I have a pretty unconventional story, and I’ll mention it (again) with the hopes that it will inspire someone. I grew up in a coal mining town in rural Appalachia, dreaming of escape. After getting a scholarship to a school in NYC, I arrived in NYC as a very, very naive kid - which is, ironically, how I think I was able to make things work for me. Within the first month of getting to NYC, I decided I wanted to learn about fashion - just for the hell of it. I walked into the coolest store between my dorm and Tompkins Sq Park and told the two cool girls who were making clothes there that I would love to intern for them. *chutzpah + naiveté go hand and hand on the few rare occasions. I seemed to have a gift for pairing the two qualities and turning it into gold…or at least getting in with interesting crowds. I immediately started work cutting patterns - the two of them had started the store from the unemployment benefits of one and while they sold their own things, they also sold up-and-coming hipster talents from the E. Village. It was ‘94 and I remember it all very fondly. After a while, they let me sell things I made there, but the technical stuff wasn’t my thing. I think the extent of my technical skills included having embroidered a pillow once at the time I offered to be their intern.
Two years later, I was graduating early and trying to figure out what to do. I was finishing a degree in physical/arch/sociocultural anthropology. I had an unusual scholarship – it offered an international trip per year and on one of those trips, while playing cards in Prague, I found out that one of the girls I was playing cards with was an intern at Barneys – for Simon Doonan, who was just window dressing and catalogue designing at this point. (I certainly didn’t know who he was…just knew he did the “witty” windows at Barneys.) As soon as I went home, I called Barneys and asked for an interview in the buying department. Really. I went to the interview in some weird massive black hipster glasses from Selima Optique and got an internship in a department called Women’s Developing Designer under Julie Gilhart, who was head women’s buyer there and later became the fashion director. (She was recently removed by the new management, which is insane!) After four or five months following her to market to take photos, air-kissing Paul Smith, helping to choose black shirts from Ann D, MMM, Helmut, Marc J., CDG, Junya, etc – I didn’t quite know just how lucky I was to land there because for the most part, I had to look at collections all day long - and making excel spreadsheets so that the items would get marked up correctly (and lots of other stuff that I really didn’t understand) I wondered aloud one day “how one might get a permanent job there as a buyer???” (Again, total chutzpah for a 20 year old from TN, who was totally clueless.)
Anyhow. She said she could take care of that. Just like that. I went in for a perfunctory interview and was hired. It helped, I think, that I wore weird-ish outfits that Julie was always commenting on at a time (96-97) when no one was – I was hanging out with the skaters in Washington Sq park and reading Sassy – and yes, I was good at mouthing off in a funny, creative way.
The point is, go in there and do what no one has the balls to do. If you don’t know the right people, go the chutzpah route (In my case, I didn’t know any better not to.) Be confident (but not overconfident), seem to know more about fashion than you should for someone who shouldn’t have known anything about fashion – surprise them a little. Work for free because you can because you are still in school and while you’re there, do your job better than anyone else because they *do* notice, Naturally be willing to do your job without moaning. Show them that you don’t need to ask questions constantly and can take care of yourself. Don’t be one of those queens at the water station gossiping about who slept with who post-this or that show at the armory…
To sum it up: don’t worry if you don’t know the right people at first. But do your research and figure out who you *should* call. Be that one person who calls Julie Gilhart while everyone is submitting paper resumés. Project a decent measure of confidence even while secretly inside you feel like an impostor….it sounds so banal, but *look* interesting…because no one in buying wants to give a chance to someone who doesn’t at least seem as if she might have some forward thinking ideas. And so on and so forth.
Incidentally, I didn’t manage to get out of fashion completely. I’d sold stuff on eBay on and off to help make ends meet in addition to my stipend in grad school (ok, ok, also so I could continue to have an excuse to buy beautiful things whose seams I could study and whose designs could make my heart go pitter-patter). Through that people have asked me to do fashion consulting over the years and this year I agreed to do it on the side, but I have to keep it hush-hush because if you are a woman in the ivory tower who cares about clothing, your dedication to your work/research will be challenged at every turn. I’ve already started (the first piece I got my first client to buy was Ann D. Yay!) but a question for the other consultants out there…
how do you determine what you’re “worth”? How do you translate your knowledge and cultural capital and who and what you know – all the stuff that you’re passing on to a client who wants to be part of that – into a dollar value? Can you believe I’ve been on this project for a while and both she and I are too embarrassed to discuss compensation? (I’m really not cut out for business, honestly.) At the moment, I feel like my concept of what stuff is “worth” is skewed by the fact that I’m immersed in a world where people pay 2k for boots and as such I’m afraid I’ll throw out a number that will be so ridiculously high or low it will demonstrate that I’m not quite in touch with reality…I mean, I’ve made up a list of my “value-added” services, end project receivables (knowledge, opinions, goals for the client moving forward) but can’t quite figure out how to make a figure out of it. I’m such a dreamer - a utopian romantic - that this pragmatic stuff seems so preposterous… would love some advice myself.
Wow, that was really quick. Pfft.
p.s. oh a good measure of luck helps, too.