2nd Mentoring Day – European Fashion Award FASH 2016 / 13. June 2016
What is a good portfolio? How relevant are my ideas? Who makes the decisions about the job? What do companies expect from an applicant? Fashion designers gave truthful insights into their working world at the SDBI’s second Mentoring Day.
By Joel S. Horwitz
In fashion, plenty of flexibility and a high level of commitment are expected, especially in your first job. “I have never been as pale as I was in Sardinia when I designed the Kenzo Homme collection for Antonio Marras,” said SDBI prizewinner Adrian Sommerauer at the SDBI’s second Mentoring Day when giving a warts-and-all description of his work. This event took place in collaboration with the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in the Wissenschaftsforum (“Science Forum”) at the iconic Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin.
Say yes when asked
The 20 participants from nine cities – prizewinners and attendees of the European Fashion Award FASH 2016 as well as DAAD scholarship recipients – tried to guess how many compromises they would have to make at the start of their careers to reap the rewards later on. It’s a case of struggles that pay off in the long term. Adrian Sommerauer now designs outerwear for Dorothee Schumacher; his appointment as Senior Designer is merely a formality.
Sommerauer also emphasized how important it is to establish your own network in the fashion industry. After graduating from the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, he studied at the Royal College of Art in London on a DAAD scholarship. In addition to the tough training, it was extremely valuable to him due to the international contacts he made among his fellow students. This is how he learned: “Always say yes to a job offer in first instance – you can still say no later on, for sure there will be someone waiting in line.“
Color ups, merch pages and tech packs
Julia Kleeblatt was barely recognizable anymore. She was awarded an internship at Puma when she won first prize at the European Fashion Award FASH 2015. This placement turned a shy student into a self-assured designer. She spoke about color ups, merch pages and tech packs with such confidence. She discussed her new polo shirts for Puma’s Classic line, handing over her designs to manufacturers and working in a team and with the graphic designers. In short, how much responsibility was on her shoulders as a mere intern.
New perspectives and signatures
Ayako Furness, who moved from Japan to London for her studies, spoke about the significance of graduating from renowned fashion school Central Saint Martin. The contacts that she made at the school led her to jobs at Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Alexander McQueen and Givenchy.
Kirsten Habbich, Head of Division at the DAAD, informed her audience of the benefits of studying or working at an international university and the selection process for a DAAD scholarship. Those who have completed a Bachelor’s degree may have learned 80% of what their university could teach them. At an international university, students get to grips with completely new perspectives, design signatures, and languages.
How relevant are your ideas?
Creative Director Thomas Steinbrück (Liebeskind, Porsche Design, Elie Saab) adopted the motto coined by Klaus Steilmann, who founded the SDBI in 1978: “Fashion for millions, not for millionaires.” The customer is the star in today’s digital age: “It is vital that your ideas are relevant to your customer,” said Steinbrück. He also pondered the genre in which designers start out: “It doesn’t always have to be haute couture; fast fashion brands also make good-quality items these days. Position yourself in the price segment that appeals to you – but start at the top there.” He added that information is vital in the constantly changing fashion industry: “Always be curious. Take an interest in fashion sourcing, visual merchandising, store design, marketing, public relations, e-commerce. Know the business components and the industry’s key players and maintain contacts in the industry.”
Steinbrück, who worked in the USA and Germany after studying at Studio Berçot and completing his Master’s degree at the École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, also gave tips on how to emphasize one’s portfolio: In Paris, the cutting technique, proportions, and the detail’s finish are important. In the USA, the focus is on a balanced collection, i.e. how an idea can be transferred to 30 looks. If you look at Germany, creativity in the form of mood boards, illustrations, and textile experiments are well-regarded.
There is more than one way
This morning highlighted the fact that, while design skills will get lead to an interview, that is just one of many aspects you’ll need to get the job. Big companies care how communicative a person is: Can this applicant get them to speak? Or are they overly sensitive and those around them have to guess what they want? Can they design a collection as part of a team? How structured are they in their work? How do they deal with time pressure and having several projects on the go at the same time? How good are their English skills? Chemistry is important especially in small teams. Every company works differently. There is no one right way to get into the industry.
Getting acquainted in small groups
Before the portfolio consultation in small groups began, there was an opportunity at lunchtime to get personally acquainted and exchange ideas over tajine with couscous. In the early morning, the seven European Fashion Award FASH 2016 prizewinners had showcased their collections to their mentors in the specially built showroom. These designers are experienced but they still clearly remember how they started their careers. They help the prizewinners to pick appropriate firms for applications, answer questions on the right job choice, portfolio and résumé, give tips on interview technique and salaries, and help with contacts in companies and headhunters. And check in from time to time to ask how things are going.
How is creativity translated into products?
After the break, one fashion designer and one creative expert gave feedback on the participants’ portfolios in a set of two-hour workshops. What is the intended focal point: Photography, working process, technical drawings, illustrations? How many independent projects? How elaborate and extensive should it be? Paper or digital?
Some companies have precisely defined the criteria they look for in a portfolio:
• How is creativity and innovation translate into products, how has the Designer kept the customer in mind?
• Feel for upcoming trends and fashion
• Professional and balanced collection
• Feel for colors, volumes and proportions
• Quality of the freehand drawings
• Knowledge of and use of materials
• Efficient use of Illustrator and Photoshop
No simple balance
To finish, SDBI Director Joachim Schirrmacher encouraged students to constantly give themselves constructive self-criticism. On the one hand, students need to be able to easily adapt without losing their design quality and ambition when working in the industry. He cited Arnold Gevers (FASH 2007), who now teaches as a Professor in Munich: “It is important that you retain your love for design, but that you also know that we make clothing for people who want to wear it.”
On the other hand, one needs a good amount of self-confidence and a high tolerance for frustration to not lose your self-belief. After all, companies do not always handle new blood well. Rejections often have nothing to do with your skills. “Most often it’s a question of timing. Is there a vacancy at the moment or are they searching for a knitwear specialist?” In addition, companies are often unorganized. Even global concerns sometimes look for a senior designer to do a six-month internship with them. Whereas HR departments of big companies often have a marketing budget for business studies graduates, this is less often the case for design.
Let it go
Nevertheless, the SDBI advises students to put dreams of your own label on hold and to gain practical experience first. This way you can find out how you want to work and what your strengths are. How you work efficiently.
Tim Labenda also takes this stance. After winning his award at the European Fashion Award FASH 2013 ceremony, he received plenty of funding as a young designer in the German-speaking world, designed capsule collections for Brands4Friends and Zalando, and worked as a Menswear Designer for Hess Natur. He is now representing Germany in the European final of the Woolmark Prize. In an interview, he advises young designers who want to establish their own brand to drop that idea: “You need a crazy amount of staying power and it really puts a strain on your nerves. We won practically every prize and received funding from many sources in Germany and even in Austria, with the label, but we still didn’t reach a point where the label was self-sufficient. I can’t name any Berlin-based designers off the top of my head who are doing noticeably better than us. (…) Nobody can really make a great living from it. In your early/mid-thirties, nobody wants to have so much debt that they see no way out.”
Joel S. Horwitz has been running the SDBI’s Mentoring Program since 2014. In 2009 his graduate project at the Berlin University of the Arts won the Lucky Strike Junior Award and the Designer for Tomorrow Award and was showcased at Tokyo Fashion Week. He has cared about young talent ever since he worked as a Tutor. He started his career at Adidas, at first in their headquarters in Herzogenaurach, then he moved to Shanghai to design for Fast Fashion’s new Neo line. “During these years, I learned to work independently, creatively, and efficiently.” He has been working in Berlin as a Freelance Designer for companies such as Adidas, Brooklyn’s Own by Rocawear, Elkline, J. Lindeberg, and zLabels by Zalando since 2013.