Designer clothes. Killer shoes. Jet-setting. Hair. Make-up. Runway. The parties. The crew. The freedom. Those damn bodies!
Last month alone, thousands of new college graduates determined to make their name in fashion are going to be vying for coveted internship and assistant level openings in this $385.7 billion market. From the outsider looking in, the fashion industry (and those that are allowed in) has it all. The lure of this fantasy lifestyle drives new designers to enter the fashion rat race, year after year.
The harsh reality is that working in the fashion industry often means working daunting hours, in dysfunctional, toxic working environments, earning poor wages, and even subjecting yourself to abuse on various levels. It also often means that you are working in the most cutthroat, competitive and costly cities in the world. I can personally speak of working environments that were unfair, unsafe, and unapologetically so. You are being asked to push yourself further and further; to give more of yourself than you could probably imagine being capable of. There are tears. There are egos. There is a lot of proving yourself required. There are people with immense talent being overlooked for all of the wrong reasons. Then, there are also the most hard-working, smart, creative and insanely loyal people.
There have been times in my career that my morality has had to guide my direction as an employee; to stand up to my boss in situations that I could not just accept and participate in. Those times had me question what I was doing in an industry like this one in the first place and how I could get out. In an industry known for questionable work environments, you will need to know when and how to stand your ground if needed. As intimidating as that may be, more often than not, you will thank yourself for doing so.
In a somewhat surprising survey by Business of Fashion, they found the majority of fashion industry professionals surveyed to be satisfied with their job. They are also claiming that young professionals at the beginning of their careers and interns, who have been mythically mistreated and unhappy, (re: Devil Wears Prada anyone?) are actually quite satisfied. If you look in the comments section of the BoF article, you’ll see that others are calling bluff here. However, I cansee interns claiming they are satisfied with their jobs. First of all, the nature of an internship is short-term. Most jobs take some time to dislike. Second, interns are typically interning in order to gain experience and to advance their career. An intern is often not already well-versed in their industry from a professional level, which can lead to being easily impressed and difficult to disappoint. I am sure that there is some level of dissatisfaction from internships that come from varying causes, more likely aligned with mistreatment or lack of learning opportunities.
I can personally attest to my peers, friends and colleagues in fashion being deeply dissatisfied with their jobs over the first 10+ years of their careers. Some have left (or have repeatedly threatened to leave) the industry all together. Many stay because even with what they have to endure to keep afloat, it is the most attractive and exciting option they can find. At the end of the day, they just love working in fashion and hold out hope that one of these days they will get the promotion they deserve, find the job that is perfect for them, or go to work for their dream brand!
Middle-management employees surveyed as the most unsatisfied employees in the industry, which I can see as well. The pressure to perform in this industry is insane. There is pressure in any job that you do, of course. In fashion though, the placement of a bow, or the color of a trim can literally feel like life or death. In a middle management role you are likely more advanced in your career and in your life. You are now juggling work and a changing home life and this industry is not always the most understanding of work/life balance. (That exists somewhere right?) Depending on the city and company you work for, the culture may be set up to expect you to work till 2:00 am and be back in the office by 9:00 am. There may be weekend hours needed or lengthy travel schedules that demand you to be at the mercy of your employer.
Finally, you gain enough experience to make it to top management or the C-suite, or you grow enough balls to start your own business. Your reward? Being supremely happy! This tier surveyed at a 74% rate of job satisfaction. I mean, if you start your own business, an important detail would be for you to love what you do. So that part seems to make sense. This is most likely also the tier to have the most impact on the company around them, which can be quite satisfying.
I believe a lot of people enter the fashion industry under false pretenses of freedom. Who doesn’t want freedom? Instead, employees find the exact opposite in most settings. It is still a very lucrative and commercially driven industry. Freedom typically comes with power in your role. And freedomshould be considered a loose term.
Entrepreneurs have a much higher job satisfaction than the rest. That does not mean they are exempt from the stress of the industry by any means. Just this past year, I heard Rebecca Minkoff, owner of Rebecca Minkoff and cofounder of the Female Founder Collective, who has been in business for 14 years, asked, at what point as a brand do you know you’ve made it? Her response is what I think we all feel but try our best not to let anyone know. The answer was, never. Even after 14 years of running a successful brand, the next season you must repeat that success, and every season after that. There is no stopping in this industry.
So what does this mean for the next generation of fashion industry professionals? Is this a warning to heed? Is this to say, “Do not do it? Find a different career!” Absolutely not! After all I’ve been through in this industry, the ups, downs, wins and defeats. The late nights, the crazy travel schedule, the pushing of myself. I would not change it for the world. The fashion industry will try to break you. If you can make it through the gauntlet of proving yourself and finding your path, or starting your brand and building your following, the benefit is immense.
Here are just a few tips for getting in, and staying in, the fashion industry. (And loving every minute of it.)
- Be willing to prove yourself.
No project is too big or too small.
- Dress to impress, always.
When you work in fashion, your style can be your calling card.
- Your network is your net worth.
There’s sometimes a very long line from assistant to CEO. Always network up. It’s great to spend time with your peers at company events, etc, but they are not paying your check or signing off on your promotion. Cultivate relationships with people in senior level employees as soon as you can.
- Learn everything!
If you’re creative, learn about sales numbers and margins. If you’re a buyer, learn about the design process, or about quality and construction. Build well rounded knowledge about the whole process, not only your specific role.
- Know where your moral compass points, and stay there.
If a boss is asking you to do something you do not feel comfortable with, say no in the most respectful way you can. Full disclosure, it could jeopardize your job at certain companies, but it could also gain you respect from your manager knowing you are willing to stand up for what you believe in.
- Take the show on the road if needed.
If you live in one of the major fashion cities, that is fantastic! These days, though, if you are passionate about fashion, you can find or create opportunities to work in this industry from anywhere in the world. My clients (a few highlighted here) live all over the country and are all pursuing their dreams to build a brand where they can find the ultimate in job satisfaction for years to come!
Do you have a story to share about your job satisfaction in the fashion industry? As always, we’d love to hear from you!