How I Got a Job in Fashion with No Experience

How I Got a Job in Fashion with No Experience

Seven years ago I had a do-or-die moment: if I couldn’t find a creative job in Boston then I’d move to New York.

I’d been working an administrative job where my desk was literally in the hallway and my days were exactly the same every day. I needed that job to get by, because nine months earlier, I’d done something seemingly foolish: I quit my perfectly fine media job without anything lined up.

For months I had had this nagging feeling in the back of my head, that I wasn’t living up to my full potential. I started to question if “perfectly fine” was all I could hope for in life. Then it came to a point where having no job was preferable to having one that I dreaded every day.

So I quit. I was in a rut. I guess that’s bound to happen when you avoid making choices. I spent most of my adult life with no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. In high school, I picked colleges based on whether or not they were in big cities, not on the strength of the programs. Then in college, I’d waited until the very last second to declare a major, only because I was forced to. By the time graduation rolled around, I hadn’t chosen a career path, so I had no strategy or plan. I didn’t want to choose, because choosing felt permanent. Irreversible. I’d look at a 17-year-old who’d say something self-assured, like, “I’m going to be a veterinarian,” and think, Yeah, but how do you know that when you have limited life experience???

I wasn’t that 17-year-old. And I’m still not. I’ve never known anything for sure unless I tried it for myself.

Thankfully, “trying things out for myself” was my main MO in life. All the random temp jobs I’d worked to make ends meet helped me pinpoint what I liked to do and what I didn’t like. And after three years, I started to feel like I could do more than just “perfectly fine.” I wanted to do something hands-on and creative. When I thought about it and connected the dots, creativity was the running thread through anything that made me happy since I was a kid. And there was one industry that always intrigued me: fashion.

I started brainstorming fashion-y places I could work at in Boston, where I lived. There were a handful of shoe companies based there: Converse, Puma, New Balance, Reebok. I reached out to a friend of a friend who was a designer at Converse and asked if he could pass my resume to a hiring manager. He did, and then nothing happened. I then wrote a nice letter to a boutique on Newbury Street saying I’d work for them for free. After following up, again nothing happened.

It was settled then. I’d move to New York. And since I didn’t have a full-time job lined up, I’d use my free time to see if fashion was for me.

In four months, I got two fashion jobs in New York: an unpaid internship and a fulfillment job at companies I admired. And it wasn’t that hard. While some of it was luck, there were also specific things I did that helped me land the jobs. And along the way, I learned not only career lessons, but important lessons about life, too.

If you’ve ever felt lost or stuck at work, or have no idea what to do with your life, then this post is for you. While this story details my foray into fashion, the same principles can be applied to any job hunt or career change.

The Biggest Risk Is Never Trying at All

On the outset, I looked pretty delusional.

Who did I think I was, believing I was qualified to work in fashion? I wasn’t qualified at all. I had zero fashion experience. I studied English at a regular college. I knew no one in the industry. Unlike other teens, I had never even worked a retail job at the mall. On paper it looked like I had no business being in fashion.

But I wasn’t going to let those minor details stop me from trying.

Because a few months before moving I’d made the decision to try. Just like all the jobs I had before, I’d never know if fashion was really for me unless I tried it out myself.

Feeling unqualified for something was scary. But what was worse was never knowing if I could have succeeded. You set yourself up to fail the second you decide to not try. And New York City was a place where everyone was trying to make things happen for themselves, so surely I’d be in good company. With its countless creative opportunities, and its vibrant heart of the fashion industry, all the elements I wanted were there. I just had to reach out, make an effort, and see what happened. More importantly, I knew that if I didn’t at least try to get a job in fashion then I’d never forgive myself. I’d never know if I was capable of more than “perfectly fine.” Not trying was the surefire way to live a small life.

Life is really a series of small risks, because there’s never a guarantee of any outcome. So whenever I’m faced with a scary decision, I ask myself two questions:

  • Could the reward outweigh the risk? Yes, I’d be working in an industry that many people dream about.
  • If it doesn’t work out, what’s the very worst scenario that could happen? I would go back to my old industry. No harm, no foul.

All systems were a go.

ABL = Always Be Learning

After I quit my media job, I saw unemployment as an opportunity. Sure I spent time looking for a new job, but I also saw tons of free hours I could now spend on improving myself. I created a personal style blog that I could potentially use as a portfolio. I signed up to train to be a literacy volunteer. I went to my local TV station and learned how to operate a video camera, and how to edit clips in Final Cut Pro. I wanted to learn how to sew with leather, but leather was expensive. Unlike regular fabric, if you messed up sewing with leather, there weren’t any do-overs. So I went to the small business library, looked up all the leather companies in the area, then started calling each one to see if they had any remnants they would give to me for free. I spent my days working on the blog, driving around to different factories to pick up free leather, and experimenting with creating my own patterns.

Extracurriculars are the best way to distinguish yourself when you have no experience. In my case, sewing was something I could talk about in interviews and use to redirect from my lack of formal experience. And on the first day of my internship, guess what we were asked to do? We had to sew curtains for a store opening.

I’m not saying that everyone start learning skills they don’t care about, but find the things that you’ve always been interested in, and nurture them. I can’t think of any downside to growing your skills, only ways they can help you.

The Problem with Overestimating Barriers

Next up was starting the job hunt process. But first I had to ignore the invisible scripts that people tell themselves so they don’t have to do things that are intimidating. Things like:

-You have no experience. Why would anyone hire you?
Oh, you mean, no formal experience. But I had plenty of experience if you looked at how I spent my free time. I had the style blog and I taught myself how to sew. I had more than a superficial knowledge about fashion, designers and brands through reading magazines and blogs. I’d been selling clothes online and writing the corresponding copy since I was in high school. If I could just get my foot in the door, then I could get people in the industry to see my potential, too.

You’re not in college anymore. Isn’t it embarrassing to be an adult intern?
Of course it is. But you know what’s more embarrassing to me? Never trying and spending years wondering what could have been.

-You’ll barely make any money. That’s why I’ve been saving my money all along. So I can do stuff like this and minimize any major impacts on my finances.

Nobody likes to fail. So when we’re faced with a challenge, and we’re not confident in our own abilities, many times we choose to do nothing nothing at all. Rather than risk failure, it’s way easier to rationalize all the reasons why something can’t be done.

But if I thought about it, none of those things were true barriers at all, but doubts I let swirl around in my head. The only thing standing in the way of getting the fashion job, the real barrier, was ME. All I had to do was simply apply.

Visualize First, Execute Second

Instead of randomly applying for any fashion job I saw, I took a more deliberate approach. First I sat down and thought about the traits of the place I’d want to work at:

It had to be a small company. Since I had no formal experience, I was going to have to be prepared to start at the bottom. But that was OK, because I was thinking about the long game. If I ended up liking fashion, it would be easier to advance at a smaller company where your contributions are more visible. The internship had only five people, and the fulfillment job had 15. I knew that if I worked hard at either to move up, I could. But if I applied at an established company like Chanel, first of all, they most likely would have had an actual HR department that wouldn’t allow non-students like me to intern. And the career paths would be more regimented and harder to navigate.

It had to be a place I actually would shop at and admired. If I would be working for free, it would be easier to show up for a company I genuinely liked.

But it had to be a name that was recognizable to fashion people. There are lots of talented indie designers, but I wouldn’t intern for a brand that no one knew. Having recognizable names on your resume would help open doors that unknowns couldn’t.

After I had my list I brainstormed about 10 companies that fit that criteria. These would be my targets. Focusing on companies I chose sparked a sense of control and felt more like a viable strategy with a clear path, bringing me closer to achieving my goals.

Then I started watching internship websites and Craigslist like a hawk.

Standing Out Is Easier Than You Think

Here’s a secret: it’s easy to stand out. Why? Because most people are lazy. That means you have an opportunity to distinguish yourself without all that much effort.

After I’d found some job listings that fit my criteria, next up was my favorite part: the cover letters. Cover letters are important because they’re a way to show who you are. This was my time to shine, because I knew I could write from an authentic place. Sometimes that’s all it takes to stand out. Here’s what I wrote to the company where I got my internship:

Nothing earth-shattering, but every single line I wrote was there for a reason.

I wasn’t applying for any random internship. I was applying for their specific internship. I dropped a line in there to show that I was familiar with the store and the designers they carried.
I focused on what I could do for them, not on what I wanted.
I included a link to my blog so they could see what my taste was like.

I know it seems so obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t follow basic guidelines. If you can make an effort to just be a little bit better than most people, then it’s not hard to stand out.

While I didn’t get an immediate response (most likely because I was emailing before I moved to New York), they replied a month and a half later, saying my response stood out. I got the job.

The Power of the Two P’s: Patience and Persistence

I started emailing places a few months before my move date so I could plant some seeds. I knew that finding a job, and one in a new field, would take some time. That’s the thing. Most people give up too soon. They hear the first no, and then they move on. I hear the first no, and I know that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the story. Just because there’s no opportunity now doesn’t mean there won’t be one later. True to my hypothesis, neither one of the jobs I got were an immediate slam dunk. The internship didn’t respond to me until a month and a half later, and the fulfillment job took 3 months of casual follow ups before I was hired.

The fulfillment job was actually an unpaid fashion internship at first. I sent them my basic cover letter with some tweaks:

Lina responded to me two days later telling me to follow up when I was actually in New York.

I thanked Lina for the response, then dutifully followed up when I got to New York.

Lina did not respond.

Avoid the HR Black Hole of Death

But I didn’t give up. A month later I was trolling Craigslist again, and I came across a fulfillment job at the same company. An actual paid job instead of an internship! Sure I’d be packing orders for $12 an hour, but it was a foot in the door at one of my favorite e-commerce stores. I got to work on my cover letter, but paused at replying directly to the Craigslist listing. Here’s why:

I have this rule where I try to bypass HR as much as possible. I call it the HR Black Hole of Death, where your resume goes to a generic HR email inbox to never be heard from again. Whoever was at the end of that Craigslist email address most likely had no idea that I was alive. It would be too easy for my application to get lost in the shuffle. How could I get my resume to the top of their inbox?

I decided instead to email Lina again. I had emailed with Lina a few times already, and passing off my resume to an actual employee instead of the generic Craigslist e-mail seemed like a smarter move.

I was right. Lina said things had been busy at the office and apologized for not getting back to me about the internship! She also forwarded my resume to the hiring manager.

A few days later, the the owner of the company called me and said, “Lina sent me your resume” like Lina and I were old friends. I interviewed for the job and was hired. So, whenever you have the choice to e-mail a generic company e-mail address or an actual person, always, always go with the person.

Doing Things Is Better Than Reading About Them

By finding time for hobbies, standing out, and being persistent, I was able to explore a different career path to see if it was for me. I could have just as easily gone about my life and always wondered, “What could have been?” Or just read about different fashion careers in blogs and magazine, and lived vicariously through them. After a few months of living the life, I discovered that fashion was not for me, and I quit both jobs and went back to my old industry. But knowing for sure it wasn’t for me was a priceless experience.

So if you’ve ever been curious about another path, then find a way to see if you can experience it yourself, even if it’s just for a day. When I quit my media job, I knew that job wasn’t right for me, but I had no clue which direction to go. I did what anyone who’s ever been lost before has probably done: I read career books like, “What Color Is Your Parachute?” and I took personality assessment tests like the one in “StrengthsFinder.” While those books were interesting to read, they did jack squat for clarifying my true path in life. I was just as aimless after reading them as I was before. Because here’s the thing: no book or blog post in the world can replace actually getting out there and trying things for yourself.

Final Thoughts

I’ll always cherish those experiences I had when I went renegade on my career. I learned that I could sew two curtains in three hours. I learned what it’s like to open up a new store. I learned which factories these companies used, in case I ever wanted to start my own line. Most importantly, I learned that I was capable of more than “perfectly fine.” And that sometimes the only thing between you and what you want is the audacity to try.

Am I the only one who’s ever felt stuck at work? Have you ever successfully changed careers? What are your favorite job tips?

Image: Unsplash

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