Starting at the Top: Edward Wilkerson

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Edward Wilkerson, design director of the multimillion-dollar New York-based women’s sportswear company Lafayette 148, doesn’t have to present a collection at Bryant Park in Manhattan to create media buzz. He’s been at the top of his game for more than a decade, after making headlines years ago as senior designer at the Donna Karan Co. He is one of a few dynamic African-American designers continuously featured on the front page of Women’s Wear Daily, the retail industry’s leading newspaper devoted to fashion.

But if you ask Wilkerson, an ultracreative and mellow man who is equally talented in photography, what he attributes his success to, he will give you his mantra without hesitation: “consistency, sticking to my design philosophy of creating stylish basics with flair, commitment and patience.” This was the vision he nurtured throughout the early 1980s as he pounded the pavement looking for work.

Wilkerson’s dream to pursue a career in fashion design was already a reality by the time he graduated from the prestigious High School of Art and Design in Manhattan. “When I wanted a summer job on Seventh Avenue, I went to every building. I stopped on every floor and asked for an interview with anyone who would look at my book,” he says. “I said to myself, ‘How many blocks is Fashion Avenue, six or seven blocks? Somebody’s going to take me.’ And I went back and interviewed with people again and again.”

Beating the pavement paid off for the youngster from Queens. In fact, by 1984, Wilkerson had landed a job with Anne Klein & Co., where he assisted then senior designer Donna Karan and Louis Del O’lio. New opportunities opened, leading him to the house of Calvin Klein. Once there, he worked directly with Klein himself, overseeing fabric selections and developing silhouettes for the direction of the main Calvin Klein line. After more than three years with Calvin Klein, Wilkerson’s career came full circle when he accepted a senior designer position at the Donna Karan Co., the atelier of his former boss. He joined Lafayette 148 after nine years at Donna Karan as designer for the Donna Karan Collection and Signature Collection.

Even for someone as talented and driven as Wilkerson, there were skeptics along the road to glory. “I was once told by the dean at the Parson School’s fashion design department that I would never be a designer, [that] I did not have what it takes, and [that] I should think about what I wanted to do with the rest of my career,” he recalls. By then, however, he had already landed a design position with Ann Klein, the same one he had found when he graduated from high school. “There I was, in my third year at Parsons School of Design, being told by the dean that I’d never be a designer,” he marvels. “They didn’t know I was working. I never felt the need to tell them that I was already a designer at Anne Klein.”

Because of experiences like these, Wilkerson offers aspiring African-American fashion designers a very key piece of advice: “Start at the top,” he urges. “The bottom is always going to be there.”                 

Key Occupations in the Fashion Industry

Careers in fashion are hardly limited to designing clothing and modeling. Here is a list of key occupations in the industry that require a different set of skills. Jobs in these fields are usually listed in Women’s Wear Daily (www.wwd.com) and Daily News Record (www.dnr.com).

• Art director
• Buyer
• Designer
• Design director
• Design draper

• Fashion executive (e.g., senior vice president of product development, general manager of a department store, vice president of marketing, president of a brand)

• Fabricator
• Fashion director
• Fashion editor
• Fashion stylist
• Fashion show producer
• Fashion writer
• Market editor
• Merchandiser
• National sales director
• Pattern maker
• Production manager
• Public relations worker
• Retailer
• Showroom sales representative
• Textile technologist