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 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.
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.
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.