In a recent episode of Gossip Girl, Blair confesses to her mother that Blair lacks the talent to run Waldorf Designs: “Everything I have was from scheming and lying and working the angles. I don’t have what it takes.” Blair had dreamed of making it to the top of the fashion world as her mother has, but as a privileged twenty-something who has never had to work before, Blair has nothing to offer.
Because she’s subpar as a businesswoman, she turns to fashion design instead. She had been a trendsetter at Constance Billard School, right? How hard could it be to be a designer? At the end of the episode “Where the Vile Things Are,” we see her sketching with her mother and embarking on a line of glamorous uniforms for Manhattan’s private-school elite.
It’s no wonder that there’s a spot for Blair in the competitive world of high fashion: She’s the daughter of the creator of Waldorf Designs, she attended an elite private school where she gained connections to high society, and her family has no shortage of money. But for less privileged, real-life aspirants who move to New York in search of fashion dream jobs, the workforce is not so glamorous.
A four-year degree isn’t necessary to become a designer, yet many fashion hopefuls come to New York and cough up around $62,000 for a bachelor’s degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology or $150,000 for a diploma from Pratt. From there, says the Occupational Outlook Handbook, “Beginning fashion designers usually start out as patternmakers or sketching assistants” and earn an average of about $45,000 per year. Those who advance and do become fashion designers earn an average of $74,000 per year. But few succeed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010, there were only 16,010 fashion designers employed.
This is not to discourage young women who want to enter the fashion industry. On the contrary, we need women in the fashion industry to make sure our clothing is made sustainably, doesn’t exploit workers, and considers the diverse spectrum of women’s bodies. Rather, this is to say that, if fashion is your dream, then it’s time to turn away from the fictions of television, movies, and magazines and figure out how to manage your career in a financially responsible way.
Gossip Girl tells us that we can go from businesswoman to designer with one quick pivot. Lipstick Jungle shows us that we can easily get our own labels, land high-profile fashion shows, and make headlines. And Project Runway suggests that we’ll have a direct line to gurus like Tim Gunn and Marie Claire’s Nina Garcia. Yes, these achievements are possible, but without careful career planning, they’re not very plausible.
So if your goal is to make it in the fashion industry—and you don’t have Blair Waldorf’s bank account—get savvy about money. Minimize your student debt with scholarships, fellowships, or a lower-priced university. Through career counseling offices and professional associations, find mentors who can help you plot a course through this highly competitive landscape. And, advises the American Association of University Women, “Know what your skills are worth in the labor market. Be skeptical of salary offers and pay raises, and negotiate if you believe your contributions are worth more.”
The small screen would have us believe that success in the fashion industry is one stiletto step away, but it’s a longer, tougher path than that. Only in TV land would an inexperienced designer like Blair succeed. In real life, it’s a much more fraught path to, as Tim Gunn says, “make it work.”