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.

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.

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 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 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.