10 Tips to a Great Fashion Portfolio

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:

Hi Alexandra,
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!

fashion jobs, fashion schools, portfolio, fashion advice, ask alexandra, college applications, careers

A beautiful and unusual portfolio illustration style by David Ross.

Dear Srijaa,

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.)

fashion jobs, fashion schools, portfolio, fashion advice, ask alexandra, college applications, careers

A great way to present fabric swatches, by Katharina Domokosch.

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.

fashion jobs, fashion schools, portfolio, fashion advice, ask alexandra, college applications, careers

A line up of the whole collection, by Katharina Domokosch. This is a great way to end a fashion design project, as it allows the viewer to see the collection as a whole.

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.

fashion jobs, fashion schools, portfolio, fashion advice, ask alexandra, college applications, careers

A lovely research and fabric page by Cat Patterson.

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.

fashion jobs, fashion schools, portfolio, fashion advice, ask alexandra, college applications, careers

Great use of white space in this design development spread by Cat Patterson.

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.

fashion jobs, fashion schools, portfolio, fashion advice, ask alexandra, college applications, careers

It is great to see research and the designs that followed. By Fernanda Fujiwara.

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.

fashion jobs, fashion schools, portfolio, fashion advice, ask alexandra, college applications, careers

More great illustrations and research by Fernanda Fujiwara.

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.

fashion jobs, fashion schools, portfolio, fashion advice, ask alexandra, college applications, careers

A nice way to present research, and a good use of white space, also by Fernanda Fujiwara.

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.

fashion jobs, fashion schools, portfolio, fashion advice, ask alexandra, college applications, careers

It is nice to see research and development side by side, on this portfolio spread by Chichi Luo.

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.

fashion jobs, fashion schools, portfolio, fashion advice, ask alexandra, college applications, careers

Great examples of showing development on the stand, which is a great alternative to sketches. By Chichi Luo.

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.

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  • Dimitar

    A great, great article! Thank you for the advice!
    However, I really have a hard time researching and collecting sources of inspiration. I feel somehow that I start to limit myself in the design process when I actually collect and then edit what I gathered. Could you really describe how to research properly? For example, what were you supposed to do at CSM, did they give you any plan, etc. I would appreciate all the advice on researching, I think I am not the only one with such a difficulty.

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    Will definitely consider this for an upcoming post!

  • Dimitar

    Thank you! So thoughtful :)

  • Yaas

    Great post! I heard some schools like to see (or even prefer) more drawings and paintings (not fashion related) in your portfolio to make sure you are talented enough for their school.

    Also your book selection on the right side of the page is very helpful, I recently bought couple of them, thank you for a good selection. I am very looking forward to the next related post on the schools, portfolios and more:)

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    Yes, it is great to show skills like illustration or painting, if you have them. But if it not something you are good at, find a different way to express your ideas. You can be a great fashion designer without
    having illustration skills, but you need to know how to communicate your ideas.

  • Pingback: 10 Tips to a Great Fashion Portfolio | Searching for Style | Beauty Blogs

  • Cheryl

    Hi! This may sound like a stupid question, but what do you do with the loads of research? Do students simply collect visual research and copy elements they like?

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    They use the research for inspiration when they design – and some of it gets included in the portfolio.

  • elena baez

    Im so agree with you in point 9. Unfortunately i belong to one of these crappy school you mentioned ( mine is in Spain) and we developed our projects in a very different ( and poor way) . I had the chance to attend a St. Martins summer course years ago and -as student- i have no words to describe how different and amazing teaching method there was!!!. Now im preparing my portfolio for job search and after reading all this i feel a bit disappointed with my work… I will try to do my best. Thank you very much for the advices!

  • Pingback: Something else for everyone out there stressing about book work for your final collection | The Kent Fashion Kaleidoscope

  • soph

    Hi there, I am applying for fashion marketing and promotion for September, and I have to do a portfolio for one of my chosen universities. For my course it is not at all art related, so I am a little stuck in what i need to put in it, especially as Im not the best at drawing

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    Put shop reports, trend boards, branding projects, writing/blogging work, styling and photoshoots, and marketing plans!

  • Soph

    Thank you so much for your help :)

  • CuriousCat

    great post! I’d really appreciate your help with my query regarding fashion styling portfolios. How do you suggest students how variety in the portfolio, besides the concept for each shoot? …since all of my photo shoots are meant for editorials.

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    Include layouts of how you’d see the shoots in a magazine, inspiration boards from what inspired you in the shoots, lots of variety of teams, etc…

  • CuriousCat

    show* variety. sorry about the typo. Thank you!

  • CuriousCat

    This is the study proposal for LCF fashion media styling:

    “Your study proposal should include three named ideas for styled stories, noting which market or audience these will be for”

    Please give your insight into building this study proposal. Would i be putting myself in a risky situation if I present all 3 photoshoots in an editorial format, although with strong concepts? Must I present fashion advertorial shoots necessarily?

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    I’m not sure… best to ask LCF as I don’t want to misinform you!

  • Farrista

    Hi! you give extremely helpful advice!!

    I also have a question on fashion styling- What are some important elements to absolutely keep in mind when planning a photo shoot? like, is it important to style in accordance with seasons(S/S or F/W)? I am a student and have very limited resources. yet I need to build a good portfolio.

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    I would say that a professional model is your most important priority, as it shows when they aren’t pros. I don’t think seasons is that important, if it is portfolio work.

  • http://www.respectmycreativity.com/ RM_Creativity

    What are some sites to purchase custom or ready made portfolios?

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    Good question, and I’m afraid I don’t have an amazing answer. Your best bet is http://www.londongraphics.co.uk.

  • http://www.respectmycreativity.com/ RM_Creativity

    This is a great! Thanks for suggesting it. There’s plenty to inspire here. So glad I discovered your site.

  • Sofía

    Hello! I really hope I can get an answer on a post from 2012, haha. Addressing your last point, about not limiting my portfolio to fashion, I have a portfolio I presented for fine arts last year, so I am wondering how much of a good idea it is to include a bit of the research I did for that portfolio (which was based mostly on american artists from the sixties)? Could I even include some of my fine arts work? And thank you lots for the advice!

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    Yes, you can definitely include fine art work! Schools like to see what you have done in the past, especially if it is creative. But be sure to meet their submission guidelines.