How to Make It in Fashion: Advice From 10 Industry Insiders

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Alison Syrett | March 28, 2016

And one very stylish dog

Glossy photoshoots, highly produced runway shows, meticulously planned social media moves — the business of fashion and beauty is kept afloat by fantasy. It boasts a sparkle-covered sheen from the outside, like an addictive reality show you suspect might not be true but want to believe. Isn’t it fun to imagine a job where you play dress up all day and attend exclusive parties all night?

Instead, many gigs are like swans gracefully sliding across a lake: alluring and effortless to the naked eye with a crazy hustle underneath the surface.

But you can handle that hustle. In fact, you’re probably hungry for it. The good news is that there’s no one straightforward path to success — there are many. (Not to be all hippie dippie but the key is to choose your own.) To get you started, check out the ten seasoned veterans below — all from different fashion backgrounds — and their candid, no holds barred advice. Read on for their stories about finding their respective niches in this industry that made all the long hours and late nights worth it.

  • Elaine Welteroth
    Beauty and Health Director, Teen Vogue

    How do you deal with a really bad or stressful day on the job?

    I go to sleep. Literally. Sometimes all you need is a new day for a new perspective and a solution to emerge. It sounds simplistic, but after many late nights spent replaying stressful scenarios or over-talking an issue, I’ve learned that sometimes you just have to physically walk away and get lost in something else, like sleep or a workout or a conversation with your mom about her life, or going for a good meal. Honestly, nine times out of ten the root of an issue is really just hanger. I’m joking…kind of.

    In one sentence, the secret to succeeding in fashion is…

    Naming and owning your differentiator. What sets you apart?

    Give me your take on any commonly held misconception about working in the fashion industry that isn’t true.

    It isn’t all fashion parties and Instagram pictures, which by now you hopefully already know. But I think it bears mentioning that there are many more nights spent agonizing over copy than there are spent in the spotlight. The tough stuff just rarely makes it onto Snapchat.

    And no, everyone isn’t nice, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be kind and still succeed. The fashion industry tends to get a bad rap for cat fights and catering to the kind of egomaniacs who throw Manolos at interns, but in real life it’s an industry full of passionate, creative people who thrive on collaboration. And you never stop hiring the people who make the work feel worth it.

    What was a struggle for you when first starting out? How did you overcome it?

    I think a struggle I faced, which I think a lot of people face when they are first starting out, is the urgent desire for a new door to open and feeling as though it never will. Feeling stuck in a job that isn’t rewarding or being confronted with a "failure to launch" scenario is daunting for anyone, but I think it’s especially torturous for millennials (not to use the most overused term in American lexicon!) who can’t help but crave instant gratification. We want things, answers, opportunities faster. But sometimes the opportunity for self-growth comes only when life places you in a standstill. We have all been there. If you’re confronting a closed door, look for the lesson in it. The right door WILL open. It’s just a matter of which door and when.

    What is the most important thing to remember while pursuing a career in fashion?

    Be open to the unexpected. Be in it but not of it. Keep your champions close. And don’t just chase the “sexy.”
  • Scott Studenberg, John Targon and Bala
    Baja East designers and mascot, respectively

    In one sentence, the secret to succeeding in fashion is…

    Scott: TAKE RISKS AND HAVE FUN — in life AND with your style. If you don’t, you'll never evolve. Know that mistakes are an exciting opportunity to learn and grow. You’ll SLAY the next time!

    What’s your advice for someone starting out without any connections to break into the industry?

    Scott: The people you surround yourself with are usually a reflection of who you are. Be social and inquisitive; take on every opportunity that comes your way. That's what I did, and along the way gained experience in production, styling, casting, sales and came into launching a brand with a full framework of the fashion industry in my head — it has been invaluable to helping me succeed at Baja East.

    Give me your take on any commonly held misconception about working in the fashion industry that isn’t true.

    Bala: People think that we're all bitchy and hungry. I love to eat, so I'm just a bitch.

    How do you deal with a really bad or stressful day on the job?

    John: I just stop and restart. So many things can feel like way bigger issues than they really are because we're caught in the trenches. Stepping away lets you gain perspective and clear your head to get your work done.

    When juggling multiple moving parts of a company, you have to remember that it's not always about emotions — it's about keeping things going, no matter what you might be feeling.

    As an intern or assistant, what can you do to stand out?

    John: First, say hello and smile. Sure, your boss should break the ice, but you are trying to get a job eventually and being friendly helps. Try to be one step ahead of the people you work with. Anticipate what is going to happen and surprise them by being intuitive and determined.

    And own up to your part in things that go wrong — I have so much respect for people who can admit their mistakes and learn from the experience.
  • Amy Odell
    Editor, Cosmopolitan.com

    What, in your opinion, is the most important thing to remember while pursuing a career in fashion?

    Work hard and don't complain. Have a great attitude. Roll up your sleeves and get the job done. Act like you love steaming clothes even if you hate it. Because the most successful people in any industry are willing to roll up their sleeves at any time and do whatever they need to do to get the job done. Because there will probably come a time when it's midnight and you're working on deadline and you will have no other choice.

    You especially have to remember going into your job as a twenty-something that the stereotype of your generation works against you. People expect you to be entitled, lazy and have the attention span of a gnat, so you'll have to work extra hard to prove that you are not like that.

    Leave your phone in your bag and bring a paper and pen to meetings. Be attentive. Ask questions. Act like you're invested in your work and want to be there, not like you can't wait to get out of the office as soon as 6 o'clock hits so you can meet your friends for happy hour.

    What’s something about working in the fashion industry that no one talks about, and came as a surprise?

    People are sensitive AF.

    What’s your advice for someone starting out without any connections to break in?

    I am going to answer this for the publishing industry -- aspiring writers and editors in particular. But honestly? Don't randomly email very senior people and ask for their time if you don't have a reason to do so. I know they tell you to do that in school. But I don't know anyone at a senior, managerial level who has time for informational interviews with students or interns. That's not to say those people aren't out there, but it seems exceedingly rare to me. You are likely to be ignored.

    Instead, I tell aspiring writers to email editors finished articles. They are not likely to take money out of their budget to assign a story to someone they've never worked with, but if you have a finished piece and it's good, it's easy for them to spring for it. Paste the story into the body of the email, don't make busy people open attachments. I review every submission sent to me. Occasionally we publish these and occasionally we place people who submit in "The Mix," the network of writers for Hearst websites that — shameless plug — you should definitely check out if you're interested in writing and need clips.
  • Phil Oh
    Street Style Photographer and Founder of Streetpeeper.com

    What was something you struggled with when first starting out? How did you overcome it?

    I used to worry about what “established” people in the fashion industry thought about me. Then I realized that they’re too busy to think about me at all!

    How do you deal with a really bad or stressful day on the job?

    Take a nap — though I work from home, so I guess I can do that with no problem. I also recommend getting drinks with your non-fashion friends. You still have those, right?

    In one sentence, the secret to succeeding in fashion is…

    Keeping a sense of humor about it all.

    What’s your advice for someone starting out without any connections to break in?

    If you can’t find an entry point into the exact job you want and you don’t have the trust fund to fuck around NYC for a few years interning, open yourself up to other opportunities elsewhere in the industry. Do good work, make friends, make friends that are more important than you. Just from keeping tabs on colleagues, it seems like it's all so fluid: editors become buyers, social media types get into writing, stylists become PRs, bloggers become blogger/models, and so on.
  • Stella Bugbee
    Editorial Director, The Cut

    What, in your opinion, is the most important thing to remember while pursuing a career in fashion?

    "Taste" is completely subjective and don't let anybody tell you otherwise.

    How did you find your niche in a such a huge industry?

    I love fashion but I'm interested in talking about the anthropological aspects of style; how our clothes broadcast information about our lives. When a designer shows a collection he or she is saying, "This is what I think women should look like right now." I have always cared about how women are expected to look and how we navigate that. I use fashion as a lens through which to view gender, power, race, sexuality and contemporary values. I work with those things in mind at all times, make lots of jokes and hope that there are other people who want to come along for the ride.

    What’s your advice for someone starting out without any connections to break in?

    Ask yourself what you love about fashion. Is it shopping? Writing? Styling? Is it PR? Find the area you think you like the best and then try to work for someone you want to be when like you grow up. Try lots of jobs. It can take time to figure things out. Have faith that you will land where you should.

    Simultaneously: Party with people who share your ideas about fashion. All good things start this way.

    Give me your take on any commonly held misconception about working in the fashion industry that isn’t true.

    So far every cliché about the fashion world has turned out to be true.
  • Leah Chernikoff
    Editorial Director, Elle.com

    How do you deal with a really bad or stressful day on the job?

    I try to put things in perspective. Sometimes it helps to remember that it’s just fashion! We’re not saving any lives. I also know that letting a bad or stressful day overwhelm me is a surefire way to feed the stress cycle and that my work will ultimately suffer. I try to forgive myself — everyone has bad and stressful days and that’s okay — and then move on. Dwelling never helps.

    How did you find your niche in a such a huge industry?

    My first real journalism job was at a big newspaper, the New York Daily News. I started there in 2007 as a features reporter for the paper, but quickly saw, as rounds of buyouts moved through the organization, that digital seemed like the most secure place to be. When a job opened up on Fashionista’s then-two-person team, I went for it. I was nervous about being at a “pure play” digital space called Fashionista — Would people answer the phone when I called? Would they take me seriously? But they did. It turned out to be an incredible learning experience and I ended up gaining valuable skills in the digital fashion space at a time when it was just a baby. Those skills that I learned at Fashionista and continue to hone at ELLE.com — about content creation, story telling, social media, audience engagement -- become more and more desirable every day.

    What’s your advice for someone really starting out without any connections to break in?

    Find a connection. Read a story you like? Email the byline. Ask your best friend’s older sister’s roommate. Ask your dad’s co-worker’s daughter. Hustle. Put your head down and do the work — it always gets noticed.

    Give me your take on any commonly held misconception about working in the fashion industry that isn’t true.

    That it’s full of mean girls. I’ll cop to being someone who believed this to be true. And sure, not everyone is going to bend over backwards to help you out, but that’s true of any industry. I’ve made some of my best friends in this industry.
  • Elaine Chang
    Chief Marketing Officer, Tibi

    What’s something about working in fashion industry no one talks about that came as a surprise?

    One most often hears about the design component of fashion -- and without the creative vision of the designer and design team, there is no fashion. But there are also other parts of the business that complete the value chain. These components must function at once independently and in concert like a living, breathing organism. I’ve learned so much from teams like production, wholesale, research and development and warehouse fulfillment. Their tireless dedication to the business and breadth of knowledge are critical to Tibi’s success.

    What’s your advice for someone starting out without any connections to break in?

    First, look at every opportunity as being the golden one. You never know when an experience will be the one that gets you the job or gives you that “a-ha moment.” Never underestimate. Second, meet as many people as you can. Learn about who they are and why they do what they do. Only through interacting with people can you learn more about yourself, your motivations and your metrics for personal fulfillment. And third: Be curious and open. Read a lot and research thoroughly to build your knowledge base. When you are young, it can be more important to focus on the fundamental skills that a business or creative role requires, even outside of fashion. If you build these skills and always think about connecting the dots, you will know when the right opportunity comes your way.

    In one sentence, the secret to succeeding in fashion is…

    Develop an informed perspective, stay true to it, and make it central to your work — but also allow your curiosity take you to new places and drive the evolution of your point of view.
  • Matthew Bires
    Senior Director, KCD LA

    What's the most important thing to remember while pursuing a career in fashion?

    Be on top of the industry news about what's moving the needle globally. This can be accomplished by reading magazines, trade publications, daily papers, blogs and websites, and also by getting out from behind the desk and interacting with the community. Don’t just focus on news around your specialty; be aware of the news in other areas in the industry, too. This knowledge will help you to push your personal needle forward.

    Another thing: do not get stuck in the past – learn to embrace change, evolve with it and strive to be ahead of the game.

    What’s something about working in the fashion industry that no one talks about, and came as a surprise?


    All of the friendships that I have made.

    What was a struggle for you when first starting out? How did you overcome it?

    I wouldn’t say I struggled, rather, I quickly learned the inefficiency of relentless emails. I picked up the phone and began to love the effectiveness and personal touch of old fashion conversation.

    In one sentence, the secret to succeeding in fashion is…

    As one of my mentors once said, “Understand the real importance of fashion, do not just have a surface interest in it."
  • Madeline Poole
    Editorial Manicurist and Global Color Ambassador of Sally Hansen

    What was a struggle for you when first starting out? How did you overcome it?

    I was really broke for the first 2 or 3 years I was doing nails.

    If your family can't financially support you during unpaid internships or while starting your business, you may have to work an evening job after beauty school or bribe your friends with manicures to help you with your projects. Don't underestimate the power of trade and try your best to budget.

    How do you deal with a really bad or stressful day on the job?

    I try to stay as calm as possible, at least on the surface and in my body language. I've found that if I rush, become nervous, or frantic, I’m terrible at my job. I drop things, I'm clumsy, I'm shake-y, I mumble my words. The only way I can perform under pressure is by calming myself. I literally chant in my head, "Breathe, slow down, think about what you're doing," anything that will mellow me out.

    In one sentence, the secret to succeeding in fashion is…

    Knowing you have something unique to offer.

    How did you find your niche in a such a huge industry?

    In a way...that was easy. I was interested in doing nails and the only nail art that I could find at the time didn't fit the aesthetic I liked. I thought, “Why aren't there any really simple, graphic and well-executed nails?” So I set out to fill an empty void in a huge industry. When there's no one else doing what you are, it's easy to stand out.”

Illustrations by Laura Supnik, follow her on Instagram @laurasupnik.

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  • Sophie

    This article came at the PERFECT time. Thank you!!! This advice is all very valuable and useful…haven’t heard some of these tips from others~!

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  • http://www.roarintwenties.com/ Aleda Johnson | RoarinTwenties

    I nearly jumped out of my tights when I saw this article! This is perfect! It is my biggest dream to write about fashion, and all of this advice makes me want to work ten times harder to get there.

  • Madeline

    A-plus content. Love the illustrations.

  • Allie Fasanella

    this is awesome!!

  • http://Medium.com/@hager_emma Emma Hager

    This is great! I think it goes to show — given the underlying message of hard work that threads all of these individuals’ advice together — that fashion is comprised of a lot of really smart, dedicated people.

  • http://freya-ella.blogspot.co.uk Freya

    Such a great read!

  • Carmen Jny (carmitive)

    This was just so interesting to read! So inspirational, thank you very much for sharing!
    xx, Carmen – http://www.carmitive.com

  • Maia

    I’ve really enjoyed the career month features on Man Repeller! Definitely bookmarking this page to come back to for inspiration/motivation (again and again, I’m sure) as I return to New York and hit the fashion job boards all over again! All of the advice here was really spot on and invigorating, and I liked that several of the creatives addressed how to break into the industry without a trust fund behind you. Also, loved Stella Bugbee’s words on the anthropological aspects of style!

  • Emily H. Harper

    Love the interviews, there just are so many amazing advices from people I admire. Effort is sooo important.

    xoxo
    – Emily
    larimar.com

  • http://kristylin.com Kristy

    “So I set out to fill an empty void in a huge industry. When there’s no one else doing what you are, it’s easy to stand out.”

    Maybe the only thing I remember from my high school economics class was the teacher always preaching “make yourself a scarce commodity”

  • Hannah Cole

    This is the most important article I have read in a while, and super relevant while in trying my guts out to find a way in!

  • Vicki

    Thank you Team Man Repeller, and those that shared their advice. xxxx

  • https://thecactusmag.wordpress.com/ Terri C

    Amy’s advice is kinda perfect. Thank you for putting these together, they’re so helpful. Terri x

  • May

    Thank you so much for this article. Question for designers trying to get their work ‘out there’ – what about sending samples and lookbooks to bloggers, editors, etc? It can be so hard to get noticed when you don’t have a lot of media contacts or aren’t able to afford your own PR agency yet. Advice?

  • Natty

    i absolutely love this. I think that a lot of this advice holds true in many industries, not just fashion.

    also, these watercolor illustrations are on point. bravo.

  • Pamela

    Thank you for career month Man Repeller!

  • Natalia

    thank you for this article!!!!

  • Tamara Guest

    Thank you so much for this article! Incredibly helpful information for someone like me who is trying to find their niche in fashion.