The very first time I set foot backstage as a Fashion Week volunteer ...
…in 2006, yes, it was a long time ago, I probably looked like that emoji with the stars for eyes … I’m not even kidding. At the time, I was in college while also working as a visual manager at a retail store.
I remember always being interested in Fashion Week and getting any little bit of information I could. In those days, the shows weren’t really accessible to the public the way they are now. In order to score a seat or even watch a show, you had to be press or an industry professional, such as a buyer, an editor or a stylist. That was it.
Even though I knew I wanted to be a part of Fashion Week even then, I never really understood the benefits of volunteering and how it would all end up impacting my career.
As the world opens up more and more and allows for in-person events, I wanted to start talking to you about Fashion Week because we are approaching the time production teams start breaking down details, like the additional help they are gonna be needing as it gets closer to the day of the show.
I’m sure you’re wondering, “if Fashion Week isn’t until September, why is she talking to me about this now?”
Well, if you’re serious about advancing your career, being a Fashion Week volunteer is the best way to start. It’s important for you to begin familiarizing yourself with key terms, roles and all of the details that go into this incredible week-long event within the fashion world.
Plus, you need to start doing some research if you want to be among the first to reach out to companies and professionals about potential opportunities.
Every new season, editors, stylists, influencers, publicists, producers and designers look for temporary help with fashion week shows. Knowing key facts and information will help you get ahead of everyone else who is trying to secure a backstage spot.
Over the course of the next few weeks, I’m going to be explaining all of the information you’ll need about working at Fashion Week – from what it entails to where to look for opportunities and who to reach out to.
In this post, we’re going to be breaking down how being a Fashion Week volunteer can affect your career and the benefits it will bring to you as a fashion professional. Some of these you may know, while others, I have a feeling, will be a surprise.
HANDS ON EXPERIENCE
The first and most obvious benefit of being a Fashion Week volunteer is that it allows aspiring professionals to get hands-on experience and a piece of the fantasy. As a fashion lover, I would be a hypocrite if I said you shouldn’t volunteer if you want to be part of the magic that goes on behind the scenes at Fashion Week. I completely understand this mentality and did the same thing. But what I do want to stress is that it shouldn’t be the only reason that you sign up for this experience.
If your only reason to become a Fashion Week volunteer is just to be backstage, get a chance to see designs and meet designers or models – every single company you work with will see this and you won’t be asked to come back.
I’ve said this before and I will always stress it: fashion is NOT for the faint of heart. The results that are created – the beauty that the world sees in campaigns, events, magazines or shows – is the result of lots and lots of grueling hard work from many people. It is not glamorous by any means or a direct reflection of what you see on social media.
So, now that I’ve given you my PSA, let me get off my soapbox and get on to the good stuff…
Being a Fashion Week volunteer is an experience like none other. Whether you are working backstage or front-of-house, the excitement and sense of urgency is everywhere. Some of the tasks you’ll be assigned can seem menial, but always be sure to do them completely exactly as you’ve been instructed to.
In this setting, it’s not so much that people are watching you to make sure you’re working…it’s more that people are depending on you to get whatever task you were assigned done in order to ensure all components of the show run smoothly.
If you don’t do your part, it could mean issues such as the next task that needs to happen after yours can’t and most likely someone else will have to rush to do it. This may set other tasks back and if that’s the case, the production team will ask who was assigned to do it in the first place.
While working backstage, it’s important to understand that not many people get an opportunity to do this – to see what you’re seeing and to be part of the behind the scenes action. As such, give yourself a moment to take it all in and then get to work. Once you’ve completed your task, learn as much as you can from everyone around you. Understand why things are done a certain way, when they are done and soak in every single job you can.
The backstage area is often crowded and busy which means 2 things. First, stay out of the way. I remember one of the things that stood out to me the most my first time backstage was watching people run around and run past me constantly. The second is it means every single person has a purpose.
As someone who has spent HOURS working with PR teams on lists to determine exactly who needs to be backstage and who we can remove for the sake of space, I can definitely tell you that you, as well as everyone else you see, are there for a specific reason.
I say this so that you understand that your role, no matter how small you may think it is, is essential to the show. People have worked on lists with the sole purpose to remove anyone non-essential and you made the cut.
So don’t let them down. Work on your task, be available to lend a hand wherever needed, be flexible and support anyone who needs it. Listen to instructions carefully as they are there for a reason and most importantly, don’t take it upon yourself to do things. Everyone involved in the production of the show has been working on it for months – there is a reason they are asking you to do things a certain way.
Soak in every single moment of the experience to truly understand what it takes and if this is something you’d be interested in doing in the future. However, don’t just limit your experience to one show or one designer. Volunteer for a few if you can so you can see the variety of leadership styles, the different types of shows and the different vibes that are ever changing in the world of fashion events, especially shows.
After doing this a few times, you can then start to ask the deeper questions like how did I feel about this experience? Is this something I could see myself working on in the future? What role did I enjoy learning about, watching or shadowing the most?
No amount of reading or learning about Fashion Week can replace being there in person and going through all of the emotions and lessons it can bring with it. The more time you spend volunteering, the more you will be able to learn through practical experience and the more confident you will feel about it going forward.
A key takeaway from this is: when volunteering, make sure to be flexible and available to help whenever needed throughout the day. This will provide more opportunities for you to learn about something new and uncover a new layer of tasks that need to be completed in order for a smooth, seamless show to be possible.
BUILD YOUR RESUME
Being a Fashion Week volunteer is a solid first step to help you get involved in the industry, especially if you have little to no experience or don’t have a strong network to rely on yet.
The beauty of starting here is that you’ll have tasks on your resume that you wouldn’t be able to have by doing anything else, plus it puts you ahead of others looking to start in the industry as most people won’t have backstage Fashion Week experience listed on their resumes.
Building your resume with Fashion Week work, regardless of what it is, will show companies that you are invested in the industry and in growing your career within it. Many times, work done during Fashion Week is on an intern or volunteer basis, which means you’re more than likely getting very little to no compensation – at least at the start. Companies and brands know this is the industry standard, even though it shouldn’t be, and take this into consideration when reading your resume.
Personally, anytime I’ve hired freelancers or interns, I always look to see if any Fashion Week work is listed. If it is, I know that this person most likely volunteered their time to learn about the logistics of a show, try to network and make connections and be part of the industry in a purposeful and deliberate way to grow their career.
Being a Fashion Week volunteer lets brands know that you can work in a very fast paced environment and multi-task diligently and that you can follow orders and work under high-pressure situations.
By adding this to your resume, it will also give you a leg up to your competition when applying to other jobs or even other Fashion Week opportunities in the future. Brands always prefer someone who has done it already, has the experience and has done a good job – especially if they have been on their team. Trust me, they will remember you if your work stood out in some way – whether this was positive or negative!
GET YOUR FOOT IN THE DOOR
Being a Fashion Week volunteer gives you the opportunity to get your foot in the door of this highly exclusive industry. When it comes to getting any job or internship, your network matters. This is particularly true in fashion, where word of mouth is a primary method of finding new talent or getting hired.
What many people don’t realize is that the industry is very small. People always say this and it’s one of those things that is a cliche for a reason. It’s not so much that everyone knows everyone, but rather – if you do something that grabs the attention of the people at the top, whether this is something good or something not so good, it has a way of finding its way back to you when you least expect it.
Fashion Week can be one of the best places for people to see your work ethic and have it speak volumes on its own – without having to do anything above and beyond just doing a really good job.
The problem with opportunities that are unpaid or volunteer-based is that not everyone takes it seriously or is there to work. Some people are only there to be backstage, to get an “insider look” at designer shows and to take advantage of what people they can talk to or meet, but their intention isn’t to actually work.
While this is terrible for the production company of a show, it can work in your favor. It gives the people that are serious about their careers a chance to stand out, especially amongst the people that are purely taking advantage of the situation.
Trust me, the team will notice both.
The trick here is to give brands something to talk about in the best way. You can achieve this by going above and beyond what is expected of you, especially at the beginning.
Now, this is not to say that you should take on more and more work while doing it for free. There will come a point where you have gotten enough experience to be able to charge for your services, but at the start – taking on as much as you can benefits you. It helps you learn things that can only be taught with hands-on experience. Take in as much as possible so that over time, you are indispensable to any company you work for – especially as you are making your way to the top.
Use Fashion Week as a way to get your foot in the door in the smartest way possible.
DETERMINE WHETHER FASHION SHOWS ARE FOR YOU
By being a Fashion Week volunteer, even just once, you’ll be able to determine whether this area of the industry is for you.
Believe it or not, volunteering at New York Fashion Week or at any career-related event, gives you the opportunity to learn about yourself. Perhaps you think you don’t want anything to do with events, but what if you do it once and end up falling in love with it?
Something I have heard a lot is that students never realize how many different teams are involved with the production of a fashion show. Volunteering can introduce you to an entirely new and exciting world of production and event planning. I’ve had students tell me that they never thought about a career in public relations or fashion events until they worked backstage at Fashion Week and saw it all up close.
By getting hands-on insight and experience on the behind-the-scenes production of a fashion show, you’ll be able to better understand all of the factors that go into it.
Additionally, there is no better time than Fashion Week to assist than when you’re a student if you’re curious or want to see if this is something you could work in. The short-term nature of the commitment allows students to participate without giving up too much of their time and having immediate work experience during the busiest time of the year.
This will provide insight into the realities of being part of the fashion industry in a way that few things will.
One thing I do want to say and stress here is that you have to make sure that anything you do in fashion or anywhere else in your life is because you enjoy it. Many people will often say that participating in Fashion Week is what people dream of and so many people are waiting in line for an opportunity like this…but none of that matters if you don’t like it.
Follow your heart and if it leads you to event production, then great. If it doesn’t, don’t try to force it. It’s definitely one of those areas of the industry where you have to love it to do it. I can tell you from experience that after a grueling season full of 17+ hour workdays in production, I always swear I am never doing it again. But here I am – season after season, showing up for more.
The truth is, I can’t stay away because I just love it that much, no matter how much work it often is.
GET A JOB OPPORTUNITY OUT OF IT
Being a Fashion Week volunteer can open doors to new and exciting career opportunities. Your work ethic can make you stand out and can get agencies or brands to call you back to work with them on other projects.
Think about it: you’re working with the top members of a brand on a massive event for their company. It’s up to you to make it a point to differentiate yourself from the rest.
Put yourself in a position where if there is downtime, you take a moment to chat with some team members. It can be about the show, about the industry or something completely unrelated, but strike up an interesting conversation and most importantly, introduce yourself. A conversation, an anecdote or an introduction paired with a memorable work ethic will ensure the team knows exactly who you are even after the show has ended.
Just be sure that when you do decide to strike up this conversation, it’s in a moment where things have slowed down and not while people are running around trying to get things done. You don’t ever want to be in the way, especially by trying to initiate conversation while everyone else is busy. Feel it out and see if this opportunity arises – it could be after the show when everything is being packed up or during a meal break. You have to be the best judge of this.
Depending on who you work with, you may get called back to work on projects such as assisting with photo shoots, PR work, styling or editorial work. Opportunities like these allow you to create new relationships with people in the industry which in turn will allow you to build the start of a solid professional network.
At the end of the day, it’s what you put into every single experience that determines what you get out of it.
IN THE END…
There are so many benefits to volunteering backstage at events and Fashion Week is truly as big as they get. As someone who is starting out, especially if you are a student, get involved with New York Fashion Week — attend shows if you can, help out behind-the-scenes and most importantly, take every opportunity to learn about the industry that you can.
This industry can be exclusive and closed off, but you’ll find that the more you work with different teams, brands and companies, the more doors start opening for you. You’ll quickly find that where you went to school, your resume or even the companies you’ve worked with won’t matter as much as your professional work ethic and reputation do.
It’s up to you to make sure that no matter where you are in your career, but especially if it’s early on, that you give every project you’re a part of your all. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, the important thing is that you put yourself out there and honestly, you’ll be so stressed about the mistake, you’ll never forget it and probably never make it again.
Our Fashion Week series has officially begun all with the intention of making sure you are well prepared by the time you have to start applying for those coveted opportunities. In our next post, we will go over all of the teams that work together to create the magic we see during Fashion Week.
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