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How To Choose The Right Fashion School

I completely understand why this topic may seemingly come out of left field. And you're not wrong either. After all, why would a co-founder/designer want to discuss college admissions alongside topics such as career development or style tips and tricks?

Simply put, one of my greatest loves (more than designing or playing with puppies combined), is the encouragement of others in following creative pursuits. Despite what one may think, there is no age or time limit on such an act. You can get an A.A. degree, take online courses, or participate in singular classes in your free time. I do also get a lot of customers and friends who are interested in supporting their children in pursuing creative degrees. When I hear that, I think "yes!". I love the idea of fostering the creative identities of our future designers and artists. So if you have your own future Coco Chanel, I hope this article helps as well!

Whether you're looking to make a career out of fashion or interested in simply picking up a hobby, it can be hard to figure out where to start. There's a lot of mythicism that surrounds fashion. I'm here to help detangle some of that confusion. Straight from the mouth of a woman who endured four years at Parsons choosing between that gorgeous yard of silk chiffon or being able to order a protein with my meal. 

I kid, I kid. It was never a debate. The protein aways won. 

Your Options

Let's cut to the chase and talk options. It's hard to make a choice when you don't know what you're working with. This is by no means a comprehensive list. Many schools now offer fashion courses in varies depths. These are simply some of the more popular and specialized options.
  • Parsons School of Design - New York, NY - One of the most prestigious and famous options (bear with me, I'm biased). Founded in 1896, Parsons covers a wide range of disciplines and offers two-year, four-year, and online degrees. They also have partner schools, giving students an option to study abroad. 
    • Famous alumni include: Marc Jacobs, Donna Karen, Alexander Wang, and Tom Ford.
  • Fashion Institute of Technology - New York, NY - Part of the SUNY family, F.I.T. is one of New York's premier public institutions. With a heavy focus on fashion and technical skills, F.I.T. also boasts one of the most extensive and popular fashion archives and museums.
    • Famous alumni include: Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, Nanette Lepore, and Ralph Rucci.
  • Otis College of Art and Design - Los Angeles, CA - Otis is L.A,'s first independent professional school of art and design. In additional to traditional degrees, they also offer certificates, adult education, and youth classes.
    • Famous alumni include: Rick Owens, Dorothy Jeakins, and Kim Gordon.
  • Pratt Institute - New York, NY - Located on a stunning campus in Brooklyn, Pratt offers a beautiful middle ground between city-life and campus-life. They also offer a comprehensive program for a plethora of degrees, specializations, and even study abroad options.
    • Famous alumni include: Betsey Johnson, Jeremy Scott, and Norman Norell.

There's really no right answer - the "correct" choice often boils down to your lifestyle, goals, and preferences.

What's Your Specialization?

Contrary to popular belief, you don't really just study "fashion" at school. Similar to a subject like law, you'll end up specializing in criminal law, corporate law... or things like that (so I've heard). You'll have to forgive me. I may have a bachelor's degree, but it's in Fine Art. 

Within fashion design, there's actually a rich roster of specializations to choose from. There's the main branches - womenswear, menswear, kidswear, and accessories. From there, you'll find sub-categories where you can really get specific. For example, ready-to-wear, lingerie, tailoring, shoe design, couture, etc. 

When choosing a specialization, it's good to think about two things:

1. What do you love? You'll live and breathe this topic. Think about what specifically you love about fashion. Is it the glamor and luxury of a made-to-measure ball gown? Or are you obsessed with the glimmer of molding 18k gold with your hands to handcraft one-of-a-kind jewelry pieces? People can even make careers out of designing denim. If you love it, you can probably find something to do with it.

2. What do you want to do? Another misconception is that fashion isn't a practical degree. Well, we all wear clothes don't we? (At least in public, I hope. Although, you do you in the privacy of home). Be honest with yourself and what your goals are. Simply looking to pick up a new skill? By all means sign up for that hand-knitting course where you hand dye cashmere in indigo. Trying to pad a retirement fund? Maybe you should look into ready-to-wear.

Personally, I loved the idea of creating clothing that people truly lived in, the power and confidence a garment could provide, and the storytelling done through fashion. Choosing to pursue a women's ready-to-wear specialization allowed me to master the details and practicalities to create a brand of clothing women turn to day in and day out. And that's a responsibility I take very seriously.

What Do I Actually Do At Fashion School?

A lot, to be honest. If you asked the haggard nineteen-year-old me running down 5th Ave. juggling a bolt of fabric in one hand and PR samples in another while trying to simultaneously wolf down a bagel, well, she'd say too much. 

In all seriousness, design is actually a very technical degree. While the specifics and depth of learning will depend on the type of degree/course you choose, you'll generally have to master the following:

2D - Every design needs a blueprint. You'll learn how to take your ideas and put them onto paper. It can range from technical drawings drawn to scale with perfect measurements, or illustrations leaning towards the artistic. Depending on the degree, it can be very trade specific such as learning how to draw flats on the computer that you'll send to factories, or you'll take figure drawing classes where you'll be exposed to enough naked forms to last a lifetime. Definitely speaking from experience.

3D - Fashion is meant to be worn, and thus it must be taken off the paper and into real life. Here's you'll learn about materials and how to craft them into things people wear. That could include a range of things such as machine sewing, knitting, leatherwork, etc. Fashion is a degree where you'll work with your hands, and in my opinion, there's so much beauty to be found in that. 

I Did It! Now What?

It's really up to you! At the risk of sounding too whimsical, what you do with life (and subsequently your degree) is really up to you and your goals. For a traditionalist such as myself, I made a kickass portfolio (according to my mother), and hit the pavement sending out resumes until I ended up in Germany designing for ESPRIT. 

The beauty of fashion is that it's so vast. Both in what you can do with your degree, but also in the types of fashion houses that exist. If structure is your jam, there are plenty of corporate fashion houses ready and waiting with a 401K and M-F schedule. Finding yourself with more of a conceptual disposition? There are tons of successful fashion brands that remain independent and true to the creative spirit.

Where you choose to work ultimately depends on your personality and your goals in life.

Tips From The Designer

Everyone's story is unique and there's never a blanket answer to figuring out one's path in life. As a designer with experience ranging from sending hand finished pieces down a runway during NYFW to designing mass market pieces produced in the tens of thousands, I've picked up a few life lessons along the way. Other than never, ever, ever enter an empty subway car in New York (it's always a trap), here are some of my tips to finding your bearings in fashion.

1. Intern If You Can - Interning is the best way to figure out what you like without any commitment. I seriously thought I wanted to create evening gowns for special occasions, until I interned at a company and learned that "special occasion" was code for "we make gowns for celebrities once a year, and the rest of our business is prom".

2. There's No Right Answer, But You Can Make A Plan - While you can't ever really predict how life will go, you can certainly do your best to plan for the future. Think about what you'd like to do within fashion, and what it would take to achieve those goals. Want to do costume design for Broadway? You should probably find your way to New York City. Absolutely obsessed with surf and skate wear? Try and find an internship in Southern California. Do your research. Look up where your dream companies are headquartered. Look into designers you admire and how they got to where they are today. 

3. Advocate For Yourself - There's a difference between paying your dues and being taken advantage of. Unfortunately, fashion is a tough industry and nobody will have your best interests in mind except for yourself. Remember your worth, and don't let anyone forget it. While I've had the privilege of being mentored by compassionate and talented designers, I've also had the misfortune of being taken advantage of by unkind bosses. And looking back, the only thing I regret was not setting boundaries and sticking up for myself as a young designer.

Looking at you, boss number three who made me sew her kid's Halloween costume and found an odd and specific joy in judging me for being a Virgo. At least I came out of the job with spectacular hand-eye coordination. After all, those nine coffees aren't going to balance themselves.

4. Diversify Your Education - Finding your specialization is important, but it's also helpful to pad your education. It makes you a well-rounded designer, gives you flexibility, and room to shift within the industry. While my formal education was in women's ready-to-wear, I'm still glad that I took courses in accessory design. Even if it's not my forte, it allowed me to have a working knowledge of the field when launching jewelry and handbags. 

5. Have Fun - Seriously! At the end of the day, fashion is a form of self-expression and art. The beauty of design is that there are no wrong answers. Find your voice, push your boundaries, and extend yourself as an individual and as a designer. 

About the Author

Stephanie is the co-founder and designer of KESTAN. When she's not busy running the business alongside her brother, you can find her generally hiding from civilization behind a good book or bowl of ice cream. Either works. She's not a particularly picky woman.


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