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First steps into styling - John William

Written by Megan St Clair Morgan
Published date 06 July 2020

Putting together his advice for budding fashion stylists, industry expert and UAL Short Courses tutor and editor John William, talks us through how you can get started – what your fashion stylist portfolio could include, some myth busting on what a stylist actually does, and how to become a fashion stylist online.

Leading many of our styling courses at London College of Fashion from Fashion Styling to Editorial Styling and Creative Direction, John William’s guidance comes with over 15 years of experience in the fashion industry, working at the forefront of fashion media. An industry professional, he works across journalism, styling, creative direction, trend forecasting and photography. With a host of editorial clients which include: i-DViceThe Sunday Times StylePaperPuss Puss and Nylon. For the past decade, John has been working as an Associate Lecturer at the London College of Fashion across several BA courses and is currently the Online Editor for Beauty Papers – so, how can you take your first steps into styling?

London College of Fashion tutor John William

What does a stylist do? 

In short, a stylist dresses people – making them feel and look good for the specific purpose required John calls it, telling stories with clothes. It can range from editorial, where your focus is following a brief for a thematic and image led purpose, to personal styling, where you’re focusing on dressing real people, for their real lives. You are telling stories predominantly with clothing as a stylist, but it goes much further than the clothing – stylists make stuff work.

Many stylists work within the fashion industry on a mixture of editorial and commercial work but many also work as personal stylists separately too.

Finding your point of view

It goes beyond just the clothes; styling is about an aesthetic sensibility. John note, “I personally don't believe that styling is a skill in the same way that you could learn pattern cutting, or you could learn a different language. I think styling is so subjective and I think what you learn about styling is how the industry operates, how to do certain things like – how to deal with a PR, how to communicate with an editor, how to research properly etc. But the actual styling part to me, isn't a skill it's so much more personal.”

Styling can be completely transformative, it all depends on your viewpoint as a stylist as to how you approach it – some stylists are very much about following fashion and promoting trends from the catwalk, but the industry also needs the editorial more-abstract image led viewpoint too. This freedom allows you to incorporate conversations that are happening in the world that resonate with you and your creative vision for the future, into styling – inclusivity, diversity, gender identity etc.

What does the job of a fashion stylist involve?

The stylist is involved in much more than just the clothes on a shoot, from the very beginning, you it’s a team effort to develop the concept and do the research. Many stylists consult with designers and brands, as fashion house stylist the job is not only to dress models for the catwalk – you’re a key part of the vision “what they want is your taste, your brain, your point of view” notes John.

A snapshot on the process of a styling job

When you get a commission or a brief from a client or editor, or maybe you are commissioning yourself for a test shoot, the first step is research and work on concept development, mood boards, negotiating your contact with the client/editor.

Once you're contracted, it goes into production stage – choosing the models, putting the team together. Then as the stylist you prepare the clothing, where you need to request from PR’s to loan a sample, sometimes spending hours on the phone requesting clothes that are on loan to another shoot. Once you’ve got the clothing, you’re on set shooting – the fun part! Then come the returns... John notes - “if you go and assist, which is essential, you will probably be mostly stuck in the beginning doing returns. Once returns are done, it’s onto postproduction, putting together the clothing credits and promoting your work".

There are three key areas many stylists work across in Fashion Styling


Editorial styling is dressing people for magazine shoots, these images can be used in both print and online publications.

As John puts it – “Editorial the work that isn't explicitly being created to sell it and hasn't been commissioned by a brand, rather it is being commissioned by a magazine or a media platform.” A good way to see this in action, is to look at a magazine and spot the editorial shoots (ie. not the advertisements). Though it’s also common for a brand to pay the magazine to produce a shoot featuring their products – that is what John calls “the midpoint between editorial and commercial” and is generally called an advertorial.

This area is where most stylists build their fashion stylist portfolio, as it’s generally an opportunity to be more creative. Many stylists use editorial shoots to establish their name within the fashion industry.

From Joe McCannon whose work is “slick, minimal and often studio based” to Lotta Volkova whose work has been a defining part of the recent trends toward stereotypically ‘ugly’ fashion in her work with Vetements – there’s a huge scope for the kind of Editorial stylist you could become, and John notes “editorial really, is what gets you, your commercial clients”.


Commercial styling is generally work that is explicitly being created to sell a product – think advertisements, marketing creative content for brands etc...

Personal styling 

Personal styling is where you're dressing real people, for their real lives working directly with them to build a personal style – jobs roles are often titled as ‘image consultant’ or ‘personal shopper’. John notes when you approach being a personal fashion stylist, it’s important to remember “you're dressing them for their real lives, not for imagery or a public image series with a specific audience”.

So, you want to be a fashion stylist? 

We asked John for his run-down of things you should be aware of as you take your first steps to become a fashion stylist online– the things to remember, sites to visit, myths of the industry amongst much more!

Build your network

By looking on you’ll see many shoots are produced by the same teams – as people build their network they work together again and again. John told us he’s been working with the same people for 15 years, as it helps you to build trusted relationships.  

As John puts it “If you don't know, It’ll be your best friend.” With the option to sign up for full access (no payment required) it’s an invaluable online resource for you to discover the huge database of fashion editorial work happening across the globe. Helping you see who is on the team of each shoot from the make-up artist to the photographer and giving you easy access to explore their work and fashion stylist portfolio, which will often be a combination of the commercial and editorial clients they have. John says, “It's a bit like your shop window.”

Take a step away from fashion

If you step away from fashion magazines and fashion brands, there are many other industries that rely upon stylists – like music, which depending on the artist can be a mix of commercial and editorial based personal fashion stylist.

Take pop star Harry Styles, he’s styled by London’s Harry Lambert – who has been behind Styles’ individual aesthetic. Stylists must fully understand the vision of their client and deliver visually. Working with as celebrity and music clients can sit in between all three areas in fashion styling – editorial, commercial and personal styling.

If being a fashion editor is the goal... 

Many fashion editors work through the industry in one of two ways, as an image maker maybe a stylist or as a journalist. But many editors have had totally different backgrounds – so it’s not linear. There are many people who didn’t follow the ‘traditional routes’...

Do you get free clothes?

In short, it’s not a job to do if your end goal is free clothes... John states “It's not a job about shopping. It's far too hard work and it's not glamorous, if you love shopping and you love gorgeous clothes, then the styling isn't necessarily the easiest to bridge to that destination. You do get given products sometimes, as maybe a little gift or access to a great sample, but really, we’re not in it for the free goods”.

Practical things you can do to build your fashion stylist portfolio?

John’s three suggestions for building your portfolio as a stylist are “test shoots, networking, assisting” and he notes, it all comes as a package when conducting test shoots and assisting – so focus on test shoots and assisting test shoots.

His advice would be to get yourself the following “a bag of vintage clothes, a friend who's got a decent camera and somebody who looks interesting to model (maybe ask a friend) then using a location, maybe a blank wall in your flat for example – before you know it, you’re doing a shoot, practicing styling and building up your fashion stylist portfolio.”

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