Becky Birnholz has always been interested in fashion from the prom dresses she worked on while in high school to her college studies at the Rhode Island School of Design. Since college she has focused on sports apparel and is currently employed by Puma. Becky spoke to The Career Cookbook about the importance of internships, learning fashion computer programs, and how Puma keeps its fun-loving attitude as it continues to grow as a company.
CCB: Did you study fashion at the Rhode Island School of Design?
BB: I did apparel design. (Fashion and apparel design mean the same thing) The majors there start sophomore year so it’s broken down by years what you learn. Sophomore year you learn how to do basic drafting and basic draping. You construct a small collection based on assignments. You learn how to CAD and render, but all by hand. Then junior year you learn how to use the knitting machines and you do a whole collection based on that. You come up with prints and repeats on textiles on the computer. Senior year you focus on doing full broad collections like seven to twelve pieces and fleshing out both technically how to make them and also concepts behind them and developing ideas.
CCB: When did you realize you wanted to work as a designer?
BB: It was a toss up because I was doing all this stuff with chemistry in high school but I was also doing a lot of art. I started taking extracurricular courses at UVM (University of Vermont) and doing chemistry there. Then I had full AP’s (Advanced Placements) and independent studies in sewing, ceramics, glass, and jewelry. I applied to a whole bunch of schools all across the spectrum and I got into RISD. I was like, “Whoa I got into the best art school in the country I should probably do something with that.” (Laughs) When I applied you can put down what you think you are going to go into and I put down apparel. In my portfolio when I submitted it I had some fashion pieces and illustrations that I did, so it was a little bit swayed that way. You can still change your mind and I almost went into industrial design, which is really closely related anyhow.
CCB: Were you actually designing things before you went to college?
BB: I was doing people’s prom dresses, other small projects, and then what most high school kids do in altering clothes like crazy. (Laughs)
CCB: What appeals to you about working in this field?
BB: Part of why I went into this instead of industrial design is that it’s much faster paced in terms of a travel environment. It’s about being out when things are happening and seeing trends. Traveling and working with a lot people. It’s more of a high profile environment than it being a desk job.
CCB: What’s the distinction between what you do and industrial design?
BB: Industrial design could potentially be designing shoes, which is why it’s so closely related but it’s also any product design from computers to engineering. Anything could be an industrial design job. There’s definitely a crossover because of that and there is a lot of travel if you are a footwear designer. I don’t think it has the same mystique as apparel design.
CCB: How did you break into the industry?
BB: I did an internship at Donna Karan that actually forced me to not want to move to New York because it was so obscenely competitive and bitchy. Then I got offered a paid internship over a summer, which are golden, to work at Reebok. That was in Boston and I was in Providence. I took that up and worked for them in the summer and freelanced for an entire year during my senior year. When it came to graduation they were like we have a job, do you want it? I had a good break in because I had been offered this other internship beforehand, which I think is how a lot of people get in. It was good because it continued with the whole freelancing thing and then I was in.
CCB: What were you doing at Reebok?
BB: When I was first hired I was doing, this is embarrassing, NFL and NBA stuff. (Laughs)
CCB: Why is that embarrassing?
BB: Because I don’t have any interest in sports. The first project they hired me for was they had me come up with alternative colors for each team of the NFL. Like a different orange for the Browns or propose what other color you could add to make them more interesting. You just wouldn’t do that. (Teams have their sacred colors that identify them) I ended up doing men’s design, fan gear stuff for them like the loud, crazy team jackets. I did stuff for the coaches and players when they were on the sidelines. I ended up doing women’s and junior’s hoochie urban wear. Then they let me get out of that and do Reebok stuff instead of NBA and NFL stuff. I did actual fitness and lifestyle clothing.
CCB: How did you learn about apparel designing outside of college?
BB: It was definitely throw you in and learn as you go. In college we’d have a four week course where they would say this is how you use Illustrator and you may or may not need to know this. In the real world of apparel design 90% of businesses use Illustrator for all of their CADing, drawing up illustrations. It was an amazing thing that during the internship I got good at that because now that’s what I use. A lot of it was here is what you are going to do, now do it until you get the hang of it. Then we’ll keep moving you on. At least at that company (Reebok) it was cool because you could keep changing what you did. It never got boring and you could learn something new. There were other designers around including the footwear team so you could go and check out what they were working on and learn from them.
CCB: Can you explain the SMU’s (special make ups) with your work at Puma now?
BB: Within the company there are two design teams out of our international group, one in London and one in Germany. Together they design what is considered the main inline styles. Those get sold in every country in the world. Then what happens is you have countries like the US, Australia, or Japan where there are big markets but they are a little bit different. They want to be sure that the products we are selling to the US are more tailored to what people actually want here. A lot of the stuff coming out of Europe is sometimes too European (slim fitting) so we have to take some of the pieces and then either work that into the idea or the concept that those clothes were designed with or create entirely new collections that are just selling to the US. My job is the women’s portion of that business and it gets sold to the US and to Canada.
CCB: Is there a typical day on the job as a designer?
BB: It is actually pretty typical. It depends on what season we are in or where we are in the season. Four times a year the cycle swings through depending on what we are doing for that season. A lot of it is a desk job so I come in check my emails; make sure there is nothing to respond to. If there is it’s usually some artwork or getting back to someone with some information or perspective on whatever we are working on. Always try to take a good break and flip through magazines or go online and look at stuff. You have to pace yourself even if you are working on routine or boring things. You take the breaks to look for whatever is new otherwise you are out of the loop.
CCB: Do you create the “blueprints” such as sketches for the clothing? Are you actually physically sewing, stitching and so forth?
BB: No, I could. You do a nice illustrated drawing of something and put that into the computer. Then you actually come up with a more detailed technical drawing. You have both of those which I am responsible for. That gets sent out with a whole bunch of other information from one of my team members like what kind of thread, buttons, and measurements. It goes abroad and we get our samples back after about four weeks.
CCB: Can you walk me through the process with one of your designs?
BB: It’s summer (fashion season) right now so we are doing a lot of tank-tops. The trend for tank-tops has been much thinner straps and much lighter weight material. I would start off by showing some images to my team of where I see the trend going and also bringing in some fabric swatches of what I think we need to find for fabric. Then I’d have the sketch and I would detail exactly what kind of stitching whether it’s a flatlock or whatever. Any other details like where is the Puma cat going to go, does it have any other graphic and what colors is it going to come in? Building the techpack and putting together every little dimension. The cat’s going to be three centimeters above the hem and two centimeters from the side-seam or there’s not even going to be a side-seam since the stitching is going to be 1/16 of an inch wide, all that goes in there too.
CCB: How much input do you have? Is it where a supervisor will come in and say this is what we are trying to create and they’ll give you input as you go along?
BB: That’s happening more now. For the first year I was there we didn’t have a supervisor so we just had a team. I would come up with the idea for the direction then everyone would take a look, we’d have design reviews along the way. Now I will have the creative director come in and say this is awesome, do this with this kind of feel.
CCB: Is there a type of clothing that you particularly enjoy designing?
BB: I have a special place in my heart for track jackets. I think you can do anything with this very basic zip-front jacket. It can be crazy and punk rock. It can be completely rhinestone. It’s that iconic thing where you know what it is no matter what you do to it. I would only design track jackets the rest of my life if I could. That’s crazy but if I worked at a place like Nike, that’s actually what you do. You end up with a job where all you do is woven performance shorts.
CCB: How do they decide how big the logo is going to be?
BB: There are actually guidelines on that. For example this season they gave us different options for guidelines because it always used to be three centimeters. They were like you can do it 2.3 centimeters. I got to be like ooh it’s cute and small let’s do it. It is based off international guidelines how big or small it can be. Everything is somewhat corporate. I think because Puma started off so small they just started putting back in these guidelines now that they realized they have to police a little bit because it wasn’t there before. It’s interesting to see them taking baby steps to being a bigger company.
CCB: Do you have any advice for people interested in becoming apparel designers?
BB: Steer clear from community college fast-track apparel design programs. Most of those are designed not to make you an apparel designer, possibly a developer, which is the person who helps put together all the technical information and send it to the factories. Although that’s related to apparel design it’s actually a more technical job. I think a lot of people get suckered into those programs where they think they will be able to be a creative influence in our field and they end up on the sideline doing data entry.
If you want to do apparel design go to an art school or seek out a program like F.I.T. (Fashion Institute of Technology), has a really good program. Or just get your foot in the door by offering up your services some place. Be an intern, whatever it takes to make the relationship, get some trust, and then work yourself in that way. There are tons of Cinderella stories in the apparel industry where people were just helping out or working in the cutting room when they needed people to help and they ended up designing stuff.
CCB: What qualities do you need to succeed as a designer?
BB: You need to have thick skin so that would be a good reason to go to art school. (Laughs) It is a collaborative process and in the end something that you think looks good somebody else might totally disagree with. You need to be able to stand up for your opinions and also be able to say OK, I was wrong. Don’t let it get to you when people take your ideas out of context or take your opinions and don’t really care about them. That’s the one thing that is most important. I think a lot of people come in with this notion that they are going to have complete creative control with their ideas and it’s not like that in any corporate industry.
CCB: How do you think Puma markets itself as a brand? It seems fashionable, but not as mainstream as say Nike or Reebok.
BB: They are trying to live between being a real performance company like Adidas or Nike and being a fun fashion company. They market themselves as being sport with a leisure twist. They always try to have a sense of humor to the pieces. Since the main office is in London there is sort of this British wit behind everything that’s been coming though more clearly since they moved the office there. Like the ad campaign with the interplay with animals, a friendly fuzzy feeling with shoes with mice. Somehow everything is playful, cute, and not too serious. I think the other sports companies are blood, sweat, and tears while performing beyond your abilities. We are just like have fun. Go out and run or play table tennis.
CCB: When you are creating clothing is the company trying for a certain look or style?
BB: Because it’s a European company we always try to have a little European flavor to things. But like I was saying before that’s not always what the US market wants. The overall look is to be a little more edgy than our competitor would be. Even when we are doing basic products there needs to be something a little different about it.
CCB: Are there challenges in designing apparel specifically for women?
BB: Definitely. One of the biggest challenges I have with my team is that there are things that I think are flattering on a woman while someone on my team might be like I have a big butt and that’s not flattering on me. There are a lot of things about designing for women that are very personal. It’s very much more challenging for that reason. I have to design for the greater mass while at the same time keeping my own perspective of what I think is cute.
CCB: Do you ever design with athletics in mind as well as appearance?
BB: Not really. (Laughs) That’s why my job is great. There is actually a team that does performance and I used to do performance at Reebok and now I don’t even have to think about that. We have conversations in meetings where someone will say the pockets are really small, but no one is going to use those pockets anyhow. It’s just for looks a lot of the time where things come from. That’s the consensus that a lot of the time people are wearing our products just for looks.
CCB: What is the most difficult part of your job?
BB: It goes back to the whole collaborative process. It might start off with me having a really clear direction. At the design review I said the legs for pants are getting slimmer and more contoured and more body conscious, something that I presented two months ago. Now we are looking at the prototypes that are going to go to the sales team and today somebody brought up those legs look a little bit slim. Should we widen those? I’m like, no. We’ve been on board for this for two months why is it now that this is suddenly coming up? Then you have to have your conversations over again and bring out all your points. In the end it actually went back to being a wider leg. Again it’s the thick skin. You know a year from now I might be able to say I told you so but right now, sure whatever you want.
CCB: What has been the most rewarding thing about the job so far?
BB: The travel absolutely.
CCB: How much traveling are you doing?
BB: I’m not getting to do a ton right now because we are in design mode. We buckle down for like eight weeks four times a year. The rest of the time there is travel. I got to go to Hong Kong for the first time this year. There are always trips to see our team in Germany and London. We are going to start traveling more around the country to get a better feeling for what’s going on here. I’d say I’m only traveling like 15% of the time, but some of my counterparts are traveling 40% to 50% of the time. It depends on what type of position you are in, you can be on the road all the time.
CCB: What’s going on when you are traveling apart from reconnecting with other team members?
BB: Sometimes we are actually working with them or having meetings while we are there. Other times we’ll go visit an account, like Foot Locker, meet with them and show them what we are working on to get their feedback. A lot of times it’s just shopping trips, seeing what people are wearing. That’s the really fun part.
CCB: How do you actually stay ahead of the curve as far as fashion? How do you guess what’s going to be the next hot trend?
BB: It’s a funny thing. There are trend services (companies that track trends) that a lot of people will buy. These five trend services are all saying this although there are a lot of different things that they are saying. This is probably what everyone is going to pick up on. It’s almost like fortune telling but not really because the only reason it comes into effect is because everyone is doing it. Apart from that there’s definitely a lot of gut feelings involved. I’ll try and keep track of those. The idea is that if I’m thinking that and everyone else is thinking that in their head and eight to twelve months later when it hits market it’s a realization that you and everyone else for some reason tapped into the same idea at the same time. You try and pay attention to that stuff more. If hem lines go up eventually they will come back down.
CCB: People would be surprised to learn what about your job? Is it maybe that you don’t make shoes since its Puma?
BB: Pretty much everyone that asks where I work says, oh so you design shoes. That’s definitely one thing. Also the fact that we are based in Boston surprises everyone. The other thing that is hugely surprising is that it’s me doing all the women’s design for the US and for Canada and there is a girl that is designing all the men’s for the US and for Canada. That is literally it. The European design team has fifteen designers and they do maybe together twice as much product as we do.
CCB: That surprised you the most as well?
BB: Yes, in how much I actually design. (Laughs) In some cases it’s amazing. At Reebok I’d have a line of maybe fourteen pieces at most. Here I’m doing seventy pieces a season. That’s just enormous volume for anyone to do.
CCB: What are your career aspirations?
BB: My long term goal is to do like Betsey Johnson did, which is to have my own little store somewhere maybe in Silver Lake (California) or Portland, Oregon, where I sell other people’s stuff and I have a small line that I make myself. That’s my end goal. Something I’ve noticed with my career is that anyone who does anything in the sportswear industry who does apparel design really isn’t older than 37. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone doing my job that is that age or older. I think part of it is getting burned out. I think part of it is being in touch with what is going on in that area. The consumer really isn’t older than 37 so why would you be. A lot of it is moving on to what is more appropriate at that stage of your life. Some of it too can be a lot of travel. You can really only do that for so long and then you try and start a family and you can’t anymore.
CCB: Any other goals?
BB: I think I’d like to get a stint working for a company over in Europe for a couple of years just to have that experience. I am in a field where I can do that so I might as well. Part of being an apparel designer is that you end up in a sort of niche. I’m definitely limited in the types of companies that I can work for. I’ll probably only be changing jobs one or two more times before I go and start my boutique.
CCB: What can we expect from the boutique?
BB: It will probably be some modified pieces. I like taking sweaters and deconstructing them and reconstructing them into new and far more amazing things. There will be some of that and probably some original pieces and then other people’s things.
CCB: Does your style come into what you are designing?
BB: Yes, to some extent. Actually I’ve noticed that the more I rely on my style the better the pieces come out. I’m a short, kind of petite, cute girl in general. If I design things to look cute on me they’ll look cute on a lot of people. Generally speaking people either want to look cute or they want to look sexy. I have to be willing to wear anything that I design. I’m really happy with the job because I can. It’s really satisfying to like the stuff you make.