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What Fashion People Mean When They Say They’re ‘Consulting’

In fashion, the word “consultant” can mean many things. We talked to working consultants about what they do, how they do it, and most importantly, how much they get paid.

Fashion Person #1: “So, what have you been up to since you left [INSERT GLOSSY MAGAZINE HERE]?”

Fashion Person #2: “Oh, you know, consulting for a bunch of places.”

If you work in fashion, you’ve likely been on one end of that exact conversation. The dictionary defines consultant as “a person who gives professional or expert advice.” In fashion, that can mean a lot of things. And as the fashion business becomes more transient, more editors, buyers, social media experts and stylists are taking consulting gigs in between permanent gigs. Some are making a profession out of it. Just this past year, several consulting firms run by industry insiders have emerged. Roopal Patel, a former fashion director at Moda Operandi and Bergdorf Goodman, opened up her own namesake shop, with clients including the CFDA and Ostwald Helgason. Lamarque, another firm, was launched at the beginning of 2014 by former Vogue editors Meredith Melling Burke and Valerie Boster.

So what exactly do these consultants do? “Just about anything,” says Faran Krentcil, the founding editor of Fashionista who quit her job as Nylon’s digital director more than a year ago to take on a mix of consulting and editorial projects. (She blogs regularly for Clarins, but also writes for publications including New York Post and, where she is the Special Projects Editor.) “But it’s much like being a stylist or a blogger -- a lot of people think that they can just do it. The whole point of [being a consultant] is that you’re bringing in a set of expertise that is very rare.”

Some brands bring in consultants to help with positioning. A teen retailer, for instance, might want advice on how to better connect with its audience. A label that focuses on office-appropriate suiting for women 30-45 might be looking for ways to reach college graduates. For that, they may bring in several “influencers” for an hour or two, paying them a flat rate. (One high-profile luxury brand famously invited a group — including working editors, many of whom could have been fired by their full-time employers for consulting — to come in for three hours and answer questions. Each attendee was paid $2,000 in cash.) Kate Young’s Target collaboration was a more public form of this sort of consulting. Target asked Young to design a collection that she thought consumers would want to buy, instead of paying her to do just the same thing behind the scenes. 

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Other brands are looking for cool-kid connections. Labels often pay socialites and other influencers to not only show up to their parties, but also to “curate” their guest lists. “Brands want access to my Rolodex,” said one consultant, who charges $2,500-$10,000 for a monthly retainer, depending on the scope of the project. “It's also nice for brands to have someone to call on that has their own set of connections and network of talent.” For instance, if a fashion public relations firm lands a beauty client, they might pay a consultant to make introductions with the right beauty editors. 

But those are just one-offs. More often, brands are looking for someone to consult on a major project, either short or longterm. Increasingly, the projects have something to do with social media. “At this point, everybody knows you have to be on these platforms, but few people are sure of what to do on them,” said a social media consultant who charges $10,000 per month, per project. “A lot of brands just want to know the difference between all the platforms. And they also want opinions and evaluations on what they’ve done, what they're currently doing, and what they should plan to do.” Sometimes that means laying out an entire social media strategy, and sometimes that means actually implementing it. 

Content — whether tweets or blog posts — is where most of these brands seem to need longterm assistance. CA Creative, launched by (former editor) Carol Han and (former digital marketing exec) Alexandra Weiss in 2010, was one of the first consulting shops to offer these sorts of services. “We decided to merge our respective skill sets and launch an agency that helped brands execute solid digital content, strategies and campaigns,” Han says. (This can mean maintaining a brand’s blog, managing a brand’s community on social media, and even writing copy for digital ads.) “Our digital media department came shortly afterwards -- now we also offer paid media, SEO and SEM.” Four years in, CA Creative employs teams for content, graphic design and paid media, with a roster of clients that include fashion, lifestyle, hospitality and beauty brands.

Consultants with great track records, such as CA Creative, have no problem pulling in new clients. But why do multi-million dollar — sometimes, billion-dollar — companies need consultants in the first place when they presumably have plenty of cash to hire full-time talent? “You'd be surprised how much weight an outside voice has within big companies,” said one in-house exec who has worked at several major fashion brands. “People even hire consultants to share their own ideas, just in new ways.”  Indeed, sometimes brands just need an expert to tell them what they already know. “I feel like many times, the brand teams don't trust those in charge of social media -- maybe because they feel they're too young,” said the social media consultant. "It's all too common for an idea to sound better coming from a consultant or superior than when it comes from a coordinator. It leaves both parties wondering why the other is being paid.”

To be sure, there are plenty of consulting opportunities, although the field is getting more competitive. “Unfortunately, the market is becoming very saturated,” said one longtime consultant. “A lot of people are realizing they can quit their job and make as much or more money consulting without going to an office everyday.”