Naima F is a freelance Accessories Designer based in London, UK. She made time in her busy schedule to catch up with Utelier and share the journey of her career success, and top tips for survival in the fashion industry.
Naima’s technical design background, international experience and ambidexterity give her approach to fashion design a unique flavour and character. She has used her design skills in-house at prestigious companies and then transferred her skills to clients’ individual projects.
Her tenacity and outlook on continued professional and personal development are inspirational and motivational.
Find out how she made her education and creativity work for her, how she made the jump into freelancing, and why thinking outside of the box just isn’t for her.
Tell us a little about your design background.
My design background is slightly different from most fashion accessories designers. Although I have always had a passion for fashion, I wanted to learn as much as possible about the overall design process across multiple product/design fields.
I wanted to be the best creative I could and I didn’t want to be restricted in terms of multi-material knowledge, different manufacturing processes and other technical aspects of design.
Although my end goal was fashion accessories, I wanted to gain more 3D design awareness rather than traditional fashion 2D design/pattern thinking. I took an alternative route and decided to study Industrial Design rather than fashion.
I’m currently designing bags on a freelance basis, as well as multi-material and leather small/large accessories, across men’s and women’s fashion. I also have a background in designing hard accessories and jewellery.
How did you find your way into fashion?
I was born in Sweden but moved to the US after I was accepted on to the prestigious Industrial Design Program at Pratt Institute in New York.
My Industrial Design degree and training has been highly beneficial because – as I suspected before I went to school – it has given me the tools to explore and work across several design/product industries. It allowed me to gain valuable experience that I currently use.
My passion and interest for fashion combined with my degree led me into fashion accessory design quite naturally.
After graduation, I moved back to Europe and got a job as a window display designer working on large scale projects. It was a fun job overall and great experience even if it was not my ultimate goal.
I also worked in jewellery design and went to work in China on a huge factory site. Afterwards, I moved to London and worked in luxury leather goods where I expanded my product knowledge and design expertise even further.
How did your degree in product design help you, or did it hinder you?
Today, I would say it has been successful but I haven’t always felt this way. As with most things, there are always pros and cons.
A single product is often made up of many small details that ultimately give it its final ‘character’. The technical skill that my background has provided me with – along with my detailed way of working – gives me a lot of in-depth product and design control.
This gives less room for manufacturers to make design decisions on their own, which at times they do. I have seen this happen occasionally and it has been costly and time consuming for clients.
As a designer, it’s highly important to know your job and be responsible throughout the entire design process. When you are confident technically, communication with the makers is improved, product samples are made accurately and client expectations are met accordingly.
The negative aspect of being a technical designer is that the work can sometimes look ‘too technical and rigid’. My detailed spec packs can be hard to read for the untrained eye. It’s important to communicate designs to clients simply, both verbally and visually in the initial sketch phase.
Another negative aspect is that there is a conception in society of what an artist/designer should be, look and work like, and that’s not exactly detailed tech packs and strong CAD skills. It has been quite a struggle to break free from this stereotype.
At some point, I realised that I was sometimes seen as ‘less artistic and creative’ because my technical drawings looked rigid. I solved this problem by adding more artistic and less technical work to my portfolio.
Let’s not forget that design is only partly an artistic and abstract process. Traditionally, an artist creates a painting using colours and lights and depicts a subject that creates a mood. Similarly, a designer also creates a mood by making artistic mood boards, but along with sales statistics and demographics, marketing strategies and concepts, the notion of human behaviour, customer profiling, brand DNA and trend/seasonal colour research.
As a freelance designer, what challenges do you face?
The challenges I face are mostly related to a company’s specific style and handwriting. This can be challenging in terms of gaining industry experience.
As a designer, you want to try out new things and be creatively stimulated and challenged, but in fashion design, it is easy to be stuck with the same type of projects. This is largely due to a client often feeling more comfortable to hire a designer whose design style appears – based on their portfolio – to be more ‘on brand’.
Delivering a specific style and handwriting for the final product – according to brand DNA – is a key element, but from my own experience, it’s not the most challenging part of the design process.
Therefore, it is important to always work on one’s portfolio in order to show different dimensions to your design work, even if there is already solid commercial experience. It’s important to me to constantly update my portfolio and make it outshine my CV.
What made you leave the comforts of stable employment to go freelance?
I had been working in-house for the same luxury company for a few years and I had been getting freelance offers whilst I was there but I couldn’t take on any more work at the time.
I felt like I was no longer developing in my role and this was reflected in my commercial portfolio. I resigned because I was offered a highly interesting and prestigious freelance project by a client that liked my work.
I took the risk of leaving my job to build my portfolio and experience at a faster pace, which suited me as well.
I wanted to try it out at least, but was quite unsure and a bit nervous about what I would do after that. After two freelance jobs my portfolio got a lot more interesting and diverse.
Since then, the jobs have been coming in more frequently – but in the beginning, it was a bit of a struggle financially and quite frightening at times.
When I look back, I feel it was very much worth the risk and a true investment career wise, regardless of the stress and worries. To win in life – you have to take risks.
How easy or hard has it been to find freelance jobs?
I have been lucky and have been approached by clients mostly, but when I have been searching for jobs on my own or with my agent, there appear to be a lot of jobs out there.
I mostly work on high-end, luxury and ultra-luxury bespoke accessories, and have worked with several different price points.
With less experience and little ‘niche’ in terms of materials, price points and product type, in the beginning, it was a bit of a struggle to get jobs.
So, I always made my own portfolio projects along with my commercial projects to show more of my personal style and creativity. I think this helped a lot in terms of getting jobs because regardless of what my CV said, I could visually present something different.
This is a good way to start freelancing but it also means A LOT of unpaid hours working on your portfolio. I didn’t sleep too much for some time but I saw it as an early investment.
How do you decide what rate to charge for your services? Is there a formula one follows or do you wait to see what the client offers and decide whether to accept or not?
I found this slightly difficult in the beginning but I asked few of my senior industry colleagues what they were charging. I then compared my work, my overall strengths and weaknesses, and my experience with theirs. I could then understand more easily exactly how much I should charge.
I don’t wait for the client to offer. Most of the time it’s pretty obvious by how big the brand is, but sometimes new brands are – surprisingly – willing to offer very good pay since they see this as an investment. So it’s important to look closely at the brand and read clients carefully.
I have a base day rate but I’m pretty flexible; if there’s a project that will provide me with experience that I have little or none of, I’m willing to decrease my rate, because again, this is an opportunity for me to expand and develop professionally. I’m also willing to go down on my rate if a project is creatively stimulating with lots of freedom, simply because it’s fun!
Another aspect I look at is the project length and the amount of work required. For short term projects, my rates are at the maximum. For projects that may be ongoing, I start with my standard rates and then if it is stimulating I lower my rate slightly.
I think it’s highly important to be flexible with rates. A creative career is more than money for us creative professionals, who have turned a hobby and passion into a real job.
Some might call us ‘lucky’ but it also comes at a high price, which I think is sometimes overlooked due to the industry’s glamour factor.
At the beginning of your design career, you have to think long term and further into the future, so that you can strategically build your experiences and head into the right direction according to your personal goals and ambition. Afterwards, things get a lot easier but it is hard work to get there, so it’s important to stay strong and not give up.
At times, stop and ask yourself – is this really worth it? I was doubtful sometimes, but always said, ‘Yes, it is worth it’ – and today I can say a big YES!
What has been your biggest career success or achievement so far?
In order to answer this question, I first need to define what success means to me as a designer. I think most creative professionals would agree that doing what you feel passionate about daily as a job is already a blessing. In such situations, the parameters of success become slightly different from the norm.
When your job is a big part of your inner values and emotional self, money and fame do not define success. Finding inner peace creatively is one of my biggest achievements so far. I’m lucky to have gained creative peace of mind by taking on fun and interesting projects, regardless of pay.
My high-profile clientele is also a massive achievement on its own because it generates credibility and more jobs.
If you could meet your younger self now and offer advice, what would you say?
I would tell myself that design is about creating systems that work. It’s not about thinking outside the box – I was never a fan of that expression because I think it’s somewhat misleading.
I would, therefore, rephrase this expression to my younger self: ‘Don’t think outside the box – instead, create a bigger box and think within that’.
What would be your top tips for survival in the fashion industry?
- Don’t get discouraged by the industry’s extremely difficult and competitive nature.
- Remember to ‘talk the talk but also walk the walk’. I have always been fascinated how much ‘talking’ goes on in the industry. You need a sales pitch as a designer to get the dream job – but don’t overdo it.
- Use your time and energy wisely. Talk less and instead focus on executing designs, working hard and learning new things. Build your portfolio and it will speak for you, far more than a well-practised ‘sales pitch’ ever would.
- The fashion industry is hard but always keep in mind that it should not be about ‘life and death’.
- Stay humble and grounded – have a bit of perspective on things, even if you are doing tremendously well.
- Always listen and take advice from more experienced industry professionals. Let go of your designer self and any romantic ideas for a second, to listen and learn; but always trust your own hand, be true to yourself and make your own decisions. Stay strong.