, the one thing that remains is a need for someone to say something. What really matters is for a designer to communicate something so authentic and real that it breaks through in a visceral way.
Creating clothing that transcends time or preconceived notions—that’s what being a fashion designer is about. There’s a lot that goes into saying something. It starts
with where you come from creatively, how you developed your vision, and what you want people to feel when they see your brand. The designers who break through inject clothing with meaning. They speak even to those who don’t particularly care, all the while reflecting and creating the zeitgeist.
If you do a quick Google search or walk into a bookstore, you’ll find very few books on how to be a fashion designer—and for good reason. There’s no universal template. No one can give you the pencil and paper to start, no one can interpret your perspective, and there is no get-rich-quick guide. You can go to Central Saint Martins or Parsons School of Design, train under the right people, know the right editors, have endless funding, make interesting collections, and still falter. Even if you “do everything right,” there is still no guarantee, and what it means to be a fashion designer now is starkly different than what it meant twenty years ago, or even five years go. The groundbreaking designer Virgil Abloh, who founded his own haute streetwear brand Off-White and works as the men’s artistic director of Louis Vuitton, admitted, “I’d sort of agree I’m not a designer; this term seems like it’s for traditionalists,” he says. “TBD the new title.”
People think of the fashion industry as this frivolous, carefree environment where everyone is twirling around in sequins, drinking champagne. On the surface sometimes that assumption can be right, but those who have made a real impact on the industry know all too well that it takes an unprecedented level of focus to have longevity and be more than a blip of hype on Instagram. They know the work, have done the work, and continue to do the work. Those who are resilient and have persevered, like Christopher John Rogers of his self-named label, Becca McCharen-Tran of Chromat, and Rosie Assoulin of her eponymous brand, can tell you all that’s left is an innate desire to offer something that’s unfiltered, consuming, and dynamic.
I am currently the youngest and only Black editor in chief in the United States at a major publication. My perspective about what it means to be a designer is different from people who have been in the fashion industry for forty years. Though there may never be another Karl Lagerfeld or Ralph Lauren, the industry has opened itself up to so much fresh talent. It is an exciting time to be a designer. New designers constantly bring something fresh to the table that we’ve never seen before. I’ve seen the good and the bad, the original and the unoriginal,
and enough to know the difference. Working my way up the ranks, first as fashion market editor at Style.com
, then at New York magazine’s fashion blog The Cut, and now as editor in chief of Teen Vogue, has shaped my worldview of what it means to influence the design world no matter what is currently trendy or cool.
I talk to a lot of young designers in the early stages of their careers. People come up to me on the street or after I’ve spoken on a panel and ask how to be seen in this industry. With this book I hope to give guidance and advice to any person invested in making fashion design their life’s work.
First of all, there is no easy way in, and there’s no easy way to stay in. Every part of my career has been me clawing up a hill, hoping that my creativity, originality, and pure grit to outwork others will prove to be useful. If you’re wondering whether you’re in the right field, what it entails to be a designer, or how much money you would need to start your own collection, use this unfiltered book as a starting point to think about your future. When I began working in fashion I felt bitter because I read every magazine from cover to cover, but those publications never explained how long I would need to intern, that I would make nine dollars an hour as an assistant,
and that I was expected to wear head-to-toe designer clothing every single day. The realities of working in the industry continue to shock me, whether it’s the hours, the politics, or the economics. I made it work in my early days: I changed mannequins at the DKNY store during weeknights, on the weekends waited tables at a restaurant, and took any freelance gigs I could with stylists in my spare time. I decided to write this book because I wish something similar had been available when I started. It would have been immensely helpful to know what I was getting into before I left the Midwest for New York to embark on this path.
To show you how it’s really done, what becoming a fashion designer really entails today, I followed three distinct designers. Each one has found their own way to stand out despite the noise, and established themselves as undeniable presences in the rapidly changing landscape of fashion. Learning from their experiences, this book tells the broader story of a career as a fashion designer.
I chose to talk with Christopher John, Becca, and Rosie because they have been influential in my career in fashion and because they are so open about their own pressures, successes, failures, and everything in between. I love their work—and I firmly believe they’ve made a
permanent mark not only on the insular space of fashion but also on the world.
There are hundreds of thousands of designers. The vast majority work at major fashion houses, but these three people had the courage to start their own enterprises, which are turning into midsize companies with recognizable names in different sectors and with different goals for their brands.
It’s one thing to be included in reviews for fashion shows, but it’s another for a generation of young people to feel connected to your brand as if they know the inner workings of your soul. These brands represent a new breed of pioneering fashion voices who have created a bond with their consumers in an organic way. To show the breadth of what it takes to be a designer, I chose three designers at different stages of their careers. Starting in 2012, Christopher John Rogers founded his eponymous brand, Becca McCharen-Tran of Chromat has been building her brand for nearly ten years, and Rosie Assoulin, whose design background began when she was fourteen, is working tirelessly to grow her already established brand bigger than she ever thought possible. Each designer demonstrates the story of each phase of a fashion designer’s journey. It’s never the same, nothing is
concrete, but there is a universality you will find within the experiences of these bold, independent creators.
All three of these designers are also vital to the industry because they are leading the conversation on a trend before it happens. Making clothing that speaks to a generation seems almost too daunting to even grasp, but it’s something they have been able to do at different points of their careers because they understand that style is something to be taken seriously. It has to speak to people on a personal, emotional, and psychological level.
Once a designer’s worldview has been established, it still takes an eye that’s willing to be developed over time. Fashion rarely sleeps, and with the prominence of fast fashion, the cycle of trends is ever evolving. The fact is that the world has changed, and the internet and social media have remade the fashion industry in ways never thought possible. For decades it had been all about being exclusive and selling an aspirational dream, but now essentially anyone on social media can say they are a designer and maybe even get the attention of magazine editors and retail buyers. And, more than ever, designers are quick to follow a trend that’s popular on social media to get in on some of that capital for their own brand instead of taking a beat and finding their own lane and internal
inspiration. It’s one thing to be inspired because people are into a specific trend or look at a certain time. It’s another to appropriate an idea from a culture to make it mainstream but not include that culture in the models on the runway or in the campaign or with the people you hire to make your brand succeed. We’ve seen countless brands get scolded for stealing designs thanks to people behind the Instagram account Diet Prada, and on the other side we’ve seen a lot of independent designers get burned by major fast-fashion retailers like Zara and H&M without getting credit. All of this has really split fashion design into two territories—designers who lead and designers who react. After all, every single design is in conversation with other work that has come before it, constantly mutating and evolving. Even the consumer has drastically changed. We are now living in a time when an audience or customer is able to communicate directly with a brand, saying they don’t like a design. Consumers are fickle and move on from a trend quicker than it took for it to emerge. Younger consumers are much more vocal about social and environmental issues, and they want transparency about point of view, how things are made, and what you stand for. All these issues directly affect the bottom dollar. Campaigns on everything from gun
control to racial and gender equality like #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and #TimesUp are critical for brands if they want to get the attention of the all powerful Generation Z and millennial consumers who represent $350 billion spending power in the United States alone.
Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company’s The State of Fashion 2019 showed that the top three words to describe the fashion industry are: changing, digital, and fast. So, for a designer today, there has to be the perfect storm culmination of talent, influence, and message. Designers now have to represent the brand in a front-facing way, and often have to find a way to produce multiple revenue streams. Founder and designer of JW Anderson and creative director of Loewe Jonathan Anderson once said, “We have this perceived illusion of what the fashion designer does. As an industry, we make it out that this one individual changes the entire face of the earth. I have never said ‘me’; it’s always ‘we.’ I am just the big salesman.”
And while you may be fortunate enough to start a brand and never interact with consumers, more often than not being the face and allowing people to see your own humanity is what is going to bring you consumers in this age of transparency. There’s also the reality of so many
positions in fashion being condensed, with editors working at multiple brands instead of one, or covering all the market instead of just being a swimsuit editor who solely attends Miami Swim week shows and doesn’t bother with any of the clothing markets. The same goes in the design world, because running a full traditional atelier doesn’t financially make sense for most designers anymore, so being the face—and also the behind-the-scenes merchandiser, technician, and whatever is needed—is imperative.
So, what does this all mean for the future of fashion design? A lot more than it used to. Designer Marc Jacobs famously said, “Clothes mean nothing until someone lives in them.” The reality is that there are countless designers all over the world, but getting someone to choose your brand time and time again is what makes it all come alive. The instant language that fashion has become, representing what you stand for and whom you align yourself with has moved fashion designers from sitting in their own ivory towers to a place where connectivity and cultural expression are the most valuable tools. Getting to the bottom of what you want to communicate with your clothing is what most designers realize too late. If you are saying that you want people to have a certain flair and attitude, it has to evoke that in every stitch.
If you want people to feel like the elevated, better version of themselves, communicate what that means in the tailoring and ease of the design. If you want to reinvent what is aspirational and over-the-top, communicate your wildest dreams that will make people want to be part of them. I don’t believe it’s a designer’s job to make clothing for everyone, but there has to be someone in mind—someone just fabulous enough to pull it off, someone waiting to blossom in what you have made. You can make beautiful clothing that looks like art, but if no one is wearing or buying it, then you don’t have a business. So if you’re telling a story that’s already been told, don’t be surprised if no one is inspired to buy it. Telling a story that’s never been told, one that’s solely yours to tell, is what a designer is in today’s society.
Brands that are beholden to old-school business models (e.g., doing shows every season) and stuck in outdated traditions (e.g., creating garments solely for red-carpet moments) end up locked in a downward spiral of spending too much without a return in capital or engaged customers. Traditionalists in the fashion industry maintain that you have to have a certain pedigree and credentials to be in the trade and flourish, but the new wave of designers unapologetically come from all walks of life, proudly
bringing their opinions to center stage. Being decisive about what you stand for will sustain you much longer in the industry than any fancy education will. Becoming a fashion designer requires a great deal of reflection, awareness, and balancing of the practical and possible. Designers must take people out of their lives, to a different place and mind-set.
What you choose to put on the runway, show at a presentation, put in a look book, or post on Instagram matters because it can change someone’s mind. Yes, the business-minded designers behind brands like Christopher John Rogers, Chromat, and Rosie Assoulin have figured out the details of how much money they need and how to make it last, they have navigated how to stay true to themselves even when things didn’t sell, but above all else they’ve made the banal exciting, and that’s what it takes to shape the culture.
One thing I instantly noticed about Christopher John Rogers when I met him is that, unlike other young designers, he is the least concerned about superficial “likes” and is smart enough to know that popularity doesn’t make up for a lack of talent or good, old-fashioned work ethic. His aesthetic is very much his own, bringing together his Southern, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, roots and life
in New York as a black man. A purist in every way, he cares about the craftsmanship of everything—from his signature voluminous and ruffled dresses to the shapes and less-explored silhouettes in his new collection—and takes pride in the things most people think are too small to care about. There’s a certain finesse in every decision. Everything he creates challenges the idea of what modern women’s everyday clothing could be, balancing the drama with the everyday. When I think about a standout emerging designer from the past five years, Rogers first comes to mind because buying his clothing and following his journey on social media is like reading the diary of someone great before everyone knows it.
While reviewing the transcript from my interview with Rogers, there’s a certain ease and confidence in his voice that you don’t find in most emerging designers. He starts out by saying, “I want younger people to know that you can just embrace all of the specific nuances of the things that you like, and that will make your voice singular and complete.” There’s so much wisdom and knowledge in his background and references, but there’s also the realization that the best thing he has going for himself is his own identity. And in a sea of designers who struggle to find their niche, Rogers has succeeded
and become even less afraid of telling his personal story through his designs. He is still just as hungry was when he graduated from school (if not more so), focusing on digging deep within himself to find out what he wants to communicate and how he wants to feel.
That conversation led me to Becca McCharen-Tran of Chromat, who has been in the business almost ten years. Her progressive swimwear and bodywear designs are fun and futuristic—and welcome you just as you are. McCharen-Tran was one of the first designers to take size inclusivity seriously, especially in an area (beachwear) that has for so long excluded women who aren’t sample size. Ever since its inception, Chromat has been known for its inclusive casting, using models that are diverse in size, ability, race, and gender. The people who walk in Chromat runway shows and are cast in its campaigns have bodies that have traditionally been excluded from them. Yet McCharen-Tran feels that it’s innately important to her as a brand and human being to incorporate everyone. That consideration has been vital to her business and the greater good of the fashion industry since there are only a handful of designers who take representation as seriously as McCharen-Tran does.
Everything she makes is playful, most likely neon and
bright, but the designs are incredibly technical. Drawstrings were added a few seasons ago to most pieces since they provide a personalized fit for a range of body types, fabrics are all sourced from materials that are durable and don’t add waste to the environment, and there are regular fit tests to make sure that the size 4X swimsuit fits as well as the size small. Her most recent collection, designed in Miami, reflecting the dangers of climate change, since global warming and rising sea levels could one day very soon bring the reality of swimwear as everyday attire no matter where you live.
McCharen-Tran then led me to Rosie Assoulin, a creative ahead of her time whose aim is to give working women something beautiful and dramatic to make the weight of the world feel more bearable. Every piece has a bit of romance and flair yet is practical enough to throw on for a regular day. That’s an incredibly hard line to tow. You know a Rosie piece because it’s easy to wear, detailed, and has an element of surprise that makes it stand out. While she previously worked at Oscar de la Renta and Lanvin and won the CFDA Swarovski Award for Womenswear a year after launching her eponymous label, the most impressive thing about Assoulin is her ability to make everything a wearable piece of art.
Her collections incorporate bold colors and patterns. There is deep thought behind what fabric would be the most voluminous. Add a touch of effortless glamour and some small details that add a dash of humor. Even simpler pieces like a blazer are never just a blazer with Assoulin. She pushes the boundaries of contemporary suiting with not a single boring black blazer in sight. Instead it’s bright-blue corduroy with oversized lapels and a nipped waist.
Yes, most people in fashion start out animating their ideas after picking up magazines or following certain designers and trends. Rogers, McCharen-Tran, and Assoulin all did. But making a tangible piece out of imagery and experience is dependent upon an ability to create. All three designers have radically different viewpoints and are at very different stages in their careers. What unites them is an understanding that their mission as designers is about far more than clothes. It is essential to everyday life. Delving into the stories of these three people is my way of opening the pipeline so that young designers can have a chance and know the tools they need to be part of the fashion industry.
The first step is starting with the groundwork. The learned skills that are the bedrock of what it takes to turn
sketches into clothing and into a successful business and brand. There are so many creatives who are left out of the conversation because of a lack of planning, resources, connections, and transparency as to what it would take to get their lines started. A good friend once told me that working in fashion is like building a house, and building a fashion brand is exactly like that. You can constantly be working on smaller things, and it feels like nothing is getting done, but with the right materials, funding, and team, you start to see something appear before your eyes. It won’t happen overnight, but in the end, hopefully you’ve built a house that passionately says something to the world that you can call your own.