5 young nyc fashion creatives talk money, straight up

We speak to five 20-something photographers, designers, stylists, and editors to find out how much they make, how they spend it, and why they continue to work in a field that keeps them teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

by Emily Manning
Dec 7 2015, 5:05pm

Let's say you're a young, creative person trying to make it in New York's fashion world. To get hired full time, you need experience, which is primarily achieved through demanding internships that are rarely paid. To cover rent, food, utilities, transportation, and fun, you're probably holding down at least one other part time job, perhaps in addition to your college course schedule. You manage to graduate and land a full time offer! Six months later, you also get debt collectors asking for your first student loan payments. If you went to FIT -- a public institution within the State University of New York System -- that amount is still probably over $20,000.

Under conditions of relative anonymity, five 20-something creatives trying to sustain full time work in New York's punishingly fast paced fashion industry share their struggles, triumphs, and looming questions about the financial realities of life after graduation. How much money do they make and how do they make it? What do they spend it on and why? And is the City that Never Sleeps helping make their dreams come true, or making their lives a nightmare? Here, they sound off:


Zach, 24 years old, photographer

My name is Zach and I am a 24-year-old photographer working in e-commerce for a fashion company in downtown Manhattan. I attended the School of Visual Arts, and was lucky enough to graduate with only $10,000 in student loans, which is much less than most of my friends. Thanks to help from my parents, I will have finished paying them off in early 2016.

I began interning on my second day in NYC and was offered a job at my fourth internship. I worked part time while in school for two years, and then joined full time following my graduation. Initially, I was brought on as a retoucher working on a hourly rate before later becoming a full time photographer. I was expected to sign an agreement that said I would not freelance for any work that was not approved by the company. I found out later that I was not allowed to take any jobs that were for fashion companies or jobs that would want to post my work on social media. That led to me turning down freelance jobs that would have really helped me financially at the time, and some jobs that I would have had been excited to make a part of my portfolio. My contract has since been updated and I am allowed to freelance if the client is not a competitor. I have recently been able to find jobs that my full time job allows me to take (print jobs, food magazines, weddings), so I end up making around $11,000 extra a year in freelance. Most photographers will tell you that the most exciting jobs are rarely the highest paying ones, but we do them because the stories and images that will come out of the project are really worth it.

However, my rent living with one other roommate in the East Village is not cheap ($1,700), so sometimes I do depend on the freelance jobs to help me get ahead. I do have to admit that my parents still give me $60 a week to spend on groceries. I tried making the move to Bed-Stuy after graduation, where the rent was more affordable and I could handle all my finances on my own. But I found that after living in Manhattan for four years, Brooklyn wasn't for me. I'd rather pay more rent to live in a neighborhood that really inspires me. Plus, I rarely take the subway or late night cabs home anymore, so I've saved a little money there.

I do think about money a lot, but I do not completely blame my job for this; it's actually the social pressure I get from my friends that makes me think about money. Whether it financing their apartments, their art supplies or their drinks when we go out, most of it is still covered by their parents -- even the ones who are nearing 30. There are times when I would love to take a break from my job to "really get back to why I got into photography" and develop a long term project, but I'm not in the place to do that.

I'm hoping that as 25 approaches, I'll finally start having the willpower to stay inside and start a savings account, but my fear-of-missing-out and maturity level haven't gotten to that point yet. Ultimately, I'm still excited that I make my income at a job that excites me most of the time, and one that I dreamed about having before I moved here.


Martina, 27 years old, designer

My name is Martina and I'm 27 years old. I'm a fashion designer working three jobs: I'm part-time with a designer in Manhattan, I supply a print agency with artwork, and I run my own brand. I went to college and studied fashion design in my home country. The great thing about Sweden, where I'm from originally, is most education is free, so I only had to take out student loans for my living expenses. At the moment I'm not paying them off at all, though, as I don't make enough money to reach the limit where I'm expected to. I have about $36,000 in debt from four years of studies.

I started pursuing fashion eight years ago and worked for roughly two of them without any pay -- mostly doing internships. But at the moment, I have less of an income than ever. After all my bills are paid, I have about $450 to live on each month, but that needs to cover food and any unexpected expenses. I've borrowed some money from my parents to pay for healthcare insurance for the year. I think about money every single day; there is no wiggle room at all in my budget, which is very taxing mentally. The smallest thing will give me financial anxiety, like realizing I need new socks.

I chose my part time job because the company agreed to be my visa sponsor. I paid for the expensive process and lawyer fees myself, but now I can stay in the country for three years if I stay with this company. My boss is very aware of this, and I believe that's why my salary is a joke. I make about $12/h (after tax), without benefits. I run the entire development program at this company, creating all original print, embellishment production and packaging design. I'm also running all the errands, lugging giant fabric rolls around Midtown or picking up garments from shoots. If it wasn't the one thing making sure I can stay in New York, I wouldn't be working there.

As for my own brand, I put all money that comes into it back to the company to make sure it is always growing, even if it's at a glacial speed. In terms of press, the brand is doing great. I've won reputable awards and been interviewed in great magazines, like Italian Vogue. But because there's not enough money to properly cover production at the moment, I end up having to decline so many opportunities that I'm met with, especially when it comes to stores wanting to carry my line. Next year, I will have gotten to a point where I can seriously start looking for an investor; I've already had people reach out.

New York is the root of my financial stress, but also the cure for it. Everything here is expensive, and everyone is trying to get a leg up. But at the same time, things here happen so fast. It's because I decided to start my brand here that I am constantly offered opportunities to grow; I'm never creatively stagnant here. But one thing I can live without is the assumption that young creative people can work for exposure. It sickens me how often this is offered as a compensation. I've gotten great exposure for years and it takes a long time before that translates into substantial income.


Jackie, 25 years old, stylist

My name is Jackie. I am 25-years-old and living in Brooklyn. I graduated three years ago from a private art school with a BFA in Fashion Design. Because of the generosity of my parents and holding various jobs the entirety of my five years in college, I fortunately do not have any student loans. Which is great, since fashion is notorious for paying nothing, unless you work for a big commercial brand designing tech packs on illustrator all day, which was never really my thing. I've always preferred to work at smaller companies where I feel I have more creative freedom and I'm able to work with my hands.

I was lucky to find a career immediately following graduation due to lots of sweet talking and preparation while I was in school (not to mention countless unpaid internships). I currently work for a small company where I am the only stylist, making just under $40,000 a year, with a workload that increases daily. Of that $40,000, I pay $750 a month plus utilities to live with three other people in a four bedroom in Bed-Stuy. In addition to my apartment rent, I pay $375 per month for a studio (also in Bed-Stuy) that houses my sewing and design studio, and allows me to have a side hustle doing design and tailoring. After taxes and insurance, my two rents take up over half of what I make a month. I bike almost everywhere to avoid paying the $6 it would cost to commute on the subway. Money, or the lack of it, is always on my mind.

At the same time, I have no problem putting what little money I have into love projects or creative endeavors that make me feel fulfilled. The majority of the money I make that doesn't go towards food and rent goes towards fabric and supplies. I have to make something every day in order to feel sane, and unfortunately, I have expensive taste. One thing I've never been able to sacrifice is the materials that I use.

There are many crippling aspects to being a creative person in New York. You feel expendable at your creative jobs, constantly reminded that there is always someone hungrier than you and who is willing to do your work for less. And at 25, I often feel too old. I'm surrounded by 19-year-old hypebeasts with 60k followers on Instagram and nothing interesting to say. It is part of my job description to know who they are and often times, to hire them. If we can afford their rates, that is.


Angelo, 22 years old, editor

My name's Angelo. I'm 22-years-old and a staff writer for a men's fashion and lifestyle magazine, mostly dealing in digital content production. This past May, I graduated from a private liberal arts college in Manhattan, where I majored in Cultural Studies. Through the grace of large federal grants, I graduated loan-free and was offered my position almost immediately. A popular myth is that being a "writer" equates to a severe scarcity of full-time career opportunities and should you happen upon one, to be grateful for whatever meager compensation is allotted. Right now, I earn just under $35,000, so I supplement my income with odd freelance copywriting jobs for giant brands, typically completed on weekends or at night. I live with my cousin and his girlfriend in Greenpoint. Though my rent ($1,200) and utilities (around $150) consume over half of my monthly income, our large and bright space keeps me mentally sane. I tried living in a closet in Crown Heights and while it worked for a while, I'm happy I could scrape resources together to upgrade. I bike, skateboard, or hitch rides from my neighbors to save money on transportation.

Before graduating, I really struggled to keep my head above water. I had great, yet unpaid, internship opportunities that eventually turned into freelance jobs, but I don't even want to tally how many of those pieces were written on spec -- it's not only depressing, it's infuriating. But this is the first year in my life which I haven't had to worry about whether lunch would be my only meal, I've started treating myself to take out and mixed drinks rather than the cheapest beer at the bar. I'm confident I'll become more financially responsible as this post grad novelty wears off. I've done it before and if times get tough, I can do it again.

I haven't experienced it yet, but many friends who are also editors in New York have told me that their salaries don't bother them as much as their workloads do. Just like fast fashion has exhausted many designers and taken a toll on their creativity, clickbait culture seems to be doing the same to lots of writers. I don't think New York's insanely fast pace and dog-eat-dog mentality helps either.


Jenny, 23 years old, public relations

My name is Jenny, I'm 23 years old, and I'm a public relations assistant at a consulting and production agency specializing in fashion and luxury. I've been paying off my student loans for a year now and still have about $44,000 of debt. My bank has been flexible, so right now that expense is about $250 each month.

While I was still in school, I did a few internships working in internal PR for various brands -- some smaller, some more established. While I enjoyed working for the independent labels because I was responsible for a wider host of tasks and learned a lot doing them, I ultimately felt responsible for too much at the company even as an intern and decided to apply for full time positions at agencies. I've been with my current employer for almost one year, and I'm making $35,000. Negotiating and my high loans helped me hit this number, as I was offered $30,000 and lower at two other agencies. I've thought about getting a weekend job for supplemental income, and could really use that money, but I guess I've been dragging my feet.

I've lived in Bushwick off the Montrose stop after just one semester of overpriced student housing, so it's been almost four years. My one roommate and I each pay $950 for rent each month because the building meets rent stabilization guidelines and our rent can only be raised between 1-2% each year. It was a huge factor in choosing this building, and is probably the reason we've been able to stay while more of our friends seem to be packing up for Ridgewood. I cook pretty much everything at home to save money. My grocery bill is about $200 each time I shop, but I'm very conscious about what it's spent on, so I only shop about once every three weeks or month. Utilities are about $150 for each of us, but unfortunately, the heating in this building isn't great, so our electricity bill is higher in the winter.

Lots of my friends wonder if I find myself spending lots of money to keep up with my job. Fortunately, my agency has always been great about making the expense process for dinners, drinks, or events relatively easy. I find the most pressure on my wardrobe -- there are so many people my age working in this field who always seem to have things from the current season. I try to wisely invest in a few work pieces where I can, but the pressure to look put together weighs more heavily on me than I'd like to admit. 


Text Emily Manning
Image via Wikimedia Commons

creatives talk money