So you Want to be a Fashion Stylist…. in Indianapolis?

*heavy sigh* I have tried to write this blog no less than four times. I was asked to write a post about what it means to be a wardrobe stylist, but, to be honest, sitting here, outlining my duties couldn’t be less tedious. If a stylist is one thing, it is resourceful. So, in true stylist fashion, here is a link that outlines those specific duties: http://www.fashion-schools.org/fashion-stylists.htm

Personally, what I find more interesting is how this interior designer came to be a wardrobe stylist in Indianapolis. There aren’t very many of us, despite the abundance of opportunities that exist. And please, by all means, don’t confuse the word ‘opportunity’ with the word ‘income.’ While there are copious different ways for a wardrobe stylist to showcase their creative prowess in this city, it is rather difficult to find the lucrative opportunities and more often than not, the rule is: The more creative the job, the less money there is to be made. In Indianapolis, commercial photography, not fashion or editorial photography is where the money is and if you can style food, you are golden.

The good news is, because the fashion and editorial photographers in this city typically can’t budget a stylist, it is pretty easy to get your foot in the door, and a foot in the door equals a photo in the portfolio. As a stylist, your work is a direct reflection of your taste and your ability to use clothing to tell, enhance or suggest a narrative. Your ability is measured by how successfully you can use your tools to erase a model’s identity and transform them into a character. Developing that skill and learning a few tricks of the trade takes time and nothing makes a stylist better than experience. After working as a stylist for almost four years, I am very selective of what projects I take on. However, in the beginning, it was all about getting experience and exposure. My ticket into the world of photo styling came from architecture + roller derby.

As an interior designer, I am very detail oriented. I always compare my role to that of the conductor of an orchestra. The lighting, the finishes, the layout and the furniture all need to work in harmony to create a scene, an environment. When I design, I have a very specific vision for how a space will look and be used. When the time comes to photograph my work, I always accompany the photographer so I can oversee every detail. I select what book sits on the coffee table, which direction the barstools face and how much light filters through the blinds. Staging an interior shot takes hours and I enjoy every minute of it. At the end of the day, there is a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional environment I created in my head. It is thrilling.

As a roller girl, I loved dressing my character, Smackie Onassis. Each season, a crew of volunteers would create a pin-up calendar to promote the league and raise funds. While I loved putting together my look for the calendar, most of the girls didn’t know how to be inventive with their wardrobe. During my second season, I took on the responsibility to aid with the styling of each shoot. I worked with five very different photographers and over 20 girls. It was infinitely challenging but really fun. With no money, I had to get creative with costumes: suspenders made of safety pinned ribbon, dresses made of yards of tulle, gladiator sandals rigged with leather cording and roller skates, etc.

A new photographer named Polina Osherov had been recruited to shoot my portrait on the “beach” at the IMA. I immediately took a liking to her and looked forward to working with her on a few other months. Sometime later, she was hired to shoot publicity photos for an up and coming country music artist named KJ Testin. Polina contacted me and asked if I would oversee wardrobe selection for the shoot and help her come up with a location/concept. The gig didn’t pay but I wasn’t exactly a professional stylist. Besides, I really liked the idea of styling a real person instead of a character. I offered up my father’s stellar trailer home on the South side and she told me a clothing boutique on Mass Ave. would lend us the clothes. We went to the store for a fitting and selected a collection of items for the shoot. I went home hating almost everything I had seen the talent try on. What did red cigarette pants and off the shoulder blouses have to do with a twenty-something, baby-faced brunette country star? Besides, those pants and the trailer home were a little too closely related to be ironic. The next day, I hit the thrift stores and found some vintage slips and riffled through my own closet. KJ was a rock singer looking to break into country. I made up this story of this trailer girl playing dress up and pretending to be in a high fashion shoot. The clothing was young and naive and her styling was very natural looking. My Pop’s trailer turned out to be the perfect location and KJ’s manager was so pleased with my work that he wrote me a check for several hundred dollars for a job well done. What!?!?! I could get paid dressing pretty people? That’s crazy!

Polina was equally as pleased with how the shoot went. She would show me the scene she wanted to shoot, I would select a look that made sense for the setting and stand by in case the clothing wasn’t laying right. It all came very naturally. From there, I worked on just about every shoot Polina did for a solid year. For $75 here, $100 there, I would style professionals coming in for headshots, models looking to expand their portfolios and collaborate with Polina to plan the more cinematic fashion spreads she is known for. It was a great hobby that provided me a creative outlet and a way to make a little shoe fund money. In 2009, my day job (I own an interior design studio) came to a screeching halt. The housing market tanked, businesses tightened their purse strings, renovation projects went on hold and consequently, the need for interior designers tapered off. I was hurting in a big way. I told Polina I needed to make a living styling for a while. As a result, we became more ambitious about seeking paying clients. We started working for publications in town, including Indianapolis Monthly, Dine Magazine and North Magazine.

Supplemented with headshots and styling look books for local designers, I was able to stay afloat. Not having to juggle between my real job and my fantasy, stylist job, I was able to really hone my process and better define my own aesthetic. In 2010, I launched Nikki Sutton Style and with it, started to work with other photographers in the city. This was a real eye opening experience. Polina and I had established a connection that made our process fluid and fun. Working with a new photographer was, well, work. All established responsibilities and ways of communicating went out the window and I was back at square one. The only thing that remained a constant was the expectation that I knew what was best for the shot and that I had the cohunes to speak up when I thought the quality of the end product was being compromised. It was both exhausting and exhilarating to be a part of a new team. Learning how to simultaneously contribute and support was when I learned what it means to be a great stylist. Every member of the crew has a specific role and is chosen to be the expert from that perspective. In my opinion, my personal tastes as a stylist may be great but respecting this breakdown of responsibility, coupled with a healthy dose of positivity and enthusiasm is really what makes me good at my job.

Fast forward to 2011, my interior design studio has taken off again and is consuming the majority of my time and efforts. I still continue to work as a paid stylist for a very select group of commercial clients (honestly, they are the only clients that can afford my fee at this point) and will never stop collaborating with Polina. My work as a stylist has affected my interior design process. It has taught me to look for the possibility in a material or object instead of accepting it at face value. It has provided me the opportunity to take big risks, which has solidified my confidence and the ability to make firm decisions on the fly. But most importantly, it has reminded me the value of teamwork and to respect everyone brought into a project. Getting started in styling is a humbling experience. To all of the aspiring stylists in the city, take every opportunity you can get and bring to the table the respect, time and energy you would give to a spread in Italian Vogue. Throughout the project, ask yourself, “Would I be proud to have this be the lead photo in my portfolio?” If the answer is ever anything but yes, fix it.

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6 Comments

  • Great post Nikki! You are truly a VERY talented stylist and well respected. I hear so many people throwing that word around so much that it’s starting to lose it’s appeal. Everyone who selects clothes for a photo shoot wants to say they’re a stylist when i n reality, can’t pick out a decent look for themselves. I often find myself questioning how a person can come out of the house looking so tacky but then think someone will pay/use them to select clothes for them. But, I digress. Again, great post! You rock! 🙂

    Ta’keisha

  • Great article! No digression from me! Great insight/advice Love it! It is after all about seeing the VISION of the CLIENT through!

  • This is a great article. I live in Indianapolis and I am really interrsted in getting my foot in the door with personal/wardribe stylist. Is there way that you may be interested in hiring an intern? Please let me know.

    Thank you

  • I haven’t finished reading this post, yet. Just gonna let you know, I am saving this on my favorites. Why? I go to school in Indy, will be moving there permanently once I’m married in January 2016, and love fashion. I have been searching to find some kind of fashion job in Indy. I have always wanted to either be a stylist or designer. I do both, really. And I know that this is going to help me. I’ll post again, when I’ve read, let it settle in, and reflected. Xoxo. Madison.

  • I’m back. I have read it. I’m in a place in my life where major decision making has to be done and I know the work ahead of me. I’m ready. Thank you for this lovely post. I know it will help me immensely in my endeavors. Maybe when I’m back in Indy, we can meet one day. Id love to get to know you and shadow you if you would have me. This post means the world to me right now. Much love. Xoxox.

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