Here, I’ve compiled a list of information that I wish was available to me when I was in the beginning stages of my career. I will take you from start to finish through what styling entails, how to prep for a job, navigate a set, and build your career as a stylist. Below, the list contains my best advice, and all the hidden information no one tells you until you’re on set. Based on hands-on experience, my hope is that you can learn from both my successes and failures.
First Things First
You’re Hired! …Now What?
Obtain a Clear Vision From Your Client
You’ll want to know exactly what your client’s needs and expectations are. If they don’t explain their vision with a creative brief right off the bat, it’s your job to ask. Some relevant questions may include, “What’s your budget?”, “Where is the location of the shoot?”, “What is the style inspiration?”, “How many models will there be?”, “What are the models’ sizes?”. Determining which questions to ask, will depend on your job circumstances. The relevant questions should come natural to you.
Obtain the Budget/Funding
On a commercial shoot, the client will have a budget in mind for what they have/want to spend on props and wardrobe. You’ll need to manage that budget wisely, as you don’t want to miscalculate (really easy to do when shopping) and run over your limit. If you consistently go over a clients budget, they probably won’t ask you back again. Sometimes, the client can provide you with an “advance” on the budget, so always be sure to ask if there is one available. Other times, the client expects you to finance the stylistic aspect of the shoot by bringing items with no advance (see below for more info on how to manage this). Keep your receipts, because after the shoot is over, you’ll need to provide an accounting to the client on where the budget has been spent, included in your invoice, or you may also need to return purchased items.
Create a Shopping Plan
Based on your needs, you’ll need to make a shopping plan and “prep schedule”, containing lists of retailers or prop houses you’ll need to visit. Over time, as you visit more stores and towns, you can compile a list of “go-to” resources. I have a binder filled with business cards and brochures from the various stores I’ve visited - and they’re all organized by state. This way, I have an enormous list of resources available to me when I need an obscure “special something” the client is requesting, with all the information at my finger tips. Once I’ve compiled a list of store’s I know I’ll need to visit, then I usually hop on the computer and start mapping a route. I’ll “bunch” my stores into categories by town, and then map my route accordingly.
Shopping For Photo Shoots:
There are lots of ways to procure garments, accessories and shoes for a photo shoot, runway show, or event. Let’s explore them!
Work With the Retailer Directly
This is my favorite way to go about getting the necessary clothing or props I’ll need for the client I’m working with. The type of shoot or project you’re working on will determine what retailers you’d like to ideally work with. First things first, you connect with the manager at that store. Give the manager as much info about your project as you can, and make your request. If the shoot or client you’re working with can offer the retailer substantial exposure, than the retailer is usually happy to loan the items to the stylist, free of charge. If the nature of the project is commercial, or you can’t provide brand exposure, generally the retailer will ask for a rental fee, which is anywhere from 10-20% of what the garment costs. Usually there is a budget from the client, which you can use to cover this fee.
Obtain a Pull Letter
If you’re working with a publication on a shoot, you can request the publication provide you with an “pull letter” (sometimes called a Letter of Responsibility) which usually states the intentions of publication, relevant details and promises financial or other responsibility on any loaned items.
Buy, Then Return
This is a very common practice among stylists, although it has it's negative side. Buy/Return is when a stylist is an anonymous shopper who purchases what they need for a shoot, uses it at the shoot, either on the model, or as an “option” to the client, then returns the item back to the store after use. For obvious reasons, this is a controversial method of providing your client with options, although it’s useful in a pinch (when you don’t have enough lead time to connect with store managers) or when you need to shop from specific brands. I generally avoid using this method. It’s ultimately costly to the stylist (credit card fees) and I personally think it’s in poor taste to treat the retailers like a rental service, unbeknownst to them. This practice is also generally frowned upon by retailers and it’s common for stylist to be “banned” from stores, so if you use it, be stealthy.
One of my favorite options. Look up prop rentals, or antique stores in your area and they often have what you need for prop heavy shoots. Renting isn’t so practical for fashion editorials because editorials require current retailers’ products (unless you need lots of props for your concept), however it’s beneficial for every stylist to build a repertoire with a prop house or local antique dealer, as you NEVER know what you’ll be called upon to acquire next. Of course, always take really good care of your rentals, as you’ll want to keep your relationship with your renters positive, and you also don’t want to pay for damaged, lost or stolen items out of pocket.
Unless you can self-fund your client’s pull requests out of pocket, you’ll probably need credit cards to manage purchases on items you’re obtaining before a shoot. If you haven’t received an advance from the client, a credit card is your access to being able to move forward with the shoot, without affecting your personal fiances (too much). You can buy items with your credit card, complete the shoot, return any unused items, then bill the client for the remaining balance and, finally, pay off your card. Usually by the time this process is finished, there is an interest fee on your card, however, you can write this off on your taxes.
Prepping for the Shoot!
Your big day on set is coming up - How do you prepare?
Make a List - Check it Twice
What your list entails, will depend on the shoot you’re working on, but I generally find lists to be really handy in keeping all my information and thoughts organized, so I don’t forget anything in the process of prepping. I have a notebook dedicated to this, as well as plastic zip file-folders you can find at any office supply store, to keep receipts, tags and other necessary paperwork items in.
Organizing Your Merchandise
So, you’ve acquired all the necessary items your client requested, or are listed on the shot list. Now what? You’ll need to organize all these items, so you can be efficient and prepared the day of the shoot. You’ll want to know where ‘X’ item is right away, so you’re ready when the client asks for it. You’ll also want to think about packing/unpacking your items, and timeliness in getting your shot together, as to not hold up the shooting schedule. No pressure, right?! There are plenty of ways to organize your items, and ultimately it depends on the circumstances of your particular shooting schedule and environment. Some ways you could organize may include:
By shot list
By shooting schedule
By item type/category
By price range
Your Styling Kit
This is super important - you’ll need a styling kit. This is essentially your ‘tool box’ of necessary items to make your life easier on set and to ensure you have the proper tools to defy the laws of physics in a shot. What your kit is stocked with will depend on what type of styling your focus lies in. It’s usually compiled together in a suitcase or tool bag of some sort and is easy to carry and transport to and from locations (suitcases with wheels are a nice option). You should have a variety of options to choose from in your kit, meaning: you should be stocked with more than one tape option - you’ll want everything from Scotch, to Packing, to Carpet, to Fashion, to Aluminium, to Hem tape. You can Google ‘stylist kit’ for ideas, but to get you started, some things I carry in my kit include (and you’ll build as you go):
A steamer. Jiffy is the best. I found mine on Amazon.
Tape of all kinds (above are some starters), especially fashion tape.
Scissors of all sizes, and specialty varieties.
Safety pins, straight pins, T-pins, dressmaker pins, all the pin varieties!
Clips & clamps. Small to large, you’ll need a variety. I get mine from Home Depot.
Sewing needles & thread color variety
Glue & spray glue
Pencils, pens, brushes (variety of sizes)
Mini hammer/drill/basic tools
Pack Your Car
Although I’ve been somehow managing to work in this industry with a Mini Cooper , I would suggest a larger vehicle, it’ll make your life easier! I usually pack my car the night before a shoot. Most of the time, you’ll need to be on set early in the morning and you don’t want to be rushing around the morning before the shoot, frazzled, forgetting something, or worse - late!
This is the document sent over by the client or photographer, containing all the relevant information you’ll need for the shoot. It usually comes a couple days, or the day, before the shoot, and tells you who/what/when/where/how. You’ll need to most likely map out your route the night before, as most stylist are working in ever-changing locations around the town & country, so unless you’ve already been there, make sure you’re giving yourself enough time to commute.
The Big Day.
The 101’s of Being On Set
Be on Time
Actually, be early. There’s a saying in the industry “if you’re on time, you’re 15 minutes late”. You don’t want to be the reason the shoot goes later than it should or the schedule is off. Being late actually costs your client money in overtime fees. Be respectful and show the client you have what it takes to be organized, trustworthy and responsible. This seems like a no-brainer, but it happens.
If you’re lucky and working with a large client, you may have an assistant (or two). This is where leadership and delegation skills come in handy. This is also where it helps to pre-plan your shoot in advance, so you can have foresight into some tasks your assistants can complete. Your assistants can do any number of things for you and are there to lighten the load and make your job easier and help the shoot run smoothly. Over time, you may want to work with the same assistants again, because it’s actually pretty hard to find reliable helpers. I started in the industry, assisting professionals and it was a great education, while also allowing me to freelance full time. A commercial assistant rate in Boston is $350 per day, so it’s also a great source of income for a beginner or anyone building their career.
Be Organized & Ready to Go
See above (prepping) for more info. The goal is essentially to be ready to unpack your items with ease, in an organized manner. You’ll most likely be assigned a designated spot for styling, and you may need to set up tables, changing spaces, clothing racks, etc.
Be Receptive to the Client & Team’s Ideas
You’re getting paid to execute someone else’s vision. Be receptive and work with what they’ve given you. You can voice your opinion - you’re the expert and they’ve hired you for your input, however, make sure you’re flexible and free of expectations as to how the shot should look, or go. Ultimately, it's not up to you to make the final decision on a paid shoot, so you have to be prepared for it to not go ‘your way’.
Be Attentive on Set
You should be just off-camera at all times, checking the shots and making sure there’s nothing “off” about what’s happening in the set. Do you see dust? Is the model’s collar flipped up strangely? Is there a tag hanging off your product? Is the bow on the present uneven? These are just a couple of examples, but essentially anything can go wrong on a set and you want to make sure you’re ready to fix it. Sometimes these ‘minor’ flaws can be immensely distracting when an image is displayed billboard sized. You’ll also want to be attentive to the what the client is saying and anticipate needs before they’re even expressed them.
Keep Track of Credits/Merchandise
Most likely there will be multiple shots in a day - anywhere from 5-12 on average. You’ll be moving a lot of merchandise throughout the day, and you’ll want to keep track of everything diligently, otherwise you may end up paying for things out of pocket. This is an easier process when you have an assistant. Either way, you’ll want a plan (and envelopes). You’ll also need to keep track of the clothing credits if you’re shooting a fashion editorial with a magazine. These credits will include a description of the item, the designers name, the store you borrowed the item from, and the price. Take pictures of the tags if you’re in a time crunch, and write the credits up later, if you have to.
You’ll need to re-tag and repack your merchandise, organize your receipts and plan a return time with the retailers. Check every item for damage prior to packing up, as you don’t want to accidentally return any used or damaged items (these items should be covered by the client’s budget).
After you’ve made your returns and the shoot is over, you’ll need to invoice your services. You can make up your own invoice template in Word, or Adobe PDF (keep it simple and relevant) and include your name, the shoot date, the invoice number, the job name, the client’s info (name, address, phone), your info, the services provided and a breakdown of costs, all expenses associated, and payment options/info and terms. Usually payment is issued within 30 days, and it’s up to you if you want to charge a client interest on a late payment. You can also research Google for additional things you may want to include on your invoice, or to see examples.
A couple days, to weeks, to months later (depending on the nature of the shoot.) you can request high-resolution images for your portfolio. This is a fun part! If you share the images online, make sure to credit the photographer, models, hair, makeup, stylist and everyone who played an important role in the image making process.
Finding Clients & Booking Jobs
The “411” of Making Connections That Lead to Bookings
Build Your Personal Portfolio By Testing
One of the best ways to connect with other industry professionals is by building your portfolio on “test” shoots. A test is when industry professionals volunteer their time and services on a mutually beneficial photo shoot. Generally these shoots are highly collaborative, meaning everyone has a say and creative input. The idea is that everyone works together and obtains beautiful stills for their portfolios. This exercise not only helps you to develop your skills and adds value to your portfolio, but it also allows you to expand your network by working with other people who are connected and may help you spread the word by sharing your mutual work.
Share Your Work on Social Media
This may sounds like “duh” information, but it’s an important step in helping to expand your audience and, therefore, your booking potential. Although it’s become harder to reach an audience due to algorithms, don’t let that stop you from building and nurturing a following who enjoys your work. I have been able to use social media to connect with editors, brands, designers, other artists and the media. I could write a whole blog post on the “how-to’s” of social media, but the information is too vast and disparate to go over here. I would suggest reviewing the info over on Alex Tooby’s site.
Attend Industry Events
Lot’s of potential clients will be lingering at industry events. This could be anything from a museum opening, to an agency holiday party, to a fashion show, to a book signing. Keep your eyes and ears open. You can research events VIA Google, see what your Facebook friends are attending, check out the events your local news stations or magazines are promoting, or sign up for email newsletters from design firms or agencies. Those are just a couple places to find event information - use your creativity to find out where your potential clients may be, and then keep showing up and making friends.
Outreach, or Cold Pitch
Another great way to make connections is by reviewing the “credits” section of any type of media and reaching out to those people directly (usually email is the best way). This could be the names on a magazine masthead, the credits at the end of a film or video you liked, the credits listed in the front of an editorial, the credits on a social media post from a magazine , agency or photographer, or a simple Google search. Write those names down, do any necessary research, and then reach out to that person with your pitch. Cold pitching is a science - please research the best ways to email someone you don’t already have a connection with. Most cold pitch emails are trashed and never read, which is why it’s very important to know how to properly pitch someone, as there are formalities. If you’re a stylist, you’ll want to target ad agencies, photographers, brands or magazines - these are most likely the people that can, or will hire you.
Submit Your Work to Publications
This is a great way to add credibility to your portfolio, and affirm your clients expectations of experience, not to mention, your work is reaching hundreds, if not thousands, of people, some of whom may turn into future clients. You can either submit to local publications using the method above, or check out Lindsay Adler’s list of magazine’s that accept submissions.
Assist Other Professionals
Assisting is a great way to get your foot in the door, develop your skills and gain experience. Although it took a couple years, I was able to transfer many of the clients I assisted for, into my own clients. I was consistently in front of them, working diligently, and eventually my talents were noticed, and it’s snowballed from there.
Word Of Mouth
Do not underestimate the power of word of mouth. If you read my interview with Virginia Smith, an editor at Vogue, you already know that word of mouth is how Vogue finds most of their new talent. It’s also how almost all of my current work comes to me - I hardly ever promote my own work, anymore. Generally, I’m contacted directly by potential clients through the word of mouth of other professionals. Think about it this way: if you work with a photographer and they have a great experience, hopefully, when that photographer is booked, and the client is looking for a stylist recommendation, they may suggest you for the job.
What are the Pros and Cons?
An agency, in it’s best form, is a reliable, supportive and collaborative relationship between you and the agency. The agent uses it’s expertise and the connections it has dutifully made to obtain and maintain clients for you. Ultimately, whether an agent is the right answer for you, or not, depends on your particular circumstances. Below, we weigh some pro’s and con’s.
An agency already has all the necessary connections and reputation that can help you to book clients, and expand your network.
The agency will book your jobs, maintain your schedule, and manage your invoice and billing process.
A good agency will ‘have your back’ by negotiating appropriate compensations, making sure your prepping or job is running smoothly. They can negotiate advances if necessary, and can handle uncomfortable situations such as, overtime, complaints with the client, late payments, etc.
An agent can help you to plan your career, or take the next steps to advance your career. They’re extremely well versed regarding the in’s and out’s of the industry and can be of great assistance when you’re planning the next move for yourself.
An agent will take part of your pay - usually between 15 -25%. This can be a significant part of your check.
An agent usually has many talented individuals on their roster, which means they can’t devote their time or attention to your needs, solely. Their services are split up between many individuals.
You may need an extensive portfolio, or an already established client list to secure an agent, as they need to believe you have the potential to be a profitable for them.
What Should My Rate Be?
How To Price Your Work
Pricing your work can be difficult because there are many variables and unusual circumstances that come with freelancing your services. Below are some starting points that may help you decide your value.
In the beginning stags of your career, before you’ve proven yourself worthy or reliable, you’ll most likely need to do some free jobs, and/or work for a lower rate. Throughout the course of my career, I’ve done countless free jobs, for the purpose of building either my portfolio, reputation or network (sometimes all three). For example, before I signed with my first agency, they asked if I would be willing to tag along as a second assistant for a “trial run” so they could judge my work ethic and on-set manners - without pay. This is pretty common, so don’t necessarily expect to start making a profit when you first start out, but stick to it, and you will.
Determine How You Will Price Your Services
There are lots of ways to charge for your time. You could charge an hourly rate, a day rate, or a flat rate. You could barter, or partially barter your services. For example, one time I traded a photo shoot for a number of horseback riding lessons. Deciding how you’ll charge will depend on your personal circumstances, but be flexible. I generally like to charge a flat rate, because it’s more comparable to a salary than a paycheck.
Research The ‘Going Rate’ in Your Area
A great way to determine what you should charge is to compare what a lot of other people in your area are charging. You can find this info out through Google searches, Facebook Groups, or networking with other industry professionals. There are also plenty of workshops and online courses that cover pricing you work, and finding out what the appropriate rate to charge is will take a little bit of dedicated research, time and effort. Keep in mind there are a lot of variables to consider when determining your rate - for example: the location you’re offering your services in will fluctuate in rates. The going rate for an assistant stylist would be about $25 an hour in New Hampshire, but in Boston it’s $35 an hour. A stylist day-rate is about $550 a day in New Hampshire, $700 a day in Boston, but is often more than $1,200 a day in NYC. Another variable may be commercial work versus editorial work, or a start-up company versus a conglomerate.
Be Willing To Work On A Sliding Scale
As I’ve touched on this topic in the paragraphs above, be prepared to work with clients on what your rate will be for the job you’re bidding. Not all clients can offer the same compensation, so if you want to stay busy and continue to build your portfolio, it’s sometimes OK to accept a rate that is lower than your normal one for other benefits such as tear sheets, working with a new brand or client, or other special extenuating circumstances.
Be Prepared To Work Hard
It can take months, to years to develop your skills and relationships in the industry. Work hard, and be patient with yourself and your progress.
Consistently Use & Develop Your Skills
The more you work on honing your craft (by practicing your craft), the better you will become.
Be Kind & Stay Connected
Support other creative individuals by sharing their work, send thank you notes to clients after a shoot, mail a Christmas card to your favorite brands to work with, and follow your favorite magazine’s and editors on social media. These are just a few examples of things you can do to stay connected with your industry - get creative!
Images Courtesy of 3Sixty Photography