It is a Tuesday morning and I just withdrew my application for a job I was more than qualified for. I was preparing for the second interview and realized that the position was not the right fit. During the application process, I realized that during my last year on hiatus from designing that my values had shifted. I reflected on my goals (personal and professional) and what type of work in fashion made me feel fulfilled. I realized that my happiness in the workplace overshadowed title, position, and presumed prestige. I wondered, Does the pressure to ‘be in the industry’ outweigh my desire to work in an environment that supports and respects my professional and personal growth?

The answer was ultimately no— but for many young designers, the factors that put us in these situations of sacrifice of happiness are varied. How do we prioritize our own happiness in relationship to our personal and professional growth?

picture by Simonas Berukis for RCA MA17

Most recently, I had my first work anniversary— a big milestone for a 23-year-old. Throughout this journey, it was extremely important for me to hold a position for a full year; to break the cycle of shuffling through new work environments every three-to-five months as a freelancer. I found that my company’s focus on personal and professional development, goal setting and practices rooted in living a life that is equal parts happy, healthy and fun became the most important aspects of my work life. I wanted to ensure that my next role spoke to those same work/life principles.

Throughout my job search I found myself asking human resource associates questions about whether or not the company invested in its employees through specialty benefits programs (Have you seen Google’s napping suite?). I longed for an environment that was like my current job but with more growth potential.

One thing I wish I would have learned during my career counseling in college is that there are actually dozens of opportunities for budding young designers— unfortunately all of those opportunities are freelance. After working for eight out of the twelve months of my first year in New York as a freelancer, I oftentimes left work feeling used, unheard and unknown. The work I created did not feel meaningless because of the work itself, but because no one around me seemed to have the tools to support and to help me develop into the ‘permanent’ role most companies dangle in front of you to make you consider taking on freelance work.

Last week, a friend reached out to me because they were having trouble grappling with the infrequency and unsustainability of freelance opportunities. They had recently graduated and found themselves in a situation that paralleled greatly my own journey. We went on about how uninspiring freelance work can be due to the often arduous schedule, short timelines, and ultimately short contracts. Freelance contracts can often be open ended and terminated with little to no notice. After this happens, one must continually be on the hunt for new work during and after existing freelance opportunities. Constantly searching for new work and opportunities while unemployed can serve as a severe source of anxiety and depression for many young designers like myself. At some point we have to stop searching and start creating.

The demand for freelance work breeds more freelance employees. The industry has noted the breakneck pace of industry trends, and it is now being displayed in the workforce. Designers are less valuable than ever and it is reflected from the top down. For example, consider the mass exodus that is the men’s ready-to-wear division of LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy). If Haider Ackermann’s remarkable stint at Berluti is disposable, then why would any aspirational or luxury brand take on the risk of offering full-time salaried employment to those applying for entry-level positions?

We must demand more of our employers who wish for us to have more skills but do not foster environments that encourage mentorship and comradery amongst co-workers.

Through speaking with my peers about these issues, I have been able to feel heard. I thoroughly realize the true depth of the industry’s freelance problem. We are not facing an issue that only happens to some of us. It is a systemic issue that transcends many demographic factors and begs the question: What is the true value of labor? Do we value the creativity, energy and hunger young people bring to the table?

I understand now that my work in finding happiness through my career is in working tirelessly to create the position for myself that I see. We live in a time where so much work is hybridized; companies are shrinking budgets and trimming their workforce, increasing workloads for many and ultimately optimizing their workforce productivity. Should we choose to work for an existing organization we must ask, how can we contribute to their business in a new way? For the rest of us who might not know what our contribution to fashion might be, our work is in discovering what lights us up inside. What ways of working perpetually ignite a spark within you? Where we can start:

  1. Institutions Must Provide Long-Term Support

Schools like Central Saint Martins and Parsons participate in exclusive partnerships with largely influential external partners that are aimed to serve as a filter for the best students in a given program or graduating class. If we create exclusive sponsorship and scholarship programs through organizations like the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) or through conglomerates like LVMH but in turn do not create safety nets for these students, then we are not effectively setting those students up for success at all. However, we are providing small amounts of funding and a greater deal of lip service, when what is needed is strong long-lasting guidance and financial support.
What I have found to be true about myself and my peers now, is that we have goals to be true inventors of structures that do not exist. The more unfortunate part is that there is not adequate funding or support structures in place to guide young people in their desired direction. We laud companies like Vaquera or Eckhaus Latta for being young and creative and expressing new ideas, but those companies were founded by wealthy children of great privilege who use their multifaceted peers as inspiration for their work. If the fashion community at large gave young designers with concrete business strategies seed funding to start their own brands I believe we would see a dramatic uptick in the breadth of work existing in the same vein. We would also create more opportunities for designers of color or low-income students and those representing a multitude of intersectional backgrounds.

  1. As Designers, We Must Create a Practice of Intentional Goal-Setting

Like my peers, my goals are audacious; they involve many practices of creating the future I envision for myself. I know that many of my peers do not think about their vision or goals very often and that we can often times get lost in the constant shuffle of freelancing endlessly. I want to encourage us to think hard not only about the traits of those we admire and how we can emulate those characteristics, but to also envision our best life. Taking note of the practical steps we can take in the now (or even up to a year from now) so that we can incrementally work towards our short-term goals and ultimately swallow our long-term goals with similar voracity. I am in the practice of creating a list, and organizing my short-term goals chronologically and writing out a vision for myself that aligns with those goals. Most importantly, I am only taking on new opportunities that solely align with my bigger goals; what does not fit into that vision, I do not invest myself in.

  1. Be More Than Hype. Be Patient.

I recall a roundtable on ShowStudio from about a year ago, former Editor Lou Stoppard expressed her concern over the media creating stories about young designers and creatives. The overall sentiment was that too much pressure is put on young people to succeed in their early twenties. These outlets often times do not highlight more common stories like that of Haider Ackermann who started his namesake label at the age of 31. So many of us clamor to be Instagram artists before working artists and thinkers. We are trained to aim for transient fame and are not taught the tools to sustain ourselves creatively or emotionally and have a blossoming career like that of Cardi B. I’ve found that talking through this process with my peers in fashion is the first step to addressing how isolating fashion can feel especially when you’re just beginning. Through finding a work-life balance that is effective and allows for me to be creative has been key to my personal success and happiness. For me, finding happiness and fulfillment through my work is about a balance of hunger and patience– I must stay hungry for opportunity and patient for the right opportunity.

Words Micah McClain

Micah is a 23-year-old artist and designer working in New York City. Micah graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art with a BFA in Fiber and Textile Arts.