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Why Mentorship Matters

The world runs on networks. People you’ve worked with in the past who refer you, folks you chatted with at an event who follow up months or even years later, the friend of a friend who heard that you’re just the person to solve their problem. It’s impossible to know all the ways your network will shape the opportunities that are what, over time, make a career. But how to get started? How do you get yourself in front of that first person who’s going to pay you for your services? How do you build not only your skill set, but your confidence in the work that you do? Through the process of mentorship, these are some of the questions I am helping young folks answer.

Unfortunately, despite my desire to help everyone who wants to be helped, there are real limits on my time and energy. Since it’s not realistic for me to develop a mentorship relationship with everyone who might benefit from one, I’ve had to make decisions about where to focus my energies. I believe in the importance of diversity and inclusion, and when I started as a wardrobe stylist, the local Pittsburgh tv/film union crew members were not a diverse bunch. I decided to center my mentorship efforts on folks identifying as women, queer, and/or BIPOC.

These young people may not have the funds for college; or perhaps college wouldn’t be a good fit. I take particular joy in helping creative and ambitious people find ways they can develop their skill sets that are affordable. There are a lot of young folks who know they have a passion for style and fashion but don’t know the various avenues and challenges that a career in clothing can take or present. Or perhaps they have a clear idea about where they want to get but no idea how to get there. I feel that my role as a mentor is to educate them on the variety of career options, listen to their response about the one(s) that sound the most interesting to them, and work out a concrete plan to help them on their journey while providing consistent support along the way.

My path to working in commercial wardrobe styling and personal styling was certainly not a straight line. I have always loved clothes, particularly vintage, so the first stop on my journey was opening a vintage clothing store where I sourced all of the items I sold. I also grew up in theatre and transitioned into acting in commercials in my early 20s. On one of these jobs, I met my wardrobe stylist, Montie. He became a regular customer at my store, Kharisma Vintage Fashions. About five years later I was ready for my next career move and reached out to him to learn more about wardrobe styling. Montie immediately took me under his wing, training me and becoming my first styling mentor. The opportunities that came from his guidance instilled in me the power of mentorship and encouraged me to give back. After I grew my skill set and solidified myself as a wardrobe and personal stylist in Pittsburgh, I began to train others.

There’s a lot to be said for on-the-job learning, but having someone in your corner who has been through it already is invaluable. When mentoring young folks on commercial wardrobe styling, I answer questions like:

  • What should be in my set kit?

  • What are the important questions to ask before accepting a job?

  • How do you talk to actors about fit and sizing (pro-tip: never trust a size card) before you start shopping, especially when you’re not going to have a fitting?

  • How to plan your shopping instead of just getting a cast and racing to the mall; you have to be methodical about where to pull options for different kinds of characters, otherwise the best-laid budget will be left far behind.  

For me, the process of mentorship has looked different in every relationship. Jillian, one of my first assistants, was brought to me by the universe. I kept running into her her at music events and always noted her well-developed sense of personal style. When she mentioned that she was interested in a career in fashion but didn’t really know what that could look like, I asked if she would want to try out assisting me on a commercial shoot. She said yes and we immediately clicked. After assisting me for several years, it became clear that she had grown beyond being an assistant and was ready to venture out on her own. She joined the union to work on tv/film productions, and eventually moved to Los Angeles, where she continues to work in the in industry. Her resume is diverse; she’s worked on movies, tv, national commercial spots, a Super Bowl halftime show, etc. She’s always looking for the next opportunity and isn’t afraid to try anything.

Jillian brought Alia into my orbit. She was an extra on a film Jillian was working on and came to set with her 1990’s outfit fully realized. Jillian knew she had the eye of a stylist and introduced us. She was interested in editorial work and more high concept wardrobe styling. I encouraged her to work on student films as a way to build her reel. I also connected her with a local editorial incubator to create additional opportunities to build her editorial portfolio. I brought her to commercial sets as an intern. I was able to connect her with my network in New York (where she wanted to move) which further expanded her opportunities beyond my direct connections. We had ongoing conversations where I could offer continued support about where she should focus her energies, what she should be charging, evaluating opportunities, and so on. She eventually moved to New York and has been crushing it, working as a costume designer and stylist.

Zen thought she wanted to work in tv//film production. She’d had a corporate job in fashion but didn’t feel fulfilled and wanted to try something different. An old mentor of mine suggested that she contact me. I helped her make connections to get on the permit list for the wardrobe department (generally the first step to eventually getting into the union). She worked on several large productions, and joined the union. But along the way, she realized that kind of work wasn’t for her. (This isn’t unusual; it’s not for a lot of people.) Even though that kind of work turned out to not be something she was interested in, she gave it a good faith effort and was able to eliminate it without wondering if she was missing out on her calling. Instead, she discovered that her real passion was for helping people heal through self-reflections and positive thinking and has thrown herself into building her YouTube channel and developing a personal brand.

The rewards of mentorship work both ways; I’m continually amazed at the things that I learn from my mentees. Knowledge about new fashion trends, changes in technology and social media, new ways of articulating needs and respecting boundaries, are all areas where these relationships that fall outside of my everyday life have enriched me. There’s also the satisfaction that comes from watching other folks succeed and find their paths. Everyone’s journey is different and it’s really fun to see everyone thriving in their own ways. And it’s always helpful to build relationships with people who understand the struggles and joys of a creative, self-directed career path.

Goals of mentorship

  • Help you figure out what you don’t want to do: elimination is as importing as inclusion. For example, tv/film production work isn’t for everyone. The hours are long, the work is hard, work/life balance illusive, burnout is real. But some people love it. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t.

  • Where are the holes in your experience: do you need to build your reel? A website? Get experience on set?

  • How can I use my network to help you? Who do I know that’s doing what you want to do? Do I know someone who can sublet a room to you in a new city? Did I work with a producer who’s looking for an assistant? Can I write you a reference for a job application?

  • Be a sounding board. Adulting is hard enough before you add the particular pitfalls of freelance life. Folks who have always had traditional 9 to 5 jobs don’t always understand the ins and out of a more non-traditional career.

  • Budgeting. I budget so hard and teach my mentees how to, too. Freelance work often involves cycles of feast and famine; learning the discipline to manage those funds is probably the single most important lesson I can impart to people.

  • Setting you on a path that resonates with/fulfills you.


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