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Julia Wissman is an Associate Designer with GapBody, a division of the Gap. She attended the University of Delaware and the Fashion Institute of Technology, and has also worked as an Assistant Designer for Calvin Klein. Julia shares her perspectives on designing clothing, and how she broke into the industry.

Tell CareerThreads a little bit about a typical day as an Associate Designer.

Certainly. The first thing I do each day is answer e-mails, anywhere from 10 to 50 of them. A lot of them are from other GapBody employees, what we call cross-functional team members. People in pre-production and merchandising may have questions about a design. The factories we work with also have questions or problems. A factory might not be able to get the fabric I want, and are submitting another fabric for me to look at. So my job often involves a lot of problem-solving.

I typically attend a lot of meetings with team members, as well as our business partners. When I meet with the pre-production team, I work with them in getting the fabric and design to the factory. For instance, if we're thinking about making a pink nightgown, I have to decide if the lace will also be pink, and then find out where the lace is coming from. Let's say the lace is being manufactured in France and then being sent to the factory in Hong Kong. We need to instruct the factory what color to dye the lace, and then how to apply it to the fabric. A lot of people are involved with this process, so everybody needs to know what's going on. A typical meeting consists of the designer, the technical designer, the pre-production person, and the head of design.

We have fittings once a week. We get a live model whose hips, chest and waist meet a standard measurement for the company. We put the samples from the factory on her, and decide if we like how the design looks on her. Then we determine if the design fits correctly. We may make adjustments to the sample, like changing a hem height to above the knee or reshaping the armhole. This process can get very technical.

I also take part in presentation meetings. You preliminarily present ideas to the big guys to show what you're thinking about. For instance, I may be leaning towards gingham and feminine shapes for that season, and they decide whether to go with that or not. GapBody lets you run with a lot of ideas, so they may just make suggestions and tweak them a little.

I also do a lot of sketching. I like to do my original sketches by hand, and when they get more concrete I do them on the computer. I use the computer to fit in the details of the garment with a system called KaratCad. I would say I spend 50 to 60 percent of my day on my computer. I use other programs like Excel to list styles and information about them. I also use a digital camera a lot. We take pictures of the garment during the fitting and can then show these pictures to our executives.

How did you choose a career in the apparel industry?

I've always had a strong passion for art, and I'm fairly good at the drawing part. I always liked to make my own clothes, playing with designs and sewing. I actually got my start making clothes for my Barbie dolls. The defining moment was when I got my grades back from my art exam. Since I wasn't going to be a fine artist, I had to decide, “what else is there?” I had excelled in my home economics class, so I considered what I was really good at and just went with it.

About that same time, I was looking at colleges, and began checking out schools that featured apparel design as a major. I went to Delaware for three years, and they had a sister program with the Fashion Institute of Technology. I was able to attend FIT for my one-year program, which was more like two years in one. It was like a graduate program, and the people who had more experience got more out of it.

What has surprised you most about working in the apparel industry?

Number one is the obscene late hours. While it doesn't happen at the Gap, the bigger the name, the harder you work, often for less money.

When I got to the Gap I was surprised at what an actual business it is. You're focused on what the customer is buying right now, and how to reinterpret that so that they buy it again next year. You almost have to work from a template. While you can be creative, you have to be creative in a box; you definitely have boundaries.

I really like knowing a year ahead of time what people will be wearing, that's very exciting. One of the best feelings I had was walking into a Bloomingdale's, and seeing prints I had designed on Calvin Klein shirts. Naturally, I had to buy one, and ended up paying full price!

What classes helped you the most with your career?

As far as design classes go, I tell people they can't take enough drawing classes. Also, I really value my English classes. Because I acquired those skills, I'm the one who writes the outlines after meetings. It's good to know how to support the business end. You have to be able to get your point across, to know how to translate sometimes intangible ideas into words and pictures. Business classes are also a good idea.

I had an instructor who would take off on tangents about what people were doing in the industry. At the time, I didn't realize he was sharing practical experience. As a design student I thought you had to try to reinvent the wheel. He tried to get across to us that the point is reinventing the basic tee, with little subtle changes. He had designed a button-down Polo jersey dress, and it sold really well. It was so simple, at the time he couldn't believe that was what people wanted.

What other training and skills did you find useful?

Internships are an absolute must! I can't imagine anybody getting hired without an internship. That's where I learned the most. My best internship was as a pattern marker for a factory in Baltimore. It was summer, with no air conditioning, and at the time, I hated it. But I saw how samples were made and how garments were passed down the manufacturing line.

I didn't take any seminars on interviewing skills, but wish I had. Believe me, the process is scary if you don't have any tools. If you want to break into the field, get tapes and books on interviewing.

What tips do you have for someone interested in a career in the industry?

Definitely make sure you intern somewhere. When you're there, work on your portfolio, pass it along to your co-workers, and get an opinion. Remember, they're in the industry and are in the know. Also, make your portfolio as professional as possible. I know you love that project you did in school, but if it looks like a school project, it will make you look like a college kid.

Finally, really research your company before going in. If you can, go to one of their stores and check out their fashions. During interviews, try to wear something of theirs, as long as it's understated. As a rule of thumb, wear something that one of the managers in the store would wear. If you're working in the Gap store, you're not going to wear jeans, but a nice blazer and some khakis. Always try to be as fashion-forward as possible.


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