Behind The Scenes, Interiors

Becoming an interior stylist

Part Two: London

In the past few weeks I’ve sat down many times to write the second part of this story, but each time I’ve struggled to begin. Mainly because the details of my story aren’t easy to pick apart. My journey to the career I have today has been a constant uphill battle, with brief moments of feeling like I’ve reached the summit, only to realise there’s another mountain to climb. (If you haven’t read the first part of how I became a stylist, click here).

When we decided to leave Los Angeles and return to my hometown of London, it was around 2010 and we gave ourselves about a year to plan and organise. We finally ended up arriving in May 2011. I won’t bore you with the details of what it takes to move a family of four to a different continent on a limited budget with school age-children, but just assume it was a bloody nightmare, ok?

We sold our cars, gave away or sold most of our furniture, shipping as little as we could to London, as it is so expensive. We rented out our house in LA, arranged for our dog to fly six months after us once her papers were in order and did as much pre-planning as we could before we arrived. Again, the details of finding a home, schools, setting up bank accounts, bills etc isn’t what this piece is about, but let me just say it was SO SO SO hard and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone!

A few months before we arrived in London I started reaching out to magazine editors, agencies, and photographers and to my astonishment I managed to get a meeting with then Style Director of Living Etc magazine. For as long as I’d lived out of the UK (18 years) I’d coveted the magazine. As I said in part one, the American interiors market at the time lacked the eccentricity inherent in British design. This was before Pinterest, blogs, instagram and the myriad ways we now have to connect to global style. Treating myself to export copies of Living Etc was my way of staying in touch with the interiors style to which I felt most akin, especially when I was living in rural Texas for a couple of years when Ella was a baby! With the move back to London looming, I’d got it in my head that I wanted to work for the magazine. I even made a creative visualisation moodboard with that on it as a goal! I was obsessed with their editorial shoots – they were never just straight interiors shots, but always had an off the wall spin that I loved. That was the kind of styling I knew I was good at and I thought I’d be a perfect fit…

Fast forward a few months and I’d been in London for less than a week before I had my meeting at Living Etc. I couldn’t believe I was in the IPC building. I took my laptop and shared the portfolio I’d built at the time. It wasn’t the best portfolio but I felt that some of the shots showed my style and what I was capable of. Many of the shoots I’d been doing in the US were quite commercial which sometimes means not as creative. All the same, the meeting went well. I was told that I’d be a good fit for some freelance shoots and perhaps I could start on some of their smaller one page shoots and she’d be in touch. As you can imagine, I was over the moon!

Fast forward another couple of months and nothing transpired. I don’t know why, but it just didn’t happen. In the meantime I asked if I could tag along on one of their shoots to see how things work on an editorial shoot in London. I had very little experience in editorial, having only done house tour shoots for magazines in LA, not actual shopping/editorial sets. I went along for a couple of hours and tried to pay attention to everything – how was product organised? What were the assistants doing? How was the stylist interacting with the team? In retrospect, I probably looked a little creepy, wandering around ‘spying’! But I wanted to learn.

Then I caught wind that Living Etc were advertising for an interiors assistant at the magazine. I knew this would be a role that paid next to nothing, and I was probably a bit old to be in an assistant position, and overqualified to boot. But I convinced myself it could be the foot in the door I needed to jump start my career in the UK. I applied for the job, but was told I was overqualified, which I knew. But still it was a disappointment.

Over the course of the summer of 2011 the realisation that this wasn’t going to be easy started to sink in. Not that I’d ever thought it would be, but now it was becoming apparent that I’d have to start my career over from ground zero. I was in an odd place of having too much experience for some jobs yet not enough to actually get any of the shoots I was used to working on! It really was about who you knew and I didn’t know anyone. So I hit the pavement. I contacted established stylists and asked if I could assist, managing to get days here and there on editorial and commercial shoots, swallowing my pride and learning what I could. The money was awful. I also met with agencies who represented interiors stylists and photographers. My hope was that they would want to represent me, but as I didn’t have any UK clients to bring to the table, that didn’t happen. And my portfolio probably wasn’t good enough. Who knows. But they were extremely helpful and took the time to advise me and connect me with their photographers, suggesting I do some test shoots to create new imagery for my portfolio. (They also suggested I meet Ryland, Peters & Small who would later become my books’ publisher, but more on that later).

I met a handful of photographers for coffee (some of whom I work with or am in touch with to this day) over the coming weeks and quickly organised a test shoot with one of them. This particular photographer still worked part time at a studio in Shoreditch to supplement his photography income and so we were able to use the studio for a day for a test shoot. I pulled together some looks from my own props (in other words, my home) and clothes and we used some of the furniture in the studio. As it turns out, one of the images we created is still a favourite in my portfolio (it’s the one opening this post) perhaps because I had free reign to do exactly what I wanted and so my style shines through.

I did one more test with a different photographer and planned on doing a few more, but I had also been looking for something full-time as I really needed to be earning money and time was passing too quickly. Soon the kids would be in school again and I had to work. I was being sent on interviews by an interiors recruiting agency but the jobs were mostly interior design studios and as I wasn’t trained in any of the relevant computer programs this wasn’t going to work for me. Eventually I interviewed for a design assistant position at a very high-end office in Soho Square. The pay wasn’t great, but the project was interesting and the designer I’d be working with was herself very interesting and understood that I was a stylist, not an interior designer. It ended up being a win-win. They were struggling to keep an assistant on the job because the client and the project were very challenging. And I was struggling to find a design job that didn’t require extensive computer skills I didn’t have. I ended up there for a year and a half, working on a mansion in Hampstead whose design brief was something brilliant like Gothic Revival meets Rock n Roll. We were working with the best artisans in Britain, craftspeople who specialised in restoration, bespoke furniture makers, leather embossers, stained glass specialists, and…ahem…shark tank installers. Yeah it was like that. I won’t talk about the kind of money that was being thrown around. It will make you sick.

I didn’t love the job. Mainly because it was a style I didn’t understand or particularly like. And it was so against my ethos of not consuming that I really struggled with the frivolity of it all. Although on the plus side, they were keeping a lot of artisans in business whose crafts are dying. It was an interesting experience. I did a lot of research, spent a lot of time on 1stdibs sourcing antique lamps that cost more than my yearly salary; I spent time onsite with the contractors; I sourced bespoke textiles and passementerie from heritage brands who’d been around for centuries. But all the while I was trying to figure out how to get back to styling.

During this time I finally got a meeting with Ryland, Peters & Small, the publisher I’d contacted when I first arrived in London. I’d been told to visit them as they produced lots of books on interiors, cooking and crafts and it was suggested that maybe I could style some of their projects. When I finally met with the senior art director, we got along well and she seemed to like my portfolio. Rather than ask me to style for them on a freelance basis, she asked if I’d like to pitch interiors book ideas to them. Books that I might make with them – by me! I couldn’t believe it. Keep in mind that some of my favourite interiors books at the time were by Selina Lake and Emily Chalmers – two of their authors. In fact I’d emailed Selina Lake when I was in LA, asking if I could meet her when I moved to London (I never heard back). And later I’d find out one of my best friends from childhood was also friends with Emily and we would meet a number of times over the next few years. It really is such a small world.

Can you imagine how this felt? I’d taken a massive risk to move countries and it seemed like something great was going to happen. I’m a pathologically optimistic person and I always think something good is going to happen and now it seemed like it really could happen. I went away totally over the moon and began to think about book ideas. This was October 2011. I’d been in the country for less than six months, in my new job for about a month and now this. By January 2012 I’d sent over 5 pitches for book ideas, in time for their new titles meeting. I remember leaving their office after dropping off my proposals and walking to the bus making all sorts of bargains with a God I don’t really believe in: “If I get this, I promise I’ll never complain again, I’ll be so grateful, I’ll stop worrying so much, I’ll be happy…” By February I was told they loved one of my ideas and I received a sort of agreement in principle and was told that I’d get an official offer soon. I literally couldn’t believe this was happening.

While I’d been ‘waiting’, I’d also heard that Living Etc was advertising for a Senior Stylist, a full-time staff position. Still holding onto that dream, I reached out to my contact there and asked if I could apply. I eventually got to the interview round where I had to design and present ideas for a shoot based on a given brief. I worked my arse off on those mood boards! Having not worked on a magazine before I didn’t know the best way to present my ideas, so I just did what came naturally to me. Who knows what competition I was up against – I could’ve been really good or really bad! Bottom line, I didn’t get the job, so clearly not good enough! I was told it was close, but who really knows. I’m not going to lie, I was very disappointed. It was such a rollercoaster time – excitement because of the book, then worry that it may not happen, excitement about the magazine job, then the let down of not getting it, the day to day grind of a job I didn’t like that paid poorly… Never mind the whole being a mother part! That’s another story entirely.

Around about the same time as I got the book offer, I’d also agreed to do a talk for the Country Living Christmas 2012 Expo. I can’t remember if I sought it out or if it was one of those random things where someone I’d met put me forward for it. It wasn’t paid, but they give you the old chestnut, “it’s good exposure” and I was really trying to get myself out there so I agreed to do it. I would offer styling tips for Christmas and that sort of thing. It seems silly looking back but I was so nervous getting up in front of an audience and my nerves definitely showed! But I try to push myself and I knew that this would help me grow. I cringe when I think of how uncomfortable I was. I was bright red in the face with my voice doing that nervous wobbly thing while I talked about making your own Christmas tree ornaments and tried to focus on a friendly face in the audience! Perhaps it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. Ugh. But you have to start somewhere. Some people are natural public speakers and others – like me – had to learn. And learning usually means experiencing some painful failures. To this day, I still have to work myself up for speaking events and sometimes I get as nervous as I did that first time. But with experience and confidence you usually manage to ride it out and then the words flow.

Over the next year or so I worked on the crazy mansion project; I managed to get time off to shoot 13 houses with photographer Catherine Gratwicke for Modern Rustic in the UK and US; and I also squeezed in a few commercial shoots when they came up. I’d made a few contacts in the industry at this point so I’d get offers for shoots once in a while. I did a (paid) Christmas shoot for Matalan, one or two (unpaid) shoots for start-up magazines and generally tried to keep moving towards my goal of being a freelance stylist again. When it comes to unpaid work, sometimes you have to do a few freebies at the very beginning of your career to get in the door or to build your portfolio. But never continue to do this for an extended period of time. If there is need for a stylist on set (or styling assistant) then there should be budget for it. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

After a year and a half on the mansion project, with new styling contacts offering me work, I left and went back to freelance. I also signed on with an agent around this time. They got me some work, although not much. Many of my clients were through word of mouth. I wasn’t with the agency for very long, as you’ll see I was soon offered another full-time job.

I’d been referred to August Media for possible styling work. They created magazines for various brands including IKEA‘s family magazine. A childhood friend of my sister had told me about them because she used to work there, but I hadn’t followed up. But their name came up again via someone at my publisher and I finally got in touch. Over the next five years I would style many house shoots for them – like this one on a boat – travelling all over the world. I’d also been working with a design agency who’d been producing lots of bathroom shoots – this time a referral from one of the photographers I’d had coffee with when I first arrived in London. I think the lesson here is follow up on those suggestions and contacts! It really is about who you know. And being good at what you do and not a pain in the arse to work with, of course. Once you work with one agency and you do a good job, you’ll often get a call for projects they’re working on with other clients. For this very reason, many photographers and stylists are able to work without an agent representing them.

When it was time for the launch of Modern Rustic in Autumn 2013, I decided to reach out to Anthropologie to see if they’d be interested in hosting the book launch. Using as an intro my past job for them in LA (see last post) I got in touch with their press office and they were keen to host the event. The launch itself didn’t attract many people as no-one knew who I was – I mainly signed books for my family and friends! But on the same evening I also co-hosted a Modern Rustic wreath-making work shop with my friend florist Yolanda Chiaramello, to coincide with the launch and that proved popular.

I mention this launch because believe it or not it soon led to a job offer from Anthropologie. Just a couple of months later I got a call from the Managing Director of Anthropologie Europe. I had impressed someone at the company during the process of arranging my book launch and they wanted to discuss me taking a maternity cover position for one of the top creative positions in the UK side of the company, that of District Visual Manager. After a round of interviews with various heads of department, I was offered the job. It was a huge leap of faith for me as I didn’t feel I was experienced in all aspects of the job. I’d be managing all the visual teams of all the UK stores as well as overseeing new store openings which were planned for the UK and France. As usual I was in over my head and I had to figure it out. I went on to work for them for almost two years. At the exact same time I was offered this job, I had also pitched an idea for book number two (Bohemian Modern) and it had been given the green light. So I was in a brand new job that I didn’t know how to do and I had to travel for, style and write another book. And be a mum. And a wife. And take care of a very ill parent who would then pass away during my first week on the job. And our lovely French bulldog Gracie had recently been paralysed and was incontinent and couldn’t walk. I was unbelievably stressed.

I’m not really sure how I got through it. I ground my teeth down to stubs though, stressing in my sleep. I’m a firm believer in saying yes to opportunities and then figuring it out, but even for me this was intense. I was travelling constantly for my job and for the new book and working on some really fun installations with incredible teams in all the stores. My six month contract turned into a year and a half and I’m sure could’ve continued had I wanted to stay. But with the new book coming out soon and already thinking about book three, the lure of freelance got me again and I handed in my notice and returned to freelance styling. I stayed in touch with many of the people with whom I’d worked at Anthropologie and I’m so grateful for the experience, but at the end of the day I think I need the freedom that comes with working for myself, even though it also comes with zero security.

One of the last things I did for Anthropologie was design and install their press day show. It turned out that an agent who represents stylists came along and we got chatting. I said I’d just left the company and was going back to freelance and she said they were looking for a new stylist to join their roster. Too good to be true right? Well I joined them and stayed for the next three years. Between my contacts and a few new clients I got through them, I had a really busy year or two. Having an agent can be great if they’re actually getting your name out there. It’s not easy to find though – no-one can care about your career as much as you do. But having someone who presumably has the contacts to get your portfolio in front of the right people can really help. I went on to work for Primark, art directing all their homeware campaigns for three years. This was through an old friend who produced their shoots and put my name forward as a possible stylist. I also styled for Mothercare for a few good seasons, creating lovely kids’ rooms and nurseries for their catalogue, including Jules Oliver’s (Jamie’s wife) cute seventies inspired collections.

Having interiors books to my name helped me. Or rather, I used it to my advantage. It lent me legitimacy. If you have a book (or two) with your name on it, it counts for a lot. I may not have had the best portfolio, but I could create a book ffs! I started taking them to meetings with potential new clients and really trying to build a name for myself as a stylist/author. I had also just had my third book idea green lit. Life Unstyled, named after this very blog! Sadly it was also around this time that my marriage fell apart. In February 2016 I’d literally just finished shooting the homes for Life Unstyled when the shit hit the fan and I separated from my husband of almost 20 years. I was due to begin writing the book’s text the following week. Parts of that book were written in bed, crying and I may or may not have been drinking whiskey…

Strangely, my personal life was in turmoil, but my professional life was booming. I was working a lot and for the most part, really enjoying the projects. I was still travelling a lot for shoots which helped take my mind off things back home and more importantly I was making money. Important for a new chapter that would mean supporting my kids almost completely on my own.

When Life Unstyled came out in Autumn 2016 (it was a quick turnaround!), it was a huge relief. I’d made it through yet another difficult time and at least I had something I was really proud of to show for the pain. I didn’t think I’d write any more books even though I’d finally figured out the rhythm and best way to make one! Three seemed like a good number and what else would I write about anyway? I carried on styling and saving and taking care of my kids and trying to make a plan for this new unexpected chapter in my life.

2017 went on to be a bumper year for styling and events. I even wrote about it here because it was such an epic year. Lots of travel to places I’d never been (South Africa, Mexico, Berlin…) all for work; I went to Taiwan as a guest speaker and to teach styling workshops; and I worked on some great shoots. Then 2018 rolled in and it continued to be good until around the autumn when it slowed down. Like sort of dried up for a while. Like the phone stopped ringing and I wondered if people thought I’d moved or died. No-one I knew was speaking about it publicly (i.e. on social media where we all just lie about how great our lives are), but when I’d chat to photographers and stylists one-one-one, many would confess that things had been very slow for them as well. I blame Brexit. Can I please? Good, because otherwise I have to blame myself and consider that perhaps I’m not a good stylist or I’m past my expiry date and that would be depressing! The thing is, we’re not allowed to talk about when work is slow because god knows, everyone has to look busy! Look busy or no-one will think you’re any good, seems to be the train of thought. Which is silly. But we all abide by this rule for some reason. As a freelance stylist there will be ups and downs, so don’t fall into the trap of thinking everyone else is busier than you. Comparing yourself to the careers other people pretend to have is a waste of time.

The last year has been odd for work. All or nothing. I’ve had very quiet spells followed by shoots with the most high profile clients of my entire career. It’s been weird. But this is the gamble you take when you choose a freelance life. I sometimes day dream about having a regular pay check, a pension, paid holidays. But then I remember what you have to give up for that. I remember how much I like working for myself, setting my own rules and goals. I like being around more for my kids when I’m not working. And this is what you need to know about this life, whether it’s as a stylist or any other freelance creative role. There is no guarantee. No-one is going to make it happen for you. You can’t sit around and hope you get discovered. You have to put yourself out there, over and over again, possibly for your whole career and it can be exhausting. It takes resilience and determination and all those other buzzwords you read in self-motivational books. You may have good years and you may have bad years and you may have to reinvent yourself many times over to keep up with the changing tide of trends. But it is a choice.

As many of you know I didn’t stop at three books. I decided I wanted to torture myself one more time so I made Be Bold which came out last Autumn and made it onto some great book lists including this one, best non-fiction of 2018. I’ve continued to build my client list (Click here to see) also continued to work with Graham & Green, styling for their catalogues and website as well as hosting events in their stores to promote my books and their products. Recently I finished a mammoth TV commercial shoot for a company who I can’t yet name but it’s big; I styled a Young Versace campaign, sourcing cool furniture for the little models to climb on; a Silver Cross Christmas shoot; I decorated the inside of a giant doll’s house for Wedding Present Company; and styled luxury textiles for de Le Cuona. All very different projects. Some stylists prefer to work in one particular area – interiors or lifestyle, props for fashion shoots, food shoots for cookbooks. I tend to say yes to all of it. For me it’s the variety that keeps it interesting. Whether my brief is to style entire studio sets, dress real people’s homes for tv, choose a sofa and chairs for a fashion shoot or decorate a Christmas tree, I am really pretty happy. I like working and I try to remember how lucky am I to get paid pretty well to do any and all of these things.

Even though this has been a long post, there is still so much I have left out (or forgotten), so if at any time it seemed like things just happened for me (does it really though??), know that it wasn’t like that. It was and still is a slog, but a beautiful slog that keeps me on my toes. If you’re looking for an easy life, take a different path. But if you have a natural talent for interiors and you’re ambitious, hard working and you thrive on change and instability then this may be the career for you. I wish you so much luck if you’re starting out on the road to becoming a stylist! There is no singular path to making it happen which is why I’ve focused on simply sharing my story in the hope that it inspires or gives hope to even one of you. Anthony Burrill says it best: Work hard & be nice to people.

Feel free to comment or email me with any questions. xoxo

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1 Comment

  • Reply carmen September 10, 2019 at 2:10 pm

    Ahh Emily. Loved reading this; thank you so much for sharing. So pleased things are looking up after the dark period!

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