Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Working Girl

I quit my job last week.

I gave a months notice. My last day is the day before Thanksgiving. I have a sort of plan about how I’m going to freelance (and how I hope that teaching position comes through with FIT) but mostly I’m swinging between electric excitement and paralyzing fear. I mean, our whole lives we’ve been taught to go to school, get a job, work 9-5, get married, have kids then die. Sweet. There’s no hand book for off- roading and when I’ve told people I’m quitting I’ve been getting looks like I decided to jump off a bridge. In some ways that’s exactly what I’m doing and for once in my life I’m thrilled at the unknown. Geronimo.

I don’t know how many of you have the luxury of working in a field you love. But I do. I design lingerie for a living (which is what I studied in school; yes that is a THING) and I’ve worked with prestigious design houses all over NYC. I love the thrill I get when a new project comes in, when the seasons turn and I have to research colors and trends, when my clients glow with pride at my designs that have sold out immediately. I love all of that. But there’s another side to working in the fashion design industry that people outside don’t know about. A constant, throat slitting struggle to stay relevant and updated, to impress and reinvent and make yourself worth more than the 300 girls who just left Parsons and FIT and look at your job with a manic gleam in their eyes. They’re younger and faster and they’ll take half your salary just to sit at your desk. Your bosses adore them and you want to hate them, but the truth is that was you 10 years ago. The revolving door of the industry never slows down and if you can’t make yourself worth every dime, you’re out. There is less loyalty here than there is between enemies and while your presented with a sugar sweet smile everyday they are slowly tipping poison into your coffee. The unemployment rate among designers is staggeringly high.

The natural reaction of course is “Well, just make yourself more valuable.” Let me explain how that works in fashion. We come in early to impress the bosses. They love it. Can you skip lunch today? Of course! Oh, that project really needs to be done by 9am, will you stay late. Um, sure. I love my job! Would you just be a dear and come in this Sunday to wrap things up? Oh, I have church with my family on Sunday. Yeah..well that project really needs to be done. Oh, okay. Yeah, whatever you need. There is no leaving early for weddings, skipping days for your kid’s soccer practice or calling in sick. You’re a beautiful slave to the industry and being needed because the moment you slip up even a little, the hungry younger hordes are ready to fill your shoes. I’m not trying to come off as bitter because there is good here too. I love my clients and my team members. I love the actual art of designing. I love the way fashion makes me feel (even if you think it’s shallow) and I love the confidence I see in my customers eyes when they look at me. All in all, I do feel like I’ve done a pretty decent job of making myself relevant and because I have a high opinion of myself and my work, I believe they do too. But there is a joke in the industry that if you make it to 30 years old here you’re essentially a superhero. 29 and counting.

A few months ago I woke up early because I had clients coming in at 7:45 for a meeting. I sat up in bed and just thought “What would happen if I didn’t go into work today?” What would actually happen? My clients would be pissed that they flew from LA to meet with me; that’s for sure. My bosses would be mad. They might actually fire me. Was my job worth all of this uneasiness and plight? Was fashion so important to me that I would be a slave to the industry forever? What will I do when I have children? Will they understand that I can’t see their school play because my clients are in town? Bright and loud and neon like a lighthouse beacon the answer was universally no.  I needed to make some changes.

I started with going into work on time and leaving on time, more or less. I took my hour lunch break (most days) and sat outside in the sunshine or met with friends. But most importantly I worked toward a goal of leaving the industry as most people view it. In one year I promised myself, I would have saved enough to quit for a few months and figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. When I tell people I left my job and I get the “Wow must be nice” comments I think, no it wasn’t nice. Crazily, in the midst of an insane job, I took on more work. I took freelance jobs at every available opportunity. I started an Etsy shop selling invitations and logo designs. I created banners and street signs and truck stickers for people. Turns out, there’s always someone who needs something and for the past twelve months I hustled my ass off everyday to find them.

I’m not sure I’m there yet but a few weeks ago, after a particularly painful day at work, I knew it was time to try. I gave my notice for the day before Thanksgiving. It’s funny how once you’re unavailable, everyone needs you. C’est la vie.

Frightening though it is, I am honestly excited to start this next chapter of my life. For once, I feel like I’m making a decision for my own selfish reasons and no one else’s, which is amazing and liberating and terrifying. I’ve been working with FIT as a Design Critic for the students there now and am working towards becoming a Professor as well. December will be a month for me and family and self reflection and cookies. J

Sometimes being pushed off of a precipice becomes a gifted jump into the unknown. I’m not sure I would have ever come to this decision otherwise. I’m sad to leave some of my fashion past behind but also really happy about the direction my career and life is going in. Life is short. Time to make every minute count.