The Producer: Naila, I hear that you wear many hats and that you are primarily an artist but you also do wardrobe styling. Would you considering wardrobe styling your main role at the moment?
Naila Ruechel: Yes, it is. I’ve been a stylist for 20 years. I studied photography, I’m from a family of photographers, so I still practice in the art of photography, but predominantly in the fine art respect. So if I had a title, I think it would be very long - it would be Fashion Stylist slash Photographic Video Artist.
TP: We’ll take it and run with it! How long have you been in New York?
NR: I’ve been in New York for 14 years. I moved here from Sydney, Australia where I was for about 5 years. So I got my start there.
TP: How did you transition? What was your first gig here?
NR: I got really lucky when I came here. I wouldn’t be able to tell you what the job was. I had an agent for two months, but I had my sights on another agent. That first agency, I don’t know how they did it, but they connected me with really awesome photographers and I made a killing in the first two months here. But I had this idea that Stockland Martel was the biggest agency in advertising, and I knew that for the career I wanted to achieve, I wanted to be with them. So I moved on from this first agency despite the lucrative success I was having there and went to Stockland Martel. It was great for me because I ended up doing really impactful advertising campaigns like L’Oreal, with huge celebrities - really stunning beauty campaigns. I worked with Stuart Weitzman shoes for a very long time too doing a lot of their advertising, which was really great.
TP: Let’s talk about your art endeavors. You do fine art photography as well as video. How do those pursuits inform your wardrobe styling work?
NR: They definitely influence the styling work. Just having the time and space to go out into the desert, for example, and not have the pressures of a client, or any kind of creative restriction. That really nourishes me in order to come back into the industry and see things from a wider stance. I think sometimes when you’re working just within the fashion or clothing industry, you get influenced by what other people are doing. You get influenced by fashion more so than style. When you get the opportunity to go off and be creative in a non-advertising, non-fashion structure, it allows you to come back and see things with fresher eyes. So it definitely does influence the work that I do in that it is just keeping me fresher and more alive and less influenced by others, but also really reaching more inside myself and doing my own work so that hopefully I’m unique and individual in my approach.
TP: You are able to recharge your batteries, tap into your creativity and then come back refreshed. If you don’t have that work/life balance, of course you can’t bring the same level to your day job.
NR: Yes, and they both influence each other. While I don’t want my work to be too influenced by others, I can’t say that I’m not influenced by all these incredible designers that I get to work with. Why wouldn’t you want to be influenced by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, or Alexander Wang and what’s he’s doing and how he's transformed activewear into this amazing wearable art that’s comfortable? You can’t avoid being influenced by these people and you definitely want to be! So they both influence each other and I don’t think I could have one without the other.
TP: Some of the most exciting art shows that I’ve gone to lately have been the shows that recognize fashion as an art form. That monumental Alexander McQueen show and the Schiaparelli/Prada Impossible Conversations exhibit at the Met. I do love that fashion is being recognized as art now as well. That ties into you balancing both of your worlds as a stylist and artist.
NR: I mean it’s undeniable that Miuccia Prada is an artist, and yes she works in a field that is commercial or merchandise or heavily relies on sale, but I think it’s misguided to take away from that person’s art and what they bring to the table. Even in non-commercial art, it’s still commerce. As an artist, I’m still relying on the sale of a print or the sale of an installation for an income. I feel that often we think, “if you're doing it for money its not art” - well sorry, but I would like to sell the things I create (laughter)!
TP: We do have to make a living, especially living in New York! When you are styling, do you work with wardrobe assistants too? What are some of the qualities that you look for in an assistant?
NR: I do. I look for people who listen well and follow instructions, but also have initiative. Obviously a strong work ethic, people who understand that I’m the key [lead] on the project and that I’m looking for support in that capacity. The people who are able to be more quiet and dutiful and just give hard work are who I find to be most helpful. A lot of young people come out of fashion school and need their voices to be heard. They are 20 years old - and I love youth because youth can be a great source of inspiration and keep me young, certainly - but I find that what a lot of young people coming out of fashion school don’t understand is that my client is looking for one voice or vision and they hired me for that. A lot of the less experienced assistants might have a hard time being in the background - they all want to be heard and want to be a lead stylist. It’s important that they understand they are there to learn, but also to support in a quiet way. That’s the thing I have the most difficulty with in less experienced assistants. However the more seasoned assistants understand that concept very well and I can count on them more, so I tend to have a balance of both on my teams because, as I said, I don’t discount the vitality and enthusiasm that youth brings to the table, but I also need people who are seasoned and more mature and understand the hierarchy, not just within my department but within the entire industry and how and what clients and photographers and producers are looking for.
TP: How do you find your assistants normally?
NR: I have a roster of people that I work with consistently, but I do also rely on word of mouth. People send resumes over all the time and I’ll invite people over or I’ll invite them to spend an hour on set, just to see how they are and how we feel together. So a variety of sources from recommendations to people who are persistent. That would be another good quality I look for - persistence and follow through. A lot of resumes come across my desk. If I see the same one over and over, and follow up emails, that person tends to get through the door more often than someone who sends one and never follows up. Just because the influx of people in our business. It’s the same thing I have to do. I have to court producers, sometimes for up to a year before they give me a project. I had something recently where I sent someone maybe four emails in the course of a year. I mean, I try not to bombard people with mail, but I thought “Wow, this woman is getting tired of me.” The last note was “Happy Thanksgiving!” And finally at Christmas she called and booked me for half a year. She booked me for January, February, March… and it took a year to get through that door.
TP: Sometimes being persistent is key in making that connection.
NR: Absolutely and sometimes it's a matter of just picking up the phone. I had one friend of mine who is a producer say to me, “You know, sometimes I have a job in front of me and the person who is on the phone is getting that job. You just happened to call? Oh I have something for you!”
TP: What do you think is something people would be surprised by about fashion styling?
NR: It's 2% glamour 98% grunt! Just the sheer number of bags or the amount of time you have to spend with your acupuncturist or at yoga to recover from those bags! I think people don’t realize that it is really, really hard work. While I love technology and I love the direction we’re going in with the internet and even television, television has exposed people to the idea that they can be so many things - you could be a chef, you could be a stylist, you could be an Alaskan fisherman! TV has made so many careers appealing to us, but I don’t think tv has been successful in showing how hard people really have to work. With Instagram, for example, there are very many stylish, wonderful people who are very good at utilizing social media to their benefits, but having good style is not enough. Having good style is just the beginning of being able to do this job. Managing a budget, client interaction, knowing the hierarchy as I said before, knowing whom to ask. Being in a big production meeting. It’s your first job, something comes up and it’s not in the budget. Knowing not to say at that point, “Where is the money coming from?” You wait until that meeting is over, and then walk quietly over to your producer and say, “Can we talk about money?” Simple things like that you just don’t understand. I think assisting is incredibly important. That said, l did not assist much in the traditional sense. I assisted a guy at Harpers Bazaar Australia for a minute, and the benefit of me was that since I started as a model, he liked that I could be a fit model for all his shoots. That was the best thing about me as an assistant. But I was 19 and very naïve, and never had any training in how to be responsible. I hate to say it, but at the time I was a ditzy model. At one point, he said to me, “You are useless as an assistant, but I know you’ll be an amazing stylist.” And he kicked me out and said, “Here are my contacts - go do it.” What a gift! But I tell you ,those first four years I was falling flat on my face. Without having had that experience as an assistant and being behind the key stylist, I made the mistake of asking for money in the wrong situation, of making my opinion known where it was not wanted. I’m talking about in the beginning, 20 years ago for the first couple of years, but I really had to learn the hard way. But my vision and style got me through it. I was lucky that I had those first couple of years in Australia, in a market that was smaller, to make those mistakes where they weren’t as detrimental to my career. By the time I moved to New York, I had a strong sense of what I was doing. I do recommend assisting to other people, just to avoid those first painful few years.
TP: How nice that Sydney was your incubator market. Naila could you tell me what you consider the tools you need to do your job? Any essential tools of the trade?
NR: I think just being able to articulate your concerns to people. More than any physical tool I use on set like clamps or a steamer - it’s communication. Being able to ask questions, taking the initiative, where you see something happening and you’re not sure about it, don’t leave it to chance. When you’re on set there’s a very small opportunity to change things, you might be able to send someone out to source something, but really that concentrated time should be used for focusing on making great imagery, not on being flustered. So being able to ask questions: Does this color work for your brand? Is there a competitor who uses a color that we should avoid? Just simple things like that are super important to do. Being able to express yourself, ask questions and being articulate when dealing with people before we get to set - I think more than anything else, this what helps me do my job well.
Thank you for your interview, Naila!
Check out Naila's work HERE
Interview with Naila Ruechel by Annika Howe, Photos by Adrian Alston
Read about Naila's Tools of the Trade here!