The Coolest Fashion Jobs In Washington — & How To Land Them

When we meet people with great style, we always compulsively ask: "Where/how/when did you get you that?!" But putting aside material desires for a second, what's truly covetable is an awesome job. You know — the kind of gig that sounds too good be true and makes everyone want to know how you got there.
We decided to pose that very question to five of the most fascinating faces on the D.C. fashion scene. From a savvy magazine editor to a mega-successful swimwear designer, they dished on their first jobs (there's a movie usher in the group!) and their biggest challenges, and doled out some killer career advice. If you've ever pondered your calling and struggled to secure the elusive "dream job,” all you have to do is read on.
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Karla Colletto, swimwear designer

Tell us a little bit about the path that led to where you are today.
"It all began in 1981, when my sister and business partner Lisa Rovan and I decided to start our own design company creating custom pieces, ranging from sportswear to bridal gowns. After noticing a gap in the swimwear market, we quickly focused in on the quiet world of 'aqua couture.' We were intrigued by stretch fabrics and wanted to introduce a modern, inventive collection that would make an impact in the industry. Lisa apprenticed with a swimwear contractor for several years, learning everything she could about manufacturing. In 1987, we sold a small collection to Saks Fifth Avenue. The suits were made of cotton/Lycra with bold appliqued canvas inserts. The following season, our collection appeared in the windows of Bergdorf Goodman. Thanks to our passion, tenacity, and pretty amazing suits, we recently celebrated our 25th anniversary designing innovative, fashion-forward swimwear that always pushes the boundaries."

What was your first job?
"Upon graduating from college (I studied fashion design in New England), I was lucky enough to be introduced to high fashion by couture designer Alfred Fiandaca, who gave me invaluable hands-on training, taught me the many intricate details that go into creating a couture piece, and inspired me to start my own label."

Boy. by Band of Outsiders jacket, Sacai Luck top, H&M pants, Jean-Michel Cazabat heels.
2 of 20
What advice would you give to yourself 10 years ago?
"Delegate more."

What is the best career advice you've learned?
"Stick to what you believe in."

What are some of the challenges you've encountered during your career?
"Manufacturing our own product has been a major challenge — managing people, ordering materials, meeting delivery dates, planning production schedules, etc. Manufacturing in the U.S., of course, comes with its own challenges. Getting our foot in the door with department store buyers and other retailers — when we started, our specific type of contemporary swimwear didn’t have a place at many department stores. Since my background is couture, my ideas are sometimes too complicated to be mass-produced, which can be a challenge. Lisa comes in and applies her knowledge to help translate my designs and engineer the garment so that it can flow through production more easily."
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What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a job like yours?
"Try to learn as many aspects about the industry as you can. Have a well-rounded knowledge of your industry and get as much hands-on experience as possible. For example, learning the technical end of things — knowing how to sew and construct a garment — is an important part of the design process. Develop a niche. Believe in your product. Stand strong and always follow through. Be persistent."

What keeps you motivated?
"A customer recently sent us what she termed a 'fan letter' about one of our swimsuits. She told us that she had never worn a suit that fit as well as ours, and that she didn’t even recognize the gorgeous woman wearing it. It’s happy customers like this one that move us all the time. What could feel better than to make women feel good about themselves and their bodies? Also, seeing the business grow."
4 of 20
What are your plans/dreams/goals for the next five to 10 years?
"I hope to still be running marathons, creating beautiful things, and sipping Prosecco with family and friends at my beach house on Cape Cod."

If you didn't have your current job, what would you be doing?
"Fashion, or at least the delicate construction of clothing, is in my blood, as my grandmother was a seamstress and my grandfather, a tailor. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else."

Fill in the blank: "The best part about working in fashion in D.C. is ____________."
"So many things to be inspired by: strong women that embody who I design for, the multicultural environment. We have been able to grow our business at a more manageable pace than if we were in New York. And working with Pum and Jake [Lefebure] at Design Army."

Abrasha necklace.
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Aba Kwawu, founder of The Aba Agency

Tell us a little bit about the path that lead to where you are today.
"I always wanted to work in fashion, though I am not patient enough to actually design and sew. I studied psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and embarked on a career in public health and research. I first came to D.C. to work at the Lombardi Cancer Center at Georgetown University in the area of cancer genetics, but my fashion bug did not die. I worked nights and weekends in retail to get great discounts and just keep myself in the mix. After three years of this, [I packed] up my bags and moved to London to study fashion marketing and business at the London College of Fashion.

I started my career in fashion at IK Retail Group, a firm that runs international retail brands around the country. I taught fashion merchandising at Howard University for nearly seven years, and built my business one step at a time. In 2001, together with my long-term partners, we founded Funkshion Fashion Week Miami. Over the years, as D.C. began to become less conservative, I was the only one in the market with true fashion and lifestyle skills.

Today, The Aba Agency is a public relations, marketing, and special events boutique specializing in luxury lifestyle, fashion, design, entertainment, and hospitality. I'm also the new regional director for Fashion Group International of Greater Washington, D.C. [FGI] is a global, non-profit, professional organization with 5,000 members in the fashion industry, including apparel, accessories, beauty, and home."

Karen Millen top and skirt, Saint Laurent heels, Holst + Lee necklace.
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6 of 20
What was your first job?
"My very first job was at a Loews movie theater, doing everything from taking tickets to popping popcorn. When the theaters were empty, we would sneak in and pretend to put on a concert and sing our favorite Whitney Houston songs for an empty room. My first fashion job was for an accessories chain called Accessory Place when I was in high school."

What are some of the challenges you've encountered along the way?
"There are always challenges. When I started, there was not enough lifestyle business in D.C. Today, the challenges have to do with remaining the best and the go-to company as the city has become more cosmopolitan. As a wife, mother, and perpetual busybody, finding balance is always elusive."

What advice would you give to yourself 10 years ago?
"My father always said that 'the race is not for the swift.' The phrase used to annoy me, but now I get it. Take your time; build your foundation on solid rock, experience, and relationships. Pay as much attention to the relationships as you do to getting the best degrees."
7 of 20
What is the best career advice you've ever learned?
"The riches are in the relationships, not necessarily the fat paychecks. Be kind to people, no matter what they can do for you and always be your best! Even when you are not in the mood, be your best!"

What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a job like yours?
"Be sure that this is what you want to do and what you are good at. This industry is not for the faint of heart! You must have a thick skin and an insatiable appetite to learn and work. It is not about glamour and pretty clothes — we do a lot of grunt work to make it appear glamorous. If a career in fashion is truly what you want to do, pursue it with all that you've got. Don't be afraid to pay your dues. In this day of social media and star bloggers, it is much easier to create opportunities for yourself than when I started out. Know your stuff and always be prepared. The opportunity of a lifetime may fall into your lap and you will not have time to get ready."
8 of 20
What keeps you motivated?
"I have a basic need to achieve — I love to win! I'm constantly looking for the next big and interesting thing to learn and conquer. Channeled into positive avenues, this drive really works for me. My faith and family are also huge driving forces for me. My husband is my biggest cheerleader and my mom is really the wind beneath my wings. When I've had enough, my two young children put everything into perspective for me. We roll around in the grass and laugh and bake cookies and tell funny stories."

What are your plans/dreams/goals for the next five to 10 years?
"We are in the process of growing the agency in terms of reach and services. You will see us in new markets soon, and as D.C. continues to grow, you will see much more of our lifestyle reach. I see a book on the horizon, and more luxury endeavors."

Fill in the blank: "The best part about working in fashion in D.C. is __________."
"Fashion in D.C. is exciting because it feels like an emerging market. Anything is possible."
9 of 20
Adam Hanin, founder of Skye Associates

What was your first job?
"I started my first company, called Campus Outfitters, when I graduated from the University of Maryland in 1997. The company grew to service over 400 private schools nationwide for school uniform requirements. I sold the business in 2005 to VarsityBooks.com."

Tell us a little bit about the path that lead to where you are today.
"After my short stint in the public sector with VarsityBooks.com, I knew that I wanted to leverage my experience in the apparel world with my new exposure to the online world. What started with one women’s fashion site has developed into a network of over 40 e-commerce sites all running on our platform."
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What are some of the challenges you've encountered along the way?
"I was a bit naïve when I first started selling products online — not really knowing how challenging, and expensive, running an online operation has proven to be. With my previous company, we had a captive audience, in that every customer had to purchase products from my company. In launching Skye, I didn’t really understand how important every element [was] in converting a sale online. The right artwork, the right model, the right site structure are all elements that contribute to capturing a transaction in the fashion space. Fortunately, my roots have always been in providing the highest level of service and customer care. If you do right by your customers, you can succeed in any business path you may take."

What advice would you give to yourself 10 years ago?
"Stop opening retail stores and focus on online — although the market in my previous business was not ready for a strict e-commerce play. Bide your time and wait until the market is ready."

What is the best career advice you've learned?
"It sounds cliché, but one of my advisors once told me 'the cream always rises to the top.' I work a lot of hours and have a 'work hard, play hard' mentality. I just have kept that saying in the back of my mind, no matter what I do. I know that if I keep my head down and always press forward, the business will succeed. There is always room for competitors within any industry, but if you are true to your customers, and true to yourself and your vision, you will always be successful."
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What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a job like yours?
"I think that if someone wants to be their own boss, they really need to understand the core reasons they are feeling this urge. Owning your own company can be a great thing, if you know how to deal with people, motivate others through your vision, and build a team that believes in what you are doing. You can never move mountains by yourself."

Any cautionary tales to share?
"The one thing I would caution is that whether it’s 9 a.m. on a Monday or 9 p.m. on a Saturday, you are always on. The business never stops. If you are looking for a lifestyle where you can start and stop, owning may not be the path for you. The fashion business is an ever-changing one. The most successful in the industry are the ones that can have a second and third hit, not live off their first. Any designer, for example, can come out with a hot item, but if they never come out with that second item to follow it up, they will never be able to build a line. People in fashion have a short memory. If you create a hit, you better be ready to follow it up."

What keeps you motivated?
"I am motivated by success. Many people define success in different ways — I define [it] by continuing to grow and provide the highest level of service and dedication for our clients, our customers, our investors, or anyone that comes in contact with me and my company. I can honestly say that whatever ups and downs a business may go through, there are not too many companies that care more or work as hard as we do, day in and day out. My motivation and goals change every day as we achieve the goals that I had set previously."
12 of 20
What are your plans/dreams/goals for the next five to 10 years?
"When I started the company, we wanted to be a $5M company. Once we cleared $5M, I wanted to be a $10M. Now that we are well above $15M in sales, there is absolutely no reason we can't be a $50 or $100M company. It may sound like a reach, but when you are in the trenches like we are, you get a feeling of what is attainable. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a $50M company. Whether that takes three years or five years, we will get there."

If you weren't doing this job, what would you be doing?
"Tough question — I really love what I do. I love our business model. I love my staff. I don’t really have a lot of hobbies outside of work, other than watching my kids play sports. If I wasn’t doing what I am doing now, I would have to be extremely passionate about the next potential venture. We really are just getting started at Skye, so the thought of doing anything else has never really entered my mind."
13 of 20
Virginia Arrisueño, knitwear designer and founder of DeNada Design

Tell us a little bit about the path that led to where you are today.
"Where I am today, I owe greatly to my parents. My father sparked my interest in business, and my mother taught me the meaning of perseverance and discipline. During the 1970s, my parents immigrated to the U.S. from Peru, making me a first-generation [American]. As a child, I witnessed firsthand how hard my father worked to establish his own business and make it successful. As for my mother, she taught me the meaning of discipline and reminds me to this day to never give up — or rather, in her own words, 'Siempre sigue adelante.'

Inspired by my father’s work ethic and my mother’s strong will, I majored in fine arts in college. At the same time, I was working a part-time job and interning at a few art establishments in D.C., such as the Hirshhorn Museum and the former Numark Gallery. It was only after I landed a job with a local handbag designer that I realized I wanted to combine my interest in business with my love for the arts. I was taught a lot about design, small business, and how it operates on a day to day — the overall experience was priceless.

Soon after, DeNada was born. I first started off designing handbags, then later transitioned to knit accessories. As my business grew, I decided to produce my line in Peru. Now, a few times a year, I travel to Peru to work alongside talented artisans to create my growing collection. My designs are currently sold at select retailers throughout the U.S., internationally, and online."

Funktional top and pants from Redeem, Target boots.
14 of 20
What are some of the challenges you've encountered along the way?
"There’s not one day that goes by that I don’t think about my business and how I can improve it and keep it growing. The obsession can be exhausting, and therein lies my biggest challenge: learning when to step away from work, and spend quality time with my family and friends. It’s a struggle when you love what you do, but it’s a necessity to balance your life and keep yourself healthy."

What advice would you give to yourself 10 years ago?
"Ten years ago would make me 22 years old. The advice I would give myself is to enjoy life more. Not to say I didn’t when I was 22 — but the idea of growing up quickly and establishing a career path definitely took charge when I was in my early twenties. From what I know today, I definitely think I would have traveled a bit more and enjoyed just hanging out with friends."

What is the best career advice you've learned?
"My father taught me the best career advice: He told me to make sure I choose a career that I love. When you love what you do, waking up early in the morning to work until late into the evening doesn’t feel like 'work' anymore. Instead, work becomes something you love and enjoy doing, and strive to perfect each and everyday."
15 of 20
What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a job like yours?
"Be passionate! Starting a small business requires a lot of hard work and sacrifice. If you don’t love what you do from the start, you will end up hating what you do in the end."

What keeps you motivated?
"Over a year ago, my son was born. He has definitely given me perspective and [awareness of] what’s important in my life. My parents worked hard to provide my siblings and me with opportunities that they never had. I also want to follow in their footsteps. My son means the world to me, and he motivates me to work hard and be a great role model to him, as my parents were to me when I was growing up."
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What are your plans/dreams/goals for the next five to 10 years?
"My goal is to continue growing my company and provide for my family."

If you didn't have this job, what would you be doing?
"I have two rescued shepherds that I adore. If I had to switch jobs, I would like to start up a rescue for shepherds out in the country. Very different, I know — but that’s the Gemini in me!"

Fill in the blank: "The best part about working in fashion in D.C. is ______________."
"Being able to connect and be inspired by its growing community of creative individuals."
17 of 20
Michelle Thomas, associate fashion editor at Washingtonian

What was your first job?
"I started my career as an editorial assistant for The Washington Post’s 'TV Week' section, formatting TV programming schedules and previewing new shows."

Tell us a little bit about the path that lead to where you are today.
"About six months into my job with 'TV Week,' the shopping columnist for the Post’s now-defunct Sunday Source resigned, and in her absence, I began helping to fill that space. Eventually, that little weekly column was transformed from a section where we road-tested ice-cream makers into a full page where we reviewed beauty products, spotlighted new boutiques, and profiled D.C.’s most stylish. In late 2009, I moved to Los Angeles, where I took a marketing gig for Michael Stars, and then a copywriting position for the online sites of luxe-contemporary brands like Vince, Rebecca Taylor, and Adam Lippes. I moved back to D.C. last fall, and worked my network to snag my current position with Washingtonian."

Sabine dress from Piperlime, Zara shoes, H&M necklace, Forever 21 and Vince Camuto bracelets.
18 of 20
What are some of the challenges you've encountered along the way?
"When my now-husband moved to Los Angeles to attend law school, I had to choose between staying behind in D.C. to continue working as a fashion writer at the Post, or taking a leap of faith to move to LA with no job and zero connections. Obviously, I chose LA. Taking a three-year hiatus from journalism was risky, but in the end, I was able to essentially pick up where I left off (thankfully!)."

What advice would you give to yourself 10 years ago?
"Hey, 10-years-younger me: Never say never. I had lots of rules about what I thought I should do and swore I would never do, and I’ve broken most of them."

What is the best career advice you've learned?
"Make what you love in life your first priority, and the work will follow. When I struggled with the decision to quit my job at the Post to move to L.A. with my now-husband, my editor (and mentor) encouraged me to do it, even though I didn’t have a job lined up. She was right, and I did find the work."
19 of 20
What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a job like yours?
"Take every opportunity that’s available to you. In college, I worked at multiple unpaid internships and wrote tons of free stories for local newspapers, no matter how boring the assignment (hello, Halloween trick-or-treating at the local mall in Hyattsville!). Along the way, I made the connections that landed me my first job. And when I started at the Post, I wasn’t remotely interested in TV — and I wasn’t exactly obsessed with fashion, either. But I leaped at both chances, and now I can’t imagine doing anything else.
And related: Connections are key! Both of my media jobs were helped along by personal recommendations from other established journalists. Building a strong network is invaluable."

What keeps you motivated?
"Reader feedback! I love hearing from my readers. The knowledge that I’m helping someone find their perfect fill-in-the-blank is one of my favorite parts about this job. Sometimes blogging feels a little vacuum-like, so when a reader takes the time to tell me that they like what I’m doing or to share their new favorite product — well, there’s nothing more rewarding."
20 of 20
What are your plans/dreams/goals for the next five to 10 years?
"World domination?! Actually, I’m quite new to Washingtonian and I’m super excited to be here, so I plan to still be here doing similar work in five-plus years."

If you didn't have this job, what would you be doing?
"In my dream world? I would be a 'nose' [in the perfume industry]. I’m obsessed with fragrances!"

Fill in the blank: "The best part about working in fashion in D.C. is ____________."
"It's evolution! After watching D.C.’s fashion scene grow for nearly five years, leaving for the West Coast, and returning again, I feel like I’ve gained a fresh perspective on how this city has changed. And I’m happy to note that it really is getting better and more stylish all the time! It’s incredible to see not only the ever-increasing interest and infrastructure, but also a more sophisticated sense of personal style, and an encouraging willingness to take risks. Yes, there are still women wearing sneakers with skirts, and far, far too much seersucker, but the burgeoning fashion scene is only getting stronger."

Forever 21 clutch.
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