I have long been intrigued what it is actually like to be a professional stylist. Today London-based freelance stylist and author of ‘The Homemade Home’ Sania Pell opens the doors on this profession, sharing what it is like to spend the day surrounded by beautiful things, see your work on the front cover of Elle Decoration and publish your own gorgeous book.
[Image: Uli Schade for Elle Decoration]
1. As a freelance stylist spending your day surrounded by beautiful things, your job sounds like a dream. Can you tell us a bit more about the reality of what you do?
I am very lucky to have such a wonderful, creative job. A magazine stylist involves a combination of creativity and organisational skills and it’s quite high pressured, as you know a story will have your name on it and be seen by your industry peers, so you want it to be as good as possible. To begin with, a few story ideas are submitted to the editorial team and one is selected to work on. I love combining my shopping skills with making and creating something completely new for a shoot for people to try at home. Lots of research (looking round and about the shops) and searching online for the perfect products to showcase your brief and story. It then involves a large amount of organisation, requesting from the shops the products you need, making sure they have received this request and confirming they will loan it to you. Conveying all of this to the courier who collects it all. On the shoot everything needs unpacking, putting together to form a shot for the photographer. When the camera is on the shot, things are moved around until it looks perfect. Things then are wrapped up, clearly labelled and returned. The story is then written up and objects credited.
For books it is a little different, I come up with lists of ideas that develop over time and then work through the list, choosing the ideas I think are strongest and will work well as a step project but will also photograph well. I make the project and then style the photos on location to make it look its best and to show all of the details, so the reader can easily follow and make it too. I then write how to make it in detail and supply rough drawings for the illustrator.
2. What does your typical day look like (if there is such a thing)?
Every day is a little different. First I drop the children off at school and nursery at 9am, then I either go straight into central London to buy materials, looks for props or I go home, make a cup of tea and start making things or writing in my loft studio. I have to pick the children up from school at 3pm so then it’s mum duties until they have gone to bed. Then a quick tidy up (it’s usually a bit chaotic after a day of crafting and kids!) followed by dinner with my husband. I normally work my way through the day’s emails and catch up online before bed. If it’s a week when I’m shooting then that is always hectic and I pull in lots of favours for the school run!
It was a joy to work with Holly and Leslie at Liberty, they are both lovely. I hadn’t met Joanna before the event, but after an hour I felt like I had known her for years! I really enjoyed working as a team, it felt very ‘international’! Holly and Leslie are great fun and we laughed a lot. I enjoyed brainstorming all the ideas with them, and then the making of course. It’s always great when your ideas end up as something that works. It was wonderful to meet so many people after the event too and to hear that people had been inspired by the demo. Plus, as a textiles girl and long-time fan of Liberty, I had the perfect excuse to keep popping into the store all the time!
4. Did you set out wanting to do what you are doing, or has your career evolved more organically?
I would say it’s a combination. Some of the things I’ve done have evolved fairly organically but I’ve always been focussed and hard working and I suppose doing well in one thing has led on to the next. I worked as a textile designer in a London studio for seven years, which I loved, but needed a new challenge after that length of time. I talked to friends about a career change and came up with working as an interior stylist. This meant I started from the beginning, assisting other stylists for free at first just to get the experience. I still freelanced as a textile designer in the evenings and weekends to help pay the bills. When I had some experience, I started taking test photographs with things I had made and bits and pieces I borrowed or had about the house, and did test shoots with photographers’ assistants who I had met and were in a similar position to me trying to build their portfolios. Once I had a portfolio showing what I could do, I took it to magazines which led to getting my first styling jobs. I took time out of work after my second child, but the ideas kept coming. I kept note of them in a little notebook that I keep in my bag all the time. I had done some styling work for my publishers and mentioned I had an idea for a book. I went in and saw them with the outline and some things I had made and by the end of the meeting I had a book deal and we started shooting one week later! It all happened very quickly and I was able to add ‘author’ to my job description a year later when The Homemade Home was published.
5. What was the most important thing you learned during your years working for one of London’s top fashion and furnishing textile design studios?
We designed all day, every day and there was no excuse for off days or if you weren’t feeling creative or inspired that day. That was a great lesson to learn, to just start designing and try things, don’t wait for inspiration to come, just get stuck in. Nothing was thrown away design-wise and I learnt to become a commercial designer and about the differences in markets – what sold better in Europe, what the US preferred etc. We were prolific too. It was simple – the more designs we produced, the more we would sell. It means even now I’m never short of ideas, I find them. It also meant that my drawing skills were used every day, along with my stitching skills, which helped me discover a style of my own. By being commercial it doesn’t necessarily mean being a sell out and designing things you don’t actually like, it just means producing designs that other people wanted to buy. I loved working at the studio and am still good friends with the team there.
6. And in your time at Elle Decoration?
I was a freelance stylist for them and I loved having the creative freedom there, I could think big and dramatic working on 10 page features and several front covers. I also styled for other magazines and papers like The Mail on Sunday and the Telegraph. I suppose I learned most by working with some of the top interior photographers and that, when you connect with a photographer, it’s that creative team work that gets the best results.
7. How important was your university education in getting you to where you are now?
I don’t think I would be where I was now if I hadn’t had the training at Art College. That is where I really learnt to draw and use colour, experiment with art and have fun creatively. I learnt to be confident in what I was creating. I needed that training to stand out and get the job in the textile design studio. I also met my husband at art college when we were 18 so it was important professionally and personally!
8. What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into styling later in life (rather than fresh out of uni)?
My advice would be assist other stylists, for free if necessary, and try to build up relationships with magazines. Build up your styling portfolio with a photographer and then try and get little jobs and see what happens. If you went to art college, see what your old friends are up to and see if they can help. Make friends with staff in little interiors shops or new designers, as they may be more likely to lend you things to photograph or may be willing to work with you on something that they may use for promotion and you can add to your CV. Nowadays, you can buy very good DSLR cameras at reasonable prices to practise styling with and start a blog to show what you’re up to. They didn’t exist when I started but now I’m doing it the other way round and have been taking my own pictures for my new blog!
9. What is the big dream for you and your creative business?
There may well be another book in the near future and I am very excited to have just started a blog of my own. I love encouraging people to be creative and individual and this seems to be a good way of sharing this. I’ll keep on making, I just can’t stop.
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