Judging from what is written about fashion in glossy magazines, you could be forgiven for thinking that the life of a fashion designer is one heady riot of catwalk shows, outrageous parties and celebrity muses. However, ask a professional about the nitty-gritty of the business and you will soon come up with a rather more sober picture.
"This is quite a tough business," explains Hong Kong-based designer Pacino Wan, who has been working in the field since he graduated in fashion from the Hong Kong Polytechnic School of Design in 1987. Indeed, he insists that this career is highly individual, demanding not only good management skills and an excellent training, but also a fertile imagination.
Made in Hong Kong
Describing himself as a "100 percent Hong Kong-made designer", Mr Wan worked for a Hong Kong fashion company before opening up his own shop in 1997. Today, although the majority of his 28 boutiques are in Hong Kong and mainland China, his clothing collections can also be found across Asia, in the Middle East and in top-notch European department stores such as Brown's, in London.
"You have to communicate with people, draw the things that you are thinking [about] and explain them in order to make them become reality"
Bearing in mind that Mr Wan runs a children's line in addition to a ladies' collection, every aspect of which, from the patterns to the embroidery, he designs himself, it is no surprise when he describes this business as challenging and organisationally demanding. "You also have to finish everything in a very short time," he adds. "When people place an order, they want to have it a month later."
In addition to understanding how to make clothes, fashion design also demands a talent for foreseeing the future. "Fashion is a product, but it should have creativity. Unlike ready-made garments, fashion requires the most up-to-date style! You have to match the trends that people are going for, think of the next thing which will become a trend three to six months later and predict what people like and are going to wear."
Manage your skills
If you want to be a fashion designer, must-haves include, in addition to the ability to design and dream up new ideas, an aptitude for drawing and a sense for combined colours. "You have to communicate with people, draw the things that you are thinking [about] and explain them in order to make them become reality," says Mr Wan.
But, even if they enjoy these skills, budding professionals still need to learn how to become craftsmen. "Nowadays, lots of young designers don't think making clothes is really important. They think the main job of a designer is to sketch or draw and [that] other people can finish the work," he says. "But if you don't know the actual procedures of how clothes are made, even a very experienced pattern-maker cannot make what you want. If designers have the skills, they can do what they want."
Mr Wan therefore strongly recommends that future fashion designers not only attend fashion school, but also learn about pattern-making. He also advises fresh graduates to knuckle down and "learn about reality" before branching out on their own.
"Times are changing. A designer might want to open a very small shop after graduating, where they can do their own creative work and sell a few pieces. But it's not easy to order low quantities of fabric, production costs are really high and also it's very hard work to maintain."
"Don't ask for a high salary - go to a very good company and get your experience from that. The next step is that you should spend at least ten years learning about the high pressure, design and fashion," he continues. "If you do want to become very successful, tell yourself 'I have to spend 10 years learning and maybe, after that, I can become a fashion designer'."
Mr Wan believes ample opportunities exist in mainland China for Hong Kong's fashion designers, particularly those aiming to open their own boutiques. "Hong Kong is a small place. If you want to expand, China is the most convenient place [to go]," he explains.
"Today, Chinese fashion is quite close to Hong Kong fashion trends. People are getting much richer now, have very good magazines and television programmes and know what's going on in the world. They have caught up with fashion really fast."
However, although this market is easy to penetrate, business is hard to maintain. "Chinese people don't have the same mentality as Hong Kong people, who are trained to be business-minded. They're rich and think they can get a return on their investment in up to half a year, which isn't true! So you have to be prepared to teach, encourage and help them - fashion is tougher than they think."