Dream Job: Fashion Stylist – an Interview with Rachel Matthews Burton

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Rachel Matthews Burton, fashion stylist

– by Wendy Morley, Publisher –

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Rachel Matthews Burton has been a busy and popular fashion stylist for over 20 years, and she has worked for some of the biggest magazines, TV shows, brands and advertising agencies out there. Her client list through the years includes magazines such as O magazine, TV shows such as Steven and Chris, major companies such as Nike, and General Mills, and celebrities Whoopi Goldberg and Hugh Grant, to name a very small number.

I worked with Rachel periodically when I worked for a company that owned a number of well-known health and fitness magazines, for which she was often our stylist, for print and video both. Currently, Rachel is putting the finishing touches on her exciting new website Tabella, launching in April, 2016. Rachel is happily married with a six-year-old daughter.

Wendy Morley: First, can you just tell me a little about yourself and your business? When did you move from the UK? Tell me your history!

Rachel Matthews Burton: I was born in the UK and came to Toronto when I was 19. After a number of years of working in retail and then in a small business that sold goods to the film industry, I decided to start something new. My only criteria was to love what I did every single day. I contacted absolutely everyone I knew, conducted numerous “informational interviews,” bought every career book imaginable and spent two years trying everything that might live up to that criteria. I volunteered, said yes to any opportunity and eventually ended up in production. I worked on commercial sets as an assistant producer, on film sets as an art department assistant and researcher, and I volunteered in the wardrobe department. I didn’t make any money for those first two years but the experience was invaluable.

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Rachel, ensuring an outfit is perfect for a shoot

Eventually, a friend of mine suggested that I become a stylist. I had no idea what that was, so I set about finding out. An old client of mine was a well-established photographer and was kind enough to chat with me. That’s where it all began. I worked for him on a freelance basis and over the course of a year collected enough work to create a portfolio. That was back in 2001. At the time a new artist agency, Judy Inc. was looking for artists to represent. I took my small portfolio to them and they agreed to take me on for six months, on probation. That was 15 years ago.

Since then, I have worked on major advertising campaigns, music videos and primetime television shows. I have an extensive client list, I’ve been a National spokeswoman for Huggies, [true story!], and traveled North America and the Caribbean with the Four Seasons hotels (best gig ever!).

WM: You have a career that lots of young people would die for. How on earth does one become a fashion stylist?

RMB: The rules have changed a lot since I first started. It used to be that you would connect with up-and-coming photographers and make-up artists and shoot lots and lots of creatives to build a portfolio. Then you would take that portfolio to an agency in hopes that they would put you on the junior artist roster. But today the playing field is quite different. The agencies are bursting at the seams with wannabe stylists and make-up artists and the competition is fierce. I created a niche for myself as a very commercial stylist, and since Toronto is a very commercial town I’ve made a fantastic living at it (If you’re interested in high-end fashion editorials then New York, Paris, or London is the place to be). However, I currently make a fraction of what I used to make. That’s part of being a freelance artist, and the part that people don’t like to talk about! It is a hard fact of being self-employed; you have to have nerves of steel to handle the insecurity of a fluctuating income.

Rachel choosing options, undoubtedly with an art director and others close by

Rachel choosing options, undoubtedly with an art director and others close by

WM: I assume you grew up loving fashion. Did you always play dress-up? Read fashion magazines?

RMB: I was actually obsessed with design. My father was a design engineer and I grew up with an appreciation for good design in everything from vacuum cleaners to cars to shoes. I went through a phase when I was about 11 creating dozens and dozens of fashion sketchbooks, but I never read fashion magazines and I still don’t! But my love for photography and styling started at the age of five, when my parents bought me a Polaroid camera. To this day, I love being part of creating a beautiful image.

WM: Did you have any idols as you were finding your own place? Do you now?

RMB: When I first began in the business, other stylists were my idols. I was fascinated by how they did what they did and how they became successful. I can’t say that I’ve ever had one particular idol, but anyone who is able to express him/herself fearlessly through clothing, I have a deep admiration for.

WM: So I picture being a stylist something along the lines of being a costume designer for movies, except you are matching the clothing to a certain feel whoever is hiring you is going for as opposed to matching with a specific character — maybe sometimes that too?

RMB: It can be a little of both. Every brief is different and every client is different. Being a stylist requires the ability to listen carefully and interpret information accurately. Large corporations tend to have a very precise vision of their market, so for me, that means delivering a look that is very specific. However, there are some clients and art directors who prefer to give me more autonomy and create a style I think embodies the brand. Celebrities and musicians are a whole different ballgame; they can be incredibly selective or they just want me to curate the image for them.

WM: As a fashion stylist you work with the art director and possibly photographer/videographer and stylist to decide on the best outfit/look for each shoot or part thereof. First, let’s just talk about that. It’s not like you pick the outfit and what you say goes. It’s a collaboration to varying degrees, but ultimately the art director usually makes the decision. Would you say that’s fair? Anything you’d like to add there?

Rachel on an outdoor set

Rachel on an outdoor set

RMB: Yes, it is definitely a collaborative process involving all of those you mentioned above. One of the misconceptions about being a stylist is that you get to choose the look with full autonomy. That is very rarely the case. On that note, it is very easy to criticize how a model or actor is dressed and blame the stylist or the art director, but you have no idea what the decision-making process was behind the scenes. I have had situations where all the “creatives” on set were overruled by a client. Since the clients pay the bills, they get to make those decisions!

WM: The work is enjoyable, but you also do a lot of grunt work. You must spend half your life shopping, then hauling masses of clothes to shoots, making sure they’re steamed or ironed or whatever is necessary. After the shoot you usually go back to the stores and return whatever you can (often for a restocking fee) and then whatever you can’t return you haul back into the wardrobe of whatever company is booking you. To me, who hates shopping and hates returning things even more, this sounds like absolute hell! Out of 100 hours of work, how much is spent on this type of background slogging?

RMB: I would say about two-thirds of the time, so 66 out of 100 hours of work is spent schlepping. Everybody wants to be a stylist until it comes to returns day! On another note, most people don’t realize that almost always, all of your shopping goes onto a personal credit card. On one occasion I was liable for $25,000 worth of goods when I was doing back-to-back jobs. That’s a little hairy!

WM: I know you have a day rate, and you have an agent. Do you get paid your day rate for this work as well or is there a different fee structure? Are you able to give me a range that someone could expect to make as a fashion stylist?

RMB: Most often yes, we are paid for each day of work whatever that work consists of. There are some projects, however, that have a flat rate – the job must be done however long it takes. On an annual basis the range is huge, I have made six figures a year and I’ve made $25,000 a year. [Editor’s note: A day rate might be $150 or $200 for a stylist just starting out, and go up to $1,000 for an experienced stylist in a major city like LA or NYC. An agency fee of 10-15% usually must be paid out of this.]

dressesWM: How long are your days? Do you have enough days off? Too many? Is it hard to turn work down if you need a break?

RMB: In photography the days tend to be very civilized, eight or nine hours on set and anywhere from two to ten hours to prep. Of course there are exceptions to that, I have worked 12 or 14 hours a day on huge photography jobs and I have had my fair share of 4 am and 5 am wake-ups. Shooting commercials the days are much longer and film is completely consuming. Not great for work-life balance, and certainly not a good career choice for those who have young families. I have had weeks of nonstop work and weeks of no work at all; there is really no way to predict any of it.

WM: Do you style women and men both?

RMB: Both, I have even styled toddlers in diapers for Huggies.

WM: Do you do more commercial or more editorial or do both go up and down?

RMB: I am definitely more commercial, because that’s where the money and the jobs have always been.

WM: What are your favorite parts of being a fashion stylist?

RMB: Working with different people all the time and never doing the same thing twice. I get to work with some of the most creative minds in the country. I am also lucky that I absolutely adore my clients.

WM: Your least favorite?

RMB: Returns day. Also, prepping when given information at the last-minute, or within insanely tight budgets. I worked on a very popular daytime television show years ago and did makeovers on women. My budget was $100, and that had to include shoes!

WM: What advice would you give someone wanting to get into this line of work?

Rachel on the set of her new online series, Tabella, launching soon

Rachel on the set of her new online series, Tabella, launching soon

RMB: As with any career, I would encourage people to first identify their passion. If you don’t feel passionate about your vocation you won’t easily succeed. As I’ve also mentioned, a few times now, you must have a very high tolerance for the unknown and the unpredictable. If financial security is important to you, or if you need to know what you’re going to be doing from one day to the next, this is not the career for you.

That being said, I would talk to as many people as you can in the industry and write great, professional-sounding emails that don’t begin with: “Hey!” Be prepared: know something about the person who’s taking time to communicate with you. Ask lots of questions and take a notebook! Send a thank-you card – a small gesture that can make you stand out from the crowd. Next, collaborate with other artists to create a portfolio and build a presence online. If you can make yourself stand out on digital platforms you have a much greater chance of connecting with people and corporations who will potentially want to hire you.

WM: And now you’re starting something new.

RMB: The landscape of advertising and television has changed dramatically since I first started in the industry. Advertisers and businesses are turning to online influencers and audiences are watching online videos in numbers far greater than the average television audience. In April, 2015 I had a blinding flash of the obvious and decided to write, produce and host a series of videos on beauty and style.

Since then I have built a team of over a dozen people whose areas of expertise are mind-blowingly impressive, (a creative director from a major media outlet, a professional editor, a digital strategist, a PR expert, the list goes on). The brand has also morphed and grown into a very robust list of verticals that cover beauty, style, wellness, relationships, DIY, tech and travel. We have shot almost 30 HD videos, written dozens of posts and have a podcast series lined up next.

The brand is called Tabella, “Talks Around The Table” (The name is inspired by its meaning of  “message” or “small tablet” in Latin, and its similarity to “Tavola” – table in Italian.). The web address is Tabellatalks.com To say that I am excited about it would be a gross understatement. We’re hoping by April this year we will be ready to launch. Stay tuned!