I recently got the following letter from a reader.
Dear Ms. Dye,
Practical or not, I can no longer deny I want to make a career in fashion.... Could I get your honest opinion on the feasibility of making a career in the field? I've transitioned from classical pianist to graphic design to Web design, but I'm about at my wits' end. It's clear I'm still not following my true passion. However, I'm afraid that I wouldn't be able to make a living at clothes-making, that I wouldn't be good enough, that the fact that I haven't sewn in a serious way in many years would mean that it's too late. Would you agree that I'd need to complete a formal program? Do you think there are good ones in the area? Would I have to leave Portland to find a good program? And then, could I find a job in Portland?
My Dear Shahira,
Fashion is never a practical career choice. It's an obsession. By all means, seize life by the short and curlies and follow your bliss, ma chèrie. But consider these items before you make that daring grab at happiness.
Unless you're a rap star or have the best caboose in the biz, you can't become a fashion designer at will. Making clothes involves gobs of technical training--even the haute-est couture designers made their start by hacking fabric and tracing sleeves. So should you. Formal schooling in apparel design will also acquaint you with the nuts and bolts of the industry, and thrust you into proximity with your future bosses and colleagues. But before you commit, consider taking one basic sewing course. Oregon College of Arts and Crafts, the PDX Fashion Incubator and area fabric shops like the Mill End Store periodically offer workshops and classes in draping, pattern-making and assorted sewing skills (call to ask for fliers or a catalog). Find out first if you like the work. You'll be doing a lot of it.
Now there's only one schoolhouse in town that'll fetch you a bona fide fashion degree--the Art Institute of Portland. AI is a vital and practical conduit to apparel-industry jobs in the Portland area--at Nike, Adidas, Columbia Sportswear, etc. Decide for yourself whether you consider that "fashion." Thinking bigger? Find out where your favorite designers went to school. Look into Parsons School of Design (New York, Paris), Fashion Institute of Technology (New York), Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (L.A., San Francisco) or Central Saint Martins (London). And start saving money. Fashion education doesn't come cheap.
Time in the Trenches
School's grand, but you'll get your stiffest, straightest shot of style smarts by lurking in the workroom of an established designer. Becoming an intern to a Portland clothes-smith is a cinch if you're curious, hard-working and, oh yeah, willing to work for free. Gallop around the east side to boutiques stocking local designers (Dragonlily, Gold, Seaplane) and deposit a cute, cunning flier with your basic stats. Watch the calls flood in. If you decide to attend an accredited design program, ask about career resources. Dozens of glamorous internships with apparel companies and designers were established long ago just so fresh-faced upstarts like you could earn your chops. Which brings me to...
Travel and Travail
Any arts education is enriched by wacky experiences in exotic "elsewheres." You may adore Portland--many shockingly creative people do--but don't let the nesting urge clip your wings. Say you manage to slither into Parsons, or that you land a gig working as a dresser for Marc Jacobs. Should you mortgage your future to live in a sixth-floor cold-water walkup in deepest Brooklyn for a year or two? You bet your satin cargo pants, baby. Portland will be here when you get back. And it's a good bet you'll be eminently qualified to dress it. Go for it!
The purpose of Fashion Group International's first-ever Fashion Career Day is to expose anyone who is interested to the many facets of the fashion industry by giving them firsthand information and "how to" from the experts. Topics of local workshop speakers will include retail, manufacturing, Internet and lifestyle.
319 SW Pine St. 8:30 am-4:30 pm Saturday, Nov. 1. To make reservations, call Donna Isaacs by Oct. 15 at 639-7782 or email isaacsins@ aol.com. $14 members, $40 guests (includes lunch).