Pam Zuckerman has been helping to launch the careers of young fashion designers for more than 16 years as director of the career services office at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Here, she shares her insider advice on starting out in this competitive industry.

experience: How important is it for a designer to have a fashion-related
Pam Zuckerman: You don’t have to have a degree to make it in fashion, but it helps. If you’re not going to start your own company immediately, a degree will help you get your foot in the door of a famous design house like Donna Karan or Calvin Klein. It will also give you the skills you need to make it in a competitive marketplace. There are famous designers that don’t have degrees, although most of them have studied at a professional design school at some point.

experience: Besides FIT, what are some of the best schools for fashion?
PZ: Definitely the Rhode Island School of Design, Parsons, the Philadelphia College of Textiles, the London College of Design, and the Polimoda Design Academy in Florence. Many of our students like to study at the design academies in Europe, but they find that it’s difficult for them to get work visas if they decide to stay there after graduation. They usually wind up coming back to New York to work.

experience: Why is New York still considered the fashion capital of America, and is it always necessary for aspiring designers to work in New York City?
PZ: New York is the fashion capital because of Seventh Avenue (in midtown), which is also known as the Garment District. All the big U.S. designers have their showrooms and design studios there. They also tend to have their flagship retail stores in New York. Fashion is a $20-billion-a-year industry in New York, and it’s currently the largest manufacturing industry in the city. I think it’s extremely important for a young designer to spend some time working here. If you really want to make it, you have to get New York market experience.

experience: What do you tell students who are looking for their first job in fashion?
PZ: They often want to work for the big fashion houses, but I tell them that most of the jobs are with smaller companies – over 85 percent of employment in the fashion industry comes from firms with less than 20 employees. The fashion industry is composed primarily of smaller, lesser-known companies, so networking is extremely important. Seventy-five percent of jobs are not advertised, so you really have to meet people by going to industry events, doing internships, etc. It’s extremely competitive. I would say it’s taking our graduates two to six months to get a job in the industry, so I just tell them to keep pounding the pavement and hang in there.

experience: What’s the typical entry-level job for a designer?
PZ: The typical entry-level job is being an assistant designer, either for a “name” company or for a smaller mom-and-pop operation. You do flat sketches (which are sketches the factory uses to produce the garment). You may be corresponding with factories. There’s a lot of pressure because you’re juggling several tasks at one time, and the hours are long. You’ll help launch several lines each year. The salary starts in the mid 20s. If you’ve done internships, you’ll command more money. When you get promoted, typically your job title will be something like “associate designer” or “junior designer,” and then you move up to “designer.”

What new trends are you seeing in terms of fashion employment?
PZ: New media and technology are the biggest growth area in fashion. Design firms are all using CAD (Computer Aided Design) systems and are looking for employees who are creative and can draw freehand, but also know how to use this technology. We’re also seeing a lot of graphic design positions in fashion: web site development, logo design, etc. I encourage students to learn about e-commerce and how to create web sites.

experience: Are you seeing more students going the “indie” route and starting their own labels immediately after graduation, rather than working for other companies?
PZ: Not necessarily. But I am seeing more students freelancing for different companies rather than taking one nine-to-five job. More and more people like working from their homes, and working project-to-project. Some of them accumulate enough clients that they can build their own businesses. Because the economy is good, there are more opportunities for freelancers. Most students work in the industry and get experience and then start their own companies. John Bartlett is a perfect example. He worked for Willie Wear and then started his own label. A talented menswear student named Ufuk Arkun started a successful company right after graduation.

experience: What does it take to start your own label and make it as an independent designer?
Since fashion is everything now – it’s music, it’s advertising – you need more than just design skills; you need marketing and sales skills. A business background is so important. One of the biggest obstacles to launching your own label is getting financial backing, because producing garments is big bucks. There are many aspects involved in running your own line-for starters, you need to know where production of your product should take place and how to source raw materials. You have to have the passion to really make it because it takes tremendous amounts of hard work. You have to live, breathe, and dream fashion.