- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 26, 2006

hen the competition on Bravo TV’s reality show “Project Runway” ends March 8, the winning fashion designer will receive a spread in Elle magazine featuring his or her designs, $100,000 to start a fashion line, a one-year apprenticeship at Banana Republic and, perhaps most important, the kind of exposure and contacts in the fashion industry that money can’t buy.

But what would it take for a young fashion designer to achieve success in the often-cutthroat fashion business without “Runway’s” host Heidi Klum and her merry band of Mr. Blackwells to pave the way?

Reiner Wolter, one of tens of thousands of aspiring fashion designers around the country, says the reality-television hype can’t be believed.

“It doesn’t happen overnight like that,” Mr. Wolter says. “It takes years to achieve any kind of recognition in the business, if you ever do.”

Mr. Wolter, 25, is paying his dues as a design assistant to Emmett McCarthy, a 43-year-old former menswear designer who was a contestant on the second season of “Project Runway.”

Mr. McCarthy recently opened his first women’s wear boutique, EMc2, this spring in New York’s trendy Nolita neighborhood after studying at Parsons School of Design and working almost two decades in London, Paris and New York.

“Every design student thinks they’re going to be the next great designer, but they don’t understand the game,” Mr. McCarthy says. “You have to be able to get meetings with buyers, get a test order of the designs into stores to see how they sell. It’s really not what you know, it’s who you know. But you better know what you’re doing.”

To learn the craft, many hopefuls go to a fashion design school such as the Rhode Island School of Design, the Fashion Institute of Technology and Marketing in Los Angeles or, locally, Marymount University in Arlington. According to the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, 23 accredited schools offer degrees in fashion design. There are many more technical programs that are not formally accredited.

Annette Ames, assistant professor of fine and applied arts with Marymount University, says freshmen often get a rude awakening after the first few weeks studying design.

“A lot of students come into it thinking ‘How hard can it be?’ They think it’s glamorous,” Ms. Ames says of the rigorous instruction.

What is even harder, she says, is the increasingly stiff competition for fashion jobs post-graduation.

Years ago, a good designer could master either draping and pattern-making or illustration but didn’t necessarily have to excel at both.

“Because the competition is so stiff, we’re keen on teaching them as much as we can,” Ms. Ames says. “Although sewing isn’t a skill a successful designer must have, they do need to know how garments are made.”

Marymount seniors will stage a fashion show April 28 to show off their portfolios and honor the school’s designer of the year — Kay Unger of Kay Unger New York designs.

Graduates who find work will encounter sizable roadblocks trying to put their own, original stamp on the fashion scene.

“It is nearly impossible to create a line without some source of capital,” says Margaret Hayes, president of the industry trade association Fashion Group International in New York.

To start his Ken and Dale line, designer Kenny Clemons, 31, often has worked two jobs, most recently at Saks Fifth Avenue and Starbucks. Mr. Clemons and a friend design and sew Ken and Dale knits and strapless dresses and then sell them door-to-door to boutiques in Los Angeles.

“It’s very tough, but this is what I’ve always wanted to do,” says Mr. Clemons, who bought his first sewing machine at age 10 with his paper-route earnings. “I’m obsessed with it.”

Mr. Wolter would like to sell his own designs, too, but he knows he is a long way from that goal even after several years of working in the business.

After design school in Philadelphia, he worked for a tailor for three years and expanded the business by including dressmaking and designing.

He knew he needed training and exposure in a larger market, so he moved to New York. He stayed on a friend’s couch for six months in Jersey City, N.J., while looking for work in New York. Odd jobs included assembling wigs for a Victoria’s Secret photo shoot.

“I really never want to see human hair again,” he says.

Mr. Wolter eventually found a job as a design assistant through the most routine of Internet channels — Craigslist.org, a Web site that acts as an interactive classified section. Today, he works full time for Mr. McCarthy, taking his boss’s vision and designs from sketches to reality. For EMc2’s spring line, Mr. Wolter will sew Mr. McCarthy’s designs into muslin forms, scour New York’s garment district for fabrics, coordinate the production of samples of the designs and oversee the details of final production of the women’s skirts, tops, trousers and dresses.

Mr. Wolter’s job, though an assistant position, is a plum in an industry that is described by those in and outside the business as treacherous. Not only is Mr. McCarthy supportive of his protege, but Mr. Wolter also is gaining experience in all aspects of the boutique’s business; assistants in large fashion houses are more narrowly focused.

According to CareerProspects.org, an employment research arm of the University of Virginia, assistants in fashion design can expect to work very long hours at very low pay, with little guarantee of ever achieving the sort of success Mr. McCarthy is poised to enjoy. The median salary for experienced designers nationwide in 2004 was $55,840, although those who are not lead designers make considerably less.

Even with the long hours, low pay and relative job insecurity, fashion design remains one of the most competitive jobs in America. The Princeton Review’s “Guide to Your Career” estimated the chances of becoming a breakout success such as Ralph Lauren or Marc Jacobs at 160,000 to 1.

“I’d equate it to being an astronaut,” says Princeton Review’s senior editor, Suzanne Podhurst.

Staff writer Christian Toto contributed to this story.

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