NEW YORK — Seniors from the nation’s top fashion colleges can expect a better job market than in recent years, but they also will face far more competition for each open slot.
Career opportunities in the fashion business, and footwear in particular, have steadily improved in the last 18 months, said heads of major academic programs. The chief reason, they said, is that the shoe business is so hot at retail. As a result, firms are aggressively recruiting young, aspiring design talent.
“Accessories is dominating retail right now and it has been for a while,” said Michael Fink, dean for the school of fashion at the Savannah College of Art & Design. “But there are very few formally trained accessories designers and shoemakers.”
Some students, such as Minjung Kang from Parsons The New School for Design, are even choosing to be picky.
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The graduating senior was offered an assistant designer position at Alli Marie, the new footwear label founded by Allison Gettings. But Kang, a 23-year-old from South Korea, said she still has other interviews lined up and won’t accept any job until she explores all opportunities.
According to Parsons, over the past two years, 30 percent more companies — a mix of high-end and mid-tier labels and mass-market retailers — have attended the school’s job fairs compared with 2010. Recent firms hosting on-campus interviews included Michael Kors, Gucci, Gilt Groupe and Abercrombie & Fitch.
To some degree, this year’s graduates timed it right: The students were enrolled in college during the tail end of the financial crisis, providing them safety from scouring for work in a weak market. What’s more, businesses — and their hiring practices — have had time to recover.
Additionally, as companies diversify their product mix to reach a larger consumer base, they need more design talent.
“There are more jobs available,” said D’Wayne Edwards, founder of Pensole Footwear Design Academy. “But the industry doesn’t need more designers — it needs better designers. Companies are looking for better thinkers, better stylists, more strategic designers overall.”
Though the economy has improved, with the job market rising alongside, many students still find that permanent work is hard to come by. That’s why several of next month’s graduates are in the process of accepting short- and long-term internships. The hope, said school officials, is that these positions serve as stepping stones to full-time employment.
According to Fink, who worked as the women’s fashion director for Saks Fifth Avenue before joining SCAD four years ago, nearly all of his 17 pending graduates have landed post-program internships at companies ranging from Sam Edelman and Ralph Lauren to LF USA.
Academic advisers at several fashion colleges said the recession dramatically changed the dynamics of landing full-time employment. Companies became skilled at designing and manufacturing more products with a scaled-down workforce, and as a result, they are now more selective with hiring.
“There are a lot of people out there studying shoe design,” said Wendy Sani, course coordinator for the Ars Sutoria School.
“But it makes a big difference if a person gets some technical exposure added to their curriculum,” she added. “Lots of graduates have great ideas, but some of them lack a real understanding of the shoe business. They need to learn how to work with factories, the feasibility of their designs and be able to communicate technical knowledge overseas.”
The brutal recession also taught colleges a good lesson: They need to better prepare students for the altered job market. That led many schools to offer a more robust curriculum.
In the past, programs focused on the basics, such as sketching and cobbling. Now they’ve added production and marketing, and a focus on designing for a variety of price points. “We want them to be as creative as possible, but we have to take their design spirit and maneuver it into a very commercial, bottom line-based business,” said Fink.
“We are preparing our students to enter into a market that is much more complex and has more opportunities than in previous years,” said Fiona Dieffenbacher, assistant professor and director of the BFA Fashion Design program at Parsons. “Students are much more specialized now, with a wider variety of skill sets. And we’re connecting the business piece through all three years of their study. We’re offering a real sense of the categories within the market, going deeper into specialty, children’s, menswear and sustainability. We’re helping them look at all levels of the market, street through luxury, and their ability to enter at all levels.”
Dieffenbacher, whose program graduates 250 in May, said students now hone those skills earlier in their academic programs.
Some students, she added, did multiple internships with both small designers and large corporate brands, to find the best environmental fit. Others networked with alumni, or worked closely with the career services center to polish resumes and interviewing skills.
But companies also are doing their part. Vasilios Christofilakos, a full-time faculty member and former chair of the accessories design department at the Fashion Institute of Technology, said younger brands have opened their doors to students to mentor them about landing work and charting a career path. And several designers regularly speak at FIT forums to share first-hand experiences.
Christofilakos noted the hiring process boils down to one thing: relationships.
“Today’s students have to have people-to-people skills,” he said. “As faculty, we need to enforce and remind them that their careers aren’t about the little machines in their hands — it’s about the relationships they make.”