THIS JOB IS NEVER ENDING

One of my favorite aspects of a stylist’s career is that there is no cap to what you can learn. I’ve been doing this for over 15 years and I still find myself revisiting the idea of how I can better myself as a stylist. It may be the fact that there is no safety net and that every stylist, no matter how good you are, can have the rug pulled out from underneath you at any time. This fear is humbling and makes it so complacency isn’t an option. You’re truly always growing and learning how to manage challenges you face.

SHOPPING FOR A PARTICULAR DEMOGRAPHIC

There is a lot of storytelling in styling. In advertising, you're looking to tell a story around a product. In order to do this, you are trying to help the client appeal to their target demographic. The easiest way to do this and for the ad to make visual sense is by shopping in the stores you think the target demographic would buy their clothing.

I’ll use styling for automotive campaigns as an example. Do you think the people who drive a Ford truck shop at the same clothing stores as the people who drive a Mercedes sedan? Not hardly. Mercedes is a luxury brand. If I were to source the wardrobe from Walmart, even though Walmart has great options for other projects, it would be apparent. The detail of the construction of a higher end product is relevant even within an ad campaign. All the chosen pieces for the talent’s wardrobe creates a feel for the overall look. It has to make visual sense or else the advertisement will fail to get its message across. The stores where the wardrobe was purchased plays into the final details of the campaign.

THE SECRET TO A SWIFT RETURN DAY

You need to shop with having your returns in mind. There has to be a plan to the madness or else you’ll pay for it on the back end. You can’t just go all willy nilly, going in out of stores, grabbing things here and there, going back to the same store to grab things in different sizes, repeat. This will make the wrap day of your job a disaster.

Your return day will be easy if you plan out your shopping day. Depending on the size of the job, I also recommend dividing your receipts by gender for each store. If I need to shop for both men and women at Zara, I’ll checkout once for the women, then once for the men. If I need to back to Zara for more women’s clothing, I’ll put a little mark with a sharpie on the tag of each of the items from the receipt. This way when I got return the items, I can easily divide the pile without having to manually look at sku’s. Sku’s are the worst and will make your eyes cross if you have to go through racks of clothing.

At department stores like Macy’s, Nordstroms and Bloomingdales I will keep each receipt to the particular department. For instance, women’s clothing from level 2 on one receipt, women’s petite’s on another, men’s dress shirts and ties on another. That way when you go bag returns at the end of the job you can easily break it down.

You also need to know what stores allow you to return by credit card or store sticker. This allows you to return items from multiple receipts all at once because they can either look it up by one credit card or by the store sticker that’s on the tag. Target and Kohl’s allow you to return everything by using your credit card to look up the receipts. Nordstrom, Macy’s and Bloomingdales only need the sticker that is on the tag. You’ll walk away with one return receipt, which makes paperwork a whole lot easier.

This job can be challenging with the sheer volume of items you need to purchase. Organization is everything. It’s what will make or break your sanity. You need to have a system set up for how you execute your shopping and returns or else you’ll burn out after doing multiple jobs in a row. Having a system will reduce your stress and allow you to focus on the meat of the job that’s important. Cross those t’s and dot those i’s.

SHOPPING FOR KIDS

As you can imagine, shopping for kids is a lot of fun. Over the past 5 years many brands have really upped their game with their designs and you can actually purchase clothing outside of teal, purple, and hot pink. You often say to yourself, “If only this came in my size!” and feel overjoyed by all of your cute options you curated. But the sizing makes shopping for kids really challenging. It’s actually more challenging than shopping for adults if you’re dealing with kids that are 5 and under.

Kids’ sizing is all over the place. A size small in one store isn’t a small in another store, so you always have to double check what a “small” is equivalent in numerical sizes when you’re at each store. Beyond that, kids’ sizes operate on the same level of frustration as women’s jeans. You can buy the same pants in the same size from the same store and they might fit differently. I’m not sure what causes this, but it happens all of the time. You get around these sizing obstacles by bracketing your sizes. Bracketing means that if the child you are shopping for is a 4T, you should also get a 3T and a 5T. Basically, you have to shop for 3x the amount you normally do on a job with children because it must fit them.

You often don’t get to use your normal bag of styling tricks when working with children. Most little kids don’t like tags itching them, so they’re definitely not going to like a clamp or safety pin on his or her body.

Kids also have opinions. An adult can get past not liking what you dressed them in because it’s their job, but a child doesn’t understand this. You want them to feel excited in what they’re wearing because that joy will come out on set. You always need a plan B to the adorable outfit that they want to play hide and seek in, and never come out.

Lastly, always, ALWAYS call the parents to double check the sizes you receive from the agency. Kids grow like weeds and agencies often don’t pass along up-to-date sizes. You want to ask the parent their child’s age, size, height and weight. Parents tend to tell you a size above their child’s actual size because all parents shop ahead in knowing their child will grow into it. You want those clothes to fit like a glove on set and gathering all the information on the phone with the parent will help you get there.

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.

THE IMPORTANCE OF ASSISTING

So much of what it takes to be a great stylist boils down to experience. Putting together great looks is the easiest part of the job. You can find a ton of people out there that are capable of putting together a show stopper outfit, but wouldn’t necessarily be great stylists. The trait that separates the great stylists from the average ones is experience. How do you get experience? You find a way to get on set.

Most of the stylists I know got into being a commercial stylist through a back door. It wasn’t their original plan for a career. For example, I started off as a photo assistant. Through my years of assisting, I kept one eye on the stylist because I knew that’s where my passion was. Stylists noticed that I wasn’t a weirdo and a hard worker, and started to ask me to assist them. I probably only assisted stylists for 2 years, but I was on set as a photo assistant before I broke away as a lead for almost five years. I learned so much even as a photo assistant about how to trouble shoot, how to work under pressure, how to work with time limitations, and how to act around clients. You really just need to get on set and be part of it all.

Obviously you want to assist for the best people you can, but there is also something to be said in learning what not to do. I told myself that in my 20’s my goal would be to have as many experiences as I could, good or bad. I said yes to everything because I wanted to learn every side of the industry and see as much as I could. If you only assist one person, you only get one perspective. Even if that person is at the top of their game, you’re going to be limited to what you can learn. You only learn as much as you see and you should try to see everything.

How much experience do you need to get on set? None. NONE. Stylists don’t care about your personal taste (at least not this stylist), they don’t care about your past jobs (unless you’ve already assisted other stylists or have been on set) , they just want to know that you’ll show up on time, you’ll be respectful, and you’ll work harder and longer than any other crew member. You need to be a linchpin and you do that by not only helping me, but also offering to help other crew members when there is down time. I guarantee that if you’re the hardest working member of the crew, people will notice and they’ll start sharing your name to other crew members. It happens like a wildfire.

It’s also so important to capitalize on every opportunity. Don’t just show up and ask the crew members what their name is, study the call sheet before you arrive. Google all of these people. Learn about them. You want to do your homework because a name is nothing if you don’t know their back story.

Lastly, remember every job in the freelance world is a job interview. They don’t have to hire you again. Work like your job is on the line, because it is. If you treat every opportunity like it could be your big break, eventually you’ll break big. You’ll be working multiple jobs a month and gaining all of that experience that is necessary to eventually be able to spread your wings as a lead. These things don’t happen overnight. Expect to go through ups and downs, busy and slow times, and at least a couple of years of busting as an assistant. The more you know, the better you’ll be as a lead. This is why assisting is so important.

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.

THE ART OF SHOPPING UNDER THE GUN

If there is one point of pride in my career, it’s that I can shop like the wind. I often imagine myself on a Bravo TV challenge and impressing the hell out of the judges with my swiftness in how I can accurately acquire the most amount of options for a project. Here are some of my secrets.

  • Know your city. I know where to go to hit the most number of stores with the least amount of hassle with parking. This is so important. Where you park in proximity to a store is everything when you’re pressed for time and carrying a ton of loot.

  • Lists are your friend. On top of having my notes, layouts and sizes, I make a list to map out what stores I’m going to hit and with sub-list of what I can buy at each of those stores. I also put the stores in order of how I’ll be driving to them. By the end of a vigorous shopping day my lists typically look like the map to find the hidden pirate ship in Goonies.

  • It’s all about getting the most bang for your buck. That doesn’t mean buying things at a good price, it means what stores are worth spending your precious time to get the most amount of options in the shortest amount of time. This can also be decided by the parking situation for that store. As I mentioned before, knowing where to park is everything in a big city.

  • Go to the stores with fastest check out procedures. Goodbye Zara, hello Nordstrom.

  • If you only find 5 items or less that work for the project at the store you’re at, don’t bother. It’s not worth wasting the time in line. Again, see ya Zara.

  • Try to carry the smallest handbag you can get away with when you’re in the stores. You don’t want to add anymore weight to the insane amount of clothing you’re hauling around.

  • Always ask if you can keep the hangers. This saves an incredible amount of time once you hang everything on the rack. Target, Nordstrom, Bloomingdales, Kohl’s and many more let you keep the hangers.

  • Order your shoes or buy them from places where you don’t wait for a sales associate to go into a back room and bring them back to you. I’ve used Zappos for years. I can order shoes after store hours when I get home and knock out a big chunk of my shopping day in no time. The shoes also come in less than 24 hours. If you know me, you know I can’t say enough good things about Zappos.

  • Bring Ikea bags into the store. Ikea bags are bought at Ikea and are made out of burlap. They are nearly indestructible and hold an outrageous amount. Don’t mess around with flimsy store bags and risking the hassle of having one break.

  • Stick to one credit card for the day and only keep that credit card with a back up card and your id in your wallet. You don’t want to keep having to search your bag.

  • Eat trail mix and drink lots of water. You don’t want to get hangry. If you removed the seat in my car I’m pretty sure I’d make a squirrel’s day.

  • Wear sneakers with support. Shopping for a large production is a sport. You’re on your feet for 5-8 hours while carrying extra pounds. Don’t me a dummy, dress smart.

Happy Shopping!

THE BEST WAY TO CALM THE CLIENT

Have a fitting prior to the shoot. I know that this isn’t always possible due to budget restraints, but if there is any wiggle room to make this happen, I promise it will make it so the client and the agency will sleep better at night. Let me explain.

We now all have these cameras in our pockets and it’s pretty easy to take pictures whenever we want. I often get asked to take photos of the wardrobe prior to the shoot so that the client and/or agency can see what I’m buying. This is either done by taking photos of the clothing while I’m out shopping or I do it when I get back to my house by arranging the clothing on hangers into outfits on a peg board. There are a couple of problems with this. A) Taking photos while I’m shopping when there is so limited time slows me down. It will make it so that you have less options because I ate valuable time taking sad looking pictures of wrinkly garments under bad lighting while I was in the store. B) It’s hard for me to live quietly under the radar at a store when I’m stopping to take photos. They might get uncomfortable and ask me to leave. Now I can’t source from a place that has good options. C) Clothing that is on the hanger has no life. It never looks as good as when it is on the talent. D) Fit is everything. I can show you a great outfit, but it means nothing unless we know it fits the talent. I might be showing you a top that everyone loves on the hanger, but we find out on the day of the shoot that it doesn’t fit the talent. Then we’re back to square one. We truly don’t know anything until we see how it works on the talent.

I would say that 60% of my jobs I get asked to photograph the wardrobe before the shoot and I find that 90% of the time it only confuses the client. For example, I once had to shop for an actor that was 6’6” and 240 pounds. When I presented his wardrobe as photographed on the hanger, the client’s feedback was that the clothing looked baggy. They weren’t wrong, an XXL sweater on a hanger looks like a blanket holding onto a pin. It’s hard to know from the photo what my intentions were for that garment. Now the client is worried, and it’s only because photographing clothing without people in it and having it look good is nearly impossible.

Fittings solve a lot of problems. You get to try things on the actors to make sure it fits AND you get to nail down some looks prior to the shoot, which later saves time on the shoot day. Granted, you can’t guarantee the looks picked out during the fitting are absolute options because there are issues that can come up when they’re on set, but it really helps narrow down the options and gives everyone a better idea of where we’re are. It also allows me to go shop after the fitting if we’re not feeling great about the options presented so that we know we absolutely have what is needed by the end of the fitting. Now we can all sleep soundly the night before the shoot that we nailed the wardrobe.

WARDROBE STYLIST VS. PERSONAL STYLIST

There is loads of information on how to become a personal stylist and plenty of examples of people who have built successful personal styling careers. There is very little written on the world of commercial wardrobe styling. Because of this, people often assume I take on personal clients because I am someone who shops for a living, but the fact of the matter is that personal styling is a complete different skillset than what I do as a commercial wardrobe stylist.

As a commercial stylist, I’m communicating with the producer, photographer/director and the ad agency prior to the shoot. Everything is so fast moving in advertising, I usually start getting information at the last possible minute, at most one week prior to the shoot. I’m often on a conference call to go over the layouts and direction of the project, then I’m giving a list of talent and their sizes. I almost never see anything more than a headshot of the bodies I’m shopping for prior to going out to shop, and often have to shop for 10 or more people with only a few days prior to the shoot. There are certain “rules of thumb” that I need to follow when I’m shopping for projects because there are certain things that across the board never look good on camera. For example, no heavy prints, nothing that is billowy in shape, NO LOGOS. Beyond that, I have to also think about the client requests. I’m often shopping within specific color guidelines, for the opposite season of what is actually available in store, and for particular demographic for the product we’re trying to sell. These are just examples, the list of what I need to consider when I’m scanning through a store can even be longer than this. You can equate it to an actor remembering a script before they go on stage. If you get it wrong, say you buy the wrong size pants for one of the talent because you misread your notes, buy pinks and maroons even though the client requested no red because that is the competitor’s brand color, then all of that work you put into finding those items gets wasted. You now not only can’t use those garments, you also will need to do more returns once the project is over, on top of having to shop more for the correct items. It is critical that you are organized and accurate notes before you shop and it helps to have most of it memorized so that you don’t look suspicious having to read your paper over and over again while you pass the employees.

A personal stylist meets with the client, they get to see their body in person, and they discuss with their client what they’re hoping to achieve with their look. It’s a much more personal connection with a lot more communication from beginning to end. You really get to learn throughout the process what the client likes and dislikes, and you’re able to see what works on their body. If items don’t work, you often have the option to go out and shop some more.

I like to think of commercial shoots with the same type of weight as a wedding day. Unless there is a fitting prior to the shoot (often for television commercials they ask the actors to come in the day before the shoot to makes sure the wardrobe fits and is liked by the agency) it’s a one and done deal. You HAVE to be prepared with a ton of options and sizes to make sure there will be plenty of things that work because you can’t tell the rest of the crew to sit tight on the shoot day so that you can go grab some more options. Today is the day. Commercial shoots generally cost on the low end $25,000 to 1 million dollars for a television commercial. If the wardrobe is off, the shoot is off, and a painstaking amount of money is lost because you didn’t come through with your end of the deal. Being prepared for every little hiccup that could come your way is what the experience stylists get paid to do. The easiest part of the job is putting together outfits, the hardest part is knowing what to prepare for because there will be hiccups.

There are also different goals for a wardrobe and personal stylist. For a personal stylist, you really want your client to look and feel great, and most of all be happy with the outfits you curated for them. For a wardrobe stylist, it’s not about the outfit that looks the best on the talent, it’s more about the outfit the works the best within the total concept of the campaign. It may have to do with the story that each garment is telling, or the color palette of the overall look. Unlike what the personal stylist is considering while shopping, the current trends may not matter, the cute heels aren’t speaking to the right demographic and the perfect fitting jacket that works beautifully with the story and fits the talent like a glove actually has a logo on it that hasn’t been approved by the legal team.

If you’re still with me after reading all of this I hope you can see that wardrobe styling and personal styling are two very different jobs. I think it would be hard to be really great at doing both types of styling. I have never dipped into personal styling because my interests lie in telling the story through the wardrobe. It is still important that I have an understanding of trends and fit, but I like the challenge of executing it within a larger concept. I also have no interest in “fixing” someone’s style. When I see someone who’s style is all over the place I take a mental note of what that is saying about that person. How to go about changing their look so that they feel great is not where my passion lies, it’s rather all about the stories we can tell through what we choose to wear.