In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
Hollywood and New York are full of celebrity power stylists, some of whose names have become nearly as recognizable as the celebrities they dress. However, one name you may not know -- though she styles one of the most famous and best-dressed actresses around -- is Sarah Slutsky.
The 28-year-old Vogue alum is responsible for dressing the inimitable and gorgeous Emma Watson: best dressed list frequenter, all-around awesome human and, most recently, winner of the 2014 British Style Award. "That was exciting! It was really cool, a cool look," said Slutsky, nearly speechless over the event, which happened only a couple of days prior to our interview. The Misha Nonoo jumpsuit and oversized Dior blazer that Watson wore to collect said award from Harry Styles was just one of the many memorable and risk-taking looks the two have worked on together over the past year.
Their partnership earned Slutsky a spot on The Hollywood Reporter's 2014 list of top power stylists, which is particularly impressive given that styling is technically only a part-time gig for her. She spends the other half of her time helping run Cinematique, a tech startup that makes videos touchable and shoppable for clients including Net-a-Porter, Nowness, Gap and more. (Scroll down to watch the Kate Spade holiday video starring Anna Kendrick for an example of what the company is capable of.)
We chatted with Slutsky about how she got her start in fashion, why she left Vogue for tech (a world she never thought she’d end up in), how she balances two jobs and, of course, Ms. Watson.
How did you get into fashion?
I grew up in Chicago. I think I was born in fashion. My grandma was an artist and an illustrator and I remember being a small child and she would take me down Michigan Avenue, and Neiman Marcus was like a museum to me. She would tell me about all the fabrics and her favorite designers and it was, to me, another art form. It wasn’t something that I actively participated in in my early life but I just loved it. It was something really special between my grandma and me and I don’t think I ever thought I would do anything except work in fashion. I knew from a really young age I wanted to live in New York. I knew I wanted to do something that impacted people somehow.
I went to school at the University of Cincinnati. It’s a five-year program that requires six co-ops before you graduate. So, every other quarter I had a full-time job here in New York and really quickly you learn what you like and what you don’t like and you’re exposed to the whole industry so fast. For me going to UC was a shortcut to going to New York because my parents, you know I’m from the midwest, they didn’t want me leaving the midwest so quickly, but I felt like I was tricking them by finding this program that would allow me to intern. And I had a great group of friends and I think all of us really were active in pursuing a career path that would get us here. I was really fortunate to be surrounded by equally hardworking people all the time in an encouraging environment.
Where did you intern?
I interned all over: with Lori Goldstein and Laird and Partners which, to me, was a game-changing internship. I worked on the American Woman exhibit at the Met so I was able to work with the CFDA and Vogue and in the graphic space and the Met all at once. It was me on a small team and I was able to get hands-on and exposure to all these great institutions in New York and from that moment I just dedicated to myself to always working on that level.
I felt like every time I could volunteer to work backstage at a show I was there. Altuzarra’s first runway show was his mom, his brother, his dad and me picking up trash off the floor at the end.
So was Vogue your first proper job?
Yup. So, right out of college I hit the interview circuit hard and kept my ears open and interviewing just became a full-time job and I got lucky I guess.
And what was your role there?
I was fashion assistant in the editorial department.
How long were you there and what would you say were some of the biggest things you learned while you were there?
I started right after school in 2010 and left at the end of 2012. It was like getting my master’s degree. I feel so fortunate for that experience. Every day the goal was to keep my eyes and ears open and look what was around and absorb and pick up from all the little details. I think a lot of people don’t realize how much you can learn by just being around everything happening at once. You have to be your teacher as well. I remember very early on being an intern at 18 years old, and saying to my boss, ‘You are so amazing at picking up every single task and remembering all the details and you know to look for everything and how do you store all of these check points in your mind?’ and she was so honest and she was like ‘Listen, you’ll learn. Keep your eyes and ears open. Don’t ever stop looking at the world around you. You’ll become this critical, you’ll pick this all up,' and she was so supportive of me all the time. I think constructive criticism and helping people see the opportunity within themselves is something I learned from her that I hope that any intern I ever have or any assistant I ever have I’ll be able to pass on. But at Vogue, I think that was a really great environment to practice all of those things. You know, keeping track of all the different photo shoots. Sometimes you’d have 18 photo shoots in one week and you need to liaison between the editors and the market team to make sure everything is coming together and remember what goes where. These are critical logistical skills that are not necessarily what you think you’ll be doing in fashion, but they’re so important to the big picture, as well as being able to maintain a sense of observing what’s going on around you so you’re building your creative skill set at the same time — I will always do that in all environments and I always encourage my interns to.
When did you leave Vogue?
I met the founders of Cinematique at a coffee shop at random, I just happened to be sitting next to a group of gentleman who were on their iPads on the Internet and I needed to get on my iPad on the Internet and no matter what I did I wasn’t connecting, and I eventually just asked them, ‘Hey do you guys mind helping me get on the Internet?’ And they couldn’t figure it out either and we got to talking and they basically said, we have this great idea, we’re all filmmakers, we want to make this platform that allows you to touch on video and basically shop, explore, learn more and be immersed in the content. And I was like, ok that’s cool, good luck, and then they were like, we want to launch in fashion, do you know anything about that? And I was like, oh that’s funny I dabble in fashion a bit. And so I first came on just as a freelance after-work kind of thing, helping them to connect with certain members of the industry, working through their ideas — at this point it was just an idea. There was no website, no working concept, it was just us talking.
Eventually I realized in order for this to have real legs, I needed to commit full time. It was really hard to leave Vogue. Many tears were shed; it was a great opportunity for me and I loved the people I worked with.
The opportunity to build something new, you have to take it especially when you’re young. I quickly learned that being involved with a startup is not necessarily the most lucrative way to support yourself and pay your rent, so I started freelance styling editorials and campaigns, even assisting other people, anything I could do to help pay the bills and also keep those skills fresh. You’re really building two different skill sets: launching a business, and talking about a technology platform, and styling and fashion market work. It’s been really interesting to see them all come together.
Was it challenging to build your freelance styling career in the beginning and get consistent jobs?
I was very fortunate to have the contacts that I made while at Vogue; it’s such a great network. When you work with people and you build a good relationship, it’s amazing how many people will try to support you and help you through, so I let everyone know, any job you have, I’m here to help. I just wanted to do as much as I could and the more experience the better, really. There were some weeks I would have something every single day and other weeks I was like, ahh I need more work. Sure enough eventually you come to a comfortable place.
How did you meet Emma and end up working with her? Was she your first celebrity client?
She was! Emma and I met while working on Cannes Film Festival in 2013.
What was the process like when you took her on in terms of figuring out what styles and designers she likes and how you two would work together?
We are very collaborative. Always looking at the world around us, images, books, art, we talk about what we are loving and work together to build looks.
Does all the media attention celebrities get for their outfits these days make you feel extra pressure to ensure she looks good? How does it feel to constantly see her on best dressed lists?
It’s humbling. There is always work to be done, I strive to do my best work no matter what the occasion and always look forward. My number one priority is that my clients are happy.
What kind of planning goes into, say, a press tour? Are you always with her when she travels?
A press tour requires a lot of organization. They include a wide variety of events so a conversation about the big picture and the overall look is the starting point. I love a mood board.
In terms of VIP clients, is Emma the only one?
She’s full-time, but I take on other jobs with other celebrities on a case-by case basis, but most of them are confidential.
So what is your role now at Cinematique and what does it entail?
My official title is Director of Brands and Partnerships and what that entails is everything from getting a brand excited about the platform, bringing them on board. A lot of people still don’t know who we are; we’re very, very young, so just making people aware of that platform is one of my biggest challenges. And then once they know what the potential is, helping them to create video and experience within video that truly is immersive, on-brand, and then of course monetizing it. Me and my team will then go in and build out the boutique and make sure it looks and feels exactly how the brand wants it to live and breathe and then we’ll help them with our implementations. The true beauty of Cinematique is the viral spread of video and this enveloped experience, so as the touchable video spreads, the brand’s going to get more out of it, so it’s really educating people about this whole new life of video.
It’s best to think of us as a post-production company. Content creators already doing the film and this is the next layer. That doesn’t mean that we can’t film and create the entire production, but we’re focusing on the technology and what happens after the film is created.
What have you learned about shoppable video along the way? What types of videos tend to lead to the most engagement and conversion?
Without a doubt, content leads to commerce. The more story you can tell in your video the more exploration there is to be had, the better your shoppable experience will be. I think what’s so beautiful about Cinematique is it’s a very honest experience — the message we’re selling is 'touch what you want,' so nothing is fundamentally changing about the video-viewing experience. You’re asking users to react on things they have an emotional draw to, so the real task lies in content creators. If you’re thinking of a scene in a film, everything in it needs to have something attached to it; if you’re a retail brand, it’s not just the shirt, the earrings and the headband, it’s the whole scene. So our most successful videos have truly had content in the back that takes the video to the whole next level, allowing the viewer the opportunity to shop while they’re engaging in these experiences. We have a 21 percent click-through rate which is unheard of in video.
So how do you balance these two careers?
It ebbs and flows. I think staying excited about everything I’m doing helps. I was once told that if a task takes you less than two minutes to finish it, do it. A lot of people pile up tasks on the side until they have this giant checklist, but I’m somebody who if I have a little red dot on my phone, that’s like my worst nightmare. I get everything done the second it comes to me. What I have found is that styling and Cinematique go hand in hand, having that creative sensibility with styling and fine-tuning a look is the same as fine-tuning a video. I have to be thorough with each, so they work harmoniously together.
Is there a roughly average day that you can walk me through?
It is different every day. My days are full of meetings always, be it with a brand that’s looking to start a new video or a run-through or an appointment to see a new collection. All of these things, they always end up intertwining themselves so even if I’m at a showroom looking at a designer’s pre-fall collection, usually it ends up being a conversation about what does their video campaign look like and how do you style this collection to fit into video and they always kind of intertwine. I travel a lot, which I love, and even when I’m traveling for styling, I’m always trying to think about how can I reach people in the place that I’m at to spread the word about Cinematique, and there are certainly days when I focus on one exclusively, but it’s really hard to define what a certain day is like.
What kind of support do you have? Assistants? Interns?
I have one assistant — Grace Grande-Cassell, she is my right-hand woman, I could not get through a single day without her. She works at Cinematique and she helps me with styling and I mean that girl, she’s a dream and I basically have made her sign her life away to me because I can’t bear the thought of losing her. She’s the best. She used to be my intern at Vogue too, so we’ve been together a long time.
You’ve also had the opportunity to experience these two pretty separate worlds, tech and fashion. What are some of the biggest ways in which they differ?
The tech world, it is not a world I thought I’d ever find myself in, but it has given me the opportunity to really learn a lot. My work experience in fashion has always been very can-do, make it happen, and there is no limit. Everything that can be dreamed of must happen. And because of that, I think I’ve always imagined that if there’s a task at hand, we’ll figure out a way to achieve it. Tech kind of makes you understand that you have to set limitations, you have to set expectations, so balancing this sort of desire to meet everyone’s needs all at once with also selling a product that is great and wonderful but not necessarily [providing] everything everyone’s always dreamed of is a real challenge for me. Also, fashion is so driven by seasons and tech is an infinite timeline of possibilities, so how do you fit this seasonal business into an ongoing developmental process? It’s something I’m still learning everyday.
It seems like a lot of people are probably dealing with this as fashion and tech are intersecting more now than ever.
We’re definitely an instant gratification culture now and I think tech helps to facilitate that from fashion.
Would you ever consider, down the line, choosing one over the other?
I avoid that all the time. I think to give up one or the other would be like asking me to choose a child, I love them both so much. I think there’s always a way that they can work together.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a successful stylist?
Keep trying, keep your eyes open, never stop trying. You have to be eager and willing and open. Inspiration comes from everywhere. I think you see a lot of people who work in fashion who get caught up in just fashion, but fashion comes from the outside world — art and music and food and other languages and other societies can teach us so much and I think being really well-rounded in all these different areas helps you to achieve greater understanding of what’s happening in the fashion world. One of my teachers at school said you can almost always dictate the fashion landscape by looking at who’s president in office, like where are we politically, that tells you what’s happening and I think those were really wise words because if you’re only looking at clothes, you’re only looking at clothes. You have to be looking at the bigger picture. But back to if you want to work in fashion, you can do it! Just be determined and never give up.
Being a celebrity stylist obviously sounds like a super fun and glamorous job. What are some of the challenges that people might not expect?
This is going to sound funny and it’s maybe not that top-level, but my boyfriend is always asking me why I’m carrying bags everywhere I go, he’s like, do you ever stop having something to carry around? I don’t think that people realize how much physical labor goes into styling, and you know, you’re responsible for so many things all the time: you have to be really organized, you have to know what’s coming from the four corners of the world at any given time and how it’s packed. When you’re working for yourself, you don’t have a whole team of people responsible for separate markets. I am jewelry and sunglasses; I am American designers and French designers, everything. So it is a lot of organization and a lot of lugging and a lot of eight hours of unpacking one day and six hours of packing up the next. Work hard and be dedicated. I truly believe that anyone can be what they set their sights to if you are hardworking and positive.
Has there been a moment or milestone that made you feel like you had finally made it?
I don’t want to undermine how fortunate I feel and how lucky I’ve been to have great opportunities and experiences in my life. And I am humbled every day that I get to work with Emma, she is such an extraordinary woman. I’m inspired by her and her determination and outlook on life, but I don’t think I’ve had that moment yet; I still have so much to prove to the world I think and I think the moment I can say that I’ve had like a defining moment I think I need to pick a new career because I won’t be trying. That’s not to say that I haven’t been incredibly grateful and excited for all the things that have come my way.