What Life is Like When You Leave Fashion
You know the saying: “It’s not goodbye, it’s see you later.”
When you love and work in fashion, it can feel as though very few worlds exist outside of it. It is a college campus of an industry — a career that melds work, education, friends, hobby and passion within a small, localized space. You start young (reading about it, obsessing over it, accepting your first internship); once you lock down a job as an assistant, your career trajectory is set. Just as city dwellers swear they’ll never move to the suburbs, you can’t imagine a reality in which you don’t have a job in fashion. You’ve invested time. Energy. Money. You don’t know what else you’d do. Which is why that first inkling of “Uh oh, maybe I don’t want to work in fashion forever” can be terrifying. What else would you do? If you leave, do you disappear forever? Would you feel out of touch?
But for many, investigating and actualizing that inkling can be liberating. I talked to three individuals who have pivoted careers to hear what life is like for them outside of fashion.
“If you look back on drawings of TV and book characters I did,” he told me, “the faces stayed the same because I focused on what they were wearing. I felt so much more creative when I changed how people dressed.” He moved to New York to pursue fashion design and ended up writing about style. When Condé Nast went through a round of layoffs in November 2015, John Jannuzzi’s role was affected. He left, went to Twitter, loves it, and yes, he misses fashion.
“Working in fashion means you’re surrounded by like-minded people who appreciate what clothes can do for a person. It was a privilege to sit among them, to get to write about style and help people figure out what to buy.”
But the thing that got to Jannuzzi before he left is the same thing that gets to many of us still in this industry: the cynicism.
“I was totally jaded when I was in it. It’s easy to get burned out when you feel like you’re writing the same thing over and over. Oh it’s fall, we’re talking about scarves again. Just before I was laid off I remember thinking, “Do I love this anymore?” And if you asked me then, I would have been like, “Maybe not.” I was trying to figure out what my next step would look like. Nobody wants to get laid off — it’s a terrible situation for everyone — but when it happened, it forced me to figure my shit out.”
“I’m really happy at Twitter. I am working with some of the most creative people on the planet, and we get to focus on so many important topics: the election, social justice issues, the ongoing civil rights movement. It’s rewarding. What I’m doing has a very real effect on others. I think fashion does, too, but this is different.”
Jannuzzi still keeps up with what’s happening in the fashion industry; he still looks at shows; he still shops. The difference now is that his opinions don’t tie right back into his job. He can be a true fan again.
“I enjoy it the way that I did before I worked in the industry. Fashion can be really tough. People say it’s cutthroat, but I just think it’s stressful. You always have to look really good. You constantly ask yourself, ‘Am I out there enough, am I doing enough stuff, do I have enough Instagram followers, should I be doing Snapchat?’ Now my whole Instagram is filled with dogs. I miss fashion a lot and can’t say I will never work in it again, but to work at a place where that stuff doesn’t matter is fantastic.”
Sidney Prawatyotin has been in fashion since 1993. He started as an intern at Paper Magazine and Bernadette Corporation, then eventually began the label United Bamboo with his friend Miho Aoki. He left after they produced the first season (he liked the creative aspects but not the production) and later transitioned into PR.
“Growing up I felt kind of lost. I didn’t know what group I belonged to. I was friends with skaters, goth kids, hip hop kids, industrial kids, stoners. I appreciated their subcultures; it was a good way to see what different groups wore. As I got older, I started hanging out with designers and artists on the Lower East Side. Back then, it was just about experimentation and creativity. Fashion bubbled up from authentic subcultures and inspired designers, rather than what we see today, which is design trickling town. It was more of an art form. It felt special.
Prawatyotin became VP of a fashion PR company in 2009. He recalls it as the year the industry really began to change. “Things were moving faster and faster. I didn’t know what it was going to become. I’m still looking for the outcome. But there was no web presence. No social media personality. The only thing you had was style.”
Style, in the truly personal sense, is what Prawatyotin started to feel like he was missing. “Working for a large company means that when you speak, you speak on behalf of the company and your clients. That shared language is obviously so important, but I felt like I was missing myself. Who am I? I was missing creativity.”
When his husband got offered a position in California, Prawatyotin left his job of six years and moved to the West Coast. “I already know New York inside and out,” he told me. “I don’t know the West Coast. I don’t know how to drive. One thing I know for sure is that I do not want to get back into PR.”
What about fashion?
“I still feel like I work in fashion, just in a different way. I’m still close with those in the industry who I developed real friendships with. I still look at shows, but now it’s just a handful of designers who I really care about. I’m consulting on a few brands, I’m messing around with design again. I feel like I’m back in high school, exploring. Checking out what different people are wearing.
I took with me what I wanted to, like the relationships I had. I don’t miss the appointments or fashion week. I don’t miss the clothes. I love fashion more now than I did when I was in it. I feel liberated.”
Jeffrey Monteiro, founder of J.M. Generals, worked in fashion for over twenty years with designers like like Jane Mayle and Derek Lam. He designed his own collection for a few years and later became Design Director at Bill Blass.
When Bill Blass shuttered the line he worked on in 2012, Monteiro took time off to do some exploring. He ended up starting his own company again, this one with a focus on conscious living. His website is an online-based general store that sells American-made textiles featuring American cashmere and bath and body products. He works with small farmers, small mills and small businesses focused on small batches. One textile maker, a weaver in Washington state, only weaves from September through May. She spends the rest of the year growing food for her family.
“It’s a very different way of living life and working,” Monteiro told me of his career shift. “In fashion, you want everything yesterday. Now, it’s not about my schedule. I have had to learn to be patient and empathetic to many different realities. I have to understand that just because I need something ASAP doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. Weather could affect timing, or an animal could be sick. It’s been a really interesting learning curve. I love it. It is a complete divergent from my life in fashion.”
As everyone else has said, Monteiro still keeps up with the industry from a distance. He says it’s more about observing rather than using it as something to measure himself against. “I do miss the intensity at times,” he told me. “Especially during the collections, because that’s when you feel the community come together. That’s when you appreciate the spirit. Seeing how everyone works for a common goal is very inspiring. It feeds the soul.”
He never said he wouldn’t design clothes again. “If the opportunity came, I would seriously consider it. I’d just have to do it in a very different way. I would need to know who is carrying each cost, whether emotionally, spiritually or financially. That’s very important to me. I forgot to listen to other people when I was working in the [fashion] industry. And now I really listen. Not just figuratively, but literally. I have to hear when someone tells me, ‘I can’t this week.’ I want those who I collaborate with to like what they’re doing. I want joy and integrity to go into their work.
“There is life beyond fashion. I still think the industry does amazing things. It’s culturally important. It offers community and gives a lot of people inspiration and identity. But cheap things come at a high cost to somebody. That’s what I now try to keep in mind.”
Testimonials like this comfort the kind of career anxiety I think we all have, whether we’re based in the fashion industry or not. Their stories are proof that there are always new, exciting starts to be had, regardless of tenure and time spent in the thick of it. A little distance can be good, and taking a step to the side can change your perspective. They reminded me that with fashion in particular, the home you create — that comfort you absorb from being surrounded by people who understand what it is you care so much about — never goes away.
“There is a great sense of camaraderie among people who work in fashion,” John Jannuzzi told me as the interview came to a close. “Everyone complains about the stress and the insanity. But if it were them against the world, they’d band together. I miss them all.”
Illustration by Annariina Vaahtoluoto; follow her on Instagram @annariina_illustration.