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  • Writer's pictureMikelle Drew

Don't Enroll in Fashion School Before You Read This!

Updated: May 20, 2023

8 alternatives to fashion school
8 alternatives to fashion school

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This can become somewhat of a controversial topic, a matter of opinion and may seem really counterintuitive since I’m an Adjunct Professor at two design colleges, but you don’t NEED to go to fashion school if you want to become a fashion designer or start a fashion brand. And I’m going to tell you why!

Let me start by saying that I am a HUGE proponent of educating yourself and of higher education. If you have the financial means and the time to go to a fashion school, you should definitely do it. There are so many advantages to going to a design school before starting your career or your brand so if you can, DO IT!

That said, there is a very large group of people who are very interested in becoming a fashion designer or starting a fashion brand but do NOT have the financial means or the time to go to a college or university. And those are the people I’m talking to today.

So if you have no interest in taking out loans and going into debt to go to school or you’ve already been to school once, and you are NOT tryna spend another 4 years in school, keep reading for 8 alternatives to a traditional 2 or 4 year college to learn what you need to become a fashion designer and get your fashion brand started.

For those of you who have the financial means, but time is an issue, note that there are accelerated design programs that will teach you the main skills you’d need to be a fashion designer. I know that there is a 1 year program at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and I teach a lot of those students every year. There’s also other programs around the country, some of which are completely online if that works best for you, and many focus on business and entrepreneurship, which is also great for those of you looking to start a brand.

The other thing to consider, especially if you already have a degree, is a certificate program. Many certificate programs offer courses that fit more easily into the schedule of someone who is working or has a family, and you can finish the program in 1-2 years, taking 1 or 2 classes per semester vs 2-4 years taking 3-5 classes per semester. It’s a significant reduction not only in time but often in money as well and will allow you to start your career or your brand that much sooner.

Now, if finances are the issue, I can’t tell you that there is a completely free route. Learning as you go and trying to find free information and experimenting is a great way to learn. But it’s also an expensive way to learn. You’ll hear people talk about taking a class to get you to your goal faster, and that is true. But I’m more concerned with the financial ramifications.

Experimenting, trying out things, doing it on a whim, throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks is often much more expensive in terms of your money and your time than making a strategic plan and working with coaches or taking good courses that will teach you how to get to your destination and execute your plan. So, if you can’t go to school or register for a certificate program (or just don’t want to), here are 8 alternative fashion (or fashion related) courses I suggest you take to at least get you a solid start:

1. A business and/or entrepreneurship course.

You may think that my first recommendation would be something fashion related but at the heart of any fashion business is just that: a business. And when you start your fashion business, you should have some idea of how to run a business and how to make money, which is the difference between you having a business and having a hobby.

Fashion designer sitting at a desk, looking at her computer. Dress form with tape measures draped on it sits behind her near a window with sketches taped to it.
Understanding business basics is essential for any designer starting a fashion business.

And where a lot of creative businesses fall short is that they’re great with the creative but not well versed at all in the business part. And so their very creative fashion “business” is really a very creative fashion “hobby”, and that eventually fails because they don’t understand how to run a business. It’s the main reason we started the From Pencil to Production competition. So designers could learn how to build a sustainable and profitable business that they can support themselves with.

2. A sewing course.

This is less about learning to sew and more about learning how garments are put together (i.e. construction). I mentioned in a previous YouTube video that not every designer has to be a top notch sewer, but every designer should really understand construction. And you’d probably be hard pressed to find a course on construction. (Probably the next closest course would be a pattern making course.)

But you’ll definitely be able to find a sewing course that will help you understand how garments are constructed, and this will help you understand how better to design and construct your own garments. And when I say construct a garment, I don’t necessarily mean you having to sew them yourself, but at some point, you’ll want to draw your idea, and understanding construction will help you create a more detailed and accurate sketch that illustrates your design intent.

3. A textiles or fabric course.

A few semesters ago, when my students presented their designs, I got into the habit of asking them, “Is this a woven or a knit?” The first time I did it, I was really surprised how many students had no idea what I was talking about, but then I thought about it, and when I was in school, I’m not sure I’d know the answer either. So someone who's not already in fashion or not a sewer probably wouldn’t know that either.

Hands of a designer feeling fabric swatches. Lots of different fabric swatch options of a card are in front of her.
As a designer, an understanding of fabrics is essential when sourcing materials for your design.

Understanding fabric and how to make good fabric choices is key to creating a great product. You can have a great design that executes terribly because of your fabric choices. So learning and understanding why you’d choose a woven vs. a knit, why cotton is a fiber not a fabric, how the drape of silk satin is different from a silk charmeuse, why you need interfacing, what is interfacing, all of those questions and more are really helpful and important to know and can be answered with a good textiles class.

4. A sketching course, specifically a technical sketching course.

Sketching is the visual language of a designer. It’s how we get our design ideas across to others. So while you can have someone else create your sketches, I vehemently believe that every designer should be able to do some type of sketch that shows their design ideas. And that doesn’t mean you have to be the best sketcher in the world. Nor does it mean you have to be an illustrator.

Computer with fashion design flat sketches on the screen. Flat sketches we drawn in Adobe Illustrator.
Every designer should be able to create a flat sketch, or technical sketch, of their design.

A flat sketch is a very versatile sketch that every designer can (and should master), and if you’re one of those people who have said before, “I can’t draw”, these are sketches that you WILL be able to draw.

Now, if you’re a follower of the 383 Design YouTube channel, I talk about flat sketches all the time and how important they are. And using Illustrator to draw them. So if you don’t know how to use Illustrator for Fashion Design or you’ve been dabbling in it and it hasn’t clicked for your yet, you haven’t had your “aha” moment, I invite you to take my online class or contact me for private tutoring so you can start sketching your designs or perfecting those flat sketches in Illustrator and then go onto getting samples (and eventually bulk production) of your new designs.

5. A merchandising course.

This is a topic that I think is wildly neglected by designers, and I know when I was in school, I really didn’t understand the value in merchandising a line or why it’s so important. Fashion merchandising involves planning your line so that you are showing the right product and the right assortment at the right time.

A lot of new designers get into trouble, spending lots of money creating these very large and elaborate collections before they either have a following or have proof of concept. Understanding how to merchandise your line will help you understand what products or styles you should be carrying, what colors, how many SKUs, even how to price those items correctly, so that you’re set up for success.

6. A fashion manufacturing course.

Once you’ve got people saying “yes, I want to buy your design”, now, you have to produce it. And that’s a whole topic in itself.

Black and white photo of hands using a sewing machine.
Take a course to learn the nuances and language of speaking with a manufacturer.

To go overseas or produce domestically, what questions should you ask the manufacturer when you’re interviewing them, how do you incorporate their information into your costing and delivery, how do you determine if their production is ethical, what’s an MOQ?

These are all questions that a good fashion manufacturing course can help you with so when you approach a factory to produce your line, you’ll know exactly what questions to ask and understand the information they’re giving you.

7. A marketing or fashion marketing course.

Lastly, you need to know how to promote and sell all those wonderful items you are producing. And truthfully, you may be better off marketing your products BEFORE you manufacture them, so this course may be one you take prior to the manufacturing course. Or even in tandem so that you’re putting out accurate information in terms of cost and delivery as you promote your products.

African American women with curly hair holding and speaking into a bullhorn.
You have to MARKET your products in order to sell them to your audience.

Many creatives work on a "Field of Dreams" model, but “If you build it, they will come” only works if you’re a celebrity. (And sometimes, it don’t work for them either.) People, even your own community and followers, don’t know what you offer so you have to tell them. And you have to do it often, which always seems so weird, but you need to get used to repeating your story.

There’s an old marketing rule that’s called the Rule of 7 which says that a potential customer needs to see or hear your marketing message at least 7 times before they buy from you.

See it or hear it.

Think about the people you follow on social media and how many posts, even for people you like, that you miss. So that inevitably means you have to talk about your brand and your collection more than 7 times. You have to talk about it regularly! Marketing your brand and your collection is an ongoing process, and a fashion marketing course will help you understand how to strategize and do it well.

How to find independent fashion courses

Now, when you’re searching for these courses, Google is definitely your best friend. Some of the major design schools are now starting to offer online fashion courses, but there are also lots of independent schools and teachers, like myself, that offer great courses for a fraction of what you might pay through some of the larger schools. And don’t be afraid to pay a bit more for a good course. It’s an investment in yourself, your business, and ultimately, will save you time and money.

At the same time, not all great courses cost a fortune so do your research. I usually like to look people up on YouTube or LinkedIn so I can see if there are some examples of their teaching style and who they’ve worked for. And almost every course these days have reviews so check those out as well.

Regardless of where you go to learn, stop waiting. Just start! And once you decide to start, take action! I know this probably sounds corny, but like Nike says, “Just do it!”

Thanks for reading today's blog! If you want to take a great Illustrator for fashion sketching course, check out my online class, Illustrator for Fashion Design Sketching: Level 1 or you can schedule a call with me to do private tutoring.

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