Fashion Grads’ Grim Outlook

Fashion Grads' Grim Outlook
Graduates at last year’s New School commencement ceremony.

NEW YORK — Jackson Moad, 22, planned to be a shoe designer. But after graduating from Parsons as a top student in May 2009, he failed to land a job.

Moad, who interned for months at Ralph Lauren, interviewed at dozens of footwear powerhouses, from Nine West to Steve Madden. He showed them a portfolio filled with pages of detailed sketches and promising ideas. The results, however, were always the same: no takers.

A year later, the job market isn’t much better for Moad and hundreds of other candidates graduating this month from college with fashion degrees.

While financial conditions have certainly improved — initial jobless claims continued to fall through April, reaching their lowest level since January 2009, according to the Labor Department — the national unemployment rate is still hovering just below 10 percent. And most companies are far from returning to the hiring spree of the boom years. Many, in fact, have become adept at producing more with smaller staffs.

“Everything is real dry right now,” said Moad.

Part of the problem is that footwear firms continue to rely on interns, which is largely low-cost — if not free — labor. Employment experts said interns are “filling the lower rungs” more than ever. That means fewer entry-level openings for new job seekers.

Higher up the corporate ladder, meanwhile, baby boomers, many of whom saw their life savings vanish in the last 18 months, are not exiting the workforce as they did in prior years.

Further damping graduates’ employment chances is all the slashing footwear companies did during the recession, shrinking the sizes of their design divisions and research-and-development teams. That adds up to fierce competition for what scarce work is available because graduates are vying for spots against not only their peers but more experienced designers laid off during corporate downsizing.

Faced with a bleak horizon, it’s no wonder Moad took matters into his own hands: He launched Jackson NYC, which produces leather portfolios and clutches, ranging from $245 to $310, in a tiny Manhattan factory.

So far, two stores have bought his wares, but production costs are high, and Moad said he is worried about earning enough money to pay rent.

“I’m doing what I can right now for myself,” he said. “When I look for a job, I’ll be able to say that I went out, did my own thing and picked up more skills.”

Ellen Goldstein, chair of accessories design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, acknowledged the hardships graduates face. “If a company offers an unpaid internship, students should take it. The same with any freelance projects offered,” she said. “It’s easier to get a full-time job if you already have a job.”

To help make students more marketable, schools such as FIT, Parsons The New School of Design and the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising have all broadened the scope of their courses. Now classes more heavily emphasize Photoshop and Illustrator software to arm grads with sophisticated technical design skills. And professors are pressing students to spend more time visiting design studios and production facilities.

“We are trying to stay ahead of the curve,” Goldstein said.

To that end, Parsons professor of shoe design Howard Davis has added lessons to the curriculum that focus on environmentally friendly materials and techniques for sustainable design.

No doubt that knowledge helps, but students from several colleges said that what they really need to compete goes beyond a classroom education.

“[Classes] tend to focus on a lot of the technical and artistic sides [of design], which is good, but right now, we need a little more emphasis on hands-on work experience,” said Daniel Nieto, an accessories design major at FIT.

That’s what administrators at FIDM — which has campuses in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Irvine, Calif. — are hoping to do.

“We have made job development our No. 1 focus,” said Kathy Bailon, director of career development and program coordinator for footwear design at FIDM. “We knew we would have a challenge this year and last year. It’s now a priority.”

Bailon said she and 24 other staffers spend a big chunk of their day helping students polish their resumes and calling on key contacts in the footwear business. The career advisers also are inviting more recruiters to campus to interview standout students and review their portfolios.

“The biggest challenge for any new graduate is landing that first job,” said Bailon.

Despite fashion schools’ aggressive push, the new-hire numbers are still pretty grim. Of the 15 students scheduled to graduate this month from the shoe design program at Parsons, only one has secured permanent work, according to Davis.

And Goldstein said just 10 percent of the students leaving FIT’s accessories program had nabbed full-time jobs.

The hunt for work is so intense that some career counselors have told students to consider staying in school an extra semester or two. That way they can wait until things improve, while adding more advanced skills to their repertoire.

Taking advantage of that idea is the University of Bologna in Italy. Its graduate school is in the process of rolling out a new MBA program — for the first time in English — that will focus exclusively on design, fashion and luxury goods. The goal is to attract more people to the program from outside Italy, said Massimo Bergami, dean of The Alma Graduate School at the university.

School officials traveled to New York last Tuesday to unveil their curriculum to Americans, as well as to announce an inaugural scholarship for international students.

“There is a need for a new generation of well-trained managers at smaller companies, which is the majority of the fashion world,” said Bergami. “It’s important that they understand the characteristics of their local environment, but are still linked with the international market.”

And that could be why at least one expert believes firms will start to hire more soon.

“The globalization of our industry is having a positive impact because there is a multiplicity of talents that companies need today,” said Arnold Aronson, managing director of retail strategies at Kurt Salmon Associates and the former CEO of Saks Fifth Avenue.

“Designers today have to be able to comprehend all the differentiation that goes on in different markets. That makes the designer more important in the supply chain network, and that will help fuel demand for designers graduating from school or for those looking to move up in the industry.”

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