true fashion stories: a stylist gets candid
On breaking into styling
I studied womenswear design. I think at that age it's so difficult to know what you want to do. And doing womenswear at the university I went to -- it’s a very weird environment. They kind of want you to be a certain person. So, I wasn't enjoying the course and in my second year I deferred, keeping it open, but I sort of knew I wouldn't go back. I thought about doing an accessories degree, and a bunch of other things. I really was quite open. I was working in a bar, and another girl who worked there was a fashion assistant. Then she then got a job as an assistant to [a successful stylist we’ll call Robin] And she was like, why don't you just come and intern. To be honest, because of where I studied I thought -- they kind of had the attitude that any other job in fashion besides designing was just a bit like... ‘What are you doing?’ But I met Robin and it instantly clicked. Robin’s whole process is really similar to everything that I loved about design. The research, building up a character, but without the technical development of creating garments. So, I interned with Robin for six months. It was the old-school mentality where you’re supposed to work for free until you get a position. It was totally unpaid, just travel was covered. I lived at home and worked at a bar. I was really lucky that my parents lived in London because I couldn’t have afforded rent.
After a while there was talk of me becoming Robin’s second assistant, but I didn't really even know what styling was and I didn't want to fully commit to it. Then, I got offered a job in design at a major label so I took it. But after seven months I hated it. So, I left. I went back to the bar and I assisted one music stylist occasionally.
Landing an assistant job
Then I heard that Robin was looking for a full-time second assistant and I just knew that's what I wanted to do. So, I hounded. I would call, I would text, I'd send emails. Looking at it now, it was actually a little bit much. It was actually on the advice of the first girl that got me the internship. I was in my early 20s and it seemed inappropriate but this girl convinced me I had to do it if I really wanted it. And I think her first assistant there at the time was just like, just fucking get her in, she's not going to give up.
I got on really well with the first assistant and within three months I was employed. Those three months interning again were unpaid, it was just travel. And then when I was paid initially -- it was a full-time, second assistant role -- I got around £600 a month. So I still had to work at the pub on the weekend. Then as my role sort of got bigger Robin realised that I needed to not work at the pub because we were shooting on the weekends. Towards the end of being a second assistant I got £1000 a month.
Becoming first assistant
Then the other girl left and I took over as first assistant. And with advertising money on top I would say my monthly rate doubled. Then I got a pay rise within two years. So I was actually earning decent money by the end. First assistant would always get first dibs on advertising work. But then if there was an editorial on and I really needed to be on top of it and be in the office, then the second assistant would go and we would split the rate, I would still get a bit of it. Because I was devoting all of my time to the stylist.
As first assistant I was in charge of all of the looks for the shoots, just sort of being the right hand, travelling everywhere. Second assistant is quite liberating. Because you can be a kind of project manager. You can get things made, things customised, things commissioned. The first assistant role -- the looks that you call in... there's a lot more pressure on the first assistant to perform, you have to have the clothes that the stylist wants. And the second assistant kind of supports the first as well. The first will delegate things that they can't quite manage.
The added pressures of the job
Assisting can also mean being an emotional support for your boss. Then you've got to do your job anyway. And it's more than a full-time job. You've got to be this sort of emotional sponge. But that changes depending on the person you work for. Like, I know another top stylist who's not like that, who leaves set and says bye to the assistant, but that stylist is also horrifically demanding. But with Robin, and I think that this was our particular relationship -- and I think that there was obviously a reason for that because we were so close. And we still are close. But they're under a lot of pressure, a lot of stress, because of the role and trying to stay relevant and all of the insecurities that go with this position.
Going out on my own
I probably started testing and doing my own small shoots within a year of being first assistant. Robin was always very supportive, going up to photographers on set and asking if they knew people I could test with. Then I found someone who the stylist felt comfortable having take over my role. Robin could sense my frustration two years before I left. But I didn't want to leave before I found somebody they were happy with.
Just after I went out on my own I landed a regular gig, kind of glorified ecomm work. Helping with all the lookbooks and stuff like that. It was a complete saving grace because that covered my rent. And I had about £7000 saved when I started out. But then that also had to go towards my tax bills. If it wasn't for that regular work I probably would've earned like ten grand for the whole year, I’d have been fucked. I would've had to move back home. I was incredibly lucky.
I do about one advertising job and one editorial a month on average. Sometimes you won't have anything for a month and then it will be really crazy the following month. It's so unpredictable. But now that the seasons -- you've got pre shows and all of that, then there's so much online presence, there's not really that break anymore. So, I feel like there really is even more work for us. There seems to be something each month.
Getting an agent
In terms of how much I spend on an editorial, with couriers and shipping it can easily be a grand. I mean, I've just spent £300 on shipping for a shoot that hasn't even happened. And that was just two designers.
I don’t have an assistant as I can’t afford to pay one, and I also quite like doing everything myself. I’ve occasionally used one for big shoots. Once I found a girl on an Facebook group for styling assistants and it turned into a nightmare, she literally disappeared with a Molly Goddard dress.
I have an agent now, and they take 40 percent of my rate. I feel so embarrassed sometimes when they propose a day rate and it's like two grand… To the outside world it seems like such a preposterous amount of money. But then everything's relative because you pay so much for editorials. That has to last me for a whole month. But no one gets that much money all the time. Plus you have to produce editorial to advertise yourself so that those people are interested.
Having an agent has been massively helpful. I mean, it just gives you a platform. And it was the perfect time as well. Because otherwise a lot of people just kind of sink a little bit, you just get swallowed up and nobody really notices you. You have to time it quite well because you don't want to go straight to an agency. But I'd been talking to them for over a year and it seemed right. You really have to be quite calculated with your steps -- who you shoot with, who you shoot for, at what point you should join your agency. If you make the wrong decision with an agency and go with a really commercial one, all of a sudden you're pigeonholed. The kinds of clients you want to work with won't approach that agency. So you have to be really careful about where you go. And I was just lucky that they were really interested in me, I guess.