Through the photo world, Chandler LaFee was able to make connections and get first-hand insight into what it takes to produce a fashion campaign from start to finish. After a couple of years working with a stylist in LA, he sent an email to one of the producers at Gwenyth Paltrow's beauty and wellness site, goop. After two years working freelance, Lafee is now a full-time Fashion Assistant working on the ecommerce team. We spoke to him about the revolving door of opportunities in freelance fashion, how to get noticed when you're first starting out, and how to land the job (when you want it).
This interview took place over the phone between Ella in Los Angeles and Chander LaFee in Los Angeles.
EJ: How did you get where you are today?
CL: I had a degree in Interpersonal Communication from San Francisco State University, and I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I kind of fell into photo production, and then through the photo studios I was working with, mainly Milk Studios, I was meeting all these creatives. I slowly outgrew working at Milk and fell into fashion. I started working for a stylist, Tara Nichols, as her assistant for a few years. Through that, I was making more connections in the fashion world and I was introduced to someone at goop. They needed a fashion assistant on set, and it kind of snowballed from there. Since then, I never left the fashion world. I did some freelance work with a couple of other stylists and companies, but I've essentially been with goop since.
You've been in a few different positions at goop within different capacities. Can we run through those?
Right now, I'm a Fashion Assistant. In the past, I've been a Sample Coordinator and the Ecommerce Stylist Assistant. I was working freelance with goop for about two years and now I'm full-time.
You learned how to do those jobs while you were in them. What would you say for people that are just going on set for the first time or that want to go on to set but don't know anything?
In this day and age, it's honestly so driven by word-of-mouth. A lot of the time we think, "Oh my gosh, let me have this experience so I can add it to my resume." But it's not like that anymore, it's honestly just getting out there, and making in-person connections. Doing a good job your first day on set, and being really focused. Get people’s emails!
That's how I got goop. I emailed a producer and told them I was available for any stylist needs. And that's about it. It's not these archaic forms of interviews or a sit-down-thing where they're reaching out to you via LinkedIn. Just be really engaged when you're around these people from the get-go and make yourself known. Get their emails, get their numbers, and then reach out to them. That is more often than not how you get your foot in the door.
And so I think the moral of the story, so far, is that there doesn't need to be a job listing and you don't necessarily have to have every skill going into it.
The truth of the matter is, when you're freelancing anywhere, brands and companies usually have the ability to shuffle through freelancers like crazy, and they do it. That can be for better or worse–it can be detrimental to your freelance career if you are being pushed aside, or you can be the person that they're bringing in.
And so it's all about being assertive in the least annoying way. They can be like, "this person made an impression, let's give him a shot." And it could go from there. This industry really does cycle through people, positions, and roles pretty rapidly. So it’s important to speak (when appropriate) up and stand out. No one's going to advocate for you more than yourself.
For example, I'd been a stylist assistant for a couple of years but to single stylists, so I didn't have all this experience. But I was like, "I would love to be part of this company. Can you give me a shot?" And they did it.
To reference the revolving door of opportunities in the creative industry, how did you find the balance between making yourself indispensable but also maintaining self-worth?
I don't think you'll find a balance until you've kind of already teetered into one or the other. Usually towards the territory of giving up every morsel of your soul for work. There were definitely some jobs I had to step away from once I paid my dues. This industry talks a lot about the “hustle” and there is no doubt that there is an element to that both alluring and necessary. But know not every stepping stone to get to what you really want is going to be glamorous. You have to check-in with yourself and ask if this is even the direction you want to go in or if it's worth it. And sometimes it is! But sometimes it isn't, which is the scarier pill to swallow.
When you first got on set, what were the first things you paid attention to? What were the first skills you picked up?
When you're on set you kind of get to see things from start to finish. And you get to see these minute details that the boss or the CEO, or whoever's making final approvals, doesn't get to see. I paid attention to those details. What needs to be steamed first? What's the process of marking off items once they are shot?
My goal was to make sure that I could make the processes in the fashion department go even smoother than before I got there. So you just have to go on set and be super perceptive, super observant. Don't be fucking chit-chatting with everyone.
I don't think a lot of people understand the process in-whole, and it can definitely cause problems later down the line, especially when shoots are rushed or the timeline is tighter than normal. Figure out the process of the day, of that literal day. Start there, understand it, memorize it, and build out your understanding of the business from that.
How did you make the jump from freelance to full-time?
Before my current role, I had actually turned down three full-time offers. At those times, I was still very much loving freelance work and I wanted to have my independence and flexibility. And then it kind of just got to a point where I was like, "I'm here every day. I love this company. I love these people. Why am I saying no to this job?" I had this internal tug-o-war between the idea of stability and what I thought was “freedom”.
I had tried to create a position where I would under contract but at the time that wasn’t available. But I continued to work hard as a freelancer. You have to let them know that you're loyal and you're dedicated to the company, and obviously, that should show through the work you're doing. I was vocal about my desire to continue there, under contract or not. And I think that frankness went a long way. And a handful of months later I got a call about a full-time position opening up.
Exactly, it's all about communicating what you want and showing up.
There's so much power in email. I was signed to a modeling agency because I sent a fucking email. I got into a prestigious acting class because I sent an email (well actually many emails). And that sounds like a brag but the point is actually the opposite. Anyone can do that. You just have to, well, do it. Sometimes, the result doesn't happen immediately. But they have your little name in their little head, and because of that, they might come knocking on your door.
Can we do a breakdown of your current role as the Fashion Assistant within goop as a whole?
So I work for goop, which means everything that entails goop.com. We have a newsletter still and that was how goop originated. But essentially, everything's online these days. On the site, you'll notice there are tabs for SHOP, BEAUTY, FOOD & HOME, STYLE, TRAVEL, and WELLNESS. I work for the fashion team, so I work with the fashion elements that are incorporated on the site. So if you go to goop.com and you're looking at the TRAVEL tab, you might also be led to some editorials or shopping that I have hands in.
Prior to quarantine, I was mostly focusing on editorials and being on set. My new role has really been focused on ecommerce because of everything that is going on in the world, so I'm kind of playing dual roles. If I have time, I'm working on brand partnership shoots for G. Label. An example of that would be like if you read the article "Timeless Styles for Staying Right Where You Are" you'll see there are links to Balmain heels, a G. label sweater, and Lizzie Mandler earrings. Goop is partnering with those brands to sell their product on our site.
For ecommerce, which is my main role now, say you go to the site and you click SHOP and look at the sandals. All of those sandals that you see in that category are items that I sourced. I had to get those brands to send me those samples so we can shoot them.
The buying team decides what we're going to get, from what brands, and what we're pulling from the brand. Once that's established, depending on the season, availability and when that brand is sending it into our warehouse (aka when it will be available to purchase), I have to reach out to all of those brands or showrooms we have connections with to request a sample so we can then shoot it.
For clarification, a sample is usually the piece originally designed by the designer/brand, the piece that is shipped out to the factories to be remade. The reason that we shoot the sample, is so that we can get the images up on the site, and then as soon as the inventory arrives, we can go live and immediately start shipping the product.
How do you communicate with the team to understand which items you need and when?
We use monday.com, but I'm essentially looking at an excel spreadsheet of items. I'm using filters to see what might launch soon, what we're getting in our inventory, etc. Sometimes we want things to launch sooner or we want to feature in a story, and then I'm going off that list, and I'm reaching out to hundreds of brands.
We also use something called Basecamp. On the fashion team, we personally love GoogleSlides. Shout out to GoogleSlides. In my opinion, these are all programs you just learn from working.
Who determines the sizing and colors etc.?
I look at the PO [purchase order], which is what the buyers and the brand create to determine exactly what we want to purchase. I don't really know how they choose those specifics of size and color, but I can assume that it's based on our knowledge of what our customers buy and look for.
Once you place the bulk order and get the sample to shoot, what happens next?
The stylist and the photographer take a bunch of options. At the end of the ecomm day, they make selects. If you click on one of our images, we usually have a pin-up or still, which is just the item itself that's pinned up, that happens the day before/after we do on-figure (shooting the items on the model). And then we have three or four additional images: detail shot, back shot, front shot. The photographer and stylist make selects and these are then approved by the art director.
How is the still/pinned image shot?
The item is pinned up on a white wall and shot. After the selects are approved, they are retouched and color-corrected so the images are true to the coloring and look of the garment.
Now that we've gone over the overarching job description and output, what's an example of your current day-to-day?
Right now, no one's really in the office. But on a normal operating schedule, I would go into the office and email about 50 brands asking for specific samples. Within the next few days, the responses would trickle in, and then we would coordinate shipping and shoots. Throughout the week, I would receive the shipments and get the racks ready for the Ecomm Stylist. The stylist would then come in a few days before the ecommerce shoot and style out the pieces. For example, if we're pulling a dress, the stylist needs to choose the shoes, pull the purse, and get that all sorted and approved. Then, we would have the ecomm shoot with models, then we would have to still shoot the following day, we would have color correcting a day or two later. After the shoot, I'd have to coordinate all the returns, and then start all over again.
Although creative can be pretty hectic sometimes, it seems like ecomm has a tight schedule. Once you get the swing of things, does it feel like an easy process to duplicate?
Yes and no–especially right now, brands aren't able to always send out the sample for the shoot in our timeline. Also because of COVID-19, brands aren't as open or easily able to send out samples, especially if they are coming from overseas.
What team members do you work with? And who do you report to?
I report to our Fashion Director, she is my boss-boss. I work most closely with the Senior Stylist who styles all of our ecomm. I also work cross-functionally with merchandise operations, so while I obviously work with the fashion team, I'm also working a lot with the operations team to figure out which samples I need to get and how we can launch it on time.
Now that production starting to emerge, how do you feel like are you feeling motivated working from home?
It's been tricky, especially because I went from working in the office every day with 250 people on two different floors. I really love a collaborative spirit, and it's been hard being in the office by myself. I also live in a studio the size of a thimble so it can be tricky to stay work-oriented there. I love being with all my coworkers and taking little breaks, and heading up to the fourth floor, grabbing a snack, things like that. I miss that.
What's been your favorite project working at goop so far?
I love working on editorials. That's where I feel most inspired, that's where I came from. I love being a witness and being part of the creative and collaborative process. Seeing how all these elements and teams come together to create something not only beautiful but with substance and integrity.
What are the most important skills for your role?
Stay organized. When you're starting out the fashion industry, a lot of it is the logistics of fashion. It can be very unglamorous and very thankless, but it's important. And these connections you make with these brands and people are what will help sustain a career.
What advice do you have for someone that looks up to you?
It's silly but Instagram is great. Go look at your favorite brand’s LinkedIn page and find the people that work there. Reach out to them, reach out to everyone. Dm them! There's no right or wrong, especially in this day and age. Does recruiting even exist anymore? It's scary, and it's hard but set a day and send 100 emails.
What do you like about the industry and how would you like to see it improve?
This has been said time and time again, but I do feel it is worth repeating. Inclusivity and transparency. We are definitely seeing a push for both more and more but that doesn’t mean we still don’t have a ways to go. The relationship between brand and consumer is fickle and only grows stronger the more trust there is. That relationship needs retooling as the industry shifts in a new direction. But it’s been amazing to see brands and companies holding themselves accountable and ready to put in the work.
Dreaming of what a day on set might sound like? Chandler's got us covered:
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Images Courtesy of Chandler LaFee + Christina Bryson
Special thanks to Polaroid