By Blanca Rivera, 16, Polytechnic HS
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I thought becoming a designer was as easy as 1, 2, 3. I thought that all you had to do was go to college, get a job and you’re set. I was wrong. You have to go through a lot to make it. The fashion industry is very competitive and to get a job you have to be really good.

But you can make it. Sophie La got a job designing evening wear and she’s only 25. Interviewing her gave me some ideas about what it’s really like to work in the fashion industry.

Though Sophie has loved fashion and has been sketching clothes since the third grade, she was scared to pursue it. She thought it would be very difficult to be successful as an Asian in the fashion industry. Her mom wanted her to become a nurse, so she studied biochemistry for three years in college, and worked in a pharmacy for a year. But she wasn’t too happy. "Every day I would look at my watch six or seven times."

She decided to visit the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) and speak with one their counselors. Before she knew it, she was studying fashion design.

The decision was difficult for her mom. "At first, she didn’t like it, but later on she accepted it and of course she paid for half of my tuition." (Sophie also got scholarships, grants and loans to cover the $17,000 annual tuition.)

She had her first fashion show

At the institute she worked so hard she hardly got any sleep. In the third year of the program, she won a competition to design some clothes for Giorgio of Beverly Hills.

Students also have a runway show presenting their own collections. It’s a huge amount of work, and it’s expensive. Sophie spent $2,500 of her own money on fabrics for her collection. The institute hires a choreographer, a fashion show director, a coordinator for clothes and accessories and everything is set to music.

What is it like to have models wearing your designs on the runway? "Oh, it is just the greatest feeling. When I was a little girl I always dreamed of showing my collection and going on stage. When I really had the chance to do it, I almost cried. It gave me goose bumps. I was really excited."

Sophie showed me her portfolio— sketches of garments on long slim models, using watercolors, ink, glitter and rhinestones. Her designs were exquisite and simple, as lovely as works of art. In the portfolio she included swatches of fabric so that the manufacturers know which fabrics to use. She also had cost sheets that showed details like how much fabric will be needed and how many accessories will be needed, to help estimate the cost of producing the garment.

Her red dress design was one of my favorites. It was floor-length and cut low in the front and the back. The spaghetti straps from the back wrapped around the neck like a necklace. The dress seemed shiny and smooth, elegant like something Gwyneth Paltrow would wear. I could see myself wearing it to any kind of party or prom and I would feel like a model.

As soon as she graduated, Sophie was lucky to get a job with a Los Angeles company called Night Light, which specializes in evening wear. Even though she’s young, her boss lets her introduce new designs. "My boss is great. I think the best part is knowing that they trust in me with my designs."

That’s not always the case in the fashion industry, according to Shirley Wilson, the fashion institute’s Director of Publicity. "Sophie is terribly talented. She happened to go to a successful company that is run by lovely people. But she could have had bosses who are difficult. You might find yourself going home every night crying," said Wilson.

Sophie’s hours are usually from 9 a.m. to 5 in the afternoon and on Fridays she goes shopping to see what’s selling. She especially looks at the sale racks to see what didn’t sell and she avoids designing that type of clothing. Sophie described Night Light’s look as very conservative. "Everything we design is classic. We might change a line here or there, but we don’t push it too much." Sophie also makes her own garment patterns that are used to sew the pieces of clothing. "It’s a benefit knowing how to do everything yourself and not just focus on designing."

Start by working in a store

Not everybody can accomplish what Sophie has by the age of 25, but you can get started now by looking for retail experience. Shirley Wilson had this advice: "No matter what field in the fashion industry you are in, working in a store is invaluable because you have to understand the interest of the customer. It’s the customer who really creates the trends. Designers just put out the ideas—ultimately the customer has the last word."

Sophie has the following advice for young people: "Follow your dreams, don’t give up hope. Believe in yourself. I mean, I dropped everything I had and I don’t regret it. Because it’s the greatest feeling going to work and not feeling like it’s work."

The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising is a co-ed, private college with campuses in L.A., San Francisco, San Diego and Orange County. The downtown L.A. campus has a beautiful park and a costume museum which recently displayed opera costumes, including two worn by famous singer Placido Domingo. You can take a tour of the school to see the library, window displays and outfits designed by students. Visit the school’s Web site at