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.