Ask Alexandra is my advice column. Have a question you want to ask me? Fill out the form here.
Here’s an interesting letter that came into my inbox:
I’m wanted to know how should I prepare an entry portfolio for entering into a fashion course ? Any piece of advice would be helpful. Thank you!
Happy to help. I’ve been in the position to help students prepare portfolios, as well as evaluating prospective students’ portfolios, so I am happy to give you some advice. And let it be known that these tips are not only applicable to student’s preparing portfolios to join fashion courses, they are also relevant to graduates looking for fashion jobs.
1. Read the portfolio requirements. All schools have different portfolio requirements, so make sure to READ the requirements and FOLLOW them. This may sounds like a no brainer, but I have seen a lot of students who used the exact same portfolio for ten different course applications, even though it meant they were turning up to interviews with the wrong material. So if they want 3 design projects, a sketchbook, and a toile, bring that. If you’ve got amazing stuff that doesn’t fit into the requirements, bring it separately, and tell them you have a few more things you’d like to show them. Maybe they will look, maybe they won’t. (On that note, make sure to read the course DESCRIPTION, too. I can’t tell you how many students came to the interview for our fashion management and marketing course and told us how they wanted to be designers. Duh.)
2. Prepare to be flexible, and take things in and out. Because different jobs and courses will have different requirements, make sure to be prepared to adapt your portfolio according to the position you are applying for (just like you do with a resume, right?) So if you have five great projects, maybe you only bring three to one interview, and four to another, because there were elements that weren’t relevant to one particular school or job. This also means you need a portfolio where you can remove content. Very important, see below.
3. Buy a good portfolio. And have a great digital version. A good portfolio is an indispensable tool for a fashion person. I suggest A4 or letter size (bigger makes you look student-y, although some schools will require this, see point 1. ) Choose something neutral (ie. black. No logos, no weird colours, no cheap binding, please.) Make sure it is very high quality and has sleeves where you can easily change the content, and how many pages are in the portfolio. Your portfolio will last you for years, which is why you want it to be neutral. Even though you might be obsessed with pink bows and lace now, you don’t want your portfolio to be pink and lacy, as you may end up being a menswear designer in five years. Expect to spend well into the three digits for a good portfolio and sleeves, but count this as an investment.
I once saw Louise Wilson (course director on the MA at St. Martins) refuse an application because the portfolio looked “disgusting.” She didn’t even open it. But, I won’t deny she has a good point. What kind of person are you if you go to a job interview in a sweatsuit? The same type of person who puts their prized work into the portfolio equivalent of a sweatsuit.
And don’t forget, a good digital version of your portfolio is also very important since we live in the digital age. This needs to be slightly different than your hardcopy, as some things can’t be represented the same in both formats (ex. videos or fabric swatches.) I make my students do a small 4MB maximum mini version of their digital portfolio, to send out as a taster. Then they need a larger version, which can be sent out on request (don’t ever send a 100MB file to someone unless they have requested it.) Make sure to have flexibility with your pages in case you need to do a 20MB version, or you want to remove pages.
4. Know your strengths. This is a life lesson for everyone, and applies to all careers, applications, and aspects of life. If you aren’t good at something, try and avoid including it in your portfolio. For example, if you suck at illustrating, don’t put any in your portfolio (this is very possible. On the MA at St. Martins, the course director thought everyone’s illustrations were “shit” – her words – and only one of us was allowed to include proper fashion illustrations in our portfolio. The rest of us managed to make beautiful portfolios without them, proof that it is possible.) If it is presentation skills, have a graphic designer friend help you with layouts. If you can’t spell, make sure your written work is proofread. No one is perfect, so don’t try to be and don’t try and do everything yourself. Remember, you are only as good as your worst illustration/design/layout/essay, so make sure there are no weak links.
5. No unprofessional photoshoots. I was just saying to some students the other day, who are planning photoshoots for their styling class, that it is ESSENTIAL that they get professional models. Nowadays, with Instagram and photo editing software, a good model is even more important than a good photographer. This is one of the reasons why I organize our fashion design graduates’ photoshoots, because most local schools make the students do them on their own, and they end up with poor photos because they don’t have a pro team. As you can see here, a pro team makes a huge difference. And spare me the argument about wanting to use “real women” as models, that is a load of bollocks. If you want a model that isn’t a size four, then hire one who is bigger. Or hire an actress, but it must be someone that is comfortable in front of a camera. Don’t get your mate to model instead. Read more on this here.
6. Edit. When people look at portfolios, they are usually in some type of recruitment process and will be exposed to a lot of work. Which is why you need to make your short and SWEET. Don’t bore people to death. Don’t start with the OK stuff and save the best for last (the interviewer may not even bother to get through the first half.) And don’t include anything mediocre. Editing seems to be something that is FAR more challenging than creating content (I am guilty of this, look at the size of this blog post) and so take the time to edit your portfolio carefully so that it isn’t too long and doesn’t get boring. In the case of applications for courses that require written content, be sure to edit down your projects and use clear titles, introductions, bullet points, nice diagrams, and subtitles so that the interviewer doesn’t need to read your 4,000 word market research project, they can skim it and get an idea of what you’ve done. I am not going to get into specifics of page numbers here, as sometimes a 20 page portfolio will bore me to death, while a 100 page one will be riveting and exciting the whole way through. It depends. And remember point 2, you will probably have a lot of work you want to show, just don’t include all of it for every submission. Edit and choose according the job/school/course you are applying to.
7. Excellent presentation. If I had a dollar every time a student handed in good work poorly presented, and got a crappy mark as a result, well, I’d have many dollars. This is fashion, is is ALL ABOUT presentation! So how can you ignore it? You can’t. Layouts need to be SPECTACULAR. Maybe I need to do a separate post on layout tips, because I see more fails than I do successes. Go back to the sweatshirt analogy. Or the part about only being as good as your worst element. So think great graphics, a well-considered font, high quality imagery, consistency, white space, good quality paper, and a presentation style that is relevant to your work and yourself. This is a great time to get your graphic designer friends to help out.
8. Show your process. Most people like to see the process in which a person goes through to get to their final result, as that is the main part of the role in most fashion jobs. So with design portfolios, make sure to show research, development, experimentation, fittings, and more. This can be as part of a project (all my students need to show these elements when they hand in a design project) or it can be in a sketchbook.
9. Research and development! See above. But I wanted to have a separate point for this because research is one of the most important elements in a fashion design portfolio and is usually what separates a St. Martins student from a student from crappy fashion school in the middle of nowhere. Our projects and portfolios were probably 50-90% research and development, with a resolution or conclusion at the end. We did research for months before we started designing, and that’s often what happens in industry. I don’t let my students even pick up a pencil until they’ve collected a crap load of research. So if you are wondering what makes St. Martins and all those other English schools so good, it is usually the importance they place on research skills.
10. Don’t limit your content to fashion. If you are great in other things, then make sure they get a mention. Schools and companies aren’t accepting/hiring you based on your work, they are also making an investment in you as a person. And so if you are good at other things, then that will always be a plus.
P.S. One last very important tip: if you are applying to schools, check out the graduate portfolios from the recent grads. That will give you an idea of where the course is supposed to take you, and demonstrating that you have the ability to get there will only help you. Most schools do public portfolio shows, or put work online. In fact, all of these images came from Showtime, which has the graduate portfolios of the University of the Arts grads (includes St. Martins and London College of Fashion), a great resource to see what some of the top London fashion school grads are doing. I’ve shown work from students at London College of Fashion.