Ashlee started in production and then went on to assist Poppy Kain, Gillian Wilkins at Russh, Julia Sarr Jamois at i-D, Tom Guinness, and then fashion director of Harper's Bazaar, Leith Clark, who is now at the Violet Book. Ashlee is currently based in London and is the junior fashion editor at the Violet Book.
This interview took place via Skype between Tate in New York and Ashlee in London
Editor: Lara Arbid
TVPS: How did you get to where you are today?
AH: I’m originally from Australia, grew up in the UK, and then went back to Australia to study fashion design at university. While I was at university, I’d always come back to the UK over breaks and intern for a production company. After I had graduated they offered me a job as a junior producer, so I started in that role and worked there for about 2 years. It was great because it gave me the fundamental tools for being an assistant. I learned how to stay organized, write strong emails, communicate effectively and be a good team player. I had an immense amount of respect for what they did, but I was never very passionate about becoming a producer.
Since I wanted to be in styling, I had to get out there myself and eventually start freelancing. One of the first jobs that I worked on was in New York with Poppy Kain. Which was cool because it was also my first time in New York.
How did it go?
Really well! But At the time Poppy had just left assisting Venetia Scott, so she didn’t need a full-time assistant. She ended up recommending me to another stylist, Stevie Westgarth, and I worked with him for about 6 months. Then I found a position with Gillian Wilkins, who was the fashion director at Russh Magazine at the time. I was with her for about 2 years.
Were you between Australia and the UK? or...
Just the UK because that’s where Gillian’s office was located which was a bit of a challenge when it came to communicating with PR’s. UK PR’s we could talk to all day but New York PR’s would open at 2pm and then with Australia you’d wake up in the middle of the night and answer emails at 4am. We would always be working on quite a few projects at once, which would add to the craziness.
It was definitely a 24/7 job and pretty hectic. But I loved it. Then when Gillian moved to New York, we parted ways. It was good timing because I realized that by then I had learned everything that I needed from that position at that time. I feel like when you’re not progressing anymore and you feel like you can do that job with your eyes closed you know, it’s the right time to move on.
So then I started doing more freelance work, and later I became Julia Sarr Jamois’s first assistant at i-D. I was with her for about 8 months, before a job opportunity came up as the Junior Fashion Editor at The Violet Book, which is where I am now. I still do some freelance work with Julia, and just recently started working a lot with Tom Guinness. It was definitely a conscious decision to freelance only with people whose work I really admire. Right now I’m trying to do more of my own work and working towards identifying my own style.
Circling back to your position at Russh magazine in London. Can you go into detail about your role there?
My role on the masthead was Fashion Director's Assistant. But I basically worked as Gill's first assistant in addition to Russh work. I worked on all of her shoots, which included cover shoots, main fashion shoots and extra stories within an issue. I also worked with contributors that Gill would bring on board. Production was a part of my job as well, so it was good to have my previous production skills under my belt. Gill was Lucinda Chambers first at British Vogue years ago and still does a lot of work for international Vogue’s. So we’d always be working on editorials for them as well.
So your prior experience with production ended up benefiting you?
100%. It gave me the tools to be a better assistant. When interviewing I think it gave me a step ahead as well because people like to see that on a resume. The skills learned in production are invaluable for assisting creative people, especially because it’s all about organization and structure which teaches you how to be a good assistant. It’s also important to know how to treat people on set, and especially how to deal with people who can be a bit difficult.
People skills can be the most important to have.
Yeah, you really have to be aware of what you say and when. It’s definitely something you learn with experience over time when you’re assisting. It’s important to give the stylist and the photographer physical space on set to do their thing and bring their vision to the shoot. You have to step back and let them know you’re in their eye line but not in their way.
How was Russh’s company culture?
It was literally just Gill and I, so it was a bit tricky because I always felt the distance between the office and us. The office was in Australia, and we were so far away from there, so it’s really difficult to liaise with a company you work for that’s in a different country. It’s definitely tricky to not have the physical support of a whole team, but I was still happy in that environment. Working with different time zones was a struggle though, especially with PR’s, but it was lovely working together so closely. We became really good friends as a result of working like that.
Can you tell me about your role at i-D and how was it there?
Everybody at the i-D offices are amazing. Julia calls in a lot of samples, which can sometimes be challenging but so many PR’s are incredibly supportive because her work is amazing. That definitely makes the call in process easier. There was definitely quite a lot to juggle when it came to sample trafficking. But because of it I also got to do some incredible shoots with her. I went to Senegal in Africa for a shoot, which was unbelievable. It can go down in history as one of the best shoots that I have been on. Such an eye opening experience.
It was unbelievable. I flew with a crazy amount of suitcases and met Julia who was already out there with Harley Weir who shot the story. It was just a team of us 3 girls for the shoot. They had been shooting a feature with Grace Wales Bonner for 2 days prior so Grace was with us for a day or 2 in the beginning.
Oh, I love her.
She's the best. I've been working with her recently with Tom Guinness, who styles Grace’s shows.
What is it like to work with Tom?
He’s awesome. A really nice guy. I feel really lucky, because I jumped on board with Tom at the time that he started getting really busy and gaining a lot of momentum, shooting for magazines and teams that I really like and enjoy being a part of. He's the nicest man to work with. He's so chill and laid back and incredibly talented. It makes working in a sometimes hectic environment, so much more enjoyable. His eye is really unexpected and I like watching how he puts pieces together, in a way I would never even think to do. We worked on Grace's last show, which was so good, watching her work is amazing.
I first met her in Senegal with Harley and we shot a series with Grace's graduate collection on wrestlers in Senegal right before we shot another story there as well. There were these unbelievably beautiful men; really burly men in Grace's graduate collection wrestling in this incredible pink lake in Dakar. It's pink because of the amount of salt that's in it.
How did you do the street casting? Would you all split off and divide and conquer, or...
Julia had a friend who did production on the shoot. He’s from Senegal and he had just shot a film in Dakar so came along and helped. He would take Julia and Harley off in the mornings and they’d find men and women and children in the markets, on the streets. Anywhere. I would get into this old van in the mornings with all the cases tied to the top; no one spoke English so I wouldn’t know where I was going. We’d be buying peanuts from the street vendors begging at the windows of the van for our breakfast. Then we’d get to some school or youth club or hall and have old hangers and a dodgy little rail to set everything out. It was totally ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ but totally added to the experience.
For the 2nd shoot, did it feel weird being in a 3rd world country and mixing the people they’re with very high-end, expensive labels?
It was interesting. The people we shot pieces on didn’t care about the clothes. Why would they? It didn’t matter to them that something was from Gucci’s most recent collection or that one of the jackets cost more than my rent for a year. It was nice to have people who didn’t even consider any of the things that I would consider. Like ‘oh my God, please be careful with that, it’s a sample and I’ll get killed by the PR if it get’s lost or dirty or broken’. It’s a dose of reality on what actually really matters. They would put boots on, and they'd put the wrong foot in each shoe. I’ve never met more happy people who have so little in their lives. There was one night that we shot at the end of the day in a fish market, and we had this beautiful girl dressed in a J.W. Anderson look, and she's standing in front of this huge mound of burning fish with all this smoke everywhere. The sun was setting. It was definitely one of those pinch me moments.
How was the company culture at i-D?
Everybody is really lovely. You bond off of the experiences and the stress that you have within our environment. I feel like that with a lot of people and my friends who are assistants. It's not about pushing anyone in front of buses, or being bitchy. I've never had that experience in my world, and I just think it's very neat that at the end of the day we can all come together and have a moan about our lives and know exactly where each of us is coming from.
What have you learned from Poppy?
Poppy is amazing. She is unbelievably talented and incredibly meticulous. She inspires me not to be lazy, and that every single thing you do and put out there in this world should be exactly how you want it to be; exactly how you saw it in your mind and that your choices and decisions throughout your career should really be considered choices and decisions. I’ve been so influenced by the professionalism and thoroughness in her work. She’s an incredible mentor, she always makes herself available and we have a wonderful friendship that’s grown from our time together.
While assisting all of these really incredible and influential people, how have you been able to develop your own aesthetic and point of view for your work?
When I first started doing my own work I was under the impression that more was better. Layer it all up. Once I started working with other stylists though it taught me to strip back and that more wasn't necessarily better all the time. Add eccentricity to your work in other ways. I feel like from that my work is becoming more considered. My friend and incredibly talented photography Anna Victoria Best brought that out of me too. She pushes me to pull back a little. I hope that people can look at my work and go, "Well, that looks like Ashlee Hill’s work." I would love to keep working this way.
Can you give an example of having more considered work?
Whenever Poppy does any editorial she does fittings, where she’ll go through all of the looks prior to shooting. I never used to think that was necessary and I know a lot of stylists who don’t work like that. I now understand how important and helpful this can be. All of the decisions Poppy makes are really thought about. I like to try to consider things a little bit more nowadays. I like to familiarize myself with looks excessively beforehand. I like to try and make time for fittings before a shoot.
It’s certainly a skill and one that I'm trying to get; knowing when to pull back and when to push it. I believe that's what makes a great stylist. Knowing when enough is enough or more is needed to make the look work.
Now you're an editor at Violet, which is super exciting. How’s that going?
Great, it was very exciting and scary to have freedom when I started. Leith put a lot of trust in me and looking back it felt so good to be accountable because I was so so ready to do it on my own. Leith is keen on having all women crews for a lot of Violet’s work. I tend to actually work with women a lot - Anna Victoria Best, Sarah Louise Stedeford and Sam Copeland are my favorites girls to shoot with.
How would you describe the environment when it’s all women?
I don't think it’s particularly different compared to a mixed environment, but I personally feel I'm able to communicate better. I do know that I'm very comfortable shooting with women and also I just tend to gravitate towards women photographers more for some reason.
Are there any challenges to not working in an office?
I don't mind working from home. I think that I work quite well from there because I’m focused and know that the job in hand has to be completed. The biggest problem is the amount of stuff that I always have. It's never just you go on set, you do a job, and then you go home. There are boxes, bags, and samples around me all the time. I can never disconnect from work because I am always surrounded by it. I’m always on my phone dealing with emails even when I’m not in my home surrounded by samples so I never really escape it. But overall I really do love the flexibility.
To be a stylist do you think you have to be born with an eye for it or can you develop it over time?
Well you definitely have to be interested in it. For me personally, I was obsessed with clothes growing up which is what inspired me to do what I do now. Then assisting taught me a lot regarding developing my talent and eye. So I would say that it’s a mixture of both; if you don't have an eye, then you don't really have an interest, and then if you don't have the interest, you won't have anything to keep pushing you along this hard journey. And my god at times it can be hard.
How do you think the influx of digital media has affected the role of a stylist?
It’s affecting new stylists and how they showcase their work, and which platforms they use to do so for sure. No one can deny the incredible power social media has to sell their work. There are obviously still so many magazines out there right now and print is so beautiful. It is particularly difficult though, for newbies like me to find a middle ground print magazine to showcase their work in. There's definitely a gap regarding midway print magazines; there’s not a lot of really good ones out there, which is frustrating. No one wants to put their work in a bad magazine, there’s only so many mid level print mags that you can work with and then the higher level ones we just don’t have access to yet.
Do you think that’s changing though?
I hope so! It’s just about putting more magazines at that level I guess. But then it’s a catch 22 situation because the market is currently so so saturated. I'm currently working on a little project that's quite close to my heart. It’s a magazine called Zine Mag. Sarah Louise Stedeford and I have just shot a lengthy men’s casting story for it and it was all shot on film and hand printed by Sarah.
Ahh I’m excited to see it. There's a real push in the industry towards going back to film. Why do you think that's happening?
I think a lot of it is because people are craving a slower pace in the industry, plus the images are just so much more beautiful and interesting. It’s also about taking back the art of it, you have to learn the craft to shoot in film, and there’s a lot of respect that comes with doing so.
For styling, do you prefer your work being shot in film or in digital?
For me personally, I like the idea of working with somebody who works with film because the whole process is more considered. You have less bullets to fire, so you choose wisely with how and what you shoot.
What are the challenges of having so many projects going on at once?
It varies depending on season. Everybody shoots manically in June and July, and then August tends to be quiet. I’ve had my share of breakdowns in the past, but it’s very rare. It’s hardest when I’m working with so many great stylists at once and juggling my own personal work and trying to prioritize their needs and expectations along with mine. But that’s where my production background comes in to help; I learned how to try and fight fires before they happen.
How do you handle big personalities?
As I’ve gotten older, I have found that I’m able to defend myself a lot more than I used to. The work has toughened me up and helped build confidence in myself, in my abilities and beliefs. It’s about emotional intelligence and learning how to strengthen that skill set. Also, just don’t take things personally and get your work done.
There are so many talented amazing stylists out there at the moment. I love Maarten Van Der Horst, Anders Soelvsten Thomsen, Vanessa Reid.
What is your biggest challenge at the moment?
I want an agency; it’s getting busy. It would just be so great to have someone to fight my corner. I’m definitely lucky in the sense that I get good editorial work, but editorials are expensive. It’d be good to have someone help facilitate with getting more commercial work.
What is your take on this generation?
One thing that I actually do struggle with is the sense of entitlement that some of the new people coming up can sometimes have. When I first started I worked so long for free, I mean so so long and I always put in my all no matter what job it was. I don’t necessarily think working for free is right or morally correct in this industry but that’s a whole other story. A lot of the new assistants and interns will sign on for a shoot and then refuse to do certain tasks. It’s difficult for me to find interns or assistants who offer the willingness I gave for so many years.
That's so sad, though. The people you work with should want to put their best foot forward.
Agreed. Also if you're an intern, you definitely need to be working with somebody who appreciates the fact that you're working for free and that you're giving up your time. You both need to get something out of it. I’ll do everything in my power to make it worth their while if they’re willing to work as hard as I will alongside them.
I’ve had instances where someone helping has another job come up where it is paid, and I of course let them do that. If you won't pay, and you won't let somebody else pay him or her that’s just unnecessary and mean. But I've worked with interns before that will say, "Sorry, I've got to go now” because they have personal plans and want to leave the job early.
Yes, it's awful. It makes me feel like a fool in a way, seeing as I would have always been up for anything at work in the past. It makes me question if I was wrong to put up with the work, with some of the stuff I’ve dealt with, but then I also think, maybe I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.
It’s definitely challenging, though. I’m all for paying your dues, but I also think that the whole unpaid thing creates an unlevel playing field which puts kids who come from money at the top, as those are the ones who can afford to work for free.
I struggle with that as well but I think that the people who don’t come from money still get there; it just takes a bit longer.
Then again everything's an unlevel playing field; some people are just born with a ridiculous amount of creative talent.
Yeah, totally, 100%.
Are there any specifics you like about the fashion industry today?
There’s so much that I love. Oh God, where do I start? People are open to seeing new and old talent. I love that it's about finding new faces, visions, and voices. I definitely feel it’s a real London thing, but I’m sure it’s like that in other places. There's just loads of exciting stuff happening, particularly in London.
What separates you from everyone else?
I'm critical of my personal work, but I'm really confident in saying that I’m a good person to have on set, and work with on a team. If you have good work and you're kind and good to be around, that speaks volumes in this industry. People don’t want to work with horrible people; they just don’t. Especially as a newcomer, I think it bodes well to be a nice person. In some light, my work probably could be the same as a lot of other people’s. I hope it translates as colorful and youthful, decorated, fun and a bit carefree. But I think that it’s super important at the end of the day to be a good person to work with or for.
And where do you want to go?
Yeah, you know what? I really, really love my job. My mom once said to me when I was having a downer moment, “Ash, but what else will you do if you walked away from this?” and I said, “There's nothing else I would want to do,” I don’t want to do anything else. I think maybe that’s what gives me the drive to just keep pushing forward; it’s that there's actually no backup plan. This is it.
What would make me really happy is to just continue what I’m doing now. Being able to survive off it both creatively and personally and feel fulfilled by that work. I really respect the people that can do that; I think that’s incredible. If I managed to do that with my work while on the way then fuck, that’s awesome! I want to keep doing what I’m doing and move forward and be able to buy a glass of wine at the end of the day, cause you sure as shit will sometimes need it.
What advice would you give to someone who looks up to you?
Oh my god. Work! Be prepared to work your ass off. You will be juggling, so stay organized and put a really strong system in place. I've had a really good system in place for years, and I can't live without it. Work extremely hard, be on it, always be thinking of how to go above and beyond and ask if anybody wants extra help. Be respectful and nice to everybody that you come across, because you want to be remembered as a nice human full stop and also you never know who they might turn out to be or if they might be able to help you along the way. Another big one, know when to talk shop and know when to just talk personal. That’s something I think is quite important, and a lot of people tend to forget when their professional guard is up.
Agreed. The relationships that you create in this industry are by far the most important and not even in a where can they get me sense.
Yeah, exactly. That's why everyone in this industry makes up this really weird dysfunctional family. We're all in it together, and we all know the struggle. So yeah, do all those things! And it’s important not to take it all too seriously; we're not curing cancer here.