This is a weird season. With everything happening with the pandemic most of the fashion shows will keep happening digitally following the July edition. However, even if it’s not clear if buyers, editors, influencers and other fashion professionals will attend them in person, some physical shows will take place anyway. So brands still need help behind the scenes to dress up the models and making sure everything runs smoothly in the hectic hours behind the preparation of a 10 minutes show. So whether you will work as a volunteer this season or want to consider this short and intense experience for the following fashion weeks, the experience of Ellen Bird who volunteered at NYFW 2018, will make things clearer. In this interview we talk everything about volunteering during fashion week: from how to get this kind of opportunity, to what you learn during it, how fashion recruiters consider this experience on your resume, what you do as a fashion week volunteer, and when is the best time to apply for this short but very exciting opportunity in the industry perfect for students, new graduates and people who want to breathe a bit of the backstage of the fashion industry.
- Hi Ellen, welcome! Could you please introduce yourself to the GO community?
Hello Glam Observer community! My name is Ellen Bird, I’m twenty-four and founder of ellenrosebird.com, a tiny slice of the internet fixated around fashion, travel, and relatable girl-talk. I moved to New York City when I was nineteen to attend The Fashion Institute of Technology, where I studied Fashion Advertising and Marketing Communications. After four years of living and studying in NYC, interning at AS IF magazine and working in retail, I’m now based in Dublin, Ireland. I began my career working as IMAGE Publication’s Fashion Assistant and I’m now working in marketing for Brown Thomas.
- You volunteered at NYFW in February 2018, your last year at FIT. Can you please tell us how did you find this opportunity?
As a student in the Fashion Institute of Technology, you’re presented with endless amount of opportunities for everything fashion-related happening in the city, whether it’s job openings, career talks from industry professionals, or New York Fashion Week Volunteer opportunities. When NYFW was approaching, my college announced sign-up dates and I knew how amazing such an experience would be; both for my résumé and own curiosity. The sign-up lines proved to be crazy long, and was followed by an extensive auditorium talk informing us of the all-black dress code, but it was all worth it.
However, if you’re not a student in New York City, don’t feel discouraged. NYFW is fantastically demanding and chaotic; organizers will take an extra hand without a second thought. My advice? Email, email, email. Do your research on designers you’d love to gain experience with (maybe even work with!), and cold email until you’re asked, when can you start?Chanel, Gucci, Prada and other high-profile fashion houses mostly have professionals on hand months prior, so I’d suggest reaching out to lesser-known, more up-and-coming brands. There’s a greater chance you’ll find a contact who will reply, and overall gain a more hands-on experience.
- What did you do as a Fashion Week Volunteer and how long did your experience last?
I volunteered at Japanese designer Dan Liu’s show. Upon arrival at 6am, I’m already steaming garments with other volunteers there to gain the same experience that I was; a minor task, but important. If there’s one thing you learn at NYFW, is that there’s so many small production aspects you don’t think about that goes into a mere twenty-minute show. I’ll be honest, there was some waiting around, but the fashion industry is all about networking, so take it as an opportunity to introduce yourself to some like-minded people; you never know where a simple conversation can go. Shortly after models finished hair and makeup, each volunteer is assigned a model that we’ll be dressing for the show, each with two outfit changes. I quickly helped my model change into her first assigned look, based on an attached photo of how it should be styled, before preparing her second look. During the show, be ready to work QUICK. Her second look needed to be styled and fit in seconds before she walked the catwalk again.
Depending on who you’re volunteering for, circumstances, or how far in-advance you’re in-touch with organizers, some other tasks could include picking up different garments around the city to be delivered across locations, assisting stylists create looks, attend rehearsals and fittings,check-in hundreds of antsy guests, seat dozens of press, VIP guests, and possibly some celebs.
The NYFW shows begin at 9am, and finish around 9pm. So days are long, but are extremely rewarding. For me, I volunteered for only one show as I worked my retail job later that day, so was finished by 10am; tailor it to your lifestyle.
- What are the things you learned the most during that experience about working in the industry?
From Instagram, New York Fashion Week demonstrates a perfect rush of all things fashion, when in reality what you observe as a volunteer is the surface of stress and sweat that goes into merely a twenty-minute show. Volunteering at NYFW is something I’m so glad I did; really so I could understand what it’s really like, but mostly because I could promote my experience to prospective employers. Being a volunteer will quickly teach you about time management, the importance of communication, working within a team and most importantly, will give you insider scoop of this season’s upcoming fashion trends. I’ve learned that it’s not wonderfully glamorous nor scarcely exciting as a student volunteer, but it’s something you do once, and maybe that’s enough. I’d rather be perched front-row in the future, but hey, maybe volunteering will get you there…
- Did you meet people who helped you with future career opportunities during this experience? And in general, was this experience helpful for your future career in the industry?
Personally I didn’t meet anyone who has helped me with future career opportunities, but I did gain a valuable contact for NYFW should I ever wish to volunteer again. The more contacts in the fashion industry you have, the better, no matter the scale.
However, this doesn’t mean others haven’t benefited career-wise. It is notoriously tough to break into the fashion industry, but if there’s a brand you’re eager to gain experience with, cold email. Be eager, introduce yourself to industry professionals (after the show!!), speak with models and designers backstage, gain an understanding of fashion show production and various areas you’re interested in, learn how everything came together, ask for their email expressing how interested you are in their company; truly network with inspiring people within your aspiring industry. Opportunity is when persistence, preparation, and hard work come together; among all the no’s, you’ll eventually find your yes.
- How did a recruiter consider this experience on your CV when you applied for jobs at the end of it?
During my interview for my position at IMAGE Publications, Ireland’s leading fashion and lifestyle magazine, the Editor-in-Chief appeared very impressed with me having NYFW on myrésumé. This experience was absolutely taken into consideration as a major role of mine at IMAGE magazine was being hands-on-deck on editorial shoots. Steaming clothes, helping models dress and undress, assisting IMAGE’s contributing stylists, photographers, makeup artists and hairstylists, and overall, being highly organized throughout shoot days was among my duties. In fact, as I worked on my first editorial shoot I felt incredibly confident remembering my experience behind-the-scenes of NYFW.
- Would you recommend volunteer experience during fashion week? Why and when is the best time to do it (as a student, graduate, whenever you decide to get in fashion…)?
Absolutely! It’s a fantastic opportunity as a fashion enthusiast, whether you’re a student, graduate, or otherwise. I’m an advocate believing all baby steps taken along the way will come together; bringing you closer to where you want to be. Within a couple of hours, I acquired an understanding of NYFW that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t taken advantage of the opportunity, and an understanding of the pressure, stress, lack of sleep and intense organisation that goes into these famed shows. If given the opportunity, I can’t express how much I’d recommend taking advantage of this hands-on exposure.
- What is the best way to get a volunteer experience and how long ahead you should apply/submit your application?
Personally, it was merely a couple of days before sign-ups began on college campus. But for others, I’d advice about a month, maybe even two. As I said before, be eager, and frankly, annoying. If you don’t hear back, follow-up! Some other organizations I heard that’s good for gaining experience is FYID (https://fyidnyc.com/nyfw-volunteer-application) or NYFW: The Shows.
- What is your advice for those who are about to volunteer at fashion week?
I felt extremely accomplished to be involved in such a prestigious production as NYFW, so if you’re given an opportunity to volunteer, do it. It’s absolutely intimidating and chaotic, no doubt, but there’s no other experience like it; embrace the madness! Don’t be constrained by the role; begin conversations with anyone you meet, be observant of those dedicating every ounce of themselves to this one moment, and watch what’s going on around you as designers showcase the entirety of their creative souls and debut everything they’ve worked for; it’s unbelievably inspiring.
Photo courtesy Ellen Bird
This interview was published for the first time on glamobserver.com on September 2019.