Where You Are, Using What You Have
I’ve read all the books and let me save you some time, the most definitive recommendation for success is: Start right now, Where you are, With what you have.
You’ve probably heard this advice before in one form or another: That there is no better time than now, There will never be perfect conditions to begin, so begin now imperfectly, Just start somewhere and start today.
The advice is true, I know because I took it, and it worked.
‘Just get started’ is clear and concise advice but how to get started is not so clear; a daunting task when you have no idea where to start.
Here are three “hints” on how to get started now, where you are, using what you have available to you. Everything included in these recommendations is accessible and doable. It may take some courage and some self starting, both traits that you’ll need to succeed as a stylist anyways, but these are actionable steps that can be taken right now, wherever you are.
I know these recommendations work to get the ball rolling, because I did them myself when I had nothing available to me but an internet connection, a closet full of clothes and a vision of what I was working towards.
Use what you have
So you have a thing for fashion right? Probably means you have some pretty great finds in your closet right now aka a closet full of potential looks for a shoot. You may even have friends who wear clothes aka more clothing for a potential shoot. There are also previously worn designer boutiques, vintage stores and second hand shops in existence, heck there are even garage sales and The Salvation Army, all treasure troves of original and affordable accessible pieces. Maybe you can’t pull from Prada Showrooms yet, but you can study and imitate the mood, the attention to detail and the style of a Prada campaign using what you have or can find.
Do not make the mistake of thinking everything HAS to be designer, from the best showrooms and with the highest price tags, to begin. Thinking this will just make it harder for you to get started since you’ll first have to overcome the mental block of not having the best of everything. No stylist begins with “The Best of Everything”.
“Think beyond what the garment is and look to what it can be”
Finding special pieces is one of the most enjoyable aspects of styling (stylists are often on a scavenger hunt for unique pieces for projects and clients) and being creative with what you have so, making it look different than how everyone else is wearing it, is actually what the job entails (you are styling your clients after all, not dressing them).
So take solace in knowing that when you discover editorial looking finds from your local second hand store, it doesn’t make you a second rate stylist, you’re honing in on your stylist eye and using original pieces that other people don’t have. Heck, fashion repeats itself, so odds are you’ll be able to find something second hand that feels right now.
Starting with what you have available to you will mean that you will learn to use to your advantage what you can get, which, as you will learn, is an important skill no matter what level of stylist you are (when every stylist is vying for the top showroom looks and not every stylist will secure them).
“It’s not about what you have,
it’s about how you use it. “
Find interesting ways to use things. If you have “just a shirt” cut it into a crop top, button it differently, put it on backwards, layer it or use a shirt as a skirt; it’s not about what you have, it’s about how you use it.
Think beyond what the garment is and look to what it can be. Building an incredibly creative look will garner you attention from fellow artists and creators that will see your ability and want to work with you. It will garner the attention of potential clients. It will get the ball rolling when you don’t know where to start, and it will be FUN.
After all, you are getting into this whole fashion thing for your ideas, so use them.
Create with who you know (or who you can quickly get to know)
Do you have friends who will model for you? Maybe Gigi Hadid isn’t your bff, but these humble beginnings are where most of us started.
Sophia Amaruso, founder of #GIRLBOSS and Nasty Gal, began her multi million dollar ascent by paying everyday girls, not professional models, in hamburger lunches, to have pictures taken of them wearing vintage finds for her EBAY store that eventually went on to become the retail giant that was Nasty Gal. She needed images to better sell her clothing and the soon to be models needed practice in front of a camera and photos to snag the attention of a potential agent. Some of them probably did it for a cool profile pic and a free lunch; either way, it worked for both of them, everyone got images that moved them forward in their careers (or dating profiles).
And it signifies a powerful reminder that great things come from humble beginnings.
My first personal portfolio photo shoot was with a team I found after posting an ad on Craig’s List, looking for fellow creatives to collaborate with, and investing $300 into a studio rental for the day. I used all of my own clothing and garments that I could borrow from the boutique I worked at at the time. I drove almost 3 hours to the rental sbtudio, bringing the makeup artist with me who lived in the same city as I did, and props that I had created and sourced myself (I had stayed up the previous night re-upholstering a chair in almost the exact same patterned fabric as a dress I was using, an idea that I had for one of the shots).
The pictures from that shoot (I only received four final images from the photographer of that shoot which is another story entirely) I later showed to a photographer who I had been vying to work with. The vied photographer, who said yes, agreed to work together only because I had something to show her, an example of my styling. If I didn’t have even one image to show, I would never have gotten an experienced photographer to agree to work with me; to invest their time, their equipment and their expertise and to trust me to show up and deliver.
The images that you have in your portfolio are proof that you are worth the time.
As a result, the project created with this photographer, later went on to catch the attention of a model agent who came across the images on Instagram. The agent had just opened her own agency and was looking for stylists to work with to develop her model’s portfolios; she reached out to me directly.
This quickly landed me smack dab in the middle of the industry as a freelance stylist with access to models and creative teams that could help further develop my portfolio. And in return, I would be helping to build theirs. I wasn’t making a lot of money, but I was making a lot of connections and gaining the experience and portfolio images that would eventually lead me to the money.
This agent also always had extra invites to major industry events which she often pushed my way; I attended every event and show (whether it sounded like my cup or tea or not) to make my own connections in the industry within the city I wanted to work. As a result, I started to get personal email invites to designer showings and my access to better quality garments to pull from shoots began.
The images that you have in your portfolio are proof that you are worth their time.
At the time, I still had a long way to go (I still do in many ways) but, this is proof that humble beginnings and a motivation to use whatever is available to you at the time, can lead to momentous starts.
Network where you are
You don’t have to be in the Big City to have Big City dreams and ideas (although odds are you will need to relocate to one if you want to sustain a career as a stylist). I wasn’t living in a fashion hub when I started; 3 hours away from downtown, I didn’t even live in the suburbs.
But wherever you are, there are others with similar interests and big city dreams, and it’s easier to find them than you may think.
Back when I started, Instagram wasn’t the powerhouse of networking that it is today, and I still had yet to meet an actual ‘stylist’, so I took out ads in Kijiji and Craig’s List to find my tribe (I know, it’s hard to believe) of creatives also looking to gain experience.
But searching demographically on Instagram can reveal potential collaborators.
At first you’ll be working with creatives from your own skill level (reality check, you’re just starting out so don’t reach out to uber established artists) which makes total sense. There will be a learning curve, because everyone is at the beginning of their learning (Note: Artists never really stop learning, they just keep on building on what they know, when you make it to a certain level, there is always a next level to aspire to).
Be realistic with where you are while remaining confident that you are moving towards where you want to be.
Try not to be frustrated with the first round of final imagery as you’re in this phase; what you’re gaining in skills and self awareness will inevitably take you to the next level.
Also, don’t be disappointed if you reach out to your favourite photographer and don’t hear back, I’m still waiting on Steven Meisel to answer my DMs. Be realistic with where you are while remaining confident that you are moving towards where you want to be.
As I mentioned before, I started with an ad looking for fellow creatives in the local classifieds, but now, in the age of social media, there are loads of accessible ways to reach out to potential collaborators.
Start where you are with who you can collaborate with.
Find out what schools in your area offer creative courses
Search for post secondary schools, colleges and universities in your area and what creative courses they offer, such as: fashion design, photography, makeup / hair and fashion merchandising. Within schools, the future generation of designers, image makers, artists, photographers, set designers and creatives are working, and want to share their unique talents and work with the world as well.
You’re looking for them and they’re looking for you.
Follow creative and design schools on social media and their tags; the school and students often post work and final projects and the results can be incredibly impressive. Fashion design schools have final projects that walk down a runway and take hours of intensive labour to create using thousands of dollars worth of exotic fabrics and threads. With such an investment of time and money, the designers want images of their creations.
When you see something that inspires you, reach out to the creator and be transparent with them that you are looking to gain experience styling and create with like minded people to produce images for your portfolio. Students are also looking to do the same.
Find out who the instructors and professors are of the creative courses and send an email introducing yourself; for instance, that you would like to collaborate with photography students to mutually build your portfolios. Or that you are a junior stylist looking to borrow garments from fashion design students in exchange for images of their designs. While I was in Fashion Design school, there would be many inquiries from outside the facility about collaborative creative endeavors which the faculty would pass onto us through a course wide email.
If you’re feeling old school, pin up a wanted ad on the bulletin board at the arts school in your area, reading: CREATIVES WANTED: Fashion Stylist looking for photographer (or makeup artist, hair stylist, etc etc) to collaborate with on ongoing projects TFP (trade for photos) with your contact information.
Trust me when I say the old fashioned bulletin board approach still works. A friend of mine, a professor at OCAD, wanted students to know about my Starting Out As A Stylist course and offered to pin up a poster on the hallway bulletin board; I had people contact me within minutes of the poster being displayed.
Schools are also a great place to start since everyone is at their beginning, no matter their age or innate ability, so you can come up as artists and professionals together. Some of the best ongoing personal and professional relationships I have were started while in studying fashion design with fellow students who knew as little as I did at the time.
Locate local designers and boutiques
Search out local designers in your area willing to lend garments in exchange for images of them that they can then use to create brand awareness. Search geographically and for hashtags to target specific areas and styles on Instagram. You can DM, but email as well and always be professional in your correspondence, giving the designers clear outlines of when their garments will be returned and assure them that they will be returned in the same condition that they were loaned. Gaining trust is imperative to long term relationships, and designers will be more likely to make the loan when they are given all of the details up front.
Often there is only one sample, and for boutiques, they plan on selling the garment after the shoot, so it is imperative to ensure loaners there will not be losses on their end.
And keep to your word; if you say you will bring it back on Tuesday at 3pm, bring it back on Tuesday by 3pm. And if it got wrecked during the shoot, offer to have it cleaned or replaced. Integrity is integral to the job.
In the beginning stages of your portfolio building, the images you produce will not look like a Prada campaign (surprise, surprise) but, some designers and retailers may try to use them like they are a campaign anyways, especially if they are new themselves and either don’t know the unspoken rules of collaborating or just want a free campaign. It’s important to note with collaborators that loan you garments that the images produced are intended for ‘brand awareness’, to post on social media or the likes, they are not to be used in a campaign or as part of an online store, as images used for these purposes should be paid for.
Otherwise, if you’re working with an agency represented model for your unpublished creative shoot, and the brand goes and prints out those images for a billboard promoting their store, that agency may come calling for money, and they’ll be calling the creative team (that’s you).
Plus, you would essentially be doing what should be paid work for free. If a designer or store decides that they like the images enough to use them for this purpose, then an agreement should be made.
Collaborating for content to be shared on social media is a great way to create work for portfolios and awareness, but if it starts to move in a different direction, like towards using the imagery for advertising, circumstances change and money should start changing hands.
If you can’t find a model, try using an influencer
But first, try finding a model.
If you want to be in fashion, working with represented models is ideal; although it seems like influencers are taking over the scene, models are still trump in the industry and hired most often for fashion and advertising jobs.
Working with a signed models (who work differently than actors, who work differently than recording artists, who work differently than influencers) can be more accessible than you think. There are many new faces – as new to modeling as you are to styling – who need both practice and images for their portfolio (hellloooo you too).
Take a look online at the modeling agencies in your area or in the city that you want to work in. There is typically a ‘New Face’ section housing all of the recently signed models. Check it out. Now check out the contact us section, there is typically a person or persons in charge of new face bookings. This is the person to contact. First, make sure that you have a specific reason for contacting them, such as a particular project, with a moodboard and a creative team (or at the very least a photographer if the rest of the team is TBA).
Be professional, have proposed dates for your shoot, and proposed locations. After all, this agent is sending their client to work with a stranger, so it’s important to remember this as you provide as many details as possible.
There’s a good chance you hear back from an agent about available faces for your project (you can also have the photographer reach out and work with the agent on details which is very common).
Every month I receive packages from top modeling agencies in my city with ‘who’s in town’ (models move around cities a lot) in case I need a face for an upcoming project, and that’s without me even reaching out or asking, because, agents want their models to have a continuous stream of new work.
As you build your relationships and portfolio with examples of what you can do to transform a model in images, model agents may start to reach out to you as well.
If you can’t find a model, or are too shy to reach out to a modeling agency at the moment, reach out to a local influencer who is looking to grow their following and has a similar aesthetic to what you are looking to create. They may even be great at doing their own hair and / or makeup which can make finding a full creative team easier (just you, them and a photographer).
But stylist beware, too many influencer collaborations will start veering you away from professional styling, which requires a different aesthetic and set of skills.
Gain experience and some portfolio photos but don’t stay in the influencer sphere, which is not at the level of industry standard you will be expected to have for the jobs you want.
Influencing is part of the marketing aspect of the industry, and although intertwined, is very different from creating imagery for the fashion and advertising world. Use it as a means to gain experience, not just in building looks but in working with different personalities and body types, and to highlight different aspects of the story for different reasons, but not as a means to an end.
To be a professional fashion stylist, you will have to go beyond the online world of influencing.
You don’t need super models, high end designer showroom access or an angel investor to get started.
You just need you, someone you know and someone you’re about to know.