To the outsider, fashion styling is thought to be a very glamorous job. It looks like we get to hang out with models and celebrities, dress them up and be surrounded by beautiful clothes. We work in hotel rooms and have room service delivered to us, we are surrounded by the most expensive brand names and know all the inside news, and we get to shop at privileged prices. We work in exciting environments with celebrity photographers who have captured the most famous faces and the work we produce can make fashion history. But just like everything in the fashion industry, what we see on the outside is far from the truth.
I have been in this industry for over 20 years. I can still remember the first day walking into a high fashion boutique as a salesperson… and for the next few years I was completely owned by a force from which I could not extricate myself, but felt immense tension succumbing to. To put it simply, when I said yes to this industry, I was saying yes to a rhythm that fed on the disregard of myself, so every day at work I compromised my body by feeling a tension, which I did not know how to unravel.
For 3 years I stood for 10 hours a day in 3 inch heels, part of a uniform I chose to say yes to, and part of my job. When the shop was very busy, the time I ate was haphazard: I stood (still in my 3 inch heels) and chowed down something quick (usually high in fat, sugar and flavour) and because I starved myself so much, cigarettes, alcohol and coffee were also part of my daily diet.
I took a lot of abuse from customers because I worked with a high fashion brand and we were told the customers are always right, although many of them outright abused us by staying in the shop hours after closing just because they felt they could, and many stole from us as well, but we were not allowed to say no to them.
I was in constant anxiety and reaction towards the abuse that I accepted in this industry. In attempts to numb myself from feeling the abuse I chose for myself, my body was in such a raw and exhausted state every day that every night was a letting loose. When the whole company would meet I would drink and eat heavily, so much so that there were many occasions that within the hour I would already be completely gone, sometimes waking up the next day with yellow bruises from falling down and hitting things and losing consciousness.
The stress I was in from having to make monthly sales, dealing with difficult customers and flying constantly to Milan (as I had become a buyer and an assistant manager to the shop then) to buy for the next season, took an intense toll on my body. Flying to Milan was a complete nightmare because of the already high stress life that I was living.
Exhaustion was already a normal part of my life, and the added stress of a long haul flight and living in constant anxiety about the jobs that I would have to handle in a foreign country made sleeping on the plane impossible. Without sleep and having to start working in a showroom early the next morning for the next 12 hours, followed by a 3 hour dinner with clients, returning to the hotel room at midnight to continue working on the computer, was all part of the abuse that I chose for myself.
My body suffered. Physically I was plagued with insomnia and on days off I would often end up visiting the emergency room with sudden outbreaks of fever and pain. Emotionally I was depressed all the time and was constantly seeking stimulation to lift myself up.
All the money I made I voluntarily donated it back to the industry by shopping to keep up an image – for me that image was “help!” I wore long loose flowy clothes in black or white which I could disappear in, I did not want to be here. It was not funny and nothing fashionable at all, I had dark panda eyes just like the fashion models in the magazines, which are not trendy, but the way I and we as a society have sold out to this industry. My body felt desperately exhausted and therefore my whole demeanour was shouting exhaustion – my face looked tired, my posture was limp and had no vitality – and that is what the fashion industry has made as a trademark for ‘cool’.
The abuse continued when I became a freelance fashion stylist. I would be asked to find a large quantity of clothes in a very tight schedule, and often what I found would be unacceptable, not because it did not fit into the requirements of the job, but because the clients often changed their minds. So for one price that we charge, we were doing the work for 2 or 3 jobs and we would not say anything and bear it at our own expense, both physically and monetarily. There were many levels to get through in approval working as fashion stylist; usually there was the agency before the client and in each of these levels the abuse and control are an accepted part of the game, and something I chose to accept too.
I have discovered that there is nothing glamorous working this way, no fine wine or fluffy soufflé could ever soothe the raw and bleeding wounds I felt inside of me, and no double espresso tasted delicious, I just learned to “love” it because honestly, if I didn’t have it first thing in the morning and numerous shots after, my body probably would have just collapsed, so drinking coffee was a need and I convinced myself that it was a “fashionable” thing to do. No amount of shopping and adorning myself in brand names would ever fulfill the gaping hole I felt growing bigger within me, with each disregarding choice I made.
Until one day, when I said no to the abuse, and so for many years I had very few commercial styling jobs, but I began to work under my own terms.
Fast forward to now; I am still working deep amongst the intensity of this industry but I no longer choose to work as I did before. Neither do I want to escape from this industry, which I did for many years. Why? I simply began taking deep care of my body. The first thing that I did was to change my sleeping patterns by starting to go to sleep around 9pm, simply because I could not stay awake at night.
I had changed my lifestyle for that to naturally happen; I still worked in fashion but I also had a life outside of fashion. I cut gluten out of my diet because it made me feel heavy, and dairy because I found myself depending on cheese for comfort and the feeling of dependence has always been a disturbing feeling for me. Eventually I also cut out rice because it made me so drowsy that I could not work.
I further deepened this care by nourishing myself with fresh and healthy foods and drinking more water, and taking the care to make lunch for myself and to bring it to work. I don’t overtire myself, and I commit to having amazing relationships with everyone I work with by expressing to the best of my ability what my feelings are. Work has never been better.
On the odd occasion when big styling jobs drop me because of the way I choose to live and respect myself, I come back to the focus that no amount of recognition will ever compare to the lovely feeling I now have with my own body. I feel vital and joyful, even in the most intense jobs, from start to finish. There is connection with everyone and we all have an amazing time, and as a result the photographs reflect all of this. Clients and crew do not just remember how stunning the final product is, they remember how deeply met they have been and this feeling will always remain – longer than the fashion images will.
This is a way in which I am experimenting living every day with more understanding and deeper refinement. I choose to live and share this way because this industry is not just a name for me, this industry is all the friendships I have made over the last 20 years, it is everyone I have ever met and deeply care about. To me, this industry is a relationship.
By Adele Leung, Fashion Stylist, Photographer, Model and then some
Self-Care at Work Makes Sense, Why Is It Not Common Practice?
My Relationship With Work: Choosing To Be All of Me
No Longer Living with the Expectations, Stress & ‘Doing’ of Working as a Hairdresser