How to get your first job in fashion design, by a John Lewis fashion designer
Elena King, assistant fashion designer with John Lewis Partnership and former graduate at Abercrombie & Fitch, reveals her best tips for securing a job in a competitive industry.
You have to put yourself out there and seize any opportunities because employers won’t come chasing after you.
Elena King was scouted by Abercrombie & Fitch before she graduated from her fashion design degree from Manchester Metropolitan University two years ago. She worked for the American retailer for a year and then returned to the UK, where she was working as an assistant menswear designer with John Lewis Partnership when she spoke with us.
Was the route you took the typical route into fashion design?
Elena says: ‘There aren’t many graduate schemes in fashion design so many graduates enter the industry through entry-level roles. My route was quite typical in that respect, but it took a lot of work because I had to prepare for interviews at the same time as doing my university work. I felt lucky that I was scouted by Abercrombie & Fitch but I had worked very hard. I know friends who did internships and went on to get permanent jobs from that but it doesn’t always work out; sometimes the employer wants to keep you but they don’t have enough budget to hire you as a paid designer. It’s such a competitive industry that you always have to keep proving you’re worth it for your employer.
‘I also have friends who went abroad – some went to China. Moving to another country shows how dedicated and adaptable you are. You have to put yourself out there and seize any opportunities because employers won’t come chasing after you.’
How should graduates approach the application process for jobs in fashion design?
Elena says: ‘The best thing to do is take every opportunity that’s offered, even if you feel like your work isn’t good enough. Many fashion design graduates hold back from applying when they don’t think they’re ready but it’s better to just go for it because it’s still a learning experience and you will always get valuable and constructive feedback that you can take on board and learn from.’
How can graduates prepare for interviews in fashion design?
Elena says: ‘I prepared projects for all the interviews I was offered and I think it made the difference to being offered a second interview. Many graduates might not think to prepare a project when it’s not requested outright by the employer, but it shows you have initiative.
‘I already had a portfolio from the work I did at university and with Abercrombie & Fitch, but it wasn’t the right style for John Lewis. Doing a new project showed I understood what the John Lewis brand was and who its customers were. It showed I could be adaptable. So I put together an autumn/winter menswear collection for the following year. Designing the garments comes naturally to a designer but I put a lot of effort into understanding the customer and the design style. I spent between two and four days on each project. It’s a lot of work but even if your interview is with an employer you’re not especially interested in, you should still prepare a project because it’s a good experience that will build your confidence.’
What advice do you have for graduates going to interviews in fashion design?
Elena says: ‘Being confident is an advantage. If you let your interview nerves show too much, people deal with you differently. Always practice talking through your portfolio with a friend or family, you might find it will help your confidence. Try not to think about the people you’re in direct competition with – you might never even see them. Concentrate on doing plenty of research on the company and making sure you know what you’re talking about.’
How important is work experience in becoming a fashion designer?
Elena says: ‘Getting a good amount of work experience makes a big difference; it helps you understand the industry, find your personal style and build your confidence. Having a year placement as part of your university course is invaluable. Looking back, I could have done more work experience early on, in my first year of university. I also had a part-time job at AllSaints and did work experience placements alongside studying at university. All that plus preparing for interviews showed employers that I could manage my time and handle hard work.’
In retrospect, is there anything else that you would do differently when applying for jobs and going for interviews?
Elena says: ‘I wish I had been based in London because at that time I was living in Staffordshire and I had to travel for interviews. If I had been living in London, I could have made more out of networking. It helps if you’re based where you intend to work, to be in the right place at the right time.’
What will recruiters be looking out for in interviews for fashion designers?
Elena says: ‘Initiative is vital for a career in fashion design – you have to be able to think outside the box. If a design has been a success, you have to keep innovating because you need to keep on improving. As well as preparing a project, you can show initiative by learning as much as you can about the company you’re applying for. You could be asked in the interview to explain when you’ve taken the initiative so prepare some good examples from your experience.
‘If you’re applying to a large design brand, be aware that they will ask formal, corporate questions, such as ‘Give an example of when you disagreed with someone you worked with – how did you deal with it?’ or ‘What are your best qualities and biggest weaknesses?’ If you’re applying to smaller employers, the interview may be a more informal conversation where they want to find out what type of person you are. In both cases, it’s important to show how you interact well with people so the recruiter knows you’d get along well with your colleagues when working with them.
‘You could also be asked questions about your hobbies. Make sure you relate your answer to the job you’re applying for; for example ‘going to art galleries’ is a much better answer than ‘socialising with friends’. Try to show how interested you are in fashion design and remember that there are many people who are willing to work in fashion design for free so if you want paid work, you really have to show you’re worth employing.’
What surprised you about the job when you started working as a fashion designer?
Elena says: ‘It’s such a fast-paced industry that no-one has time to hold your hand. You could be thrown in at the deep end and you’ll have to learn very quickly. When I started out, I was working 15 hour days while moving my life to a different continent, so be prepared to work hard. I think people underestimate how difficult it is, but you learn a lot and it develops you as a person.’