Glut of Aspiring Fashion Designers Unmatched By Job Opportunities for Graduates

Finding a job after finishing a fashion design course can be tough. Peter Bernik/Shutterstock.com

About $250 billion is spent on fashion in the US each year, with annual revenue adding up to more than $20 billion. But despite the huge desire for new clothing, the supply of fashion designers is greater than demand with an ever-growing number of budding designers unmatched by a corresponding increase in fashion design jobs. Experts have dubbed this phenomenon the “Project Runway Effect.”

The popularity of fashion careers is also growing as social media brings it greater exposure, with Instagram models and Facebook fan pages that glamorize such jobs. According to the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the Department for Education, there were 17,370 “fashion designer” jobs in the US in 2013. Each year, about 10 percent of the total job pool graduates from undergraduate programs and enters the industry, creating oversupply, says the Business of Fashion.

And over in the UK, more than 30 colleges and universities offer fashion degree courses in addition to private institutions such as the Condé Nast College of Fashion and Istituto Marangoni (which also has campuses in Milan, Paris and Shanghai).

Either via attrition or market growth, the US fashion sector would have to employ 1,700 new fashion design graduates each year, but the gap between the number of wannabee designers are jobs continues to grow.

Marie Hunt, owner and designer at New Jersey-based bridal boutique Headpiece.com, attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in the early 1980s, when job prospects were stronger than today. But no one handed her work upon graduation either.

“When it was time to apply for jobs I would pass by the Career Center to see if there were any job postings on the bulletin board. I don’t recall ever seeing anything available in my specialty of intimate apparel. I had to approach the job world basically on my own,” she says.

“No cell phones, no email, no internet, just the Yellow Pages and directories that you actually had to comb through to find companies and research their area of design.”

But, she adds, “I went on 14 interviews and was offered 12 positions. My FIT degree and awards were very valuable in getting me in the door.”

After graduating from design school, Hunt worked as a designer for International Playtex. After having her first child, she decided to stay at home and started her bridal business out of her home. In 1999 when her third child began school, she opened her retail showroom in Pompton Plains, New Jersey, welcomed celebrities including actress Tara Reid and saw her business featured on the covers of bridal magazines.

Parsons School of Design in New York City student Caroline Volz says that having a top design school on your resume opens an incredible amount of doors.

I applied to a lot of top fashion houses for internships after graduating from Gettysburg College with a fine arts degree and most people never got back to me despite my pestering. But, once I had that Parsons connection, I was having to turn down a number of internship offers,” she says.

And, despite the competition for jobs, she is confident about her prospects. “Once you make connections and have a number of internships under your belt, I would presume it’s not too hard to get hired,” she says.

Today, BA tuition fees come in at an average of $18,000 per year while MA tuition costs upward of $23,000 per year. Yet in 2010, people with fashion-related jobs were typically paid less than the average for all occupations, at around $45,000 a year.

At Parsons tuition alone costs about $21,000 a year. The entire course will cost Volz more than what most designers make in a year. Each studio class that she takes also costs her between $100 and $200 in supplies, and Volz anticipates that amount will rise this semester, when she starts creating garments for her portfolio using higher end materials.

Students are looking for an adequate return on their investments, and a degree from fashion design schools like FIT or Parsons are expected to provide that—but others say that even the top institutions could be giving students false hope.

In a tough job market, some fashion designers are creating jobs for themselves. wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock.com

In a tough job market, some fashion designers are creating jobs for themselves. wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock.com

The Business of Fashion recently released its Global Fashion School Rankings—the first list of the top 21 institutions in the world for a fashion-related BA. It is based on data pulled from fashion schools, surveys of more than 4,000 students and alumni, and feedback from human resource professionals and global influencers.

Among the best undergraduate schools, Central St. Martins was top, which has an expansive list of respected alumni including Stella McCartney and Riccardo Tisci. Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo came in second place and Kingston University took third. For the master’s programs, British schools Royal College of Art and CSM took the first and second spots, while Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp in Belgium placed third.

Upon graduation, students largely reported dissatisfaction with their jobs. Many took roles outside of fashion, admitting that they felt unprepared to retain full-time employment or start their own business because they had not received practical training in areas such as business management.

Just 57 percent were satisfied with careers services, and 53 percent with networking events. Only 49 percent were satisfied with the quality of recruiters on campus and 58 percent with the business training offered to them. Just over half of the students, 54 percent, were satisfied with work placement opportunities and even fewer, 44 percent, of students were satisfied with teaching on sustainability in the curriculum. The most reputable schools, including Central Saint Martins and The Royal Academy of Arts in Antwerp received scored among the lowest.

A recent CSM graduate commented in the survey, “It’s one of the most prestigious schools in the world when it comes to fashion and just that in itself opened a lot of doors for me. There is a lot of controversy around the training at CSM, though—like the fact that we didn’t have one single technical class or business course throughout our BA. If you want to have that, you are told, you can go somewhere else.”

Another respondent said, “Brilliant school, brilliant exposure, zero help afterwards. Based on your own intuitions to get a job, no agencies or industry links provided.”

Though some students blame over-enrollment, not everyone agrees with this assessment.

Volz says the Parsons career development department isn’t exactly helpful, noting that she got her most recent internship at Tory Burch by networking, and cautions that students will have to put in plenty of work to land themselves a position.

“You may have a phenomenal portfolio but if you don’t have the personality and work ethic to match the company then you’re just out of luck,” she adds. “I imagine it would be really disheartening for people having to put themselves through school, thinking they are about to work in this glamorous industry, then only find out how incredibly tough and competitive it is. On top of all of that, talented designers make very little money.

“I think a lot of people don’t fully realize what it takes to be a designer,”she adds. “It’s one hell of a long and expensive process, but if you’re really passionate about it, then it’s definitely worth the time.”

Hunt adds that even talented budding designers cannot sit back and hope that they will be noticed.  

“You’ve been given a gift…the designer brain, as I call it. Don’t expect someone or some department to land you a job. Make yourself stand out, let your passion show through and use your designer brain to do the unexpected.”