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The Inside Scoop on Breaking into the Fashion Business

The aspiring fashion designers on reality TV shows like Project Runway represent a group of up-and-comers attempting to break into the fashion business. The contenders face critiques from fashionable celebrities, aggressively compete with their fellow designers, and expose their egos and emotions on cable TV.

But, as with any television show, the fashion business in the real world has some stark differences.

While many would-be designers tune into Project Runway for an inside glimpse at the fashion industry - fashion instructors, professionals, and recent graduates offer an additional perspective on the business.

Charlene Parsons, chair of the fashion department at Miami International University of Art & Design, says that one of the most important things fashion students can do is to stay active within the industry while building their career.

"The fashion industry is definitely an industry of who you know, what you've done, and what you have to offer over and above anyone else who is going for that position that you're applying for," Parsons says. Having more to offer, she says, "means getting involved in projects, in contests, in the fashion industry in the city where they're studying, so they can build a resume and a portfolio."

Once out of school and past the intern stage, fashion graduates continue to learn, especially during their first job, says Parsons.

Not only does the adage about working your way up ring true in the fashion industry, but it's also wise to learn on someone else's money, she says.

"You've got to see how other people handle the press, handle the buyers, handle what you put your money into," Parsons says.

By working with more experienced designers and companies, early-career designers see firsthand how to invest in a prime location, a superior sales representative, and a stellar PR company, she says. In such an environment, fledgling designers also can learn valuable lessons about the timing of production cycles, promotional pricing, and trend forecasting, Parsons says.

Parsons emphasizes that fashion is a career, not a job, and that only a designer's first gig may offer an easy 9-to-5 shift. When designers are finishing their collections, for example, they will work seven days a week for up to 14 hours a day, she says.

"You have to be determined. You have to have total awareness. You have to have dedication," Parsons says.

Kathryn McKechnie, a recent graduate of The Illinois Institute of Art — Chicago who incorporated her own fashion business in 2007, knows the intense workload that comes with preparing a line.

When McKechnie launched Crescendo Apparel, a clothing collection for women with small waists and full hips, she found herself working 70 hours a week. She spent that time overseeing focus groups, fit model sessions, the design process, production, and everything else that goes into starting an independent fashion business.

"I work more for myself than I ever have for anyone else," McKechnie says.

McKechnie is familiar with competitive work environments; she began her professional career in finance before graduating in September 2007 with a degree in Fashion Marketing & Management.

McKechnie says she enrolled in fashion school to fulfill her vision for Crescendo Apparel, which she conceived when she realized that other women have fit issues similar to hers.

"My whole life I've always loved fashion, but it didn't love me back," McKechnie says. "I'd go shopping and I'd be disappointed. I couldn't find my size."

The first obstacle she ran into with getting her fashion business off the ground was finding a designer who was excited about helping women with fit issues. After a year searching for her current designer, McKechnie's challenges continued to mount, and included budget surprises, the responsibility of hiring and firing employees, and the hunt for a fit model in Chicago.

Now, she's concentrating on getting Crescendo Apparel into boutiques across the Midwest. Because the price points can run up to $400 for pants, McKechnie says she's targeting wealthy regions and cold-calling boutiques to see whether they're a good fit. Then, she'll make appointments to show Crescendo Apparel to potential buyers.

After enduring the highs and lows of entrepreneurship, McKechnie offers some advice to aspiring fashion designers.

"Get a business partner or a business manager because it's really hard to do everything yourself," McKechnie says. "Designing and managing production is pretty much a full-time job."

Betsy Burch, who graduated with a Fashion Design degree from The Illinois Institute of Art — Chicago in 2007, found that developing a business partnership was the biggest challenge when she started Betsy Bee, her children's clothing line.

Based in Grand Rapids, Mich., Burch began her fashion business after working for a children's boutique and later, a design company. She ran into challenges in learning about customer expectations and return policies, but says the most important lesson she learned involved finding the right business partner.

"Working with someone else when you have a distinct vision is a difficult thing," Burch says. "I had to learn that lesson, and I am so glad I learned that lesson."

While in design school, Burch says she got involved in every opportunity available to her in the Chicago fashion scene. Like Parsons, she recommends getting involved in the local industry to any aspiring designer or fashion student.

Despite a tough market, long hours, and fierce competition, Parsons and the women agree that fashion has a lot to offer as a career choice.

"Fashion is worldwide," Parsons says. "You can move from city to city, and it's a business you can stay in as long as you want to."

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AIPD 2010 - 2011 CALENDAR


9.3.10 September Holiday

9.6.10 Labor Day

11.25 & 11.26.10 Thanksgiving

12.23 & 12.24.10 Winter Holiday

12.31.10 New Years Eve


Summer 2010
7.12.2010 - 9.25.2010

Fall 2010
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Spring 2011
4.4.2011 - 6.18.2011

Summer 2011
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Runway shots may be seen HERE

Backstage and pre-show shots may be seen HERE

Paparazzi and red carpet shots may be seen HERE