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5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I Was Fifteen

  • A first-person account of an ex-designer now-educator.

I spent my entire school life thinking that I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Over twenty years ago it was common to study business, law, or science and other opportunities were limited. I was always set on doing something creative and I had complete support from my parents.

“You’re so lucky, you know what you want to do!”

Everyone’s words that often echoed in my head. But the truth was, I didn’t. I just knew that I wanted to do something in the arts and that I loved sewing. At least I thought so.

So as a daughter of a conservative South Asian household I chose a university as far away from home as possible, to study Visual Arts.

On my first day, I had no clue what to expect but I showed up with my portfolio to share with the class and my Teachers Assistant (TA) told me I didn’t deserve to be there. I had an immediate disconnect and I started spending my time reading up on fashion, marketing, and running one's own business.

Having lived in Dubai, I also hadn’t had the opportunity to work part-time and so I proceeded with getting part-time jobs as a receptionist in residence, a retail assistant at Zara, and a personal assistant for a senior student in the business school.

After all, I had nothing to lose and just wanted to learn as much as I could.

Later on, an opportunity to showcase my clothes came along and I jumped on it. I went on to build my career in the world of fashion over the next decade and I never looked back – until I left the industry in 2015.

Here are a few things I have learned over time and what I wish I had known as a student:

#1. It is a LOT of work, with not enough glamor

The world of fashion doesn’t have a cut-off on working hours. You need to be able to roll up your sleeves and do anything and everything that comes your way, particularly as an entrepreneur.

I was a stylist one moment, a make-up artist the next, a photographer, seamstress, choreographer, spokesperson, salesperson, the list was endless!

I did my marketing, negotiated my contracts, steam ironed my outfits, and it was a long time before I could hire people to do such things for me.

#2. There are multiple ways to get to the same destination

What you study could play a role in your pathway – for example, having a background in sciences may support the textile design and research. You could intern for designers, work for a Fashion House, and then choose to start something of your own, or you may dive right into setting up your label from the start. There is no right answer. It ultimately depends on what you make of the path you choose.

#3. Speak to people in the industry before choosing your university and program

I always knew I wanted something of my own and that I didn’t want to work for someone else. If I had spoken to people from the industry, I would probably have pursued a degree in Business and done fashion courses on the side. Getting the advice of elders and experienced people is always helpful as it allows you to make informed decisions.

#4. You may or may not use the degree you end up pursuing. And that’s okay!

There is too much pressure for a fifteen-year-old to know what they want to do when they grow up and career options are always changing. You may take a year to decide, you may choose to swap majors, and you may just realize your true calling in your 40's!

Always remember that every experience you have comes with its own set of lessons. During my degree, I learned the ins and outs of photography, and this helped me in my fashion shoots, as well as, in my current role.

#5. A formal education background is very much in vogue

The level of formal education is highly contextual.

As an art student with industry experience in fashion, it took me twice the amount of time and a lot of hard work to prove myself to get to where I am professionally today.

I certainly had developed many soft skills that I use even now, but as I work for an educational institution, there is an element of respect that came about when I started pursuing my master's.

There is nothing wrong with taking a gap year or pursuing a different model of education, be it a short course, professional certification, or the like – you just need to be able to justify why you took that decision, and what you learned from it.

No matter what you do, surround yourself with like-minded productive people, and learn to distinguish between criticism and constructive feedback.

My path may have differed if my TA didn’t discourage me on the first day of university.

Finally, focus on constantly educating yourself and staying up to date with what’s happening in the world. Speak to people and understand what makes you committed to something, what’s your purpose? Ultimately you should follow your passion but ask yourself if it’s viable and will it allow you to make a living for yourself. Don’t be afraid to walk away from a fantastic salary/opportunity if it compromises your values and integrity.

About the Author

Shweta Wahi is Director of Operations at Transnational Academic Group. Prior to this, she spent over a decade in the world of arts and fashion running her own label, where she had successfully showcased in over twenty-eight fashion shows such as Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Africa, India Fashion Week Dubai, Ottawa Fashion Week, and Design Indaba – to name a few.

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