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How to Become a Fashion Designer

Star Indian designers in the U.S fashion world share tips and insights into the industry, going to fashion school and scoring apprenticeships.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   21-09-2016

"Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life," quipped Bill Cunningham, who turned fashion photography into his own branch of cultural anthropology on the streets of New York, training his camera on what people wore — stylishly, flamboyantly and sensibly.

If you share the same passion for clothes perhaps a career in the booming fashion industry may be for you. There are many different ways to embark upon a fashion career.

First Lady favorite Naeem Khan

First Lady favorite Mumbai-born Naeem Khan moved to the U.S to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology, in New York but was thrust into the American fashion world when he became an assistant for famous minimalist designer Roy Halston, who he met through his father.

"I decided to join Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, but never ended up there. My father accompanied me to the US, where he had a business meeting about exporting embroidery with Halston," said Khan.

"I felt an immediate connect with Halston. As for him, he thought I could be the liaison between my father's company and his set-up in New York. When Halston asked me to work with him, my fashion school plans went out the window. Being Halston's apprentice at 20 was like going to the best fashion school in the world," said Khan.

Hollywood stars like Emily Blunt and Angelina Jolie wear Khan's dazzling haute couture gowns at the Oscars. Khan scored a unique apprenticeship with Halston, but most people find that the best foundation for a design career is to get a fine arts degree in fashion. From fashion photography, to design, merchandising, textiles and jewelry design, a fashion degree can unlock exciting careers.

Parsons-trained designer Payal Singhal
sells in the US, India and the Middle East.

"It's hyper-competitive so a fashion degree from a good school really does help," said Indian designer Payal Singhal, who has trained at Parsons School of Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology, in New York.

"During a fashion program you take fine arts classes as new designs are presented in the form of hand-drawn sketches before they’re actually cut and sewn. You learn color composition, form, pattern making, draping, cutting techniques, design thinking and creative problem solving," said Mumbai-based Singhal, who presents four trunk shows a year in the U.S.

"Our trunk shows have been super successful with customers coming to the shows to shop," says Singhal. The Parsons-trained designer stole the show in Misha Nicole’s “Global Runway’s Night Out” in New York. The fashion show also featured two other Indian designers Naeem Khan and Padma Lakshmi. Singhal’s collection has been snapped up for Misha Nicole women’s retail concept store in SoHo, New York.

Singhal's blend of East and West and modern takes on classic looks, are aimed at a broad audience. She does her manufacturing out of India and sells in America, India and the Middle East. Her dresses have been hailed by Vogue as “gorgeous dresses” for New York with just enough of the genuine Indian magic.


Overcoming a Mindset

Naeem Khan was an apprentice to famous minimalist
designer Roy Halston.

Indian designers say their assimilation in New York, the largest fashion capital in the world, has come as a trial by fire. For every Naeem Khan who has skyrocketed to fame there are hundreds who don’t even glimpse an internship at a U.S fashion house — leave alone find the dollars to produce their own line of clothing. Indians have flourished in science, finance and medicine, but seldom do designers say their parents were supportive of their choice to study fashion design. New York Fashion Week has featured only a handful of Indian origin designers.

Those who have studied design will tell you their lack of fashion experience wasn't the only challenge. “As the only Indian among 12 interns, my bosses were skeptical of my abilities. I was Indian, and they kept questioning that," said Rajat Singh who goes to class Tuesday through Thursday and to his internship Friday through Monday. "I would overhear them talking, 'Oh, he might not have the American style sensibility.’ But I outlasted my peers.”

Indian designers have painstakingly built their reputation on talent and hard work. “Rachel Roy and Naeem Khan have given a new credibility to rising Indian designers,” says Indian designer Gurpreet Pia Fleming.


India's Tailoring Tradition
Delhi-born Fleming did design work for Badgley Mishka, Tocca and Kenzo before launching her own label. She pays attention to details like cuts, folds, layers, embroidery and beading. “That is a reflection of India’s long-standing tailoring tradition,” quips Fleming, who makes fresh and flirty dresses for Manhattan.

“My clothes are different from Gap or Banana Republic. What I bring is the element of crafts from India. Even Americans who haven’t been exposed to the Far East are appreciating the “wow” factor in our embellished clothes where the colours are bold,” said Fleming.

Designer Kiran Rai is inspired by her
Indian culture and roots.

“My Bian label is made in India. I have my own factory in Noida that also manufactures for other designers in the United States and Europe,” says Fleming, who has two sisters in Delhi who oversee the Noida factory which produces 5,000 to 8,000 units a month.

Phoenix-based  Indian designer Kiran Rai started venting against George Bush and the war in Iraq by cranking out peacenik T-shirts with Gandhi’s passive resistance messages. Liberal Hollywood snapped up Rai’s vintage feel message-oriented clothes and accessories. “The India-is-cool trend has waxed and waned for decades. It goes back to The Beatles, Ravi Shankar — I guess we are very lucky because it started a few years ago and hasn’t left," said Rai.

"I think everybody is using the Indian aesthetic today in their work. It is not just the eight or ten of us — it is definitely everybody. When I look around I see so much of the India-inspired aesthetic everywhere,” said Rai.

Top U.S Fashion Schools

"It can be harder to be taken seriously without a degree from a well-known school so it's important to weigh the options carefully," said Rai.

Here's a list of some top schools compiled from university admissions offices.

Parsons, the New School for Design, New York

Famous Grads: Parsons, ranked one of the top five design schools in the world by the "Business Insider" magazine, is a magnet for international students. It has also given the fashion industry Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, Narciso Rodriguez, Alexander Wang.

What the Students Say:
“The program equipped me with a strong base in techniques as well as sharpened my creative voice. I am learning how to conceptualize and implement fashion design with a warp eye at commercial viability," says Shriya Bisht, an AAS Fashion Design student at Parsons, who completed the study abroad course in Italy.

Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), New York
Famous Grads: Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, Nanette Lepore, Reem Acra, Nina Garcia.

What the Students Say:
"The school's fantastic menswear program immerses you in the industry, in a way that's possible only in New York. I've already worked New York Fashion Week, found an internship, met with business executives from major labels and had the chance to learn from amazing professors and industry leaders," said John Lawrence, a design student at the Fashion Institute of Technology specializing in menswear.

According to the school, opportunities for multiple internships, at such companies as Calvin Klein, DKNY, Marc Jacobs, and Helmut Lang, give students a competitive edge, and contribute to high job placement rates.

Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), in Savannah and Atlanta
Famous Grads: Santiago Barberi Gonzalez, Thomas Finney


What the Students Say:
"They have a fashion show every year with student work which is seen by famous designers, bloggers and people in the industry," said Mitali Roy who is doing a double major with fashion design and performing arts at SCAD.

Tuition Costs
When Coco Chanel said "The best things in life are free. The second best are very expensive," she might as well have been referring to fashion school. Annual tuition fees are at $43,170 to $35,000.



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