The Producer: Hi Natalie! Tell me a little about how you got your start. And how would you describe your role or title to someone not in the industry?
Natalie Ogura: I’m a stylist, but that term is so vague. A stylist can be makeup stylist or hair stylist or personal stylist. I tend to tell people that I’m a style director or in style direction then I’ll elaborate as to whether it’s through wardrobe or props or set design. Stylists tend to have a niche market - they’re either wardrobe or props or set. It’s not too often that you mix and match them all - but I do, and I love it!
TP: You take on every aspect of styling then?
NO: I do. I find them very interwoven. Clothing looks better if the environment is cohesive and vice-versa. I love working with location scouts and collaborating with them. Whenever possible, I’ll go on tech scouts of locations, so that I know in advance what I’m dealing with and also to have some styling input in that. It’s all about cohesiveness. If everything flows, it works!
TP: That sounds like a very holistic approach to styling.
TP: How did you get your start? Did you study fashion or photography?
NO: I studied mass communications in college with a goal to work in publishing - which is exactly what I did! While still in school, I got an internship at Flare Magazine in Toronto. At Flare, my job was assisting the fashion editor- which we all know is bagging and feeding samples back and forth to show room! But you know what - that helped me find out pretty quickly that glam was only about 10% of the job! An invaluable experience. Shortly after that, I was hired as an assistant style editor at a lifestyle magazine and then worked there for a year or so. Subsequently, I moved on to become a style editor at three other publications and e-magazines. So the beginning of my career was pretty much embedded in editorial and publishing. It was an invaluable training ground for me. I got to collaborate with some amazing stylists, photographers, editors and really learned from them.
TP: And you were learning from the opposite complimentary side, so now as stylist, you know what the expectations are of the publications and editorial clients because you’ve been on the opposite side of it all.
NO: 100%. It allowed me to understand the whole publishing process. When you’re coming in as a freelance stylist, it’s often pretty much in the middle of an editorial process, so it can be hard to have an understanding of an entire feature. If you actually have the opportunity to work at a magazine or an ad agency, you really understand the clients’ needs from start to finish.
TP: Understanding that you are one part of a larger process is key and allows you to step away from only concentrating on the immediate needs and simply reacting. You are proactively anticipating their needs & understand the bigger picture.
NO: It’s important to understand that styling for commercial clients involves a lot of moving parts and a good portion of the style direction is based on premeditated marketing decisions. There are so many factors that go into styling other than what’s in front of the camera.
TP: That’s a wonderful point. In our commercial production business, we have to remember that this is art and commerce. It’s business and it’s not just for the sake of art. We have an end client we’re responsible for. It’s important to hear you make that distinction too, because it shows that you’re anticipating your clients’ needs. You know it’s not necessarily about your own creative vision, it’s ultimately about what needs to happen for the greater needs of the project.
NO: Right. I want to make one more note about working in publishing as a segway to my styling career. My last job was at a lifestyle magazine, so it provided the opportunity to style not only fashion, but beauty shoots, decor, crafts, food shoots, you name it. I was game to try it all. It made me a very versatile stylist. The more experience you gather outside your core field, the better.
TP: You sound like you’ve had such a range of experience. If you ever wanted to specialize, you certainly could hone in on one facet of styling. But with your background, it seems that you were automatically trained to approach things as a holistic experience, looking at every angle.
NO: I hope so!
TP: How did you make the transition from working in publishing and the editorial world to being a freelance stylist?
NO: That happened when I moved to the States. I moved to North Carolina with my husband, who was there for business school. There were no publishing companies in the area. I thought well, “what were the best parts of working at magazines?” I really thought it was working together with photographers, so I sought out the best photographers in North Carolina. That’s where I met a photographer by the name of Jimmy Williams. The minute we met each other, we knew we were a complete match. I became his in-house producer and stylist. I worked there for two years and that’s how I pivoted into the production side, or commercial side of the industry. I learned a ton there! Jimmy, being a creative genius, really exposed me to an incredible breadth of knowledge. Subsequently, I moved to Austin where I now live. Jimmy and I loved working so much together that I continued to work with Jimmy on a freelance basis after I started my business based in Austin. My business started one client at a time, and before you knew it, I had a wonderful full roster!
TP: That’s fantastic that you were able to keep those working relationships and roll it into your new freelance business. What are some tips you would give someone making the transition into the freelance world as a stylist?
NO: That’s a great question. People say, “Oh you’re freelance, that’s great. You’re your own boss. I’d love that.” Yes, that’s all very true, but you have to put in about 500% more effort, organization & work ethic into your day-to-day life. But yes, I love being my own boss.
TP: Ha! I hear you! So discipline is what I’m hearing in this too…
NO: Absolutely, and organization. If you’re making the transition, you have to be self-motivated. Most stylists inherently have a sense of style - but that is not good enough. You have to be like any other entrepreneur & dedicate yourself to the business side of things. If you’re going to go freelance, know that the glamour scene is only about 10% of the job.
TP: It’s important to have your own point of view, own your sense of style and sources, but at the end of the day, it’s a business. You have to treat being a freelancer as a business.
NO: Right and on that point, getting the job is all about creating a reputation for yourself. The best way to promote yourself is word-of-mouth. It’s key. When someone vouches for you and your work, there’s no better promotion than that.
TP: I fully agree. You’ve been vetted.
NO: No one wants to recommend someone they aren’t confident will get the job done. Everybody wants to give good recommendations, right?
TP: Yes, certainly because it’s a reflection on yourself too. As a producer, I work in multiple markets and since I travel often, people are always asking, “Do you know anybody in Atlanta, do you know anyone in Austin?” So when you recommend a crew person, you are attaching your name to it & you want to make sure that person can truly execute.
NO: On that note, Nicole Lloyd put us in contact, which is great. I recently joined Make Create which is the new photo resource for creatives in the industry. It’s the most comprehensive photo resource that I know of. It’s challenging for producers to source and connect with creative and reliable crew in a new territory or smaller market. The fact that MakeCreate.co is launching a national platform is really exciting. The possibility of expanding networks - not only networks but VETTED networks - is invaluable. I’m really excited to see how that progresses.
TP: What I appreciate about Make Create is they have a rigorous vetting system they’re using in order to put their directory together. Photographers and producers who are going to markets outside of their own know they are getting individuals who are reliable. What are some of the daily tools of the trade that you need to do your job?
TP: Oh, I really appreciate that you use mood boards on Pinterest, rather than PDFs.
NO: Yes, I generally work with Pinterest boards while we’re in the discussion stage, and as style direction get solidified, I’ll always put everything into a PDF so that everyone is on the same page. Pinterest boards are great for brainstorming and understanding a client’s needs. On that note, I think it’s important to add that I think one of the most important skills to have in your “toolbox” is being a great listener. It sounds so simple, but to be a great stylist, you have to be able to listen and interpret your client’s wants. It’s vital to take the time to really understand the client’s point of view and how the team (the shooter, the art director…) wants to execute the end product. Everybody works differently. You can’t enter a job thinking everybody thinks the same way you do. Some shooters really rely on a hands-on stylist, while others prefer a less styled look altogether. Some rely on me for style direction, others have a very distinct point of view they want to adhere to. Spend time on calls, listen and observe and get a good handle on everyone’s working style. Only then can you ultimately anticipate their needs. Same with producers! I figure out their production style and processes and really follow suit so that a producer knows I’ve got things covered and that I’ve got their back.
TP: Oftentimes, it can come down to the soft skills rather than the hard tools in what makes a crew member so valuable. Being able to listen, anticipate needs, being prepared - super vital skills. As a producer, that gives me peace of mind knowing that the project is going to be taken care of.
NO: That’s the ultimate goal, right? You as a producer don’t want to babysit your crew, you want to know that they’ve got it covered.
TP: And nobody likes to be micromanaged! You want to put faith, trust and confidence into your crew so they can execute on their own accord. They are brought on to do a certain job and micromanaging can undermine not only the individual but ultimately also the production and experience. That’s not a lovely way to deal with humans.
Alright, back to your tools. Besides Pinterest, are there other apps or technology you use on a regular basis?
NO: You mean other than my weather app? Seriously, I’m pretty obsessed with the weather app, because when I’m setting up camp outside & with budgets these days, sometimes you don’t have an RV so you need to be prepared to have those tarps or pop up tents up - whatever you need so you and your stuff stays dry! Also here in Texas, we’re dealing with 100 degrees most of the summer, so that’s also important to take into account.
TP: How do you find assistants? How do you find someone and what do you look for in those individuals?
NO: I source most of my assistants through recommendations and I’ll try them out for a shoot or two. If there’s a great connection, we’ll continue along. I usually have a rotation of assistants, one of them being my main assistant. The number one skill I look for is organization. Period. When we’re on set, I rely heavily on my assistants to know exactly where everything is, keeping everything looking neat and tidy. I also look for assistants with great work ethics. Styling is not a 9 to 5 gig, you know. We’re generally the first on set and certainly the last to leave right there along with the producer. It really is a labor of love and you have to have the work ethic to go along with it. I also look for street smarts & common sense. If I’m busy, and my assistant encounters a situation - I want them to deal with it! Work it out! Use those smarts. Lastly, I’m pretty big on punctuality. Am I a hard person to work with? No, I just believe that these traits are essential!
TP: Do you have a motto that guides you? Or a piece of advice you’ve been given that perhaps you would share with an aspiring stylist?
NO: That’s an easy one. My dad had a quote that he would tell me weekly: “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” To me, that means: be positive, be resourceful, be gracious. This is a type of person I aspire to be and it’s the type of people I want to surround myself with.
TP: That’s beautiful. Be responsible for bringing the light & positivity.
NO: My dad would repeat that quote to me every time I would get into fights with my sisters, but really it translates into every aspect of life. If you have a good attitude, there’s nothing that can’t be lit up. Nothing.
TP: That is very much in line with the vibe we’re aiming for with TheProducer too. Be kind, be humble, share & support, work hard, do good, be nice. I really love that. Seems like we could branch into some work/life balance topics now.
NO: Work/life balance is imperative. I have an incredibly supportive and wonderful family. I have two kids and an awesome husband. They put up with my shenanigans; that is how I am able to stay balanced. They are there to support me and I for them. I also stay balanced with lots and lots of coffee, haha! I frequent a lot of coffee shops and they also serve as my remote offices since I’m always out and about shopping. Cafes are also great places to people watch; I get a lot of my style inspiration from passerbyers.
TP: Tell me more about where and how you find that inspiration.
NO: Definitely by observing people around me. Austin is small, but boy is it diverse! Style-wise, it’s great to just observe and pocket ideas. You have musicians sitting next to artists sitting next to athletes, and so on! Montreal, where I grew up, is just as amazing. I go there twice a year. It’s a multicultural playground, so there’s a plethora of style inspiration from around the world.
TP: Yes, I’ve been so impressed by Montreal. It’s a very international feeling city, with such a range of modernism and tradition.
NO: I love it - I just wish it wasn’t so darn cold! There’s a joie de vivre there that’s been a huge influence on my style and career direction in general.
TP: What about your favorite spots in Austin - either a styling resource or just your favorite place to hang?
TP: Funny, it’s in Austin and not near the ocean, but that is probably some of the best Japanese food I’ve had in the US!
NO: See, right? No one expects Austin to have great Japanese food, but there you go!
TP: And it’s in the most beautiful little house too. The outdoor garden is a special spot.
NO: The little terrace at Uchi inspired me to create a little bamboo oasis of my own in my backyard. I created a space that’s relaxing as relaxing can be, a little haven where I can both work and relax.
TP: Are there any big success stories or challenges you’ve had to overcome? Any styling challenges you’ve had to tackle?
NO: It’s so important to talk about the challenges. My biggest challenges these days are timelines. A successful stylist will have the talent wardrobed and the set dressed in a timely fashion so the shooter is never waiting on you. This gets very challenging when budgets are small & I don’t have assistants to help me dress 5 models and a whole set in 45 minutes. These days, budgets are such that you have to shoot more in a small amount of time. It’s part of my job to manage time expectations before the shoot so we can stay on schedule. It’s a touchy balance because you want to make the client is happy and you want to be resourceful, but you also want to be realistic about what you can successfully execute. Nobody wants to look like they’re scrambling on the day of the shoot. It’s really important to find solutions to overcome that.
TP: Smaller budgets have repercussions & implications beyond simply not having enough money for props and wardrobe, including manpower. There’s a trickle-down in terms of what we’re actually able to produce and offer on the shoot day. I think everybody is dealing with smaller budgets and tighter turn-around times.
NO: It’s really challenging, but it’s becoming a reality, so we have to address it. It’s hard to say no to a client. It really is. Instead of saying no, I always try to offer an alternative. “How about this solution, or that one?” The key is to never to be black or white, there’s always a grey scale to solutions.
TP: What I hear you doing now is once again turning a negative into a positive, which I really appreciate about your attitude. Comes back to your dad’s phrase too! How do we take a challenge and turn it into something that’s positive, what can we actually offer and how do we move forward? That’s the approach I try to take in my productions as budgets and timelines are increasingly tightened, as well as on TheProducer - it’s about supporting and finding a solution together.
NO: Yup, we’re in it together!
TP: Light that candle!
NO: Now onto the highlights of my job: For me it’s travel. When I work with Jimmy Williams, we shoot a lot of travel and leisure clients like hotels, resorts, cruise lines and all that stuff. It’s a great way to travel, and (yay!) get paid for it! We’ve stayed at some really amazing resorts and such. We work ridiculously long hours and sleep is non-existent, but it’s so much bloody fun! The crew really bonds and you get to test the limits of your creativity and resourcefulness. It’s worth it. I fondly remember shooting an ad campaign for Norwegian Cruise Line where we traveled for 14 days through the Panama Canal - I think I can list that as a huge highlight in my career.
TP: Is there anything you want to share with me that we didn’t cover?
NO: Hmm, I think I’d like to reiterate what a huge inspiration my father was to me and my career path. He actually owned a womenswear company, so growing up, I was exposed to the “style industry” at a very early age. He would often take the family with him on styling sourcing trips. While most families go on vacation to Disneyland, we basically vacationed in shopping malls! I would help my dad choose samples and lug his bags around for him - so I guess you could call that my styling debut!
TP: So it’s in your DNA!
NO: Yeah, I guess you can say that it’s in my blood, haha! But as a last piece of advice to aspiring stylists, I want to emphasize that, yes, having an innate sense of style is important to the job. BUT how you prepare and plan out your styling project will make or break the job. The “fat” of the job happens days before the shoot when you are estimating the budgets, planning the shots and conference calling with producers, photographers, agency and clients. Then you’re creating style guides, shopping and sourcing online, in stores and in show rooms. Once you’ve gathered all your goods, you’ve got to organize and categorize everything, then pack, load and ship everything and I could go on and on…That’s where your success lies. Preparedness is not innate; it’s measured by the amount of effort you put in. There are only so many times that you can “wing” a shoot before you get burnt.
TP: At all levels of production, it’s all in the planning and organization - for me too! You have to lay the foundation of a solidly planned production before you can focus on the success of the actual shoot day. Natalie, I’m so happy to connect with you! Thank you for sharing your story & approach!
Read about Natalie's Tools of the Trade HERE
Interview by Annika Howe
Photos by Jason Griego