The Unspoken Rules of Styling

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by Sally Lyndley

By working with the best stylists in the world and cultivating my own styling practice over the last decade, I’ve learned the standards of conduct for styling. Contemplating the ethics of our industry, I’ve observed how the power players behave versus the mediocre. For my “Introduction to Styling” seminar, I’ve written a conversation about these ethics (or lack thereof), and I wanted to share a quick sample with you.

The Unspoken Rules of Styling

1. Thou Shall Be Original or Thou Shall NOT Steal References. There’s nothing worse than opening a magazine or seeing a new ad and being able to directly call out which editorial (or sometimes even ad campaign!) is being knocked off. Young/mediocre stylists are like the Chinese mafia: brilliant at choosing something to knockoff, crap at execution.

The most powerful people in fashion (whom a stylist is competing to work with) will know what the knocked off references are and stay away from knock-off stylists. So it’s really a lose/lose situation. Every once in a while, I will see a heavy hitter stylist knocking off the little guys…this is as disappointing as when it happens the other way around. Being “original” is definitely harder than stealing someone else’s references, but that’s how a stylist builds her/his own voice. “Original,” of course,
is subjective, and I think of it as anything but trying to recreate someone else’s images verbatim.

2. Thou Shall Be Honest or Thou Shall NOT Deceive PRs, Showrooms or Stores. So being honest would seem like a no brainer, but I was really surprised by the conduct I saw when I started assisting and working in this business. First of all, I have had my own run-ins with assistants and interns who think it’s acceptable to “lose” samples or borrowed merchandise. The consequences for these confused apprentices? I called the police and had them knock on these sad souls doors asking about the whereabouts of certain Paris archive samples. Needless to say, it didn’t end well for those helpers.

Fashion has karma, and stealing will ALWAYS come back to haunt. But it’s not just assistants and interns that deceive. Mediocre stylists lie to PRs, showrooms and stores about the “editorial” stories they are shooting to get clothes for commercial shoots. These stylists mock up commission letters from magazines and have their assistants lying on their behalf as well. Shocking, non? After working with the elite stylists of fashion worldwide, I quickly noticed that they do NOT play that game. They tell the truth about what they are shooting. They pay for the clothes they are using in advertising campaigns, and they also ask for legal permission to shoot a designer’s clothes for another brand. Now that’s guts and integrity, not to mention power.

3. Thou Shall Keep Her/His Mouth Shut or Thou Shall Not Gossip. We work in an environment that is deceivingly super casual and friendly. So it becomes easy to sit in hair and makeup while the models or celebrity subject and “catch up.” This “catching up” quickly becomes talking about jobs, clients and other teams and all ears are pricked up and listening. It’s sometimes easy to forget there are 20 people (sometimes more) who are tuning in to what YOU have to say… and the more powerful or well known you become as a stylist the more the crew is hanging on your every word. Now, gossip has many interpretations. I consider “gossip” to be anything that will HURT another person’s perspective on the person your talking about. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines “gossip” as casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true. There’s good “gossip” too, but I call that complimenting someone, not gossip. So stick to the good stuff and keep the negative comments to yourself.

After all, we are working in a professional BUSINESS environment, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. Every time I have made the HUGE mistake of talking trash, it got back to the person. I felt like crap, not to mention looked like a fool and ruined some powerful business relationships, that I was never able to repair. Take it from me, fashion karma WILL get you.

4. Thou Shall Do Your Research or Thou Shall NOT Skip Prep. As stylists, the success of our jobs, whether it be a commercial, editorial or runway project, depends completely on our preparation and research. The best stylists in the world take weeks prepping their stories and ad shoots with teams of assistants and help to research clothing inspiration, image inspiration, hair, makeup, model poses, the list goes on and on. And these stylists also take weeks working with designers and PRs to get the best clothing and accessories for the project. Each project is a labor of love and our preparation time is what makes each shoot, show, etc. amazing. Little or no prep equals a poor selection of clothing and accessories to work with, hair and makeup teams with no direction and most of the time, unhappy clients or editors. Laziness does not work in this business, and it has never worked to show up and just be fabulous on set, unless you never want to be hired again.

5. Thou Shall Treat Assistants with Respect or Thou Shall NOT Yell at Assistants. There is nothing more uncomfortable then stylists yelling at their assistants. Treating one’s assistants like a slave or disempowering them in front of an entire crew not only makes a stylist (or anyone for that matter) look weak and egotistical, not powerful, but it causes a horrible reputation that spreads like wildfire throughout the fashion business. The most successful stylists I have met treat their team with respect. After all, an assistant and intern team does hold together logistics for a stylist. And no stylist will be able to keep a fabulous assistant or intern if she/he is constantly acting hostile toward any team member. I have seen one or two very talented and successful stylists torture their assistants, but trust me, those assistants left those stylists as soon as they could. No one wants to be abused. On the other hand, a stylist does need to manage her/his team powerfully. Harmful mistakes made by an assistant repeatedly needs to have consequences (like getting terminated) or the stylist’s business will suffer. It’s a double edged sword that must be thrown around carefully, not flippantly.

6. Thou Shall NOT Treat Your Agent like a Babysitter. This rule is simple to me but is surprisingly broken time and time again by amateurs. Agents are stylist’s business partners, fellow strategists, sales directors and negotiators. So why in the world would a stylist want her agent arranging dinner reservations? Booking flights for the nanny? Arranging a spa appointment? It never ceases to amaze me when artists treat their agents like personal assistants. Every minute my agent is not working on my sales strategy, speaking to potential or current clients and re-writing my contracts, I am not making money and neither is he.

So if a stylist wants a babysitter, I recommend hiring a personal assistant (NOT a fashion assistant), or better yet, a nanny!!

7. Thou Shall Respect Your Competition. Now this was a hard one for me to learn. I am a highly competitive person, and I always thought that ignoring the competition would be the best way to beat them. Keep my head down and do awesome work. Then I went to business school and learned a very important fact of life, I MUST watch my competition in order to learn how to compete with them. I also have learned that my competitors, more often than not, become editors at some of my favorite magazines. Then suddenly, I find myself wanting to work with them, for them… SO it’s very important to RESPECT and STUDY your competitors. When I started studying competition in business and then noticing it in styling, I begin to draw parallels to how professional athletes train.

Athletes at the top of their game ferociously study their competitors. They observe their strengths, their weaknesses and begin to form strategies on how to outperform them. Outperforming your competition doesn’t mean being disrespectful, by the way. It means learning what’a amazing about your competition, and then figuring out if there is any quality you can take into your own work, without copying, of course. My observations of how the top 10 stylists globally interact with each other has been especially eye-opening. Most of them are friends, they treat each other with dignity and respect, compliment each other when they like each others work. Yet they are all competing for the same 30 jobs. Styling and fashion consists of a pretty small group of people once you get to the top, and I have found that respect for each other is a quality held by all of them.

8. Thou Shall Do Your Homework or Thou Shall NOT Disrespect the Past. Research, research, research. Knowing fashion history (designers, stylists, magazines, models, hair and makeup) and photography history is paramount when you are a stylist. Art history and pop culture history (music and film especially) are also tremendously important if you want compete with the big guns. When I was working at Paris Vogue, I spent every day I could in the libraries scanning fashion magazines from the turn of the 19th century. This built a background of fashion for me that I had never had before, and over the years my understanding of the history of fashion and photography has allowed me to more powerfully translate inspiration from runway shows and editorials, so I can then create my own references for clients and stories. This history intelligence helps me to be far more original. I do not research to copy someone else’s work, I research to create my own original work.

9. Thou Shall Stay True to Your Vision. Sounds deceptively simple, doesn’t it? I have found this “rule” to be the hardest of them all. Staying true to one’s vision requires confidence and an uncanny ability to take care of all the creative (and people who think they are creative but are not) minds on a project. Essentially, a stylist’s role on many jobs is to help create a “vision” for the project and then to hold that “vision” for the client or editor. And I have also been in the situation where it is my responsibility to just execute someone else’s vision.

This is no easy feat. Creative team members on the project lose focus and start to head in a different direction, sometimes on purpose, sometimes due to an A.D.D. disposition or a grumpy mood. Stylists must have a clear vision for the woman or man they are creating for the project, whether it’s their vision or someone else’s. Ask questions to your editor or client about the “vision” for the project. Create the character in your head. And then when working with the creative team to produce the images or collection, drive the “vision” without hurting anyone’s feelings or disempowering them. This skill of “vision” is used by every great stylist I have encountered, from Grace Coddington to Alex White. Developing this skill takes lots of practice, but once you begin to get comfortable with it, it’s amazing what can be created.

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