Wanted: freelance fashion designer

I was recently approached by a party looking for a freelance fashion designer and decided to blog about it to give you the inside track on how you should evaluate a job. Every single time, until now, I’ve passed those opportunities onto those of you who have the work experience and skills with the type of needed design. In this case though, I had an opportunity but no appropriate designer to fill it. Rather, it was a perfect job for me. What a shock, I never thought I’d see something like that come along. It’s a job designing a particular genre of western style leather jackets and coats -and I’ll bet you thought western wear was all the same. It’s got my name written all over it, particularly since this prospective employer was a competitor of a previous employer of mine. Zoe was the closest fit; she’s done leather coats but not western styles, much less this type of western styling. I do know one other designer who’s qualified but I can’t find him anymore. I also know he’d want a lot more than this guy wants to pay.

I’m not qualified for many design jobs but I know exactly what this guy wants. Part and parcel to design, you have to know a manufacturer’s capacity; can he make what you design? Considering the type of work, this is no small question. Simplifying matters, he does everything here in the U.S. In addition, I have insight on his doors, his customer profile, the price points, the sizing, you name it. I most likely even know some of his sales reps (heaven forbid that Gail -the rep from hell- is still skulking about). To make matters even better, I know the whole pattern and sewing side of it. Unlike many designers, I’d have the capacity to do the whole product development sequence from patterns to prototypes; the whole ball of wax. So what’s the hang up on the deal?


In short, the pay and the time frame. He wants 6-10 new bodies. He wants an additional 6-10 reworks of existing bodies -complete with embroidery and embellishment designs. He wants all of this in 9 weeks. Rather, I should say he needs finished samples for market in 9 weeks. Wow. I did this before. I know what it’s like. This is crunch time. Even when I worked with a bevy of sample makers, cutters and support personnel at my beck and call, we didn’t get much sleep during mid October through January 1st. To make this deadline, I don’t see how corners won’t be cut. And I don’t like cutting corners. It always comes back to bite you in the butt for which you are invariably blamed to boot.

The problem with the pay is that he only wants to pay $150 per design he selects. If you haven’t been around long, that may tempt you but there’s a lot to roll into that. He didn’t offer an hourly to cover talk time which could be considerable. Also, he offered an additional $150 if the style goes to production. I’ve never heard of anything like that. And no -if you’re new in these parts- you don’t get royalties (catch up here and here).

Payment for patterns is another story. He offered $150 per pattern, with a bit more for sewing samples (okay, but with no margin). He justified this by saying his in house pattern maker makes $120 a day and an outside service he uses occasionally charges $200. There’s no way I could match that. I don’t doubt he pays such to his in house pattern maker but I have a hard time believing he only pays $200 to an outside service. I cut these things for years. Exactly these styles so it’s not as though I’m guesstimating. I’ve also sewn plenty of them. In other words, whatever sewing time he wouldn’t know in advance, I would. There’d be few uncertainties. This is rare in manufacturing and don’t we all know it. In my opinion, the elimination of uncertainties is worth something. You’re paying for skills and experience. The pay scale offered says “beginner”; the skills and job demands say “highly experienced niche professional”.

Now, before I get too far off track, this guy is no dummy. He probably knows that given the chance (and assuming a designer has the required skills), a designer will prefer to make the patterns or have them made under their auspices. I don’t know if he knows why but it’s not the money (assuming he was paying the going rate). Not really. The primary motivation is because the designer has more control over the rendering of their design. A designer won’t have to go back and forth over the execution and expression of how the design was interpreted by the client’s pattern maker. So if I were designing these, I’d want the pattern work to ensure my ideas were executed as I intended them but it certainly wouldn’t be for the money he’s offered. I couldn’t do it for what he’s quoting. It could be he thinks a designer will do it for the money but at least in my opinion, there’s nothing there to tempt me. I don’t think there’s enough in this to tempt anyone who knows this product. Maybe if somebody were really new and needed the money they’d do it but then if they were really green, they wouldn’t have much experience to know the product.

He said he’s been disappointed with the response he’s gotten. He’s been trying to farm out this job for a while now and hasn’t gotten any serious contenders. I can’t say I’m surprised. His price is so wafer thin you’d have to be desperate to take it. Then there’s still the time factor. Nine weeks to samples? I know his market dates. I lived by those market dates! For someone to take this job, they’d have to drop everything else they had going. That’s the reality of the job if you knew it and could do all that it entailed. In my case, it’d mean 12 hour days for the next two months. He’s not offering anywhere near what it’d cost to pull me off everything else.

There’s a couple of other details that nag at me too. The whole issue of being paid an additional fee if it goes to production is a new concept (to me). I can understand that in the employer’s mind it creates an incentive but I don’t think it’s necessary. What designer will deliberately design something they think won’t sell? I’ve never met a designer without an ego, however slight and I am no exception. You never get a bigger thrill than standing in the line at the grocery store and seeing somebody wearing something you’ve made. I think the two tier payment structure is a way of mitigating his risk. No offense, but if I wanted to assume the risk, I’d manufacturer it myself. I know that market from customer to sourcing to production and sales, inside out. I’d want the total fee at the outset. Some will sell so he makes money on those. Some will bomb, it comes with the territory.

Then, there’s the issue of reputation. There’s a lot of trust involved with handing over those sketches for review. How can one know he won’t decide to produce them? It’s not as though he didn’t have the resources in house to do it. With most clients these days, you don’t have to worry as much. They don’t have staff to make and sew the patterns; they’re depending on you for the value added. That includes things like sourcing. When you hand over sketches to the typical client, you with hold the sourcing until they’ve made their selections. You have to keep something back until you get paid. In this case, I’m sure he knows the sourcing better than I do; he has more established relationships with those suppliers (although I know who they are) than I do.

Another thing to consider with regard to reputation, is who has designed for him before and why aren’t they doing it now? In the case of an established manufacturer (he’s been at it since the early 90’s), you have to ask that. In this case, I didn’t have to because he volunteered it. After we got off the phone, I dimly remembered I’d actually spoken to a designer he used to work with several years back. As I recall it, the designer was unhappy with his former partner but this party wasn’t mentioned. So, in the interests of due diligence, I have some feelers out and waiting to see what comes back. Another red flag is that this manufacturer (with whom I’m speaking) is still manufacturing products originally designed by this designer. I’m guessing he has the rights to these. I looked over the designer’s current line and he isn’t producing anything akin to those. Still, my overall impression is that this manufacturer’s line hasn’t evolved much from the early nineties. It still has the same look and feel. Not that that is a bad thing if the market supports it but it feels aging to me. It’s time to freshen up.

There’s one last minor detail on the whole deal that makes me feel it’s not fair compensation. When we were talking, he mentioned how my previous employer saw a real spate of innovation with a big increase in the number of styles offered. He described it as “reinventing the line”. Well, I knew all about it and why. I told him that I’d invented some sewing methods and re-engineered many of the styles that had the effect of lowering allocation and speeding up the sewing process, simultaneously increasing product quality (think Lean). If I did the patterns, I’d be giving him all of that and I don’t think it’s fair. Not for what he’s offering to pay me. Everybody wants a deal but there’s such a thing as cutting too close to the bone. I’m just not that desperate and I sincerely doubt that anyone else with the same level of skills are that hungry either. It’d be one thing if this were same old, same old sportswear but it’s not. I know it’d be more than a minor chat to discuss those sew bys but he hasn’t made allowances to pay me for that, much less for the increase in productivity and profit I’d be adding to his bottom line.

In sum, as much as I’d love the opportunity to have some fun with a product line that I’m truly passionate about, I have to turn this down. If one of you wants it, let me know. Of course I’ll want to interview you for your suitability for the job as well as making sure you are in full possession of your faculties. For all I know, it boils down to good negotiation skills. I’m lousy at that. A door knob is more skilled at negotiating than I am. For what it’s worth, I like the guy, really enjoyed catching up on that side of the business and I sincerely hope we can do business together at some point in the future. I think my role may be better suited to speculator. There’s no reason I couldn’t develop product ideas in the future and and submit those to him -for a set price.

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