Looking for a (Long) Leg up in Fashion

In conjunction with Fashion Week in NY, I thought it would only be apt to feature an article on the evolution of the fashion industry among teens.

Into Clothes: From left, Media Brecher, Vanessa Stylianos, and Hope Brimelow, interns at Teen Vogue

TEN years ago, when Amy Astley, then the beauty director of Vogue, began working on a prototype of a spinoff magazine for teenagers, the question she was most commonly asked by potential readers was this: “How can I become a fashion model?”

“It was really depressing,” said Ms. Astley, now the editor of Teen Vogue.

They all wanted to be models, and of course they couldn’t, so Ms. Astley found herself offering teenagers a harsh dose of reality, rather than something positive or inspiring.

“That was the most visible career in fashion at the time,” she said. “But I’ve seen a really profound change. They don’t ask me anymore how to become a model, or if I’ve met Britney or Justin Timberlake.”

Now they ask how they can get her job.

What changed, Ms. Astley said, is that teenagers around the world have become interested in all sorts of careers in fashion as a result of the industry’s increasingly outsize place in popular culture. “Project Runway,” the designer competition originally set at Parsons the New School for Design, has alone been credited with causing a spike in applications to fashion schools. At Parsons, applications have gone up 41 percent over the last five years. At Pratt Institute, they have gone up 20 percent.

“We have tour buses stopping outside so tourists can take pictures of us,” said Simon Collins, the dean of fashion at Parsons. “They’re looking for Tim Gunn or Heidi Klum or something.”

And given the intense scrutiny directed at “The September Issue,” the behind-the-scenes documentary of a single issue of Vogue, and the ever-escalating coverage of Fashion Week, which begins Thursday in Bryant Park, it stands to reason that there will be even more interest to come. Feeding on the demand, Teen Vogue has its own book coming out next month called “The Teen Vogue Handbook,” a how-to guide for students dreaming of jobs as a designer, stylist, photographer or editor.

For much of America’s youth, fashion is where it’s at. But this wave of Anna Wintours and Michael Korses in training is coming at a moment when the industry is shrinking; retailers are collapsing; several magazines within Teen Vogue’s parent company, Condé Nast, have closed; and jobs, of any sort, are scarce. A report last month from the NPD Group estimated that 12 percent of fashion companies will not survive the recession.

The situation is not entirely grim for new fashion graduates, even though the National Association of Colleges and Employers said in March that employers expected to hire 22 percent fewer seniors graduating in 2009 for entry level positions. Normally about 90 percent of Parsons seniors find jobs, but that figure dipped by only 10 percent. At Pratt and at the Fashion Institute of Technology, they have remained about the same.

“But we are seeing a trend toward some jobs disappearing into unpaid internships, which is a little troubling,” said Judy Nylen, the director of career services at Pratt.

So what is a young person trying to break into fashion supposed to do?


Let us take the example of Sang A Im-Propp, who was a pop star in Korea before she decided, while on a business trip to New York, that she wanted to be in fashion. This was nearly a decade ago, and Ms. Im-Propp’s command of English was tenuous, but she enrolled at Parsons and in short order found herself an internship with Victoria Bartlett, a noted stylist and designer whom she admired and hoped would introduce her to the glamorous world of design. Instead, Ms. Im-Propp found it difficult to understand Ms. Bartlett’s heavy British accent, and at first she thought she had misunderstood just what Ms. Bartlett was asking her to do. Get cupcakes?

Not just any cupcakes, but the glossy butter-cream confections from the Cupcake Cafe, which is a four-block crosstown walk from Ms. Bartlett’s studio through the dodgy garment district, and it was freezing outside.

“It made me cry a lot,” Ms. Im-Propp said. “Vicky is an amazing artist, but she can be difficult.”

But Ms. Im-Propp persisted, and after many cupcake runs, was entrusted with the research projects, location scouting and shopping collections Ms. Bartlett did not have time to see. When she decided in 2006 to start her own collection of handbags, under the label Sang A, Ms. Bartlett personally recommended her to a showroom.

Ms. Bartlett, reminded of the cupcake episodes, said she had been a deliberate taskmaster with interns, having encountered a few who did not live up to expectations. There was one who, without asking, borrowed her car on several occasions, and another who ran off to Los Angeles with the company computer.

“You can’t be a princess in this business,” she said. “People see fashion from the end result, which is kind of a false facade. They only see this beautiful, glamorous world, but I don’t think they realize it is one of the hardest careers out there.”


This is a point that is made repeatedly in “The Teen Vogue Handbook,” which compiles stories of how many now-famous designers and editors got their starts. The common themes in the histories of Marc Jacobs, Ms. Wintour, Gucci Westman and Mario Testino are that hard work and persistence lead to opportunities to be seized — with a caveat, of course, that it’ll be a lot harder than that for anyone else. Karl Lagerfeld says that rather archly: “Are you ready to accept injustice? The idea of the fashion industry may look better from the outside. It can look like the world of dream jobs — for a very happy few.”

Still interested?

It’s a wonder, given the portrayal of fashion in “The Devil Wears Prada” and the counterpoint of “The September Issue,” that anyone would think this is a glamorous business. (There is the specter of Grace Coddington in the new film directing a colleague, “Don’t be too nice, not even to me, because you’ll lose.”)

In the real world, it’s just as tough. Prabal Gurung, the hot newcomer, said that his first job was working for a cuckoo designer in India who staged a fashion show with models eating chicken wings. Kelly Cutrone, the salty publicist and reality-show fixture, often starts a job interview by telling the applicant, “You’ll be very lucky if you start and end your career liking clothes.”

“The truth is,” said the designer Phillip Lim, “a lot of doors are shut right now, and no one is going to open them.” But Mr. Lim cited his own start as a reason not to give up hope. As a young salesman at Barneys in Los Angeles, he was so naïve that he simply picked up the phone and called the office of Katayone Adeli and asked for a job, which brings us to our next point.


“Don’t listen to other people,” Ms. Astley said. “If you want to work in fashion, you should do it. You should move to New York.”

Among the current crop of interns at Teen Vogue, there is little fear that the future of fashion will happen without their participation. They tell stories about 12-hour days of sorting through piles of shopping bags looking for a single skirt; or blisters from running garment bags around the city; or the bummer of being sent to a famous designer’s showroom and glimpsing only the messenger center. Or the thrill, in the case of Media Brecher, who is 20 and a student at Barnard College, of seeing a headline she suggested for a denim story, “Bleach Streak,” appear in the August issue.

(It does help to have connections, as Ms. Brecher is the daughter of The Wall Street Journal wine columnists Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher; and Hope Brimelow, another intern, met Teen Vogue editors in Paris while her mother, a producer on “60 Minutes,” was filming a profile of Anna Wintour. But Ms. Astley said that connections are not required at a publication that employs as many as 40 interns at a time.)

“Anyone can contribute to fashion now because of how accessible it has become,” said Vanessa Stylianos, 20, a New York University communications major who started working in the fashion closet last month.


Ms. Astley recalled a recent job applicant who was clearly unqualified to work at her magazine.

“I interviewed someone who hadn’t seen ‘Twilight,’ ” she said. “You can’t work at Teen Vogue if you haven’t seen ‘Twilight.’ ”

With designers, too, it helps to be aware of their work, even wearing an item of their clothing to a job interview, but goodness, not head to toe. This is a blunder seen by Karen Harvey, a fashion headhunter, who said that it looks as if you are trying too hard.

“You want to demonstrate your personal style and then integrate something of theirs,” she said. “They want to see how your styles will connect.”


This can be tricky. Most employers value a go-getter who doesn’t need to be told what to do, but they also appreciate a display of interest. A suggestion from Kenneth Wyse, the president of licensing at Phillips-Van Heusen, who also is president of the Fashion Scholarship Fund, an industry group that helps mentor young people with internships: Submit a list of questions once a week.

“One of my favorite stories was that after working here for a summer, a young lady said to me, ‘Gee, I had no idea that a collection business could lose money,’ ” Mr. Wyse recalled.


It was March 1996 in the suburbs of Detroit, where Jamie Rubin, age 10, was doing her homework, writing a speech about what she wanted to be when she grew up. Ms. Rubin had no idea, but her favorite dress was a really simple gray jumper by Nicole Miller, and so, she said, “I just decided that’s what I wanted to do, to give little girls their favorite dress.”

As part of the assignment, Ms. Rubin filmed a video in which she charmingly announced, “When I grow up, I’m going to be the next Nicole Miller!” She was so convincing that her parents sent the video to the designer’s showroom in New York, where it became an office favorite. Ms. Miller was so taken by Ms. Rubin that she invited her for a tour of her showroom and, eight years later, when Ms. Rubin enrolled at Parsons, offered her an internship for a summer, working right by her side.

“I felt like I was meeting Oz,” Ms. Rubin said. “I couldn’t even speak when I first met her.”

If her story sounds too easy, Ms. Rubin, now 23, will point out that things were not so simple once she graduated. Even though she had also interned for Women’s Wear Daily and for Proenza Schouler, she had little response from the hundreds of résumés she sent out, except for one she sent to a showroom where she was dying to work, as she noted in a cover letter that she accidentally addressed to one of its competitors. “I got an e-mail back saying, ‘That’s nice, if you want to a job there, you should send them an application,’ ” Ms. Rubin said.

She did land an interview at Dolce & Gabbana and bought a blouse for the occasion, but it was loose-fitting and the reason Ms. Rubin suspects she never got a call back. After much persistence, she was offered a job at a creative agency that represents Tod’s, Hogan and other luxury brands.

“The door will close on you 900 times,” she said. “So you’ve got to keep your skin tough and your goals very focused. I walk into work every day and know I’m going to be challenged and inspired, and that’s the recipe for happiness in any job.”

*article taken from NY Times*

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *