LONDON, United Kingdom — Without assistants, fashion would grind to a halt. Such is the importance of their daily contributions to the industry, supporting the individuals and teams with whom they work at companies large and small, from magazines to retailers to agencies. While assisting often means performing a fair share of menial tasks, it also provides a window to the inner workings of a hard to penetrate industry, along with an opportunity for hands-on training and, sometimes, a path to senior roles.
BoF spoke to three former assistants, now working in top jobs across the industry, about their career trajectories and what they learned from assisting.
Jessica Michault, editor-in-chief at NowFashion.com
Jessica Michault began her career began in 1996 as a research assistant at The International Herald Tribune (now The International New York Times) under the newspaper’s then fashion editor, Suzy Menkes. Initially serving as a liaison between Menkes and public relation agencies and fashion houses, Michault remained with the newspaper for a total of 16 years, earning the title of online style editor in 2007.
“It is absolutely a great way to start working in fashion,” she said of her start as an assistant. “When I give talks at fashion conferences around the world, I advise students that come up to me and ask me for help to intern with or become the assistant of someone they admire [who is] doing the work they want to do,” she continued. “It’s a great way to get your foot in the door and meet the right people. You learn so much, so fast, and if you are lucky, like I was, you are trained by someone with integrity and a strong work ethic.”
As editor-in-chief of NowFashion.com, a role she has held since 2012, Michault oversees editorial content for the website, which is best known for providing easy access to images from runway shows in close to realtime. Michault, whose work has been published in The New York Times, Italian Vogue, Vogue Japan, Harper’s Bazaar Brazil and GQ Germany, also films a weekly fashion segment for France 24 television.
“Today, being a fashion journalist is hard. But I always appreciate the people who have the determination to come up to me and ask for help or advice,” said Michault. “That is already such a big step. No one is going to come find you if you are off somewhere writing a fashion blog in your bedroom. Perseverance is what gets the job done. It’s how I hired quite a lot of writers.
Tom Kalenderian, executive vice president and general merchandise manager for menswear at Barneys
Thomas Kalenderian got his start at Barneys as a temporary sales assistant in the summer of 1979 and, over time, rose to the position of executive vice president and general merchandise manager of the New York-based department store, where he manages many of the key relationships for the company’s menswear, children’s and gifts for the home businesses.
Kalenderian originally studied pre-med, but decided to refocus on business before he met the Pressman family, the original owners of Barneys. After getting a job as a seasonal sales assistant, Kalenderian was kept on and, later, appointed assistant buyer, working directly for Gene Pressman.
“By the time the first goods arrived in the warehouse Gene's father, Fred Pressman, told me I was now reporting to him,” Kalenderian recalled. “I cherish every moment I had in the 17 years I worked with Mr Pressman. The experience was more than an education; it was life changing, so much so that I've been very fortunate to continue with Barneys for the last 35 years.”
“Mr. Pressman shared his world with me, taking me on a journey that I've never wanted to end,” he continued. “His exuberant passion for the business was infectious; it made me always happier and satisfied by our work together. When I made mistakes — and I certainly made my share of mistakes in the beginning — Mr. Pressman never scolded me or singled me out. Instead, he said calmly, ‘We didn't figure this one out,’ and always [took] ownership for all the difficult times as well as the good times. Mr. Pressman was a man with great humility. The industry considered him a genius, yet he never spoke about himself. He made the business the focus.”
Kalenderian added: “The best advice I can give to young people starting their career is to be a great listener and think like an owner, because some day you too will be a mentor to someone young and you too will impart the knowledge and wisdom you've acquired to enrich another man's life.”
Calgary Avansino, contributing editor at British Vogue
Calgary Avansino began her career in fashion journalism in 2000 when she left California for an internship in London at British Vogue. Subsequently, she became a personal assistant to British Vogue editor-in-chief Alexandra Shulman, a positon in which she had the opportunity to learn about every last aspect of the magazine.
Work really, really hard. I know this might seem obvious but I see so many young people starting out today that want to do the minimum and reap all the benefits. It doesn’t work like that.
“Starting out as Alexandra Shulman’s assistant at Vogue was the best possible start to my career,” said Avansino. “I had never worked in magazines before, so I had to start with the basics and what better place to learn exactly how a magazine works than at the nexus of the office. When you are working directly for the person who makes every large and small decision, you become a masterful juggling artist.”
“The greatest learning opportunity was simply watching every day how Alexandra navigated the multi-faceted demands of running the most successful fashion magazine in Europe,” she added. “It’s not just about what images to run or which photographers to work with; it’s about leading a team, encouraging people to give their best, focusing on the business side of the industry and being on top of everything all at once. I tried to absorb this brilliant balancing act as I took on more senior roles at the magazine.”
After assisting Shulman, Avansino moved into British Vogue’s beauty department, where she worked as an assistant, before being promoted to the title of wellbeing editor, a role which chimed with her strict vegetarian upbringing in California. In 2008, she became executive fashion editor and digital projects director before striking out on her own, in 2013, stepping down from her full-time position to become a contributing editor, penning Vogue’s weekly well-being blog. She also contributes to The Sunday Times Style magazine and is regularly interviewed on wellness, exercise and diet.
Avansino’s advice for aspiring assistants: “Work really, really hard. I know this might seem obvious but I see so many young people starting out today that want to do the minimum and reap all the benefits. It doesn’t work like that. I stayed late when I didn’t feel like it, I re-wrote copy when I didn’t feel like it, and I did endless filing when I didn’t feel like it. You learn from everything you are asked to do and building a strong work ethic is invaluable as your career progresses.”