How to Develop Your Design Aesthetic & Stand Out In The Fashion Industry

The fashion industry has become extremely saturated. New designers and brands pop in to the marketplace what feels like everyday, while platforms like Instagram and Facebook easily allow us to see what other brands are doing making it difficult to stay focused and not to get distracted by the noise. 

With so many new industry distractions, how do you stand out as a designer while staying authentic and true to your aesthetic and brand?

Known for her use of fun prints and bold bright colors, we caught up with Sarah Donofrio, Designer of One Imaginary Girl and former Project Runway contestant, to talk about how she developed and stays true to her aesthetic, where she finds inspiration and her advice to emerging designers about identifying their brand. 

PHOTOS: CULLY WRIGHT

PHOTOS: CULLY WRIGHT

LAPTOPS & SMALLTALK: DID YOU ALWAYS KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A DESIGNER OR WAS IT SOMETHING YOU FELL INTO?
SARAH DONOFRIO:
 I was always very artistic and just naturally gravitated towards sketching people and garments. I definitely knew that I wanted to be a designer and that I wanted to make stuff! I thought that designing clothes meant that there were no rules and that I could do what I want, create something all on my own, and editors, consumers and stylists would all take my direction. I'm not really sure if that's the way it actually works...


DID YOU GO TO SCHOOL FOR FASHION DESIGN OR HAVE ANY FORMAL TRAINING?
I graduated from a fashion design program in Toronto that was very intense. It was crazy seeing just how much technical skill is required to make a basic shift dress! I'm glad I learned the technical side, as you can't teach creativity... but I have that part down solid.


THERE'S A LOT OF TALK ABOUT WHETHER OR NOT FASHION SCHOOLS ARE PROPERLY PREPARING STUDENTS FOR THE REALITY OF RUNNING A BUSINESS? WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS? HOW IMPORTANT DO YOU THINK SCHOOL IS FOR DESIGNERS TODAY? 
I definitely agree! My graduating class could all make beautiful garments and inspiration boards but so little time was spent on costing, sourcing and marketing yourself. Things have obviously changed since I left school 10 years ago, but I'm still hearing the same complaints from current students. I think school is important, but it's nothing without experience in as many areas of the industry as possible. I've been a buyer, a product developer, a production lead, etc, for small boutiques and huge corporations (like, the BIGGEST corporation in the world). That's where I picked up the real world skills that I could apply to my business one day.  
 

WHAT'S ONE OF THE BIGGEST BUSINESS RELATED LESSONS YOU'VE LEARNED SINCE LAUNCHING YOUR BUSINESS?
Your time is valuable. You can't make pretty things if you are burnt out or uninspired. Spend a bit of money hiring someone to run your retail store or produce small size runs for you. [As a result] your products will say "professional" not "starving artist".


WHAT INSPIRES YOU AS A DESIGNER? WHERE DO YOU DRAW INSPIRATION?
I guess I'm mainly inspired by vintage a lot.  Whether I'm shopping or on Pinterest, bright prints always catch my eye and set a new standard for what I feel my work should look like. Bright colors really grab me especially when I see them in unconventional combinations. Clashing, I guess one would say. I think to myself, how did that person come up with the idea to wear those colors together? And how could I integrate and try that?  My childhood fashion icons like Boy George and Madonna are also endless resources for inspiration. They have seriously lived forever and have never worn the same outfit twice.

PHOTOS: CULLY WRIGHT

PHOTOS: CULLY WRIGHT

ARE THE PRINTS YOU DESIGN WITH ALSO PRINTS YOU'VE MADE? DO YOU DESIGN A PRINT WITH A SPECIFIC DESIGN IN MIND, OR DO YOU MAKE A PRINT AND THEN FIGURE OUT WHAT IT'S GOING TO BE AFTER?
Yes, I do make my own prints, and it's way harder than I thought it was going to be. You can take an amazing drawing and then spend hours trying to make it into an interesting repeat pattern. It definitely takes time, but once I hit it, I can throw it into many different silhouettes. I generally start by messing around with color, and once I am wooed by a color combo, I see what I can do with it.  Would this be better in a geo or a floral? Large or small? Should I change the background?  And so on. 
 

WITH SO MUCH NOISE IN THE FASHION INDUSTRY, HOW DO YOU STAY FOCUSED ON YOUR OWN AESTHETIC AND NOT GET DISTRACTED BY WHAT'S TRENDY OR WHAT'S POPULAR?
I've learned that while it's important to have trend intuition and know what's popular, it's more important to understand the trends-and know how to translate them.  For instance, I don't do a lot of knits or tights at all, but I can still merchandise some of my crops and casual pants in a way that says "athleisure" for my customer.  Trends are important as every designer needs those pieces that are a sure money maker- you just need to know how they relate to you.  Loud prints and raffia skirts aren't for everyone, but they will get people into the store and then they will leave with a brooch or basic tank.


WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO EMERGING DESIGNERS ABOUT FINDING THEIR AESTHETIC?
Give everything a try.  Once you find something you're really good at, refine it.  Much like trends, designers evolve, and in the end, you are free to be you.  Just make sure whatever you are putting out into the world is considered perfect by your standards.   

OKAY, SO I HAVE TO ASK, HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR EXPERIENCE ON PROJECT RUNWAY?
Over. 
 

HOW HAS BEING ON THE SHOW HELPED SHAPE OR INFLUENCE YOUR BUSINESS TODAY?
Well, people know I have credibility. If my resume or website doesn't convince people, maybe making it into a competition that thousands of people apply for will seal the deal. Everyone has different tastes and opinions, and much like the judges on the show, there is always going to be someone who thinks something you made is shit. But social media tells me that for every insult I get, there are hundreds of people giving compliments and making orders.
 

WHAT'S ONE OF THE BIGGEST LESSONS YOU LEARNED FROM PR?
Take risks and make high fashion, because everyone else is just making clothes.
 

KNOWING WHAT YOU KNOW NOW, WOULD YOU DO THE SHOW AGAIN?
Yes, because if you were casted onto a show like that, and didn't go, you would wonder what would have happened.  

PHOTOS: CULLY WRIGHT

PHOTOS: CULLY WRIGHT


I RECENTLY SAW THAT YOU'LL BE IN TWO UPCOMING FASHION SHOWS! WHAT'S YOUR PROCESS FOR PREPARiNG TO SHOW YOUR LINE?
I will actually be in four!  I'm an illustrator as well, so I really enjoy laying my line out on my sketch pad.  That's where it starts, but in the end, it's really just a loose guide.  Once I start diving in and making samples, the clothes steer me to what to do next.  And of course, I tailor my collections to the shows that I'm doing.  For example, I am in Alley 33 this summer, and the vibe is more fun in the sun than printed pussy bow blouses.  So I designed some summer prints and pieces. The pieces are still my signature style, but the vibe is more suited for a high summer block party.


WOW, FOUR SHOWS! HOW DO YOU DECIDE WHICH SHOWS TO PARTICIPATE IN?
I love doing shows as it's always a great boost to hear the audience ooh and aah at something you put your heart into.  When it comes to participating in shows, I ask myself, will this show elevate me/my label?  Do the people running it have integrity and general concern for artists in their community?   The answer to both needs to be yes.  


HOW DO YOU KEEP THE MOMENTUM GOING ABOUT YOUR BRAND AFTER THE SHOW HAS ENDED? 
Just keep listening to my intuition and making the prints and pieces that I do.  Longevity.  The show lasts one season.  


    WHAT'S ONE APP OR TOOL YOU CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT FOR YOUR BUSINESS?  
    The iPad Pro and Apple Pencil.  All of my sketches, Google Docs, to do lists and files in one place.  A great screen size to show off your portfolio, and of course to design prints!

     

    Stay connected with Sarah on Instagram!