Sebastian Dahlmans works in Amsterdam at Viktor&Rolf. As Head of Design, he has exciting insights into life as a designer at an international fashion label. In a conversation with FashionUnited, he reveals what qualities he looks for in interns, which mistakes to avoid and how to get the best start in the fashion industry.
How did you get your start into fashion design?
Eleven years ago, I graduated from Esmod in Berlin and then entered my final collection for awards. I won the Textil + Mode Innovation Award with it. Prizes are a good way to distinguish yourself, to raise your profile before applying for a job or internship. Every year thousands of new fashion graduates enter the market and there are only a limited number of jobs, so I can only recommend everyone to apply for all the awards that are out there. I think it helped me as I didn't come from one of the top schools in the world, like Central Saint Martins for example, which is almost a guarantee for a job.
What was your final collection about?
My graduation collection was about the Romanovs, so it was very glamorous and opulent; a women's collection that already leaned towards couture. I tell everyone who does an internship with us: In your final collection, do what you feel like doing, not what you think is expected of you. This is the only time in your life as a designer when you can completely do what you want. Go all out! The final collection is your showcase, your ticket to the fashion world.
I would advise everyone to do what really suits them. Stay true to yourself. After that, you're always working for someone and you always have to adapt and compromise. Even if you launch your own label, you have to adapt to what your customers buy. But the graduate collection is purely about showcasing your talent and your aesthetic.
Did you know where you were going to apply with it?
Yes, I knew that from the beginning. My aesthetic was already then, and still is, quite similar to Viktor&Rolf's. That means, I still make designs that I personally think are great and that I can pour my heart and soul into.
What happened after graduation?
I applied for an internship at Viktor&Rolf and, unfortunately, I wasn't accepted. That was very disappointing, of course. But luckily I still had the prize money from my award, and I used that to finance an internship in New York. But I still wanted to work for Viktor&Rolf. So, I applied again after the internship and was finally accepted. I thought I was moving to Amsterdam for three months, that was ten years ago now. laughs So: Don't give up just because it doesn't work out the first time!
Why did it work out after all?
I think it was just a good match in terms of aesthetics. And applying a second time is not something I find embarrassing, more a sign of you really wanting it. Also, sometimes you just have to be in the right place at the right time.
What makes a good intern?
I would advise everyone to be visible, to show what you're capable of at the same time, that can also go wrong if you don't find the right balance. Listen and watch. See where you can help and make yourself indispensable.
What's the worst mistake an intern can make?
Thinking that the fashion world has been waiting for you, or that you are the bee's knees. Know your place. Self-confidence, yes, that's okay if there's the talent behind it. But it must not turn into arrogance.
Find the balance between what you can say and how you can say it. Who do I talk to and how? Where can I help, where should I stay in the background? People see it when you pitch in. If you have nothing to do, clean something up. Don't sit idle. That helped me and that's what I tell all my trainees. Be nice, show initiative, but don't be pushy, that will be rewarded.
What should graduates know before they enter the fashion world?That it's not that glamorous: we're not just being creative and drawing all day. You have to have a strong technical understanding. You have to be able to tell the pattern maker if something works, and how it works. Try to acquire a little bit of knowledge of everything. Find your niche and specialise in it.
What does your working day look like?
It varies a lot. We work in parallel on 15 different projects and seasons in different stages of development. In the morning I try to work through emails, then I brief the team. From there, it gets hectic and goes from one meeting to the next. But I always try to give equal time to all projects and pending activities. In short, the job is very versatile and no two days are the same.
Do you still draw by hand or is it all done digitally nowadays?
We all draw the wedding dresses by hand, the more commercial collections we do digitally. In the meantime, there are also more and more 3D programmes that you can design on, which I find super exciting.
What has Corona changed about your job?
Before Corona, we travelled more, of course. At least twice a year, I went to the fabric fairs, and to our production partners in New York, Taiwan and Tokyo. It felt like you were travelling somewhere almost every month. But you quickly get used to a new way of working and look for inspiration elsewhere. You can always find some positive aspects in a negative situation. Amsterdam is so exciting and interesting that you don't really need to travel to get inspiration. I do miss travelling to Tokyo, though, and I'm looking forward to a time when that will be possible again.
What do you look for when you hire someone?
When I hire someone, I try not to look at the school, I look at the person, the final collection, the aesthetics and most importantly the personality. I think there is always room for new good people.
Personally, I find it quite difficult to hire someone based on one or two interviews. Sometimes you have great chemistry at the interview and then it doesn't fit so well on a day-to-day basis. Personality is important to me because, in the end, you can still work on the skill set. So I prefer a person who still has to learn a little here and there, but fits into the team well, than a person who can do everything technically but is super arrogant.
This article was originally published on FashionUnited.DE, translated and edited to English by Kelly Press.