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Want to Learn How to Build Your Own Textile Design Business? Michelle Fifis from Pattern Observer

Updated: Mar 8, 2022

Today we are featuring the Professional Profile of Michelle Fifis, the Founder of Pattern Observer and The Textile Design Lab; two very successful online businesses in the textile market. Michelle shares her journey from ballet dancer to a textile entrepreneur and the lessons she has learned along the way. Pattern Observer and Textile Design Lab offer numerous free lessons on creating textile designs, marketing yourself, e-books and several online courses. Michelle shares with us, in her own words, her very personal journey of finding her true passion and where you can find the tools to help you succeed too.

“For reasons that I couldn’t always specify, I have always been drawn to and interested in the arts, fashion, and entrepreneurship. Something about creating something, regardless of what it was, inspired me. This led to a childhood that was filled with activities such as drawing, ballet practices, and brainstorming small business ideas. It seemed that these things took up my entire day. I’d take art classes at school, ballet on afternoons and weekends, rehearsing and preparing for performances.”

Over time, I had to admit that while I loved ballet and practicing until I was perfect, I despised performing. So by high school, I finally acknowledged that I lacked the passion to ever pursue a career as a professional ballet dancer. Realizing this should have made things easier and been a relief, but it really wasn’t. I felt lost. Honestly, I’d never imagined going to college after high school, but into the world of professional dance. This meant that while I was glad to know what I wasn’t, I was left struggling with what I was going to be. I had to quickly regroup and think about what I wanted for a career. This is when I turned to my love of fashion and fine art. It turned out, the answer had been in front of me the entire time.I was lucky enough to discover Stephens College in Columbia, MO, which has an amazing fashion design program, and a wonderful dance department. After spending so many years in the world of dance I hoped to continue to take classes and perform in a more casual manner—hopefully, one that wouldn’t cause me such anxiety—but it turned out that juggling the two degrees was far too difficult. I eventually dropped my dance major to focus solely on fashion design.The summer before my senior year of college at Stephens, I landed an internship with the fashion and textile designer Zandra Rhodes. I showed up for my first day of the internship, excited and a bit nervous. I saw all these amazing artists hand-painting silks in her beautiful, whimsical style, and an entire world opened up for me at that moment. Honestly, I fell in love with textile design and I remember going back to my professors feeling rather devastated. I truly believed that I’d majored in the wrong thing, but my wonderful teachers immediately assured me that we could work with what I’d discovered. To do this, I ended up hand-painting and screenprinting all of the fabrics used in my senior collection.

It was a blast and a wonderful bridge to the opportunity that is now my career. After graduating from Stephens I started a line of hand-painted handbags. The collection was a success in some ways, as they were sold in over a hundred stores nationwide. However, in other ways, it was a disaster. I had no idea how to run a business and ended up losing several thousand dollars, which at the time was a great deal of money for me to try and make up.Obviously, it was time to tap into that entrepreneur in me and learn the skills I needed about being a business owner. The failure of my understanding provided the perfect lesson for me to build up from. I realized that I needed to work for a company to understand how the business worked before I went off on my own again. After recognizing that, I worked as an in-house textile designer for seven-plus years at various companies, including Jantzen Swimwear and Columbia Sportswear. Then a new world began to call me and I left my corporate life with much more knowledge and wisdom and became a freelancer in 2010. I was lucky enough to have lots of contacts in the apparel world so my freelance business grew very quickly.In between client projects I started Pattern Observer. It was a blog where I discussed the work that I was doing and trends that I was observing. I had a client challenge me, by asking how I could stay on top of trends when I didn’t use a service such as WGSN, and my blog was a way to prove to clients that I knew what I was talking about! Soon, more designers started emailing me with questions. I didn’t have the time to answer all of them individually so I began teaching classes as a way to answer their questions en mass. It was great, but I never envisioned that it would transition to what Pattern Observer has become today. It has grown so much since then, and it tapped into a passion of mine that I never knew I had until then—teaching. It’s truly incredible and rewarding.

Today, Pattern Observer has three arms of the business.

First, we have our studio, which houses a library of patterns that are available for purchase and offers custom pattern development services, which is our specialty! We have a wonderful studio manager, Chelsea von Hasseln, who works with our clients and a team of designers who offer a variety of artistic styles that can ensure we meet the demands of what our clients’ need.

Second, the Pattern Observer blog features designer interviews, free resources for designers, and highlights our series of eBooks and self-study courses for designers. These courses allow an opportunity for designers to explore on topics such as developing eye-catching patterns and marketing their work.

And third, for designers looking to improve the quality of their artwork and learn how to market their work to buyers and agents, we have a membership site called the Textile Design Lab. Members have access to countless courses, tutorials, and resources within the Lab. Additionally, they are able to receive personalized feedback on their work from our team of experts. It’s a vibrant, supportive community and we are seeing great results from our members!

My favorite part of both of my jobs, designing and teaching, is helping people to succeed. For starters, I love designing a pattern for a client and later seeing it featured in WGSN or learning that the patterned garment has been flying off the sales floor. Then, as a mentor, nothing makes me happier than to hear from one of our Textile Design Lab members that they sold their first pattern, or landed their dream agent. It’s the best.

Of course, running a business isn’t always just having the great moments. There are tougher times too. My least favorite parts of my job are the technical challenges and issues that arise from running an online business. Thankfully, I have a lot of help with it now so it is no longer so challenging and draining like it was when I first kicked it all off.

Whether it’s the “good stuff” or the challenges, it’s all part of a day. My typical day starts with writing content for new courses, training, or blog posts. My mind is at its most clear in the morning and I am able to do these things more quickly with better results during that time. So, as tempting as it is to dive into my inbox first thing, I do try and get my writing done before I do that so I can send it off to the editor.

After that, I take time to respond to messages from our team so that they can continue working and moving forward with their projects. After that, the rest of my emails are answered, and it’s not uncommon for it to be afternoon by that time.

Afternoons are typically the time when I have meetings, design patterns for our studio, or work on planning future projects. Additionally, I take the time to clarify what needs to be done the following day. I’ve found that this makes my day begin with certainty and helps me to keep things better organized.

When I reflect back on my journey in the world of textile design, I see how my role as a designer has changed a great deal over the past few years. It’s something that is constantly being tweaked as the studio grows and evolves. I currently spend most of my time in the studio reviewing work, brainstorming design ideas, and coming up with initial design direction for our team. I am designing less and less, which has been a difficult transition for me to make. But my skill set lends itself to more of a managerial role, and there are so many designers who are looking for work. I am happy to step aside and allow them to do the design work.

“One of the best pieces of advice that I have heard is the one I like to pass on. It involves keeping the thought of “service” in the forefront of your mind. Whenever I am making a decision within my business, I contemplate how I can be of the best service to my clients, readers, and students. I want to know what is going to make their life easier and more enjoyable. The answers to these thoughts are where I know I should be focusing my time and energy.”

Through what I’ve envisioned, I would love to see the Textile Design Lab grow to include more mentors with other areas of expertise, such as licensing or wallpaper design. I want to partner with more industry leaders to hopefully provide more job opportunities for our members, as well. It’s a competitive market, but with the right tools and understanding, the potential for a committed designer is limitless.

“My advice for designers trying to find their way in this industry is to become a master listener and observer. Instead of feeling like you need to share, or instantly react, focus on listening to the stories that people are sharing, the changes that your manager or client is requesting, the feedback you are receiving and the trends that you are observing. People often tell us what we need to know if we are able to remain still so we can listen and observe.”

Thank you, Michelle, for sharing! Want to learn more? visit the Pattern Observer where you will find a wealth of information to help you succeed in the Textile Design Market. Thanks for stopping by!


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