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How I Became a Fashion Illustrator in a Material World

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I've been drawing fashion since I went to fashion college in the nineties. Here's my story on how to carve a career in fashion as a freelance illustrator.

I went from working in a full-time job to being a freelance fashion Illustrator, twice.

I didn’t know what a fashion illustrator was until I went to fashion college at sixteen years old.

Julie Verhoeven taught us fashion illustration on Tuesdays – which became my favourite day of the week. I remember she’d illustrate on anything: newspaper, a brown paper bag – something so simple, and yet all I knew was drawing in a sketchbook.

I soon realised there was more to fashion than making clothes. I could draw fashion for a living; it was such an eye-opener.

Looking back at my childhood, I was happiest drawing people – eighties pop stars were my forte.

One of my youngest drawing memories was when I was eight years old. The school headmistress called me into her office, and I wondered what I’d done wrong.

“Look,” she said, eyeing above my head, “I’ve framed one of your drawings.”

I was embarrassed. Even at eight years old, I didn’t think I could draw. And, I knew my strange little figure drawing was definitely not wall-worthy.

Little did I know that, one day, drawing would become my dream.

I was fourteen when I announced to the school careers advisor that I wanted to work in fashion.

“I want to be a fashion designer or a stylist,” I told her. I’d read about a day-in-the-life of a stylist in Mizz magazine, so I knew a job in fashion was possible.

“Well, that would be very difficult,” the careers advisor said. “It may be better to work in a bank or something.”

I screwed up my nose and, undiscouraged, promptly applied to study Fashion & Textiles at Southend college, where I was taught by Verhoeven.

After finishing my diploma in fashion, I left home, aged eighteen, London bound, to study for a Fashion Design degree at Middlesex University.

Selling Art Online

Circa 1995, while sitting with a few friends discussing our big plans for the future, I declared I wanted to become an artist and sell my fashion illustrations. Someone in the group actually laughed and said: “Who would want to buy your art?” This person had never seen my work but made their judgement anyway.

Despite feeling slightly crushed, and wishing I’d kept my ridiculous ideas to myself, I decided, then and there, I had to prove them wrong.

After graduating in 1997, I continued drawing fashion whenever I could, between jobs; waitressing, sewing vintage Barbie doll clothes – which I loved, because Barbie’s obviously a fashion icon – then working in fashion PR and marketing for some ten years.

In 2005, I set-up my first website (on the side), to get my art online. It was an exciting time because social media wasn’t a thing, and having a website wasn’t as common as it is today.

So uncommon in fact, the Independent newspaper featured my website in the finance section under the headline, ‘The best £30 I’ve ever spent,’ next to a headshot of me with the sun in my eyes.

Not quite the press coverage I wanted, but I did get a flurry of hits to my site, not to mention dozens of emails asking for website advice. Still, all press is good press, as they say.

Creating a Business

Later on, I studied 2D Software Design at London College of Communication, while I was still working in fashion PR, (I love to learn new skills).

Armed with my design qualification, I felt ready to leave my office job and become a freelance fashion illustrator and graphic designer.

It was 2009, at the end of the recession, but it never occurred to me to be cautious. I was following my (fashion drawing) dreams, no matter what.

“Leap, and the net will appear,” I told myself.

I went on to study Fashion Illustration in Photoshop at London College of Fashion – a short summer course. It was a different style of drawing fashion to what I was used to, but the point was to evolve and explore.

I started selling greeting cards and art prints, under the name soul water, in around thirty stores including Fenwicks in Bond Street.

More creative endeavours followed. My most exciting moments were seeing my illustrations on a fragrance bottle in Harvey Nichols and on beauty products in Boots.

I was a full-time fashion illustrator, selling my art. Although, it wasn’t quite mission accomplished yet.

Failing in Fashion

There are two points to make here.

The first is to ignore those who dismiss your dreams.

The second is that, if you really want to do something, that ‘need’ will not go away, so you can either go for it or let it eat you up inside.

Whether you succeed or fail is irrelevant, because the only way you will fail is if you don’t try.

Let me put this another way: You’ve failed until you try.

By the way, I did fail. Although I don’t actually see it that way. Here’s why:

One thing I hated doing, as a fashion illustrator, was chasing invoices. Some companies didn’t pay for six months to a year. Others closed down and didn’t pay me at all. It was pretty soul-destroying.

Then there was the inventory. I had boxes of cards, envelopes, art prints and packaging stacked high around my home.

I began to long for space, simplicity… security.

Maybe I could become an art teacher to supplement my income, I thought. So, I took a teacher training course while I had the time.

Then, I got a part-time job packing orders for an online fashion company. A year later, a full-time position became available. I was already happy there and I loved the product, so I went for it.

After three years of self-employment, I was back to working full-time.

At this point, some would assume I’d failed at freelancing, but I don’t think I did.

With every client job, I’d learnt something new—in other words, clients often asked me for something I’d never done before, and I got to discover a new skill. Learning on the job is the best experience you can have. I’d also managed to get a few more qualifications under my belt.

Now I was ready for something different.

Designing for Digital

By this time, digital marketing was taking over from print media, and social media was, virtually, taking over. So, it was brilliant to be working for an upcoming fashion brand in the online space.

I became the website girl; updating the homepage, designing landing pages; copywriting, merchandising and creating editorial content.

As I said, I love learning new things, so I made it my business to research more about software, online marketing and customer behaviour.

On the way to work, I became obsessed with listening to business podcasts. The hour-long commute became my favourite part of the day.

All the while, I kept a handful of design clients, which meant sometimes working until 3 in the morning and getting up at 6 am. I rarely slept longer than five or six hours.

Six years later, something had to give.

Rather than burn-out, I started to crave creative freedom, so determined was I to learn more. You could say I was a bit of a free spirit trapped in a full-time office job, like a fly trying to find its way out of a closed window.

I call this ‘e-commerce episode’ a hiatus, during which I downloaded as much of the digital world into my brain as humanly possible. And I’m forever grateful for the experience.

Going Solo

I think the company email said something like “Zoe will be leaving the business to pursue her passion projects.” And I suddenly felt a bit airy fairy.

Far from being the carefree bohemian I aspired to be, I’m a very practical person, and I’d always saved my money for a rainy day—subconsciously knowing I would eventually go back to a freelance life.

It was 2018 when I left the workplace (again). I immediately threw myself into a lifelong dream I had: to put on a solo exhibition.

I booked a small white gallery (mainly to make myself go through with it), then, gave myself only a couple of weeks to plan, promote and illustrate everything.

A bit of a crazy thing to do? Yes, definitely!

Still, it was exhilarating.

Doing something, only because your heart wants to is the ultimate freedom.

Like travelling. You really want to go somewhere, so you go.

I didn’t mind that I didn’t sell a single illustration. I’m not so deluded that I think everyone will flock to wherever I might be and buy, buy, buy.

My mission was to challenge myself and, ultimately, see my art on walls.

Was it financially viable? No. But I felt richer for doing it.

Summary

I would love to tell you that you can make a huge living from freelancing in fashion, but in all honesty, you’ll most likely need more strings to your bow than painting pretty pictures.

Here’s what I can tell you about being a fashion illustrator:

  • Live with less, draw more.

Every freelancer knows you have to be creative in all aspects of your life including eating, spending, indulging. Live simply to live creatively.

  • Work in fashion for the experience.

A background in fashion helps because you make connections within the industry. I’ve never had an agent—many of my client work has come from people I’ve met in previous jobs or through social media.

  • Understand that being a fashion illustrator is more of a lifestyle than a job.

You have to be multifaceted. Digital marketing is paramount to business, as is the software that comes with it. Get comfortable with it. Learn and absorb as much as possible—and keep learning!

  • Experiment by all means, but ultimately do what you do.

What does that mean? It means never try to be all things to all people. When I started my greeting card company, I made the mistake of trying to sell all kinds of cards. In hindsight, I should have sold one size card, one envelope, one style, i.e. simple fashion illustrations.

“Our life is frittered away by detail… simplify, simplify.” –Henry David Thoreau

Fashion Notes

Keep it simple, keep learning, keep evolving and keep creating.

Are you surprised by anything you’ve read about being a fashion illustrator? Let me know in the comments!

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