Monday 23 April 2018

The business of fashion: a lesson in style

As one personal shopper takes her business out of the store and into the classroom, our reporter looks at the art of a stylist

She's in fashion: Clara Halpin, who has set up the Irish Fashion Business Institute which offers fashion lovers courses on how to crack the industry, gives Roisin Kiberd a personal styling lesson. Photo: Tony Gavin
She's in fashion: Clara Halpin, who has set up the Irish Fashion Business Institute which offers fashion lovers courses on how to crack the industry, gives Roisin Kiberd a personal styling lesson. Photo: Tony Gavin
Lessons learned: Stylist Corina Gaffey says there's nothing like hands-on experience

Roisin Kiberd

Apicture is worth a thousand words, but very rarely will it reveal the work that went into it. This is invariably the case in fashion, where behind every 'effortless' cover shot are hours of painstaking work and organisation, and a team of professionals, including the photographer, hair and make up artists, the model and their agent, their various hangers-on, a lowly intern tasked with pinning up hems and fetching coffee, and finally that one crucial role holding the whole team together: the stylist.

Fashion might be an art, but it's also a business, and Clara Halpin knows that business far better than most. Head of personal shopping at Arnotts, Halpin has now decided to share her decades of experience in fashion and personal styling through teaching, starting the Irish Fashion and Business Institute at Lower Leeson Street in Dublin.

Many of us work in retail at some point in our careers, but moving up the industry ladder can seem mystifying. Even those with an education in fashion design, styling or journalism can end up trapped in a circuit of internships.

"There's no single path into the fashion industry," said Halpin. "Careers can progress through such varied ways, through sales, retail, visual merchandising, fashion buying, styling. Having been in the industry 20-odd, nearly 30 years, I feel like I can give students a really rounded insight into how the industry works."

The aim is to give as accurate and clear a picture as possible of day-to-day life in the fashion industry, and to equip students with everything they need to get a foot in the door.

"It can appear as something very glamorous from the outside," said Halpin, "but it's important to show people the realities, the nitty gritty and the logistics of the job, so they know if they want to carry on."

Details often overlooked, but which Halpin plans to address, include deciphering 'industry speak' and even job specs listed in recruitment ads. "'Liaising' might just mean picking up the phone, but HR jargon can be very intimidating to anyone starting out. I can break the whole thing down for students, so that nothing fazes them."

Aside from the (very literal) fabric of day-to-day work, there's a human side to the role that can prove difficult to master. The stylist's job is a balancing act between looks and comfort, between what's fashionable and what suits a client's 'personal brand'.

"I'll get people coming in to find something to wear to an interview or some other big event," said Halpin, "who really want to make an impact. Research shows you get only seven seconds to make an impression. Even if you consider yourself someone 'outside' fashion, you can't argue with that."

The term 'real women' gets thrown around far too often of late, but Halpin's role really does move past seasonal trends to address what women feel good wearing everyday, at any age and at any size or body type. It's a skill learned with experience. Halpin explained, "You can study theory, but unless you add hands-on experience it's not as effective. The course will give students work experience opportunities, and access to all these beautiful clothes, for studying colour and fabrics. I have a lot of friends in the industry, too, who are very much on board to coach people."

The courses the Institute will offer include a Certification in Fashion and Styling, an Introduction to Fashion Buying, and a weekend course in Image and Personal Branding.

The Introduction to Styling course will cover specifics such as the difference between personal styling and fashion styling, acting out dealings with clients and learning to differentiate style profiles.

"Very often when a client comes into the shop they're not particularly sure what they're looking for," said Halpin. "You have to try to read what it is they're looking for and work out a style profile. Are they a classic type, or more bohemian? Are they a dramatic personality? It's a skill that works across the board, whether you're dressing clients or dressing mannequins in a shop window."

"A lot of people look at magazines and don't think about what's going on behind the scenes," said Corina Gaffey, fashion stylist, editor, writer and formerly a teacher alongside Halpin at LA College. "You have a brief, you have a client, there might be advertisers involved, and you need to deliver something all of these people will be happy with."

Now a freelance contributor to titles such as 'Irish Tatler' and 'Irish Country Magazine', at the time Gaffey worked as fashion editor at 'Stellar' and 'Kiss' magazines and taught styling in the evenings. "There were no courses when I was starting out," Gaffey told me. "In one sense it was a good thing - it meant I had to learn on my feet. It sounds cliche to say that I 'fell' into the job, but that really is what happened."

Having worked in retail throughout her degree in English, Media and Cultural studies and developed a love of fashion, Gaffey wasn't sure where to start, or even if an ideal job for her existed. She experimented with a course in fashion merchandising ("It just consisted of copying out notes from textbooks and watching 'Off the Rails'"...) but found her calling as a stylist when photography students needed someone to work with on their end-of-year projects, which in turn led to more styling work.

"There are so many mistakes you can make," Gaffey said. "When I was starting out everything was just word-of-mouth. I remember someone telling me, 'I heard you can put masking tape on the soles of shoes to protect them'. I remember being afraid to take tags off the clothes. It's those little things which sound silly but are important during the shoot."

Assisting other stylists, Aisling Farinella and David Brittain among them, also helped Gaffey make connections and gather experience. "It gave me the confidence to go off and do my own things. It's so important to have support and mentorship."

Organising a fashion shoot is akin to putting on a stage production, almost single-handedly. "We don't tend to have big budgets to hire someone to manage production. As a stylist, I hire the model, find the location, clear it with everyone and book it. I organise hair and make up, do up a call sheet and manage the time, then it's off to sort out the clothes."

All this, and you need an eye for fashion, and to persuade your subject - be it a celebrity or 'civilian' - to take a chance on the look you've picked out. Courses like Halpin's can give up-and-comers the confidence to take on these tricky situations.

"Technical knowledge is essential if you want to be taken seriously," said Gaffey. "If you can dress any shape or size of person, then you can dress models who are size eight."

And knowledge really does make a difference. Fifteen minutes after I first meet Halpin, she's running off to find the perfect outfit to use me as her styling guinea pig. She gets it spot-on, picking out a 70s-style Biba girl mini (actually by Danish label Ganni), suede boots and a jewel-toned green fur gilet (left), which I fall instantly in love with (and, consequently, feel like the worst vegan of all time).

After we take the pictures I give the clothes back, but I walk out onto rainy Henry Street with a spring in my step and my carefully chosen blood red lipstick (Dior, in a shade called 'Ambitious') still intact.

It's the little details that make the difference, but it takes decades of experience - like Halpin's - to get them right.

Want to be in fashion?

Tip 1: Do your homework

It’s important to get an understanding for the different roles in the fashion industry and what they encompass, before deciding which area suits you best. Do you want to be a fashion buyer? Are you interested in paving your way as a stylist? Is visual merchandising an avenue you would consider? Do you want to own your own fashion business one day? Follow what excites you and you won’t go wrong.

Tip 2: Learn, learn, learn

It is imperative that you continue growing and expanding your knowledge: gaining the right vocabulary and a solid grounding in fashion, and combine academia with practical experience. If you are looking to pursue a fashion course, find an institution that cares and has a vested interest in aiding your progress, even after the course has ended.

Tip 3: Find a mentor

Although the fashion industry is widely creative, a solid foundation of learning and experience is what will help you grow and excel. Combining the two, you’ll expand your portfolio and grow your fashion CV, network and make crucial contacts, and gain exciting opportunities along the way. Seek out a mentor who cares about guiding and assisting you to achieve your goals.

* See for more information

Irish Independent

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