HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE

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.

CREDIT

You need it. It’s your biggest tool. You can’t be a stylist unless you have it. You MUST have great credit and you MUST have lots of it.

Most people don’t know that you use your own credit cards when you’re a stylist. There are some cases on large motion productions where you are given the production company’s card, but for the most part it is all on you.

Building your credit should be the first thing on your todo list to becoming a stylist. A credit company isn’t going to give you a $20,000 credit line straight out of the gate. You need to build trust with them before you pop the question that you want to raise your credit line. You do this by opening a card that has a good point system, start charging everything, and make sure you pay it off in full EVERY SINGLE MONTH. It’s less important that you wear designer clothes to look cool at a shoot and more important that you’re able to fulfill all of the clients requests before you hit your limit. You need to live low to to the ground when you’re starting off and make sure you pay off that card every month. I can’t stress this enough. You can’t have a styling career if you don’t have a ton of credit.

How much credit do you need? I’d aim for the goal of $50,000 on one card. I’ve been doing this for 15 years and have only spent over $50,000 ten times or so. The absolute most I’ve spent is $75,000, so I feel that $50,000 is a good goal. It’s good to have this on one card because it will make your returns easier. Personally, I have three main credit cards I exclusively use for reimbursables, or wardrobe and props. Collectively with those three cards, I have about $150,000 in credit. I use Business Southwest Chase (the most lenient with never blocking your card even though you’ve spent over $40,000 in one day), Capital One Business (the safest of cards for theft), and Amazon Business because I buy an insane amount from Amazon and Zappos.

A big benefit of being a stylist is that you can earn a ton of points towards whatever you’re into. I love to travel and for years flew for free because of all the points I accrued. If you’re super into the J.Crew, use their card, but if you’re not, don’t EVER open a card at a particular store. If you have too many credit cards because you wanted a one time discount while checking out, your credit score will be lower, which will make it harder to raise your limit. Keep it to just a couple of good credit cards.

Lastly, do your homework. Understand your benefits and use them to your advantage. Do a ton of research before you open a card and don’t take it lightly. It’s a commitment and you don’t want to keep opening and closing cards because again, that lower’s your credit score and makes doing this job a whole lot more challenging. Run out of the gates with a good system behind you. You’ll be happy about it in the future.

HOW TO SET UP YOUR $$ AS A FREELANCER

I like to describe being freelance as being professionally unemployed. You have no idea when the next job is coming and you need to financially set yourself up as if the job you’re currently on could be the last. It’s an absolute must that you keep your overhead as low as you possibly can in the beginning. You can do this by living in the cheapest place you can while still being safe, not having car payments, and going out to eat as little as possible. You need your money to last because it might take you longer than expected to start having regular jobs.

What you can’t do is get a side job to cover you (at least in the photo/commercial industry). This is the kiss of death. You can’t turn down last minute opportunities to freelance because you have to bartend that night. This especially goes when you’re first starting out. People are only going to reach out to you once or twice before they give up on you if you’re unavailable. You need to ALWAYS BE AVAILABLE. This means that you’ll be living on a set sum in your bank account for a while because don’t forget, you’re now professionally unemployed. I can’t stress this enough, you have to be ultra thrifty in the beginning.

If you want to be a stylist you need to start working on your credit. Open a card and start charging everything but only if you can fully pay it off at the end of every month. This is CRUCIAL. Start building that credit score so you can start working on raising your credit card limit.

You should have one card for personal expenses and one card for business expenses. Don’t cross your purchases on your cards because you want to keep the two separate for tax reasons. You can charge all of your write offs to your business credit card. A stylist can write off things like purchases for their kit, ink for their printer, sneakers for when they work, gas for their car, etc. It’s easier if you practice keeping your business expenses from your personal expenses from the get go. You’ll be happier when you need to organize for your taxes.

Start using an accounting/invoicing site like Quickbooks or Freshbooks. Again, your life will be easier down the road if you do this as early as you can. You want to be super organized with your finances and keep track of your invoices. You’re going to be scraping at every penny in the beginning and you don’t want to lose any of that hard earned cash by being sloppy.

Put aside a third of your check for taxes. The best way to do this is to set up an account with your bank that automatically withdraws every month to a savings account dedicated to your taxes. You don’t want to have to scramble at the end of the year.

Find a good accountant. Ask your fellow freelance friends. People are always excited to share who they are using. Make sure you find an accountant that deals with other freelancers in your industry. If you don’t, your accountant isn’t going to be aware of all of the write-offs and they’re going to charge you more to file your taxes.

Health insurance is a must. Being on set can sometimes be dangerous. If you hurt yourself and end up in the hospital, you may need to get a full time job and have to say goodbye to your freelancing life to pay the bills. This is a necessary bill to pay every month.

It’s a good idea to have a car. You don’t want to turn down a job because it’s out in the suburbs and you have no way to get there. It’s also a must to have a car if you’re a stylist assistant. The cheaper the car, the better. You don’t want to have to make car payments. You just need to get from point A to point B.

Lastly, maybe not in the first year, but eventually you will want to contribute to an IRA. This is how you will be able to retire. The sooner you do it only increases the chances you won’t have to work until you’re 90.

All of these suggestions don’t need to be in place before you take your first freelancing gig, but they are all things that you should be actively working towards in your first year if you hope to continue freelancing. The sooner you get your ducks in the row, the greater your chances you’ll have at having a fruitful freelancing career.

THE STORY BEHIND THE RETURNIST

Many moons ago prior to birthing two humans, I spent a lot of time writing my thoughts and opinions about the trials and tribulations of being a wardrobe stylist. My blog was called THE RETURNIST, a spin off of the famous fashion street blog, The Sartorialist, because my career is a weird niche with a whole lot of returns to make. Then life happened in a big way, and my blog went to the wayside. After spending the last 5 days on a solo trip in Mexico City, it made me think about where I am in my career and how I would like to pay it forward. I know that there is so little written out there about the world of a commercial stylist. You can read and watch reality television shows about being a personal stylist or celebrity stylist, but my breed of styling has been hushed. I even find that other crew members, people from the agency, and clients have a lot of questions about how I got 6 racks of clothing in 2 days. Do they think you’re weird when you bring up 6 different sizes to the register? Do they hate you when you bring it all back? How much credit do you have anyways?

I’ve always considered myself very candid with any questions thrown my way, even from fellow stylists who one can view as competition. I’m not helping anyone by keeping what I do a secret. I’ve watched a lot of Food Network in my life and I’m still not a great cook. I can tell you everything I know, but you’re not going to replace me. You’re most likely going to take the tools and become your own mark in the industry. It also has become clear to me that if more people really understood what goes into styling on the agency side then the process could go much more smoothly. The more everyone knows about each of the roles on a crew the better the ship will float. We need all hands on deck. It’s a HUGE team effort. So here I am, back after a 6 year hiatus from blogging about to spill my guts about everything I know as a wardrobe and sometimes prop stylist. I’m here to help, here to start a discussion, and here to make sure that I’m keeping my end of the deal by paying it forward.