Someone asked in a prior post how I started in the biz, so I decided to give you a bit of insight on what I did to get here, and how I’ve navigated these treacherous yet stylish waters.
In the very beginning, posing with Andre Leon Talley ca. 2005 (?). I had a thing for J.Crew. Andre said he liked it! He was probably just being nice.
In my mind, I’m far from successful (I’m trying to get that Oprah), but there are few things I’ve learned along the way. Behold, my 6 Breaking into Fashion tips.
1. Intern, intern, intern.
Something I wrote for Upscale Magazine. People refuse to spell my name correctly.
Did I mention interning? There is no other way to break into fashion. Why intern? You learn the ropes, learn how to write ‘magazine’ copy through small tasks (writing captions), and start to build a network of peers that will last you through the duration of your career. My first internship was with Upscale Magazine down in Atlanta. I applied on a whim. After graduating from college, I actually had dreams of working in TV, but couldn’t find a job at all, even with internships at PBS and ABC under my belt (yes, interning starts early. Try to get summer internships during college). At any rate, I was out of work, so I told myself, “I like to write, why not work in magazines?” I was in Kroger one day and saw Upscale on the newsstand and picked it up. I looked on the masthead for a contact and address, then sent my resume, cover letter, and a copy of the first chapter of my college thesis (I wrote about the Venus Hottentot for my final paper. More on that in another post). Long story short, I was called in to interview, and they loved me (duh!). I wanted to write about news, but they only had an opening in the fashion and beauty department. And thus my journey began.
One of my first published pieces.
I wasn’t paid a red cent, which is normal in media. People really don’t get it: you have to work for free or for minimum wage to break in. If you don’t do it, please believe there is someone else who will! Thankfully, I was living at home at the time, so expenses weren’t super high. I made a little money on the side by correcting college essays, and got a part time job at Ann Taylor (which I hated. I really can’t do retail). I made it work until my next internship, which was New York Magazine. There, I was paid $5.15 an hour, but made ends meet by staying with a friend and by making frequent visits to my aunt, who cooked lots of delicious food that I would happily eat (I’d then wrap up a few plates to take home with me and eat throughout the week). Back when I was making $5.15 an hour (4 days a week), I remember looking at J.Crew sweaters that cost $50, and calculating how long it would take me to buy it. My clothes weren’t always up to snuff.
But look how skinny I was!
One day I walked into New York magazine in a woefully wrinkled wool coat (it could’ve used a good steaming or dry cleaning), and one of the ladies asked if I worked there–perhaps she figured I was riff raff off of the street! But I learned so much from all my internships, and still keep in touch with many of the people I started out with, who now have plum jobs at big media organizations. While at New York Magazine, I remember going to get British magazines for Joanna Coles, Editor in Chief of Marie Claire, who was then a senior writer at NY Mag. You never know who you’ll meet along your path, so do great work and try to stay in touch! I’m not so good with the staying in touch part, but the experience of working for a magazine will prepare you for all your future writing endeavors.
After all my internships (I also interned for Newsweek), I found the holy grail: a great full time job that was lax enough to let me do what I wanted, for the most part, as long as I got my work done. Still…I was unhappy. For 4 years, I worked at a magazine, researching, writing, and fact checking stories, but my real goal was to work in the fashion department. But, I kept getting passed over for promotions, and requests to switch departments were denied. Not one to stay in an unsatisfying situation, I decided to move to Paris (revisit my announcement post here), and put my French Degree to some use.
Did I have a job? Did I know anyone there? Not really! But I knew I couldn’t stay in New York if I wanted to move to that next stage in my career. Paris is known for fashion and I had a degree in French I hadn’t used yet, so it seemed to make sense! I quit, dropped everything I knew, and moved across the ocean. My goal was to work at Women’s Wear Daily or Vogue (I always shoot for the stars). How I’d get there, I didn’t know. I eventually ended up interning at Paris Vogue, which was a miraculous act in itself, but I can say that the Universe rewards risks. I think many editors I wrote to after my move to Paris were impressed by my gumption, and by my willingness to do what I needed to do to get where I wanted to be. If I needed to start from the bottom at a fashion magazine and intern to break in, I would intern! In Paris! Moving to France was awesome, also, because I was able to experience fashion week, even a little. Men’s Fashion Week, Womenswear, Couture…I was in town for it all!
3. Stay Humble.
I’m smizing here
My internship at Paris Vogue was a humbling experience. I went from having a full time job with vacation, benefits, and an office to an internship that paid 350 Euros a month. I had more experience in media than my boss, who was several years younger than me, but it didn’t matter. I was suddenly the lowest on the totem pole. While at Vogue, I was called a ‘nobody,’ made to stand outside of shows with a camera in hand and take pictures of people for the site, and relegated to doing the tasks most people didn’t want to do. But, I did it happily.
I knew that the experience was what I needed to break into the upper echelons of the fashion industry. So even though I was poor, overworked, and sometimes undervalued, I came in early and I stayed late. I pitched ideas, and swallowed my pride when my ideas were rejected or passed over. I ate my little baguetttes with butter and did my best. And Paris Vogue led to Italian Vogue; working for both entities have continued to contribute positively to my website and my career.
4. Don’t be too sensitive. Develop thick skin. Don’t take anything personally.
So I’d be all dressed up for work, and I’d write news stories during the morning, then switch into my flats for the afternoon. I’d walk along Avenue Montaigne, Rue St. Honoré, and Rue de Rivoli looking for stylish passersby, so I could tell them, in my American accented French, that I worked for Vogue and that I wanted to take their snap. French people don’t like to have their pictures taken. For Vogue, I was instructed to take pictures of people dripping in high end labels. Most Parisians with money don’t want to flaunt it–hence a big difference between American and French culture. Americans are flashy; the French like to promote a more egalitarian outlook (people are supposed to be equal, but they aren’t). So if someone is rolling in the dough, they don’t boast. At any rate, I heard, ‘Non,’ a lot. And expect to hear NO all the time in fashion. No, you can’t come in. No, you’re not on the list. No, no, no. Just let it roll off your back and keep smiling. If someone tells you no, find a way to get a yes.
All you need is one yes. Maybe ask in a different way.
5. Try to be nice to everyone.
For some reason people believe that being a b*tch is just what you do in the catty world of style. I’ll let you know: it won’t get you far. People won’t like you. They’ll plot your demise. People talk. The world is small. And all that negative energy? Ain’t nobody got time for that! And while it’s a given to be nice to your peers, I can’t overstate it enough how important it is to be nice to security guards, members of entourages, publicists, the list goes on. Be professional at all times. If someone says they can’t invite you to a show, say thank you, curse them out in your head, and plot for next season. Noone likes a sore loser. And I’ll tell you one story of when being nice helped: I saw Rihanna at the Margiela show in 2009, and of course wanted to meet her! All the press were swarming her like flies, but noone was paying attention to her best friend, Melissa, who was right next to her. So I went up to Melissa (who is now a star in her own right) and started chatting with her. I told her about the site, and about how much we loved Rihanna–and loved her style. I gave her my pink card, then we parted ways. Later on, I was milling around by the entrance, and Rihanna came up to me! She asked about the site, and seemed genuinely interested. Then we took a picture.
I’m sure Melissa had spoken to her backstage and encouraged the pop princess to come say hi. So that said, you don’t always have to go the obvious or most direct way to get what you want. If the front door is slammed shut, try the side door. Be creative. Start a blog. Take a risk. You won’t always be comfy, but that’s just the world’s way of testing you; and the industry’s way of seeing if you really want this. And once you’ve paid your dues, the pay off is quite grand.
6. Look the part.
I initially was only going to provide 5 tips, but decided to make it 6 so that I could include this very important piece of advice: Dress and look the part. Fashion is a superficial industry. Find a way to stand out. My way was to dye my hair platinum blonde and always have it done! If I can’t do my makeup, I get it done. An upgrade in wardrobe also helps;) While I was slaving away getting all the juicy experience, I honestly couldn’t afford to do much of anything (as the pictures above undoubtedly display). But once my hard work started to pay off, I began investing in myself.
If you’re not a woman of color, you can get away with just being cute and having nothing to say. Black women have to be smart, well dressed, well traveled, speak languages, deal with nonsense, smile…a lot will be demanded of you. Just do it. It might take you a while (I still have not reached the promised land), but don’t give up. As one of my favorite mentors once said, “Keep on keepin on!”
That does it!
I hope that was at least somewhat helpful to someone out there.
And thank you for reading my new site!
*I actually have even more tips, but think this could be a book. Once I get my millions in 2016, expect a book deal to follow shortly thereafter!
**Last tip: Say what you want to achieve, and tell everyone. You never know who might emerge who can help you reach your goal. Please believe, I told everyone who would listen that I wanted to work at Paris Vogue (read the story on the picture below here).
And Voila! It happened.
118 Responses to “Started from the Bottom: Claire’s 6 Tips on Breaking into Fashion”
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