Fashion Stylists


Exploring this Job

There are a number of fun ways to explore your interest in this career. Try teaming up with a friend to conduct your own photo shoot. Arm yourself with a camera, decide on a location (inside or outside), gather some props or costumes, and take a series of photographs. At a professional level, these are known as test shots and are used to build up the portfolios of photographers, models, and stylists. But a backyard photo shoot can be a good way to appreciate the elements involved with this career. Obviously, any opportunity to visit a real photographer’s set can be an invaluable learning experience; ask a school counselor to help you arrange such a field trip. You should also consider joining a photography or art club. Besides giving you the opportunity to work with the medium, such clubs may also sponsor talks or meetings with professionals in the field.

Look for part-time or summer work in the retail field where you may have the opportunity to set up displays and learn about advertising. Even if you can’t find such work, watch someone prepare a display in a department store window. Many stylists start out as window dressers or doing in-store display work.

Use social media to view the work of other stylists and also to create and promote an online portfolio. Sites such as Pinterest and Instagram are popular with people in the fashion industry.

The Job

The fashion stylist is a creative collaborator, working with photographers, art directors, models, design houses, and clients to produce a visual image, usually for commercial purposes. Fashion styling is both a technical and artistic occupation. The kind of work a fashion stylist performs depends on, among other things, the nature of the photography; the needs of the photographer, studio, and art director; and the requests of the client. Because these factors vary from one situation to another, it is impossible to list all the aspects of a fashion stylist’s job. In simple terms, what a stylist does is help to create a "look." The specifics of how it is done are far more complicated.

Prop gathering and set decoration are the most common assignments in photo styling, but stylists have many other responsibilities, each requiring different skills and experience. For example, fashion, wardrobe, and portrait shoots often require a number of professional stylists on hand to scout locations, prepare the set, acquire clothes and accessories, dress the models, and style hair and makeup. On-figure stylists fit clothes to a model, and off-figure stylists arrange clothes in attractive stacks or against an interesting background. Soft-goods stylists introduce appropriate fabric, linens, and clothing into a shoot. Hair and makeup stylists are almost invariably cosmetic specialists, and are usually present on any set that employs live models. Casting stylists locate modeling talent.

Stylists may also bring special talents to the set, like floral design, gift wrapping, model building, or antiquing. They usually have a "bag of tricks" that will solve problems or create certain effects; a stylist’s work kit might include everything from duct tape and cotton wadding to C-clamps and salt shakers. Sometimes a fashion stylist is called on to design and build props, perform on-set, last-minute tailoring, even coordinate the entire production from the location search to crew accommodations. The most successful stylists adapt to the needs of the job, and if they can’t produce something themselves, they know in an instant how and where to find someone who can. Versatility and flexibility are key attributes no matter what the stylist’s specialty.

Being prepared for every possible situation is a large part of the fashion stylist’s job. Knowledge of photographic techniques, especially lighting, lenses, and filters, can help a stylist communicate better with the photographer. An understanding of the advertising and fashion industries and familiarity with specific product lines and designers are also good tools for working with clients.

Organization is another vital aspect of the fashion stylist’s job. Before the shoot, the stylist must be sure that everything needed has been found and will arrive on time at the studio or location. During the shoot, even while working on a model or set, the stylist must be sure that all borrowed materials are being treated with care and that preparations for the next shot are under way. Afterward, he or she must return items and maintain receipts and records, so as to keep the project within budget. The freelance stylist does all this while also rounding up new assignments and maintaining a current portfolio.

Only part of the stylist’s time is spent in photo studios or on location. Much of the work is done on the phone and on the street, preparing for the job by gathering props and materials, procuring clothes, contacting models, or renting other items. 

A senior stylist working in-house at a magazine may have additional editorial duties, including working with art directors to introduce concepts and compose advertising narratives.

For the freelancer, lining up future employment can be a job in itself. Even during downtime, the stylist must keep an eye out for ways to enhance his or her marketability. The chance discovery of a new boutique or specialty shop on the way to the grocery store can provide the stylist with a valuable new resource for later assignments. Maintaining a personal directory of resources is as essential as keeping a portfolio. Staying abreast of current trends and tastes through the media is also important, especially in the areas of fashion and lifestyle.

What a stylist does on the job depends largely on his or her unique talents and abilities. Fashion stylists with the most experience and creative resources will make the greatest contribution to a project. As a premier stylist, that contribution extends beyond the set to society as a whole: shaping its tastes, making its images, and creating art that defines the era.