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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.