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.

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.

TESTING FOR YOUR PORTFOLIO

Testing means that you’re putting together a shoot with the intentions of creating work that you want to show on your website. You’re using your own money and time to collaborate with a crew to hopefully come out with an image or video you are excited to share. But here’s the kicker, it will cost you money and there’s a good chance you’ll walk away with images you won’t want to use in your portfolio.

When you’re starting out, it will be tempting to say yes to every photographer that is looking to collaborate. It’s important that you build your book and make connections, but it’s not always worth the time and effort it takes to test. The person you collaborate with either has to be a sure fire bet that you’re going to get an awesome image or that they get enough work that they’ll hire you in the future. If you’re not going to get one of those things, it’s not worth putting the cost of the clothing on your credit, risking that the clothing can’t be returned, and spending your valuable time on 3 days of work with nothing to show for it in the end. Make sure you know what you’re jumping into or else you’ll lose money, time and energy.

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.

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.

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.