I believe every top stylist has a very special Secret Weapon. What is this secret weapon, you ask? An incredible first assistant. A brilliant lead assistant is one of the roles that holds the entire business together for the stylist. This week I am going to ramble a bit about how extremely important it is to have an incredible, reliable assistant and/or team of assistants.
A first assistant, FA for short, is a jack-of-all-trades. The responsibilities for a head assistant include every aspect of the stylist's business. After sitting down and making a shortlist of what my assistant handles for me, I came up with these 13 fundamental responsibilities: 1. Research: FA can find the story styled by Grace Coddington and shot by Patrick Demarchelier for the first issue of Anna Wintour's US Vogue without asking 500 questions or looking for five minutes and then telling you they can't find it. An FA finds the story and creates the most fabulous scans of the story and also scans the rest of the main well from the issue, just to have on hand.
2. Prepping: A stylist doesn't always have the time to go through every show on Style.com to choose looks for a story, so the FA steps in and makes a first edit. The FA can pull the best looks for the concept the stylist is creating, from designers the stylist loves and the credits the magazine needs. This saves the stylist hours of time.
3. Shopping: The FA is the best treasure hunter ever. On some advertising jobs, a stylist can get the impossible task of finding orange boy's swimming shorts in December. You will find the shorts in five other variations as additional options, come in under budget and will only shop at stores where the unused product can be returned for a full refund. 4. Pulling: Pulling is different from shopping in the sense that the FA becomes a liaison for the stylist because he or she is then acting as company representative with a designer's PR contact or store manager. Also, when the FA is pulling from a showroom or shop, he/she needs to know what the stylist likes enough to pull relevant items that will fit the creative ideas for the stylist and also be appropriate for the stylist's taste level.
5. Requesting: Another moment where the FA is a representative of a stylist's business in his/her communication with the PR contacts for designers. The FA’s thorough-ness and manners becomes crucial in creating powerful relationships with the ever-important PR's.
6. Onset Organization and Etiquette: Being on set can be the most stressful time for a stylist (dealing with 101 opinions!). Therefore, having an FA who can keep everything organized and act appropriately makes all the difference in the world. This drastically increases the stylist’s ability to take care of his/her client and get great images. 7. Returns: Returns are a deceptively simple. The FA ensures the returns are impeccably checked. This entails that no items are missing and that they are packed in a way that no PR or designer gets upset...hello, this is luxury fashion! A dress valued at $20k thrown into the bottom of a three month old brown paper bag is unacceptable, and the FA knows that.
8. Market Editing: One of the ways a stylist remains competitive is knowing about brands and new designers before anyone else. A new jewelry designer, the coolest young shoe designer, this insider market knowledge is always spewing from the SAA. FA’s put amazing new pieces in front of their stylists as options, not the same old samples. 9. Travel: All of the busiest stylists are on the move and that means the FA is too. A good assistant must be able to handle these 13 responsibilities (and more) from the road. Being able to get the stylist's business packed into a carry on, keep the styling kit stocked and manage 20 checked body bags on a three way flight half way across the world, is a must. The FA has to perform whether he/she is in their home city or on the road. 10. Budgets & Expenses: This is another seemingly easy task, yet I have seen it trip up assistants and stylists year after year. One mistake with the box you check on the FedEx forms and suddenly a shipping budget is $5k over and the stylist is eating those fees. Not OK. An FA is responsible and pragmatic and knows how to keep their own expenditures on or below budget as well as how to chase down and organize receipts from the stylist per job, a chore in its own rite.
11. Operations: Although the FA has the term "assistant" in their name (yes they sometimes get coffee and pick up the dry cleaning), they are essentially operations managers. They are handling the schedule, making sure the assistant team is on budget and on time, drafting presentations for clients and communicating constantly with the stylist's agent.
12. Production: Will there be a steamer on set? Will we need hangers or a clothing rack? Generally, these items are the responsibility of production team for clothing/fashion shoots. However, time and time again, these things are forgotten. A good assistant calls the producers ahead of time and discusses the stylist's needs. Production for the FA also includes hiring other great assistants to help on jobs. 13. Recruiting and Leading the Interns: One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from James Franco in Pineapple Express: "Safety first, then teamwork." Interns are awesome. Stylists and FA’s love great interns. FA’s know how to recruit interns who will actually do the work and show up when they are supposed to. Again, it sounds easy, but you'd be surprised. Leading said great interns is another important responsibility of the FA. A good leader (the FA) can turn a good intern into a great intern.
Phew, so that's the SHORTLIST. Yes, the First Assistant sounds bionic and impossible to find, but I assure you, she/he is not. I have had the pleasure of working with a few FAs who embody the list above and have seen quite a few under the guidance of other stylists. To all the stylists out there who find a FA who can handle all of the fundamentals, hold on to them, take care of them, pay them well, and support them when they leave.
A stylist is only as good as his or her assistant team. Without a strong team, we are a mess. Having an FA or team of assistants that handle everything listed here gives the stylist the capacity to grow their business, be more creative, and take on more jobs. This is very important for stylists at any income level.
Assisting is the only way to learn how to be a stylist in the current fashion marketplace. Assisting a stylist who works for big companies and reputable magazines teaches an assistant how the job is done in every capacity. In the world of styling, the most valuable education is experience supporting an expert.
The purpose of a great assistant team is to increase revenues and shift a stylist’s day-to-day focus from busy work to strategy for his or her career. Therefore, stylists can focus on their "vision" or aesthetic that they want to build for years to come. Without solid assistants backing us up, we are lost in the minute details, drifting from job to job.
So as I said, brilliant FAs are a necessary secret weapon, a very important one among the arsenal every top stylist holds.