The fashion industry isn't all glamour - graduates have to get practical too

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The Independent Online

Although you may have aspirations for the type of job you want when you leave full-time education, sometimes our perception of an industry and a lifestyle doesn't quite match the reality. Jobs in fashion often fall into this trap. It's an exciting industry - one that allows you to use your creative skills - but what's it really like? Is it all catwalk chic? Here's our reality check on the industry and what it takes to be a fashion designer.

A REALITY CHECK

The glamour, excitement and potential travel are all reasons why each year thousands of students like you decide they want to become a fashion designer. But do you know what the job involves?

Fashion designers typically work within one of three areas: haute couture (the exclusive end of the market), designer ready-to-wear clothing, or high-street fashion. Typical responsibilities include analysing trends in fabric, colours and shapes, developing patterns, making and cutting patterns, overseeing production, supervising the making up of samples, and sourcing suppliers. "Working as a fashion designer can be very exciting and is great if you love shopping and travel," says Karen Bonser, design manager for Topshop. "However, a lot of my travel involves trips to not-so glamorous factories - it's not about going sightseeing in great locations."

It's also incredibly competitive finding a job in fashion. A 2003 survey completed by the Higher Education Statistics Agency highlighted that fewer than one in three fashion and textiles graduates who were in employment six months after graduation were employed in a design role. It is likely that the 10,000 students currently studying fashion and textiles-related courses at higher education level will have employment problems.

SKILLS REQUIRED

Skillfast-UK is responsible for working with employers to improve skills within the fashion industry. Its chief executive, Linda Florance, says: "Employers are concerned that fashion students often enter the industry without the technical skills needed to turn design ideas into reality. They don't understand employers' technical needs and concentrate purely on design skills."

Karen Bonser agrees: "I need recruits to boast technical skills, such as pattern-cutting and garment construction."

STAND OUT FROM THE CROWD

Design and technical skills alone are not enough to make you stand out from the crowd when applying for a job. You also need knowledge of sourcing, buying and marketing. As UK companies choose to manufacture overseas, due to costs, this knowledge is becoming increasingly important for designers.

Work experience is also important. One person who recognises this is Helena Carnegie. After winning a national competition, which was judged by fashion designer Julien Macdonald, she was invited to go on a placement to work on his 2006 winter collection. "The skills and knowledge I gained are proving invaluable," says Helena. "As a result of my placement and the associated networking opportunities, my confidence has grown significantly."

Even though Helena worked for Julien Macdonald, whose clients include Kylie Minogue, she is keen to point out that placements involve a lot of hard work. "I hand-sewed thousands of beads onto garments!" she says. "It was a job I enjoyed, but for some it may have felt a little tedious. However, to succeed as a fashion designer you need to be passionate and dedicated - even if that means starting at the bottom."

The ability to spot and develop fashion trends, a good eye for colour and texture, and an understanding of how fabrics can be used are also attributes required by employers.

GETTING THE RIGHT SKILLS

Head of qualifications and standards at Skillfast-UK, Jamie Petrie, says, "Anyone considering a further education course needs to ensure that they have the required qualifications. Next, it is important to choose a course that covers a broad range of skills, including technical skills. The BTEC National Diploma in fashion and clothing is a course you may consider, or perhaps a foundation degree."

Once you have chosen a course, you will be asked to attend an interview. "Not only does an interview allow tutors to ask you questions, it also gives you an opportunity to ask them questions, such as: are any of the tutors from the industry? Does the course include a work placement? What equipment is available? Does the institution have links with industry? You will then have to reconsider these questions, as well as costs, should you go onto study a degree," says Jamie.

EVER CONSIDERED BEING A...

It's not just the clothing sector that requires fashion designers! Footwear, jewellery and textiles also offer exciting opportunities - and these alternatives are more likely to have vacancies for designers than clothing.

If you have your heart set on becoming a fashion (clothing) designer, however, the opportunities may be more diverse than you realise. Consider a career as a pattern-cutter, for example. This involves taking designers' ideas to create pattern templates, which are created by hand or by using computer-aided design.

Debi Walker is a pattern-cutter. Her technical skills helped her reach the final of Sky One's Project Catwalk (aired earlier this year), and led her to work on Liz Hurley's beachwear collection.

"People often think that being a pattern-cutter is an unglamorous job," says Debi. "But my job can be glamorous and allows me to use my design skills. Being a pattern-cutter means I know which designs can become a reality. I use my knowledge to advise designers."

She adds, "Becoming a pattern-cutter meant that, unlike the thousands of fashion graduates who struggle to secure a job, I walked into a job immediately after leaving university as skills like mine are in demand."

Another option is to become a garment technologist. Supporting design and buying teams on product development, garment technologists provide advice on garment and fabric performance and the most effective methods of production.

WHAT NEXT?

To have a chance of becoming a successful fashion designer, you need the types of skills that employers look for in a new recruit - which means both design and technical skills. So, if you are considering going into further education, choose your course - and consider your career - wisely.

Find out more

www.careersinclothing.co.uk or www.londonfashionweek.co.uk

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