the rise of the multi-talented multi-tasker

More than ever we see bright young talents show off a host of skills over honing a signature role. Is multi-tasking the only way to make a name for yourself in the creative industries today?

by Courtney Iseman
29 October 2014, 12:05pm

Michael Bailey Gates. From The Girls + Boys Issue, i-D No. 332, Pre-fall 2014

Think of your favorite writer, editor, designer, or model, and you can probably think of at least two other careers that person identifies with. Today's "Ones to Watch" lists now include bold-face names with titles like DJ/photographer/activist/curator - think of Alexa Chung, Derek Blasberg, Tavi Gevinson, Michael Bailey Gates, and James Franco. The Business of Fashion devoted its most recent print issue that debuted September 22nd to this new kind of celebrity, titled "Polymaths & Multitaskers." The issue spotlighted the likes of Karl Lagerfeld and Tim Blanks, people who have excelled in more than one industry. The question is, with so many players taking on different roles, can we hope to feel successful if we only dominate one career?

Polymaths have always been a factor in worlds like entertainment and fashion. Hip hop stars were doing it long before this multi-hyphenate boom: think of Jay-Z's Rocawear and Sean Combs's Sean John. Proof of the crossover fever is in Teri Agins's new book, Hijacking the Runway: How Celebrities are Stealing the Spotlight from Fashion Designers, in which the journalist tracked the rise of Hollywood starlets and singers from front row fans to competition. But in the last ten years, multi-hyphenate-dom has become a bona fide career path. Call it the Kardashian effect: workplace success is now about creating a brand for yourself, curating a portfolio of talents and projects instead of working toward a singular rise in a lone job.

With a new wave of professionals wanting to turn themselves into brands, new avenues for doing so continue to open up. Arenas created by the internet have made it even more appealing and easier to jump from one project to another. One day a girl is a model, then she's asked to guest edit a magazine, then an e-commerce site asks her to design a capsule collection.

What today's multi-hyphenates are selling is appealing. They seem to forge their own hybrid careers - and schedules - and live out creative whims (with an admirable work ethic and drive, of course) for lucrative results. We look up to them and how much they can take on. They've become our role models, perhaps gradually replacing those who only master one field.

It can be intimidating how early some of today's impressive achievers get started - perhaps that head start is what helps them reach polymath status. Not only do they quite literally have the extra years to do more, but they tend to tackle multiple projects without inhibition. They pick things up quickly and are excited to delve into more; it's not labored, it's natural. Michael Bailey Gates and Tavi Gevinson are prime examples. They took to the crafts that would make them famous because they wanted to, not because they needed to pay rent. They had time and energy. It's like how you did karate, ballet, piano and swimming when you were ten, but imagine if instead of that line-up, you did writing, photography and modeling.

Gates began posting his photography online at the age of thirteen, and it wasn't long before he was a sought-after artist. His introspective, honest work stood apart, as does his storytelling, especially in the characters he creates with friend and collaborator Claire Christerson. Gates jumps from stylist and designer to model to photographer. He envisions the stories for his work and sources the settings himself. He sometimes poses in his photos, and his modeling isn't just something that fuels his poignant photography. He has now modeled for the likes of DKNY and CK One. Gates represents his generation's view of success in art and fashion: he experiences it all, he is hands on, he creates all aspects himself, with a team or without. It is not about one single job, it's about forming a vision for who he is, almost like his own personal brand.

Similarly, the well-rounded Gevinson started flexing her creative muscles in a professional-quality sense at a young age. She was just eleven when she started her blog, Style Rookie. Gevinson was an overnight success who graced magazine covers and front rows. So why stop there? Gevinson wanted to do more and find stronger forms of expression. Opportunities started flowing in, each venture revealing a new talent. Gevinson covered Neil Young's Heart of Gold, she appeared in the movie "Enough Said" with James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and she's currently starring in the Broadway production of "This Is Our Youth" with Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin. All while she runs her online and print publication, Rookie.

Gevinson's friend, Petra Collins, is no slacker, either. The Canadian photographer and artist has strong views on embracing the natural beauty of the human body and sexuality. Instead of taking one vertical path to expressing her beliefs, she takes a horizontal approach, simultaneously working with several media. Collins's work is frequently shown, and she curates exhibits, herself, too. She casts for photographer Richard Kern and serves as a muse to Ryan McGinley. She has shot for magazines like Rolling Stone, Purple and i-D. She designed a controversial t-shirt line American Apparel, and is also a radio host on Collins's work is acclaimed worldwide, and she is often considered a force to be reckoned with even among those twice her age.

That's not to say you have to be young to be a smashingly successful multi-hyphenate - look at Business of Fashion's cover star, Karl Lagerfeld. Karl may be the original multi-tasker, designing for Fendi, Chanel, and various eponymous projects in addition to photographing endless campaigns and directing short films. Gates, Gevinson and Collins simply represent a new generation of polymaths being more the norm than the exception, and it's exciting to see how such a multi-tasker gets his or her start in real time. But professionals in all age ranges are taking advantage of this new freedom to explore multiple pursuits at once.

Caroline de Maigret was the name on everyone's lips this Fashion Month thanks to the release of her book How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are: Love, Style, and Bad Habits. De Maigret is also a model, having worked with the likes of Mario Testino and Terry Richardson and walked the runways of Balenciaga, Chanel and Marc Jacobs. She produces music with her rock label Bonus Tracks Records and publishing company Yarock Editions. As effortlessly chic as she is talented, she moves from idea to idea, career to career and back, maintaining a cohesive, almost branded approach to her passion projects.

Whether they're 19 or 40, these multi-hyphenates mark a change in the way we see career success. For generations, people have seen a success story as climbing the ladder in one role. But now, success can be continuing to find new ways to express yourself and to build your own brand. So is the old way completely outdated: can you be considered a success if you do want to take one path? At the end of the day, anything that involves you channeling ambition and creativity to meet a challenge is success. But today's multi-taskers certainly motivate us to do more, test our limits and see what else we can do. If climbing that ladder is your dream, you're free to climb, but it can be exciting to try new endeavors to build your own brand instead of sticking to one job.


Text Courtney Iseman
Photography Michael Bailey Gates. From The Girls + Boys Issue, i-D No. 332, Pre-fall 2014 

Michael Bailey Gates
CK One
courtney iseman
tim blanks