The Surprising Difference Between Fashion and Design

I’m rapidly closing in on the end of my first semester in the Columbia College fashion program.  On a personal level, I feel like I’ve learned quite a bit.  I’ve learned that there are a LOT of reasons why going to college as an adult is way easier than going to college as a teen, and a few reasons why it’s more difficult.  I’ve learned that all the skills I was super unsure about as a self-taught seamstress were usually good instincts.  I’ve learned not to be lazy about my pressing habits.  (It’s so important, guys.  I know that saying that isn’t going to make you believe me, but it is.)

And I’ve learned, from watching the rest of my classmates, that there’s a difference in studying fashion and studying design.

There’s a difference?

Did I stutter?  Logically speaking, if you’re studying in a fashion design program, you can reasonably argue that you’re studying fashion.  And you’re not entirely wrong.  The differences I’ve found really boil down to intent.  In the age of Project Runway, seemingly everyone with an interest in clothes wants to be a fashion designer.  And when you’re 19 and see people becoming celebrities and winning money for designing garments, it’s easy to get sucked into the fantasy that being a designer means Zac Posen accompanying Dita von Teese at the MET gala.

The problem with this, of course, is that you end up in a class full of 19 year olds wearing Gucci and Prada and thousand-dollar coats who don’t understand what a dart does or why it’s important to finish a seam.

Now, this is not a post intending to shit on my classmates.  They’re (mostly) a great group of people, and I’ve very much enjoyed spending my Wednesday afternoons in their company for the last 12ish weeks.  My point is to provide some clarification:

When you study fashion design, you’re studying a trade

University of Southern Lancashire sewing machine shop

(Image from The University of Southern Lancashire)

                When you study design, you are, essentially, going to trade school.  You’re going to the only trade school where people don’t deride you for being too stupid to go to “real college” because fashion is incredibly glamourized.  But, at the end of the day, you are learning a trade, no different than if you were learning to work on cars or build skyscrapers or lay bricks or wire electrical fixtures.  You’re studying the language of patternmaking.  You’re building technical skills.

Part of your study should, of course, also be fashion history and a knowledge about the business, but if you are specifically studying *design*, your focus lies in building technical skill.

  There are other things you can do if you love fashion but don’t want to learn a trade

Tavi Gevinson

(Image from The Style Rookie)

                If you’re someone who really loves the glamour of the fashion world, but you don’t intend to spend your life at an industrial sewing machine or standing behind a bandsaw cutting patterns, there are literally a million other things you can do.  First off, do yourself a favor and get the hell out of the design program.  You’re probably looking for an education in Fashion Business.  The word “business” in the title is scary, but it doesn’t mean you’re stuck being an accountant or something.  Invest in those gen-ed writing and rhetoric classes and start a blog.  Work in merchandising.  Do marketing or PR.  That’s where the glamour really is.  You get to dress well, jet across the planet, and schmooze with people at fancy parties.  I can guarantee most designers and garment workers don’t have the disposable income to do that.


Ultimately, at the end of the day, you’re going to study whatever it is you’re set on studying.  I can’t really judge you, both my degrees will be in art, once I’ve finished.  But I think it’s really important to research what it is you’re getting yourself into, so you don’t end up wasting your own time or burning yourself out over something you never really wanted to do in the first place.

One thought on “The Surprising Difference Between Fashion and Design

  • February 5, 2017 at 2:08 am

    It’s so true how people get mixed up between fashion and design, and how many of the public don’t get how serious the trade is, I’m a full time fashion design student that’s in from 8.30am in the morning to 9pm at night 5 days a week, which isn’t odd at all for my course! People seem to mix up socialites with students who spend their days pattern cutting, designing, sampling and learning technical machine skills! Hopefully more posts like yours will show people how hard it is to study fashion design!

    Gabrielle Isabella x


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