Design School vs the Real World: Things I Learned

I quit my day job to go back to school at Parsons in their Associates Fashion Design program. I had one goal: learn how to making clothing so that I can start my own business. Parsons was an intense two-year whirlwind. I learned a lot and I learned it very quickly. I did indeed learn how to make clothing, however, I didn’t learn some of the valuable skills that I needed to launch Eenvoud.

Much of what I needed to learn to launch a clothing brand was learned in the real world. Here is what I learned in Parsons vs. the real world

5 Disciplines I learned in Design School

1. Sketching  

Several of my required classes at Parsons were fashion illustration classes. These classes were so fun and my professors were incredible artists themselves. We would spend each class period learning drawing techniques with a model posing in the middle of the room. While these classes were probably my favorite part of my Parsons experience, I don’t actually use my drawing skills to design. At most, I draw a rough sketch to figure out the shape of the garment that’s stuck in my mind. I love the concept of creating beautiful sketches for each garment that I design, but in truth I don’t have the need or the time for that.

2. Draping  

Draping is the process of draping and pinning fabric on a dress form to develop the structure of a garment. Along with some rough sketching, knowing how to drape well has been incredibly beneficial to me and is generally how I design my garments.

Tip: Check out Draping for Fashion Design, the definitive guide to draping. It’s a great read for every designer, student or professional.

3. Patternmaking

Patternmaking is the process of creating a flat pattern for your garment on paper. Much like the blueprint for a building, pattern making is a complicated science. Designers must have a basic understanding of pattern making in order to truly understand the way that a garment is constructed; however, most designers never need to touch a pattern. They have professional pattern makers that they partner with. While I could create my own patterns, I work with an amazing patternmaker, Iris, who creates all of our patterns for us. Iris has been patternmaking her entire life. Why do something if you can hire someone that can do it much better than you?

4. Sewing

One of the very first skills that I learned at Parsons was how to sew on an industrial sewing machine. I had never touched a sewing machine before and learned how to sew corners, pockets and buttons in the very first week. It’s pretty cool to be able to sit down and sew a garment for myself whenever I want to, but these days, I hardly touch my sewing machine. At most, I’ll use it to sew up something that I’ve draped, but usually my patternmaker does this for me. It is, however, very useful to understand basic sewing principles. I recommend The Complete Guide to Sewing for anyone wanting to learn on their own.

5. Self Discipline

The awesome thing about the Associates Program at Parsons is that nobody has to be there – it’s not an undergrad program. Everybody in the program chose to be there and wanted to be there. Hence, everyone had self-discipline in spades. While I’m a very disciplined person, Parsons pushed me to my limits, often with 2-3 all nighters a week and 16-hour work days. There was no better way to prep me for starting my own business. You’ve got to want it bad enough to make it through design school.

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4 Things I Learned in the Real World

1. Fitting

Something that I did not learn to do at Parsons was to fit and correct a garment on a model. This is an incredibly crucial step in creating a garment and I’m not sure why it isn’t taught. I’m fortunate to work as a fit model and have learned everything that I needed to from my personal experiences. Many big companies have technical designers that help to fit garments alongside the designers; however, I can’t imagine not knowing how to correct a garment that doesn’t fit. The fit of a garment is everything.

2. How to Create a Tech Pack

Another skill that I didn’t learn in design school was how to create a tech pack, which is essentially the instruction manual that you hand off to a factory so that they can properly create your garment. A tech pack includes sketches, specs, material info and sewing instructions. This too is a vital skill. I ended up taking additional classes post-Parsons to get myself up to speed.

3. Production

I left design school without a firm understanding of how production works. I was still left with several questions. What do I do once I have a pattern? How do I find a factory? How do I talk to a factory? How long does production typically take? These were all things that I figured out on my own. While all of these questions are easy to figure out, this knowledge is vital to fashion design and should be taught in school as well. Fortunately, there are amazing companies like Maker’s Row to help you figure all of this out.

Giveaway: Maker’s Row is giving you access to their list of Small Batch Manufacturers in America. Use code SMALLBATCH123 to subscribe here

4. Business Skills

I didn’t learn any business skills in design school. There was a class offered on entrepreneurship, but it was an elective class that I didn’t have room for my in my already packed course schedule. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources out there to help out young designers and entrepreneurs. I ended up participating in a 6-month design accelerator called Factory45, which helped me immensely to form a well-defined business.

To Study, Or Not to Study

If you want to become a fashion designer and are considering design school, ask yourself what kind of designer you want to be. If you’d like to work for a clothing brand, then you’ll probably want to get some sort of degree. If, however, you intend to start your own company, then I would humbly advise against design school.

  1. Many design companies do value beautifully drawn sketches and having a full-fledged portfolio is crucial to landing a job at a big design firm.
  2. Many internships these days also require that you’re able to receive college credit.
  3. Design school requires a substantial financial commitment (hello $40k of student debt) and time commitment

There are so many resources available to entrepreneurs who want to make the leap into design. If you’re managing a full-time job, consider enrolling in affordable night or continuing education classes on the weekends. Maker’s Row also offers a Sourcing 101 E-Course for emerging designers and growing brands alike who want to build their sourcing supply chain and produce in America. Enroll here.

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  • https://www.facebook.com/TheSourcingDistrict?ref=br_rs Jay Arbetman

    This was an excellent read and the author makes a couple of terrific points. The skill set taught in “design school” may prepare you for a job but not for the task of indie designer. Keep in mind that the author went to one of the better schools. After Savanah, FIT. Parsons and a hand full of others, it is a steep drop. MANY for profit schools do not even train you for the scarce jobs that Jesse referred to. Many corporate entities significantly discount the value of a degree from many “art” schools.

    I thought that Jesse’s comments about sewing were spot on. This is the kind of skill that you need to create economically sustainable clothing. How do you know what is difficult to sew if you have not been exposed to sewing?

    One other element I want to bring up. Cost of education. As the father of two college students I can tell you with great certainty that you do not want to exit any school with 10’s of thousands of dollars in debt (or more). I’ve seen reasonable priced alternatives that can give you some of the basics for a whole lot less money than some of the for profit schools. There are worthy fashion programs in some community colleges or Jr. Colleges. Many public universities have fabulous programs (U of Texas at Austin comes to mind) and if you are a resident of the state, you may run into a more affordable situation.

    Whatever you do, think long and hard about borrowing money to go to design school. 9 out of 10 times, this will be a mistake.

    • Jennifer Philbrook

      Great Article! I want to second what Jay says about sewing: “How do you know what is difficult to sew if you have not been exposed to sewing?” yes, yes and more yes!! I also went to design school and have found that my exposure to sewing AND pattern making has been super beneficial. I agree that a seasoned pattern maker is the way to go, but understanding some basic principles can really help when developing a product.

  • David Chen

    I went to a pretty cheap design school in terms of money (CSULB), and for the dollars its a great deal. The problem is that it was a 5 year program with 3 years worth of material. Thankfully being in Socal, there are a ton of local classes I can enroll in with community colleges and art center at night. None of it is anything like actually trying to start a business though, and I’m really fortunate to be doing this in the age of google. One thing I noticed about school in general is that professors who try to teach things they’ve never personally done (like starting a business) are doing more harm than good. We had an “entrepreneur” project in senior studio that was riddled with bad advice, wrong facts, and zero direction.

    • leannael

      God knows. I taught in design schools, and my biggest peeve was teachers who had NO fashion industry experience. BTW, a good idea is to work in the industry for at least five years before starting your own business.

  • Jason Maderight

    As a manufacturer, the biggest difference between working with someone from a fashion school and someone who is experienced is in the Points Of Measurements(POM) in the tech packs. I notice that many designers work with illustrations and body measurements. However, when working with a manufacturer, we use tech packs to execute production with accuracy and precision. Also, when you start working with a real manufacturer, you don’t need to make patterns, markings, etc. We will end up making our own patterns when we start sampling. It’s an easier process to control. Let me know if you need a sample techpack.

  • leannael

    If those are the author’s sketches, he/she’d better draw a line down the center of the pants. That’s the best way to show you don’t know construction. Must put the center seam in pants.