Articles - 5th February 2019

Is Freelancing the right fit for Fashion Design Students?

Words by Leila Kozma
Illustration by Cressida Djambov

Fashion design students don’t think highly of freelancing. But are they right to do so?

According to a 2018 research report published by Consultancy UK, 30% of UK-based freelancers choose to be freelancers because it “allows them to control their destiny”. But does this statement apply to those working in the fashion industry too?

In the article titled ‘Why Happiness Should Matter in Fashion’, Micah McClain argues otherwise. He stated that outsourcing projects to inexperienced, recently graduated university students only serves the interests of the employer. McClain vouches his peers to take action against these roles.

McClain moved to New York after having finished a BA in Fashion Design at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Without strong connections and a broad network, the designer quickly realised just how competitive and fenced-off the industry was. In order to make up for his own shortcomings, and to gain specialist skills and more links to the industry, he settled for freelance roles.

Despite the effort and energy put into juggling with various part-time projects and open-ended roles, freelancing didn’t pay off for McClain.

The skills he gained didn’t compare to that of his more fortunate peers, who had greater access to frequent training and development opportunities because of their full-time roles.

What’s more, the hectic schedule put McClain’s ambitions on hold: after embarking on this line of work, with the ambition of building his own clothing brand on the side, he found that there was simply no time for the such between the tight deadlines, random changes and terminated contracts.

Whilst stories akin to McClain’s are plentiful, it must be noted that the fashion freelancing life can work for some.

For a pattern cutter, it can be immensely beneficial to gain exposure and work with a varied roster of designers, allowing them to improve their consultation skills by means of working with a broad pool of people.

Since their task is to consult designers and turn their sketches into pieces of clothing, these workers tend to value freelance opportunities above all else.

The more types of workflows they gain insight into, the more refined their skillset will become. Freelancing can provide valuable experience that full-time, in-house roles cannot. It can yield to the development of areas of expertise that office-based roles simply don’t have access to.

To return to McClain’s article, the young designer concludes that freelance roles shouldn’t be perceived as a way into the industry.

This rings true.The nature of this way of working demands special measures taken on behalf of the worker.

You must:

  • have resources that can cover you when there are no projects advertised
  • take care of taxes
  • develop finely tuned self-reflection skills, such as time management, prioritisation skills, etc.

Without these, freelancing won’t work. On that note, running a label without those skills would be impossible too

Is freelancing disadvantageous for graduate students then? Or does it teach them vital skills that they would need to rely on in the pursuit of building their own company and launching their own label too?

According to Angela McRobbie, freelancing can be disadvantageous, though this is not always the case. Weighing it up against the benefits regular jobs tend to entail, McRobbie is dismissive of freelancing. Not so much because it puts too much weight on the shoulders of the individual, but because it serves as a potent ground for further political complications.

As she states, freelance work comes with an increased emphasis on networking and securing individual projects first-hand. This can make it harder for employees to stand up and make demands, as that’d come with the risk of failing to secure future collaborations. Secondly, remote working is incompatible with building a community within the workplace, which can hinder workplace organisation and unionisation.

If someone wants to take the day off because their kid is suffering from tuberculosis, but management refuses to accommodate this request, chances are her colleagues would come shaking their fists and knocking on the door within five seconds flat. On the other hand, if the same person was a freelancer, there would be no peers. In fact, nobody would be able to support her claim.

According to McRobbie, this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what can go wrong with workplace politics.

Not to mention bad practices, refusal to pay on time and no transparency regarding gender pay gap. Freelancers enjoy less opportunities to  demand political representation, as most employers face a great deal less pressure to adhere to regulations than they would with more traditional contracts.

With this in mind, McClain’s dissatisfaction with freelancing feels all the more justified. The fashion industry is set up in accordance with increasingly obsolete regulations – which are hard to navigate with experience, let alone without it.

For a young designer considering to start their own brand, there are crucial areas to be learnt actively, through practice, or simply under the guidance of workplace seniors.

Running a label comes with challenges, pointing beyond the complications an average company faces. Finding trusted manufacturers and building lasting relationships with the press, buyers and retailers takes years of hard work. Freelancing can hardly take the place of a studio-based role, where there’s  lessons to be learnt about managerial roles and negotiation strategies, and where employees can enjoy immediate access to a wealth of knowledge.

As McRobbie states, freelancing puts the pressure on the individual to build their own working structures. This can pose significant challenges to inexperienced, young graduates.

Without access to certain knowledge, training, career opportunities, or other assistance (filing taxes, healthcare insurance, cycling to work schemes, financial assistance with tuition loan repayments, and pension schemes), many graduates are likely to find this line of work less appealing than their more established colleagues.

More importantly, McRobbie also emphasises that freelancers don’t have political representation. Neither do they form a coherent enough community that could be mobilised. In an industry known for its lack of regulatory bodies, and for its unconventional rules, these conditions can turn out to be lethal for those coming from lower-class or minority backgrounds.

If, for instance, Jake experiences abuse at the workplace (say, an enraged employer screaming over the phone, a sensation otherwise not that inconceivable, especially not at stressful times such as fashion week) there would be no HR departments to call or workplace meetings set up to sort out the conflict.

Conclusions: freelance work is not for fashion graduates pining for full-time employment (seeing that it is not that), and neither is it for those who have no skill set in place (accounting, time management, negotiation, etc).

Needless to say, just because this way of working demands certain qualities, it doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t benefit a great deal of the population. Just don’t expect it to teach you the art of choosing the right manufacturer; that stuff borders on alchemy anyway.

We champion the freelancers and every entrepreneur who took a leap of faith with their idea.

If this sounds like you, head over to our Virtual Office and send us your best work via an UnderPinned Portfolio. We want to hear from you!

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