I often get asked by assistants or from people who hope to be a stylist someday, “How long does it take to be a lead?” The unfortunate fact is that there’s no straight line to the finish line here. It’s truly about what you learn on the journey. I can share my story, but how you write your own is most likely going to be completely different from mine. I do know what differentiates good stylist from weak stylists is less about their eye for style and more about their experience on set. Experience is what will save you when they don’t give you sizes until 2 pm the day before the shoot. Experience is what will save you when the model shows up to the set and is 6 sizes larger than the size you were given from the agency (this has happened to me a couple of times). Experience is what will save you when the client has a similar personality to Anna Wintour in The Devil Wears Prada. There’s a lot you can do to fake it to make it, but I do believe that you might hurt your career if you jump into this with very little experience. There’s a lot riding on the role of the stylist. It’s the entire look of the shoot, which means beyond the photographer/director, you’re largely responsible for how this thing turns out. That’s a lot of pressure that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
My jumping off point from moving from an assistant to a lead happened the year the economy collapsed in 2008. I know, you’re probably scratching your head. It was incredibly slow in the industry and I used that time to reach out to the photographers I really admired and that normally wouldn’t have time to test to work on personal projects with me. I not only started to build my portfolio, but I started to build relationships. Eventually, lead jobs started to come in at a sustainable rate and I didn’t have to assist anymore. I was able to officially cut the chord to my assisting career.
Prior to 2008 I was able to style as the lead on a number of projects, but had a hard time making the full transition because so many people saw me as an assistant. This is a challenge I see a lot in our industry. Some people make wonderful careers out of being the best assistants out there, and some people make careers out of being an assistant because they can’t get people to see them outside of that role. It’s a hard coin to flip. At some point you have to take a step back before you take a step forward and stop assisting completely. You’ll be slow for a while, but you need to take some time for people to forget your old role as an assistant and start seeing you as a lead. You won’t make as much money the first year when you make the transition, but once you start taking off you’ll make up to 3 times the amount you did before. Sometimes you have to lose some money to make some money.
When do you know when you’re ready to take that leap? It’s hard to say. You’re going to go through a lot of growing pains no matter what. You’re going to get jobs that you’re not quite ready for and ask yourself if you you’re really ready for this or even want this. It’s all part becoming a successful stylist. There is no straight line to get there.
If you’re consistently on set, I would say that it really shouldn’t take you more than 3 years of assisting to make the break. At that point you should have seen enough to really know what being the lead is all about. But again, expect to shake in your boots. How quickly you recover from those trembles is how quickly you’ll start to flourish as a stylist.