Sleeping On The Subway, Having 5 Jobs & Other Harsh Realities Of Working In Fashion

Photographed by Meredith Hattam.
We'd like to believe Liza Minelli's heartfelt proclamation of New York (if you can "make it here, [you can] make it anywhere"), but making it here is getting farther and farther out of reach these days — especially in fashion. With sky-high housing costs, ever-increasing MTA fares, and the schooling and internships that require entry-level fashion employees to do a lot of work for nothing, it's a wonder anyone makes it here at all.

In the fashion industry in particular, entry-level salaries (and even plenty of the more senior ones) are notoriously low. And with so many major designers, brands, magazines, and website based here, paying your dues while paying your rent can feel damn near impossible. Sure, sticking it out can offer a huge payout, but the harsh realities of getting there are a hard pill to swallow.

We spoke with five New Yorkers in the industry — some more senior, some just starting out — about the true cost of living and working in fashion. From couch-surfing for a year to calling the L train a temporary home, struggling with addiction and worse, their perseverance is inspiring, and their stories heart wrenching. Is making it all it's cracked up to be? See what they have to say, ahead.
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Photographed by Meredith Hattam.
Virgil, Fashion Designer
"I grew up in Iowa, and I’ve lived in New York City for six-and-a-half years now. I am a fashion designer, so it’s really the best place for me to end up.

"When I first moved to New York, I was freelancing for really small designers, and I loved it. A lot of times, I’d get calls to do sewing for Fashion Week for people who didn’t have their own sample-makers. I’d be sleeping under drafting tables sometimes. But after Fashion Week, I had no work for six months. So I worked retail. I moved here thinking I’d work for some great designer, and no one ever really told me that’s not how it works in New York.

"I gave up my apartment last May; I’ve been couch-surfing and subletting for a year to help pay off my student loans. This time last year, I had a full-time job as a fashion designer for a large corporation I won’t name, designing children’s clothes.

"I started there in 2012, and then ended around Thanksgiving. A corporate environment was killing my soul. I had been working in New York for almost four years, and had spent $100,000 on my education. The fashion industry is just not what I thought it would be — the only time I truly get to create is when I’m working with some sort of private client.

"When I left my job, I had no money saved — not even without paying rent — because I have so many student loans, and New York is so expensive. There are weeks when I’m just like, It’s ramen again tonight. And then I think, Oh my god. I’m almost 30, and I’m still eating like a college student. The struggle is so real.

"Right now, I’m freelancing at a better company — a high-fashion corporate brand. But it’s crazy. Sometimes, I have to be there at 7 a.m., and late hours are normal. The people are much nicer, and the name carries weight, but it’s chaotic. I’ve talked with friends who work at places like J.Crew and Victoria’s Secret, and they tell me it's normal, that things are never calm. That made me realize: If most companies in New York are like this, maybe this isn’t the career for me.

"As a designer, the pay is still incredibly hard to stomach, too. It’s very depressing. Huge companies, ones that have a name, will pay you even less than the less-glamorous luxury ones. I don’t want to have an extravagant lifestyle; I just want to have an apartment. Or to be able to go out to eat once in a while. If I was smarter with my money, maybe I could have a roommate, or be fine in my own little apartment. But I refuse to give up the idea of enjoying my life. I've realized, I can’t just stay in a cocoon on my friend’s couch for 10 days. That’s not what I came to New York for. But that’s why New York is so frustrating. It’s not like I want to do a tiny bit of work and get paid for it; I want to work hard for my money. In December, I was trying to find a restaurant job to make some extra cash; I have friends who make their rent in a weekend as bartenders. I was dropping off all my résumés at restaurants, but it just didn’t work.

"The past couple of years, I’ve started to wonder if the more off-the-beaten path trail would be better for me. These small designers, with their own stores, not in New York — that’s the future. I think that’s how it used to be, too, before the scene here started. One of my teachers, who now works for the CFDA, had her own small collection here in the '90s. That was right when H&M, and other fast fashion stores, started opening up. There was a store right down the street from hers, and one day she walked in and saw her top. She ended up having to close her shop, because people just stopped coming. But I think that the general consumer is starting to become more aware of sustainability, of the supply chain. The ethics involved with all of that. At least I hope so. I hope slow fashion comes back into play. Now is the time for these small designers, and that’s why I want to be part of that."
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Photographed by Meredith Hattam.
Scarlet Fierce Begonia, Cosmetologist
"I was born in Russia, and was adopted when I was 2 1/2 by a wonderful family who lived in Sussex, WI. However, I had reactive attachment disorder since I was abandoned at birth; they didn’t know how to control or care for that, so they gave up their parental rights when I was 8. I bounced from place to place for a good six months to a year, in and out of institutions. I met a foster mother who was LGBT-friendly (and has a partner she's been with for 14 years now), and my social worker thought it was a good fit. My first foster home visit was on my 9th birthday, and I got to celebrate that with her. Three years later, she adopted me. It was wonderful, because as a gay man, I never knew what it was like to have a gay lifestyle seen as normal. There, I was accepted. I lived with them until I was 23, and my lifestyle became too crazy for them; I didn’t love myself, and I didn’t love my body, and I didn’t know why.

"I was getting into drugs, and I became a major alcoholic in Milwaukee because there are more bars there than Starbucks [laughs]. Last year, my parents told me they didn’t appreciate my lifestyle and told me I couldn't live with them anymore. So I was homeless in Milwaukee, working at Nordstrom Rack. I’d been working there a month, and I didn’t have that much saved, but I told myself if I was going to be homeless, I might as well do it in New York. Around that time, I realized I wanted to transition into a woman — and I realized I wanted to do it that in New York.

"Late last year, I finally detoxed off heroin, changed my name to Scarlet Fierce Begonia, got my cosmetology license, and paid off my student loans. They were such great accomplishments, but I didn’t value them as much as I should have, because I didn’t value myself. I didn’t know who I was. I felt like dying a lot of the time. It wasn’t until I realized I wanted to become a woman that I accepted myself and realized I wanted to live.

"I took my last check from Nordstrom Rack, my suitcase, and my clothes, and I landed in New York on November 6. On my fourth day here, I landed a job with Rachel Zoe at her salon, Dream Dry. It was my dream to break into the fashion industry. Landing a job with her was amazing, too, because part of my name comes the song 'Scarlet Begonias' by The Grateful Dead. In season 1 of The Rachel Zoe Project, Rachel told her husband that if they ever had a daughter, they wanted to name her Scarlet Begonia. The song is about this unique girl, brave and strong. And I’m a unique girl, because I am a trans woman. I chose Fierce, because it radiates confidence at times and reminds me I am strong, even if I don’t always feel that way; people gravitate towards that.

"At the moment, I'm still homeless. I'm trying to save money, but it's so expensive here. I’m working with a lot of LGBT-friendly shelters, I have a case manager, and I am currently working on housing. I was on the emergency housing list for awhile, and that didn’t go anywhere. I was like, You know what? I don’t want to go to any overnight drop-in shelters, being a trans woman. I was sleeping on the L train for awhile.

"[After I saw a doctor and got hormones] I started to grow boobs and become more feminine, but in the mirror, I still couldn’t see the woman other people did. But I felt it on the inside, and I had a breakthrough. I was sitting outside of a restaurant, bawling my eyes out, and this girl came over and asked what was wrong. I told her I just came out as trans. It just feels so amazing, I feel so much more complete… There isn’t a void I’m trying to fill with drugs; I went to rehab because I knew that. This is who I really feel like being; I feel it's a second chance at living.

"As people who first knew me when I landed in New York told me, in New York, you can be whoever you want to be. I never really knew what that meant until I lived here. As soon as I came out in myself and I knew, I was coming out to everyone, left and right, strangers on the subway. I was literally yelling it from rooftops. It was the first time people were seeing me for me, and I was accepting myself. No religion, no judgment, just taking it in. New York lets you do that."
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Photographed by Meredith Hattam.
Grace & Julia, Merchandising Assistants
Grace: "We’re best friends who met in college at LIM. But our college experience wasn’t normal at all. With internships every semester, part-time jobs, and full-time classes, we felt like we were working adults since freshmen year.

"I’m from Houston and I moved here specifically to go to fashion school. I’d always sewed and designed, so in my mind, I imagined I’d get a business degree, then become a fashion designer. Fashion merchandising was my major, and after a year or two, I realized that’s what I wanted to do instead. Freshman year, we’re required to get retail experience. My job was at Anthropologie. So I’d be going to school full-time, then working there at night. My second job was as a sales intern for BCBG, the next one was an editorial internship at Teen Vogue.

"During school, I also had to support myself; my internships were unpaid, so I worked full-time at Catch [a restaurant]. I felt like things were nonstop… I never got a breather. But all of my friends were in the same boat, so it felt okay; it was a shared experience. The energy and excitement was competitive, which is what keeps you going when you’re in school. I do have to say that now, I feel a little burnt out on the fashion industry, which is a little early on, considering I just graduated."

Julia: "I’m from L.A. and I moved here for college. I’ve always been interested in fashion and wanted to be a designer, but I soon realized that buying was a more realistic match for me. Every summer, I interned: I started off at Seventeen magazine, while working part-time at Victoria’s Secret. Then Alice + Olivia and 3.1 Phillip Lim. My schedule was crazy. Fashion students are really good at balancing their lives — you have to be. Between that, going out, making friends, and socializing, it’s exhaustingly awesome. I have no idea how I did it all. I also worked at Saks part time, was a full-time student, and worked at a restaurant. I think I worked seven days a week for an entire semester."

Grace: "A huge reason I decided to be a merchant is financial stability. There are higher salaries going into it, and it’s one of the few careers in fashion where positions are set in stone. At this point, though, as an assistant, it’s really hard to save money. I would need to either get a different job, find part-time work, or move to another city."

Julia: "I currently work six days a week: full-time with Grace, and then part-time as a maitre d' at a speakeasy, which helps me earn some extra saving money so I don’t have to worry so much. I’ve been working at the speakeasy three days a week for a year now... I don’t get out of my day job until 6 p.m., and then dinner starts at the restaurant, so I’m frequently running between places. It’s an amazing way to make connections, and I really enjoy it. Plus, going out in New York is a way to make connections, period. One night, I was at a karaoke bar in Soho and complimented a girl on her look...it turned out she worked at 3.1 Phillip Lim — and I ended up getting an internship there."

Grace: "Definitely I feel like living here is worth it, despite the costs and stress. Through connections here, I was able to attend a dinner where the guest list included Anna Wintour. I remember seeing her and just being in total shock. It was definitely a 'pinch me' moment."

Julia: "Through my part-time jobs, internships, and being out and about meeting people, I’ve been able to make long-lasting connections that have helped me out in every regard. I want to stay here for a while and see where things go. Even though I’m working six days a week, I love every minute of it. I don’t know if I’ll work in fashion forever, though. I don’t believe you have to stick with one career forever. But I’m making the most of the time I have here, and having a great time doing it."
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Photographed by Meredith Hattam.
Shireen, Communications Account Manager
"I was born and raised in London. While in school, I realized how much I liked telling stories and weaving narratives. I wasn’t sure that was exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew that was what it was about. It made me realize, I think I want to work in media.

"I visited New York one really, really hot summer and I fell in love. I literally finished my last day of university and flew to New York and decided to make my career happen. I had no friends, no family, but I thought, I can do this. So I started waitressing, bartending, and interning at Mode PR. It was long hours — 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on a good day, 9 a.m. to 12 a.m. on a bad one. But I was learning. That’s the thing about internships, and that’s the thing about New York: It’s the one city I’ve been to where you can roll up your sleeves, put yourself to work, and make things happen.

"I wasn’t getting paid for a couple of months, but it was such a valuable experience. I waitressed five nights a week after working at my internship, and then Saturday and Sunday, I worked a retail job. When you’re pushing yourself, you feel really proud. It’s one thing to be like, I’m exhausted and run-down; but it’s another when you know you’re on your way somewhere.

"Financially, it was impossible for me to intern otherwise. My family doesn’t support me; I support myself. So I knew I had to work two jobs — essentially three with my internship. I did that for six months and then I got hired as an account coordinator, then moved up to account manager — all within a year-and-a-half.

"I now work with Starworks Group and I absolutely love our clients. We launched Guess and A$AP Rocky, and more recently we launched Beyoncé’s activewear collection [Ivy Park]. I’m at a place where I’m so proud of what I’m working on, and it was worth it. If you have the idea and willpower for what you want, this is a place to make anything happen. I literally started with no experience in the industry, and now I have a solid network of friends, I love my job, and I finally get paid a decent amount of money.

"When I work with my assistants or interns now, I have so much compassion for them. I think to myself, I was you. I can relate to that struggle. Stick it out. It’s worth it. Mentoring people and showing them what the steps are to succeed is so fulfilling. I just tell them to hustle, hustle, hustle, and in two or three years, you're going to be great. New York is an expensive city, but you can do so much here. It’s expensive, but you get what you’re paying for. It may take a lot from you, but there’s so much you get back in return.

"New York is really special. It’s a place to prove yourself. You can literally walk into an office and say, 'I have no experience, but I want to learn.' I think interning is so important. People think the fashion industry exploits interns, but I don’t agree with this; I think the lessons you learn are invaluable. Fashion just allows you to go in so many different directions, and express so many different sides of yourself.

"I was raised by a single mom from Pakistan who worked her butt off. She worked three jobs while I was growing up and she still does. Even with three jobs, she managed to take [my sibling and me] to 18 countries, I’ve been to 26 in total. She taught us how important traveling is. She taught me that nothing comes for free, and if you want something, you can get it. Growing up, I’d have this vision of what I wanted: every little detail of my house, the city I wanted to live in, the job I wanted to have. And I made it happen. She showed me I could. Fear of failure just isn’t there for me. If I ever want to go home, I know that door is wide open. You’d think being from a Pakistani family, there might be pressure there to be a doctor, be a lawyer…but she’s always just told me to be a happy, well-rounded, successful person."