Is a career in fashion right for you?

Is a career in fashion right for you?


Text: Jolene Khor

When a fashion designer, a fashion lecturer, and an editor-in-chief of a fashion publication walk into an empty classroom at a fashion school...

You know they mean business.

Priscilla Ong, founder of local label Ong Shunmugam, alongside Adrian Huang, Fashion Lecturer at Lasalle College of the Arts and Norman Tan, Editor-in-Chief of Esquire Singapore (previously of Buro 24/7 Singapore), braved the downpour last Friday evening for a round table. The topic in question, one every millennial considering pledging their life to tweed and taffeta should be wise enough to ponder.

What does it take to be the next Karl Lagerfeld or Karla Welch or Edward Enninful? Come to think of it, is that even the right question to ask yourself before considering your major? Does passion or perseverance matter more? Should you build your skills to match that of a jack-of-all-trades or focus on excelling as a master of one? In the large scheme of things, how crucial is a closet full of labels? Our panel of experts broach the common dilemmas and weigh in on the tough calls those set on a career in fashion will face in a podcast, available for streaming after the jump.

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Is this an industry wherein one has to be a jack-of-all-trades to succeed? In publishing for instance, we're expected to not just write, but style as well. In fashion design, beyond producing a beautiful garment, is understanding of business and public relations imperative too?
Norman: For publishing, you need to be a good storyteller. And some people will specialise in telling stories visually or in a written form. But the editors today need to be quite broad because they also need to run styling workshops, do podcasts (like we're doing now!), you know, do public speaking, do radio shows... really build a kind of a persona and be the front of a brand. Because a publication doesn't just exist in printed form, it's also online, it's at events, it's everywhere really. So as an editor you wear many hats in the sense that you have to develop editorial strategies, you think about how to market your title, how to sell your title and make it commercially viable. Digitally, there's SEO considerations, there's technical considerations... there's a lot of things going on.
Priscilla: Because fashion has been consumed so differently now in this current, it's not fair to say this is how it works in the 21st century. Just 10 years ago, the way fashion was consumed was so different. There was no Instagram, no social media, so the speed at which fashion goes to market, the way consumers place orders, are completely different. The fashion industry is definitely up there as one of the top industries that have been revolutionised by technology. 


Do we then think the curriculum in the study of fashion needs to reflect the new skill sets required of students when they start working?
Adrian: We update our curriculum all the time; we try to keep pace with the changes that are going on out there. And it's true that sometimes, it's really difficult because there are still many core competencies we need to teach, on top of which are the new things we need to navigate. Finding that balance is tricky. There will be things that students will have to learn on their own. For instance, we don't teach coding, so if you want to manage your own domain, you will have to pick that up on your own. There's only so much that we can teach, but for us it's more about helping our students find their niche. We always talk about multi-tasking and being a jack of all trades, but in reality, you have to be realistic in terms of what your competencies are; be truthful about that and be transparent about that because there's a danger if someone is hired and they're thrown in a situation where they're expected to carry so many portfolios. If they can't do it, they don't have the competencies to do it, then who's at fault when something goes wrong? That's something employers also need to think about.

Norman Tan, Editor-in-Chief of Esquire Singapore (right) with Lisa Aiken, Retail Fashion Director of Net-a-Porter.

Do you need to be fashionable to work in fashion?
Norman: It depends on what kind of role you're talking about. If you're an editor and someone who's more public-facing, as opposed to a designer in a magazine [who's more behind-the-scenes], I do feel in my experience that it helps. One hundred percent. You're always going to meet people when you're in fashion, and people are always going to go, "Oh my god, I love your bag" or "Where did you get your Balenciaga Triple S?" It's a superficial industry but it's a conversation starter. 

But not everyone is going to be able to afford that.
Norman: True. That's true. It doesn't always have to be high fashion. You can take pieces that you bought maybe at a vintage shop, or something that you've had for 10 years... it's about how you put them together. Being stylish helps — but being stylish doesn't necessarily means it's expensive.
Priscilla: It's quite essential to have a good understanding of style and have good instincts. It's one of those things that can't be taught.

Read more stories in our Career Special.