I should begin this “chapter” by remaining candid and establishing that this has been written in retrospect. I had originally planned on recording my time at Urban Outfitters on a week-to-week basis, however I found out relatively quickly that the daily operation of the studio was fairly monotonous and my role fairly consistent. As a result of such, I’ve compiled my notes over the last three months as a summary of this experience.
Right, so as I expressed in my first post, the role was advertised as a ‘Paid Studio Assistant’ position and following my application I was of course invited to work four days, which I learned later was a “trial”. I was very nervous that first day, but the reception I received was warm and I was immediately introduced to the studio team in a morning meeting. I consider myself very lucky that Megan was there, she really took the time to help me settle in and introduce me to the surroundings and tasks so new to me.
Although being told upon arriving that I’d only be required until the end of the week, by then I was approached with the option of working “for as long as (I) want”. Although I have of course worked in a paid capacity before, I certainly felt an added pressure to perform in a role that I had no explicit experience given the fact that I was being paid (as opposed to interning for free). That being said, although making an informal agreement that I work every weekday 8:30-17:00 moving forwards, I was technically a freelancer; this meant I have been able to negotiate time off when I (rarely) needed it far easier than some other employees. I was actually able to use this to visit for a week the friends, mentioned in my last post, who made it into a Milanese university (Liam, Danny, Anna and Mari). Of course, there was a risk that I might be told that I’d no longer be required and wouldn’t have a contract to protect me, but the work was challenging enough for my service to be needed so I was confident in my job security.
The Daily Routine
Despite being very diverse in terms of the expectations and sub-roles within the job, the actual day-to-day routine as previously mentioned was relatively consistent.
Typically, the day begins with arriving at 8:30am, at which point I immediately start preparing the apparel that is due to be shot on that particular day. This preparation involves a painstaking steaming process to provide an almost sculptural quality to the clothes and ultimately save the image-retouch team some time down the line. Even writing this in December, I shiver at the burns I gave myself for the sake of crease-free t-shirts. With all “morning” clothing ready and shooting having started, at this point the studio would receive a delivery of new items for the afternoon/next morning and I’d be given a list of printed stickers to assign to the correct items before storing these in the styling cupboard.
Interaction with models becomes an important aspect of the routine and whilst the studio certainly doesn’t pander or bow down to the “talent” employed, there is an obvious need to keep them happy and able to perform well on-camera. With new faces almost every day, learning and being able to quickly establish some kind of relationship made the whole process far more fluid.
Between a scaffolding of time-restricted tasks that need to be accomplished for the studio itself to function, there are a series of work that needs to be completed in-between. Such includes the clearing of shot-items, ordering transport and sending these off to the respective menswear / womenswear / homeware departments, separated by DC (items being sold) and BUYERS (new items that may potentially be sold).
An added administrative element to being a studio-assistant, I was relied upon to confirm the delivery of both received and sent items on the company-wide MTS (Merchandise Tracking System). Due to the scale of this daily operation, there was a constant underlying pressure in knowing that any flaw in reporting could domino and jeopardise the shooting process later on. Despite initially being paralysingly hesitant and having to ask that Megan check my work, I eventually became accustomed to this constant pressure I felt and became comfortable in trusting my own knowledge and problem-solving skills. Writing this now it certainly seems like a small thing but, internally, it’s a lesson I’m so glad to have learned and is an aspect of my personality that I only wish to build on moving forwards in my time away from the comfortable university bubble.
Now and then the company would shoot marketing sets away from the studio and being hand picked for this meant a short break from the rather draining day to day routine of studio life. Getting on well with the styling team, in particular Chris Amfo of menswear, meant I often got presented opportunities that I may not have received had I not had a strong working relationship. I’ve been able to gain a candid insight into working on-location; of course my role in those situations was officially “Styling Assistant”, but ultimately I was a fly on the wall, able to soak in the nuances of commercial operation.
It should also be noted that whilst at UO I was able to use my free-time productively for networking. For example, I would on a Tuesday after work be able to attend the monthly PhotoForum lectures at ThePrintForum 5 minutes down the road. Additionally, I was able to meet photographer James Canon in Central London to discuss potential post-university assistant roles. This echoes my earlier mentioned gratitude at having been able to work in such a creatively charged area. A direct result of networking internally (that is, within UO), following a discussion about my photographic work and sharing my direction and ambitions within the field with Womenswear-Stylist Isabelle, I was put in touch with Elena, a friend of hers who runs The Earth Issue, a publication that I am currently in talks with about a potential writing position.
These efforts at maintaining focus on my own overarching goals so as not to fall prey to the “9-5 trap” are, looking back, what I am most grateful to myself for. I remember hearing about how Einstein worked at a postal centre whilst working on his theoretical work, he appreciated the monotony of the job and could consciously think in the background. I’m not Einstein (#humble) but between boxing, unboxing, steaming, labelling clothes and buying the models their lunch, I was definitely able to find some kind of relief in internally planning for, say, my dissertation a year in advance.
So I mean, I’m not... not... Einstein...
Looking back at the last three months, I am very thankful for my time spent working at the studio. I've learned so much about the role of photography within a giant of fashion e-commerce. Ultimately, I've found that this isn't the industry I'd ideally go into post-graduation, but I am happy to have found this out on my time away from university as opposed to when the time comes. I feel I've been able to develop and enhance a range of soft skills and I am glad that my performance review by my employer reflects this.
In addition, through saving the vast majority of money I've earned at the company, I've been able to give myself a financial buffer as I prepare to take this next step and live abroad.
I am leaving the studio to pursue the remainder of my year-out as an international student of film at Karlstad University, Sweden. The last few weeks have been relatively hectic, having to sort out my course-selection, my travel and my accommodation there. The courses at KAU don’t run like those at Coventry; there are much fewer primary courses like, say, Photography. Instead, there are a series of shorter individual chapters of study, more akin to the module system I’m used to. In any case, I’m delighted to confirm that I’ve been allocated my first-pick of courses of Cut/Uncut (Editing), The Dangerous Film (Censorship) and Intercultural Studies: Audio Visual Media, all of which I have previously touched on briefly but hope to gain a deeper knowledge of and translate into my own photography simultaneously.
I’m excited to get back into the swing of learning, especially given the calibre of courses I’ve been allocated, but in all honesty I am scared at the prospect of moving. It’s a big deal. To live in another country is one thing, to not speak the primary language of said country is another, but to do all that alone, without the comfort, security and council of friends going through the same thing?
Of course I’m scared.