How to become a prop stylist

I get this question every week and I have been meaning to do a post on it for like eight years: How do you become a prop stylist?

I once did a “Day in the Life of a Prop Stylist” post, which was really popular and will give you even more information and insight into what the job entails (schlepping and ‘bringing options’), so check that out if you are more curious.

So, how do you get into prop styling in the first place? That’s the million dollar question. Obviously, you don’t major in it in college and there are no trade schools for it (although, yes, I’ve definitely thought of doing weekend workshops a la Blogshop). It’s one of those weird jobs that you don’t really know exists, although it’s becoming wildly more popular because of blogging, and a lot more people are calling themselves stylists these days. It can be a really great job because you are shopping and resourcing and playing with pretty things for a living. But, that’s if you can make a living and that’s if you get the jobs where you get to play with pretty things.  I’ll get into that in a different post.

As far as I see it there are three major routes you can take:

1. Get a job at Martha Stewart Living, the magazine.  This is the only magazine that has many on-staff stylists (Domino used to and the new quarterly might, not sure, Lonny and Rue‘s editor’s style some of their’s) but everyone else hires mainly freelance stylists.

 

Martha Stewart may not be everyone’s cup of stuffy English breakfast tea in a Victorian gold leafed teacup, but it’s undeniable that the people that work there, the stylists they have on staff, the photo editors, art directors, and the photographers they hire are some of the best in the world and are insanely talented. The level of obsession over styling is beyond your imagination. It’s like the doctorate program for styling.

After working there your connections are amazing and your portfolio is beautiful. One of the hardest things about getting good jobs is having a good portfolio, and you need to work with good photographers in order to have a good portfolio, so this covers that.

Cindy Diprima, my former boss, worked at Martha for five years, and when she left she had a pretty steady freelance career almost immediately because she so was well known in the industry and photographers would request her constantly. It trains you to be one of the best.

Scott Horne, one of my best friends, also went on staff for a while at BluePrint and Living at different times and has been booked solid ever since.

Pam Morris, Kendra Smoot, Rebecca Robertson, Rebecca Thuss, Brian Andriola, Melanie Gomzez, Megan Hedgpeth, Molly Fitzsimmons … all were on staff at Martha and now have steady freelance careers and beautiful portfolios.

So pack your bags, move to New York, and compete for a very coveted entry level job at Martha where you’ll work your ass off for $30,000 a year (no, I don’t know that for sure, but it’s not a lot at first). It’s a risk and it’s competitive, but once you do that you are pretty much guaranteed a career. Also it doesn’t hurt if you are Mormon — read this post about Martha and Mormons that I wrote two years ago that is still one of my most popular.

2. Assist a freelance stylist long enough to go out on your own. This is what i did. I was working at Jonathan Adler where I met stylists who were renting furniture and pottery from us, and after realizing that my soul was meant to shop for a living, I contacted them. I had what I remember to be a really compelling cover letter, which is the only reason I got hired because I wasn’t really qualified for the job. It was just good timing and Cindy took a chance on me. She hired me as a second assistant for a couple days and then I quickly became her number one.

As a freelance stylist’s assistant you are booked by the job for a certain amount of days. The rate is anywhere from $150 to $350 per day (for high end ad jobs), but it’s almost always $200 – $250. You are normally booked prep days and shoot days, like two prep, two shoot, and one “return” day (which you guessed it, you spend doing all the returns).

If you get booked consistently with the same person you can work a lot (20 days a month maybe, if not more) and it can be a really awesome way to learn and make a good living. You are often juggling a LOT of jobs at the same time, prepping for multiples jobs, wrapping up multiple jobs, and trying to keep track of everything. And trust me, there is A LOT to keep track of.

The benefits of this is that you are paid to learn on the job from someone with experience. You still get to be around those amazing photographers and art directors, plus you can meet photo assistants (which are up and coming photographers), and you can start building relationships with them. The variety of jobs that you’ll be exposed to is HUGE. Some days we were recreating a Long Island beach in the middle of the studio with 100 huge bags of sand (that we then had to dispose of) and some days we were obsessing over the perfect perfume bottle for that still life shot.

 

styled by Cindy Diprima

Whereas, if you are on staff at Martha it’s going to be a lot of beautiful still life shots, entertaining, interiors, and food, but less variety in styles or weird set building.

After four years I was ready to “go out on my own” and I was extremely lucky because Cindy was overly booked and basically just started giving me the jobs that she wanted to turn down, and since the clients all knew me, they gave me a shot. But what you would normally do is get a portfolio and website together and shop around to agents and send promos to photographers and editors until someone takes a chance on you. But assisting helps because they all have met you.

Again, this happens in mainly in New York, some in San Francisco, some in LA, but I’m not sure about anywhere else. I don’t mean to be discouraging, just realistic. If you want to be a movie star move to LA, if you want to be in the tech industry move to Silicon Valley, and if you want to be a successful stylist move to New York. Obviously there are exceptions, but it’s just the fastest route to real success.

Yes, I live in LA and of course there is work here, but I also had been trained as a New York stylist and I had lots of connections when I moved out here (nor do I really style any more). It’s just harder in LA. The lifestyle magazine industry isn’t here. Instead its the celebrity industry and the movie industry, and while those jobs aren’t bad at all, shopping and bringing 25 mugs to set for Kim Kardashian to pretend to sip from is a lot less rewarding.

OK, so if you don’t live in one of those major cities nor do you want to move there … here’s your option:

3.  Create an online brand with cache. Something enticing enough that brands will be interested and take a chance on hiring you even though you live in Portland/Austin/Louisville …

I’ve seen this happen more and more. You basically use an online platform (blog) to show your work in a way that makes you compelling. You would need to test with photographers in order to get work to post. Testing means that you are doing it strictly for everyone’s portfolio, no one gets paid, and everybody pays what they need to — the food stylist buys the food, the prop stylist buys/rents the props, the fashion stylist pays for the clothes, and the photographer pays for an assistant or processing, etc.

Testing is crucial because you are in total in control, it’s so creative, and you get your best work. Even some of the best photographers and stylists in the world test now and again to do something extra creative or to expand their brand into a category they weren’t getting booked in.

This method of getting into the industry wasn’t around when I started assistant (ten years ago).  And there are a lot of people trying to do it, but I’m not sure how successful it is as of now.  I think it has worked for some stylists (and photographers) because cool brands are starting to notice influential bloggers and the photographers they use. Will Target hire you to style their next ad campaign (which is a very good job to get)?  Probably not for a while, but Rue might have a shoot in your home town and need a local stylist and see your blog and think, “Huh, she/he always does interesting things. She’s always producing new work and being creative, maybe she’d want to style a party shoot” and thus it begins.

You could always be a contributing editor at an online magazine (where you can work remotely from anywhere) and then after a couple years when you’ve built a name for yourself and a portfolio go freelance. Anne Sage, for instance, helped start Rue and now she is freelance styling (and writing and being a general renaissance woman).

The drawback of this is that you don’t learn the ins and outs of a photo shoot and what the potential could be. For instance there are photographers that have assisted amazing photographers in New York and know exactly how to use light, play with a bounce cards, strobes lights, etc., etc. to create truly breathtaking lifestyle shots. They know exactly what angle to use and what time of the day to use it.

They don’t teach you that in school and there just isn’t really anywhere else to learn it except for in the field.  If you go out and buy an awesome camera and start shooting you won’t necessarily ever learn or even know what you could be doing to make the photo even more beautiful.

So while this method might be the most attainable, it’s also limiting as you aren’t learning from people that are truly experts in the field.

I also really believe that there are some artists that just have it innate in them and will be successful because they just get it.  So hopefully you are one of those.

Obviously I’m generalizing here a lot, and I know there are exceptions to everything. I know that there are some stylists in Portland, Atlanta and Chicago that are working and have great careers. They never moved to New York, they never assisted. There are always anomalies and leaders out there that just make it happen, but I have to be honest that most glossy magazines, most catalogues, and most advertising producers would rather fly in someone they know that is a total pro before they take a chance on someone. It’s like how Broadway hires LA movie actors instead of hiring a local Broadway actor — when you have a high budget and when the job is great, you want the best in the business and what is going to get the best results (or sell the most tickets :)).

If you aren’t sure if you like it or are good at it and don’t want to take a major risk yet? Contact local etsy store owners and volunteer to style their shots. Hire a photographer to shoot your house and style it all out. Start small and see if it’s something that you have a knack for and really enjoy doing. You might learn enough to  tell you whether you should pursue it or not.

Does that about cover it? Ask questions in the comment field and I’ll try an get to them either today or in a separate post.  And again if you are curious what a day in the life of a stylist is like, read this post.

  1. Cindy

    I just read your "Martha and Mormons" post and sent the link to a friend saying "I KNEW IT!" b/c, of course! Also, I have "I am a child of god…" now stuck in my head, randomly.

    Love you and your blog!

  2. Thanks for taking the time to write this! Just a month or two ago I was googling "how to become a prop stylist" and "prop stylist assistant". Not much was showing up – mostly fashion styling stuff. How do retailers feel about all those returns after the shoot? I thought people get blacklisted if they return items too frequently (I remember having to show my ID every time I returned something to UO – maybe they keep track?).

  3. Oh Emily this is great! As one of those aspiring to make a living as a "budding" stylist, this is definitely the most practical article I've ever read. Basically soaking up every bit of related info like this is a must, along with following people you admire/think are successful (follow them like the plague!). Thanks so much for taking the time to write such a piece.

    And if you need an assistant in MO or CO, I got your back…. :)

  4. Beth French

    Hi Emily- I might just be a budding stylist- but barely even popping out of the ground. I live in Portland, OR and would love to know your fav peeps here. I naturally love to style my home and friends's homes. I am considering what some baby steps might be toward doing some more official styling. I love your blog idea and have contemplated this for awhile. But mostly I would LOVE to work/volunteer part time with someone to get a better feeling for the career. I LOVE what you do and am inspired each day by your posts! Thank you… you are a lovely creative genious! Best- Beth

  5. Beth

    Hi Emily,

    I love your posts- they are always so informative! My question about the styling industry is if there seems to be an age cut-off for entry level work. I currently work in the television industry, and find that it's extremely rare to see productions hire an assistant who's past their 20's- in fact I've never seen it happen. As someone about to enter their 30's, I'm curious if you've noticed the same ugly truth in the styling industry? Would you recommend a different avenue other than assistant for those of us who may come to styling at a later age, from other professions?

    Thanks again,
    Beth

  6. Jodi

    Emily! Perfect post timing! I was driving to work today, thinking about your fab blog and pondering this very thing. Thanks for all of the insight and great information. Also thought I'd share my latest project with you. http://wp.me/p2d23R-3k
    Keep up the awesomeness.
    All my best,
    Jodi

  7. emily henderson

    @beth French I know that Chelsea Fuss (Frolic blog) styles and if she doesn't then im sure she knows who in Portland does. I know there are couple others, but i don't remember their names. Good luck!

    @beth (#2) yes, its something i struggle with. At first the pay is bad and you don't know when it will get better and yet you know the expectations are higher/faster at 30 then they were at 21. The fear is that the work is so unglamorous that people are afraid that you'd (the perverbial 'you') get over it fast, or expect to rise fast or are overqualified. Its hard for me to ask someone older than me to do something menial. i'm getting better, i am. But i think if you can tell them, with such confidance and certainty that you don't expect to do anything fun at first and that you are willing to do anything then you have a chance in the door.

    Its not you, its the many many people that have been in your shoes that have indeed ruined it for everyone by not wanting to do the work and have indeed thought they were above it (which they probably were, a lot of it is shit). Don't give up, just prove it to them and meanwhile ask yourself do you really want to do that work and are you really showing your willingness because maybe you think you are but you aren't. That's happened to me before where someone was like, 'i was willing to do anything' and i remember thinking 'no, you definitely weren't.'

    I hope that helps….. :)

  8. If you're young… i agree with Emily, move to NYC (or a big city). I used to hire stylists when I lived in Chicago & worked for an ad agency. I always thought it was what I was meant to do. I became an assistant stylist in Minneapolis (Target headquarters)…and learned the ropes from a very talented stylist. After making connections with a few key photographers, I was able to build my portfolio. I'm now in North Carolina and styling primarily for furniture companies. In this marketplace I think you always need to diversify + utilize your skills in many different ways. Somedays I'm a stylist… sometimes a blogger, interior designer, shop girl or visual merchandiser. THANKS for the post Emily. Hope my comment helps someone somewhere.

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