'This Job Is an Addictive Nightmare': Fashion Assistants Share Their Horrifying Stories
Three fashion assistants tell us about the hell they go through in pursuit of their dreams.
This article originally appeared on VICE France.
If the world of fashion is a jungle, assistants are like the rodents scavenging for insects on the forest floor—constantly hungry, vulnerable to all sorts of predators, and barely equipped with enough adaptations to survive. Almost invisible but necessary, these people consciously decide to put their self-respect aside in the hopes of one day becoming a carbon copy of their boss. Despite the constant psychological and physical torture they are subjected to, the amount of respect they have for their guru generally has no limits.
To better understand what motivates these human beings to voluntarily submit to other human beings, I got in touch with some fashion assistants I know and asked them to share their experiences of working in fashion. (Of course, none of the people I interviewed agreed to disclose their identity or that of their bosses, so all names have been changed.)
I started working as a fashion assistant when I was about 20. I mostly worked for free. That is how it is in fashion—nobody gets paid at the beginning. I always knew that it would be difficult, but I was motivated and determined to succeed. My job is assisting a famous stylist, helping them choose each season's trends and create stories and looks for magazine editorials.
That makes Fashion Week a race. You have to follow the stylist you're working for everywhere, memorize all the looks, see them again after and select the important pieces. You have to be their brain. The trick is to make friends with their personal driver—they can literally save your life. If the driver likes you, they will help you get to every show on time, bring you anything you might have forgotten, even get you a bite to eat—it's easy to starve yourself during Fashion Week, as you don't ever get one free moment.
When you work on a shoot, you are the one responsible for 70 percent of the workload. Sourcing the pieces, preparing the looks, calling PRs who after a while also become your best friends, dressing the models or celebrities, cleaning the studio... everything! You're constantly under pressure.
Once, on a Friday night, my boss changed all the themes that had been chosen for a shoot taking place the next day. I had to call in favors from all my PR friends, beg, and shout and run to create new looks from scratch. Of course I didn't sleep a wink all night. I almost cried when a PR could not get me a specific dress from a great couture house out of our selection. If you fail, you're fired. What you can never forget is that you have a job everyone wants, so you are totally replaceable.
This job is an addictive nightmare. My relationship with my boss can largely be likened to Stockholm syndrome. I just can't say no to anything they ask, no matter how absurd the demand is. Another stylist I used to work for when I started got me to reply to her boyfriend's sexts.
It's not all horrific though: In the same way that relationship is abusive, it can also become really sweet and personal. Each time I've fell sick, my bosses have been really protective and considerate. Once, one of them even bought me some Paracetamol because I had a fever. I tell myself that they aren't cruel, they are just people who know what they want. I accept all this because my goal is to be a star stylist, just like them.
Sébastien, 23, assistant designer
I have been passionate about fashion since I was ten years old. In a way, I live for fashion. When I was 20, I started to work with some relatively known stylists for French and British magazines. I was only paid 100 euros [about $112] per month, so I decided to try and get a job at a couture house to make a better living.
I started as the second assistant of the designer—to sum it up, it was like being the assistant of the assistant. I spent my time paying bills, buying Coke Zero, picking up laundry, walking the designer's dog, buying pens, sharpening pencils, changing flowers, and making Italian coffee (he only drank Italian coffee). Basically, I did everything but design.
I would not even see the designer, let alone the clothes. No—actually, I did see the clothes during fittings before the shows, where my responsibilities included picking up needles from the floor and folding the pieces.
During the shows, everybody is stressed out and tired. But you cannot let it go it in front of the designer. They need to be calm and you need to do everything in your power to allow their genius to manifest itself.
Of course, there are no working hours. During the shows, I get to work by 7 AM and never leave before 11 PM—sometimes it's way after 2 AM. I never complain: Secretly, the whole ordeal gives me a little pleasure.
There is something very exciting about working for big couture houses, close to influential fashion figures. Especially during fashion week season—it might be tiring but it's also an extremely creative time. I actually love working in fashion.
Juliette, 25, assistant to a world-famous stylist
It's a dog's job. The first time the famous stylist I currently assist saw me, she didn't talk to me. The second time, we had a coffee to talk about what was coming next. I really wanted to work for her. I admired her taste and her work. She told me: "I have to warn you, I am not like everyone else. I am really strict. I have no patience for lazy people and I expect a lot. Do you still want to work for me?" Obviously, I said yes.
The main part of my job is to prepare for shoots. Sometimes, I am asked to create a story with pieces that don't even exist: I call up PRs and they don't know what I am talking about. The worst time is the day before the shoot. She usually hasn't done anything to involve herself in the process and suddenly comes to me with all sorts of remarks and tricky questions just to show that she's the boss. If I don't respond in a clever way, she can cut me down in an instant. But at the end of the day, I respect her because she's talented. I know that it will be thanks to her that I will be able to create a great contact network for myself and succeed. Plus, she often lets me take care of the shoes and accessories, which I think is nice.
We have a very particular relationship. She often asks for my advice but at the same time I can never overstep my place as her assistant. I've noticed that the people who have power in the world of fashion, those who are respected and admired, are often like children. They always need to be comforted, they have whims and they can not stay alone for long.
It could be worse. When you work for a magazine, you're stuck between your evil fashion editor boss and the rest of the manipulative, jealous assistants who only dream about one thing: you failing. At least where I am, I am on my own.