Welcome to Career Week! While we always make career-focused content a priority on Fashionista, we thought spring would be a good time to give you an extra helping of tips and tricks on how to make it in the fashion industry.
In our long-running series, “How I’m Making It,” we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
Rachel Zoe is a very busy woman with, perhaps, not a lot of work-life balance. If you watched her Bravo reality TV series, “The Rachel Zoe Project,” you probably know this (and that she seemingly wouldn’t have it any other way). Of course, this is true not just for Rachel Zoe, but also for many women around the world. And as Zoe grows her empire, which has expanded far beyond the celebrity styling business that put her name in tabloids in the mid-aughts, her goal is to empower those women to succeed and to do so stylishly and confidently.
As Zoe embarks on new projects, from The Zoe Report to Box of Style to Dreamdry, it’s this female-empowerment mission that Zoe believes to be a common thread. Ideally, it’s her personal brand.
That brand has certainly evolved throughout her fairly public career: There were her well-documented days palling around with clients like Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie and her years as the star of a juicy reality-TV show that documented everything from the growth of her empire to having (and dressing) her first child, to fallout with former assistants.
No longer on TV (for now), Zoe is still very much a public figure and hardworking businesswoman alongside her husband and CEO of her company, Rodger Berman. And while her life seems relatively drama-free, she hasn’t exactly forgiven those former assistants.
She took some time out of her very busy schedule to chat about how she got into celebrity styling, why she doesn’t do it anymore, how fame impacted her career, what’s next for the Rachel Zoe empire and the “bad experiences” that have made her a lot less trusting of people. Read on for our interview.
What was your first job in fashion?
My first and only job was actually as an assistant at a magazine. I got a job as a styling assistant, not actually knowing what that meant. I graduated George Washington University with a liberal arts degree and all that, but I was a psychology and sociology major. And I ended up getting this job as an assistant and was so obsessed with my job and I was making no money at all.
And when I say no money, it’s like no money. And I basically just worked every minute of the day and worked incredibly hard over that two-and-a-half years. I left there as senior fashion editor and after that I went freelance when I was 25 years old.
And were you doing more editorial styling at that point?
I was doing a ton of editorial. Basically shooting with some of the best photographers in the world, which is incredibly exciting, which I love. But primarily outside of shooting models and editorials, I was shooting a lot of musicians.
That was everyone from Britney Spears to the Backstreet Boys, Enrique Iglesias, Jessica Simpson. You name it. That was my life. And I was traveling all over the world and styling every second of every minute of every day. And I worked tirelessly like that for 15 years.
How did the transition into focusing on celebrity styling happen?
I started to work a lot with actors on and off while I was still living in New York. And then my job kept taking me to LA and I fell completely in love with LA when finally, one day, I was like, ‘I’m sick of the back and forth and I’m kind of burned out from New York, and I just want to start to transition to LA a little bit. And then what happened was, I got my first job working on the red carpet, I think 2003, 2004, with Jennifer Garner and I just loved it so much. I loved her so much, I loved the process so much that I soon started to work shortly thereafter with Keira Knightley, Salma Hayek, Cameron Diaz and Kate Hudson.
How did you typically get connected with new clients back then?
Through word of mouth. If I did so and so and the publicist liked it or another actor liked it, then they would say, “Oh, I want to try working with her.” It was all different ways.
And at that point did you have an agency that you worked with?
I had agents. I didn’t use them very much in that they were more like managers.
How would you typically go about hiring assistants? What did you look for?
I would say, first and foremost, trust. Because there’s a lot of area for mistrust in this industry.
For people that steal or try to take your client or try to take money or clothes — you have to find really good, honest, hardworking people that just want to be really good at their job. You have to make sure there’s no agenda with the person who wants to work with you, because very often in styling or in fashion you’ll get people that are like, “I love clothes; I love dressing; I love shopping,” and those aren’t the people that you want. You want the people that are like, “I want to do this because I love the process of this. I want to be a really good stylist. I want to learn.” And just people that are good and have a good reputation. Definitely check background references and things. Because I’ve had many bad experiences.
Are there any you want to call out in particular? Any example?
No. But there are plenty.
At a certain point, you became a celebrity stylist who was a celebrity in her own right. From your perspective, how did that happen and how did it impact your business?
I don’t know. Being well-known, I think, that’s never the goal, right? At least it wasn’t for me. The goal was just to be great at what I was doing and however hard I had to work to achieve that, I was thrilled. I think becoming well-known in the public eye was a result of timing, really, and the media’s fascination at the time, too, with creating the images of some of the people that they were looking at and who was behind the scenes. I think people started to wonder what the process was behind the scenes. And that’s why I started my TV show.
How did that, being on TV, change your life at that point?
I think it opened doors in other areas of my business. I think when I launched my collection in 2011, it helped that people knew who I was to some extent, but ultimately, you don’t want people to buy your clothes because they know who you are. You want them to buy your clothes because they like the product, so that’s always the focus.
Now you have the clothing line and you have other projects like The Zoe Report and Box of Style. How do you decide what kind of project to embark on, and what kind of filter do you put them through to decide if it’s a fit?
There’s so many things that I have left to do that I want to do, that I haven’t even scratched the surface of. For me to do something, whether it’s a one-off collaboration; whether it’s a long-term partnership, aligning myself with any brand; whether it’s an endorsement, being an ambassador of something, designing something, it has to feel right. It has to be organic. It has to be true to who I am and what I stand for.
Everything I do and everything I stand for in my brand, within my brand, is empowering women to live a life in style and to live their lives more glamorously. And trying to make them feel better on the inside because that ultimately makes you look better on the outside, and then by taking that few minutes to make yourself look better on the outside will affect how you feel on the inside. It does. However I can do that is what I will continue to do. Whether that’s through extending into home, entertaining, beauty, travel, lifestyle, anything.
What are some of the projects that you want to do in the future, specifically? How do you see your empire, if you want to call it that, evolving?
I definitely want to step into beauty, fragrance, cosmetics, nails, things like that, for sure, because there’s so much to say in that category. I definitely want to do home. Anything from home accessories to home furnishing — how to set a table — for that woman that is multitasking and doing a million and one things all the time. My job is to tell them how to make it easier, more efficient, and how to do it in style.
Would you ever do a TV show again?
Yes, I would. If it was the right opportunity, I would.
I’ll probably write another book. I’ll do eyewear.
Looking back on the Bravo show, do you feel like it was generally a good decision? Do you feel like was there ever a downside to it?
The downside was that it was all-consuming. It took a lot, a lot, a lot of work to shoot. I don’t really have regrets. I think the fact that people loved it so much and still want it back…
I really miss it!
The greatest moment for me in my career is that Rodger and I still constantly hear from people are going through chemotherapy, people going through a very hard time in their lives, people that just had a baby and are trying to put their lives back together. If it’s inspiring them or providing escapism in any way for them, then that’s the greatest thing I can ever ask for.
How much styling do you do now?
Has that been a conscious decision?
Yeah, definitely a conscious decision, sure. Styling is something that I did for almost 20 years and basically every minute of the day, including weekends, holidays and everything. And I think that once I had my children and I launched my other businesses — my media business, The Zoe Report, Box of Style — and launched my collection and all these things… I’m not someone that can do something halfway. I can’t. I have to give it a 100 percent and I really just couldn’t give it 100 percent. It’s not to say that I won’t do it. I’ve been asked a couple of times to come out of my resignation to do some specific people, and it’s not to say that I won’t, but I can’t do it in the way that I did for 20 years.
What tips or advice would you give someone that maybe has too much to juggle?
Something I always say is, don’t over-plan your life. I think it’s really hazardous. I think it’s very detrimental to set unrealistic goals for yourself, whether you’re someone that sets daily, weekly, yearly goals, saying, “By this age I’m going to achieve this. By this month I’m going to do this.” I’m someone who has never done that because I find that you’re only set up for letdowns at that point. Or if you’re someone that needs to set goals for yourself, then make realistic goals to attain.
Your LA runway show last season was fun and seemed very personal for you. Would you show here again?
I would most definitely do it again. I think it was an amazing decision, and I loved it.
What would you say has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far in your career?
I would say the biggest challenge was when I became a mother and was trying to figure out how to get my head fully back in the game of what I was doing and figuring out how to be as good as I was. And trying to figure out how to be 100 percent at home and 100 percent at my job.
There’s been many times where I wanted to send Rodger in with a wig as me and just be like, “You go, I’m so tired.”
If you had any workaholic tendencies, did having kids change that?
I really sacrificed my — not that I really had it before — but the quote-unquote “me-time,” personal time. I never really had that before when I didn’t have kids. But at least if I wasn’t working on a weekend, I would take that weekend and not leave the house, sit in a bathrobe and just not leave. But when you have kids, your weekends are actually as much work as the weekdays or more. I think what I’ve given up is any semblance of personal time. And before I had kids, I went out five, six nights a week — all the time for work events and things like that — and now I really pick and choose carefully.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned so far in your career?
Don’t be too trusting of people. Not in business. Because I was always someone who was very naïve and very, very trusting. And I thought everyone was my friend. As you get older, you realize that’s really just not true. Many people have an agenda. And I don’t mean that to be cynical because there are still a lot of amazing people. I just mean watch your back.
Can you expand on how you want to help empower women and why that’s important to you, in general?
I think that’s literally all I do every day is educate and teach women through what we talk about on The Zoe Report, through how I carry The Box of Style, through conferences that I speak at. Any and everything that I do, that’s the underlying message.
Would you say that’s the legacy you want to leave?
One-hundred percent. My whole mantra is “living in style.” And that no matter how busy you are in your life, you still can do it in style. You don’t need money; you don’t need to be famous; you don’t need to have access; you don’t need to be a VIP.
Do you see yourself as a mentor for your employees, too? Obviously, you’ve had some former employees go off and do their own thing. Do you feel that’s a reflection of the benefits of working for you?
We have some extraordinary people that work with us now that have worked with us in the past that have gone on to do incredible things; whether it was to work with their family or moved across the country or work in another aspect of the business, we always continue to support them. A lot of times they came back and worked with us in a different capacity. Some, you just have to let them spread their wings and fly. But then you have [some] that leave in the wrong way, in the worst way. And they go off and continue to be that [untrustworthy] person. Once a cheater, always a cheater, right?
But listen, if I can mentor people, I think that’s awesome — nothing would make me happier.
What would you think is the biggest public misconception about you?
I really don’t know. What I hear all the time from people is that I’m kind of silly and nice, and I think people think that fashion people are not. I don’t take myself very seriously at all. I’m very self-deprecating. I like to laugh a lot. I like to have fun with my team. I treat my team like family. And I really feel like you can lead with kindness, but still have authority. I take my job very seriously, but I don’t take myself very seriously.