All The Secrets Of Working As A Fashion Assistant

Photographed by Isabella Alesci.
Refinery29’s Assistant Living asks assistants to talk about themselves for once — offering truthful, no-frills insight into the time before fame and fortune. What’s it like working next to the dream job? They talk, we listen.

This week, J, 23, production assistant at a boutique creative studio, talks about life as occasional shrink, heavy lifter, go-between and artist-on-hiatus...
How long have you been a production assistant?
“Going on a year. On and off. Some people work at this seven days a week, 12 hours a day. I like having more of a flexible schedule, which is a great perk of being in this line of work.”

What is your current salary, and would you call it liveable?
“Around $35,000 a year. I get paid a day rate but it fluctuates depending on the job. So anywhere from $150 to $350 a day — $150 would be a film or TV shoot, $350 would be advertising, bigger budget.”

Describe the company you work for.
“I work for a production company that does their own photo shoots. It’s tiny, which is nice. I also moonlight working for a magazine editor, doing production on his photo shoots.”

Do you work a typical 9-to-5?
“On-set, no. Call time is usually 6 a.m. or 7 a.m., and then you’re there until you’ve got the picture. In the office it’s generally 9 to 5.”

Which do you prefer: being on-set or working in an office?

“I prefer being on-set because I like the action. You’re a gopher basically — an extra pair of hands. If someone needs something, you get it, if someone’s hungry, ya' feed ‘em. Plus, you get paid more. In the office I perform very basic tasks: paperwork, filing receipts, or filling out purchase orders. Oh, and always making sure there’s an adequate amount of snack food.”

Describe your first hour of work.

“On-set it’s pretty crazy. It’s six in the morning, you’re under-caffeinated and about to throw yourself into whatever heavy lifting and setting up there is going on: unloading tables, unwrapping wires, setting up lights, the breakfast area, wardrobe, etc. It’s the busiest hour; that, and the end of the day. You get into a rhythm and are forced to figure out where you’ll be most useful.

“In the office, it’s a lot chiller. I’ll get in, make a pot of coffee, check my email, figure out what I’m going to have to do. I’ll talk to my boss about what they’re wrapping up so I know what files to be working on.”

How’d you get the job?
“One of my bosses was somehow connected to the college I went to, and then the other one is a family friend. So nepotism, I guess. But I’m learning, in an unromantic way, that that’s how a lot of people get their jobs. Through some sort of connection.”

Are you okay with that?
“Totally. I think it’s, sometimes unfortunately, the way the world of fashion and production works. Being a PA is honestly not the most skilled job. Pretty much anyone can do it. Since there isn’t anything anyone can do to be particularly stand-out, it’s easier to hire someone you know rather than interview people basically. Is that a terrible truth?”

What did success mean to you growing up?
“Growing up, it meant loving your job. My mom grew up under extreme pressure career-wise — where I feel like I want flexibility, she wanted security. We’re very different in that way. I do this job so that I can work on my own stuff outside of it. I like having me time.

“Honestly, my younger idea of success has cracked recently because my mom has spent the past 10 years quitting various jobs, because of various reasons. But she deserves it. She worked her ass off to be where she is today.”

How do you feel about the early hours?
“It doesn’t really bother me because I wake up early naturally. Always have. Also, I have a puppy who wakes me up at around 6 a.m. every morning. Her name is Margo.”

What do you typically wear to work?
“Nothing very cute because I have to be able lift heavy stuff and be comfortable getting pretty dirty. Even if I’m in the office, I’ll be running errands outside, so jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt recently. Honestly, the longer you work as a PA, the worse you start dressing. If you check out the wardrobe assistants or the PAs on set, we all look like shit; manual labor, man.”

Do you like working as a PA?
“For now, yeah. I like it. My pay’s not that bad; the hours are flexible; the days are flexible. I wouldn’t want to do it for the next five years, but it’s where I know I need to start. Plus, you meet a lot of people on-set. It’s kind of like summer camp. You get really close to people really quickly because you work with them over and over again, and you’re sort of like running through hell together.”

What’s your dream job?
“Ultimately? I’d like to direct narrative films. That’s the ultimate dream job. I work in fashion now because it pays well.”

Do you have multiple bosses?
“Yeah. Technically the people who run the company are my bosses, and then on a more day-to-day level, the producer (who rotates in and out depending on the job) is my boss and the executive producer is my boss.”

Are you afraid of any of them?
“No. It’s a nice environment. Everyone’s friendly. They kind of know that they’re giving you shitty work so they’re nice about it.”

Perks of the job?
“I get fed really well, like if we buy stuff for the client that they don’t use, I’ll get to take it home. And it makes the low salary more manageable because breakfast is paid for, lunch is catered, and I eat the leftovers for dinner.”

Pitfalls of the job?
“Remember when it was -7 degrees out that one day this winter? I was given the terrible task of standing outside to greet talent. Basically just letting them know they were in the right place. I had to keep going inside every 20 minutes to fill up a cup of hot water to hold in my hand so that I didn’t die.

"On a more day-to-day level, it might be the heavy lifting. Although, I don’t even get asked to do it very much. And if I am carrying something, someone will literally try and pry it out of my hands because I’m a lady, which can actually get pretty irritating.”

Do you connect that to the larger issue of sexism in the workplace?
“Oh, for sure. The world of production is a boys' club. Some people are worse than others, obviously, as in all walks of life. The tasks that I’m given versus the tasks that the men are given are notably more 'effeminate.' I’m in charge of making sure everyone’s well fed and that there are flowers everywhere, and the guys get to help move cameras and stuff.

“I’m also always the person that’s tasked with setting up the snack table, and it’s kind of like they assume it’s a part of my biology as a woman to make sure people are well fed. The flower arrangements I don’t mind, I actually sort of love doing that. But this snack table thing really bothers me! And trust me, I’m not setting it up quietly. I look at the guys carrying in the tables and cameras and blatantly announce something along the lines of: 'Just doin’ the women’s work!'"

What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you recently?
“Last week, I received a call from the assistant to one of our clients on-set. He couldn’t get in touch with his boss, so he tasked me with printing out emails to hand deliver to his boss. He must have found my number on the call sheet, and used me as a way to communicate with his boss. So he’d send them to me, I’d print them out, and dutifully deliver them to the client. And every time I delivered the email, I’d have to call the assistant to confirm. People are crazy.”

Are there moments as a PA when you feel more like a shrink?
“Surely. I mean no one tells me anything too crazy — you just get talking about people’s very personal lives. A lot of time people are trading horror stories about other jobs that they’ve worked on. It’s like a rite of passage thing. It’s not like anyone’s turning to me to say that they’re impotent — there are limits — but I think it’s more personal than other office environments.”

Do you consider yourself an artist?
“Ya, I do. Step off. No, more seriously, I do! I do, or I did video installation, but I don’t have a studio, and my apartment is the size of a baby shoe so it’s hard to find the space and time to work right now, so I guess you could say I’m taking a hiatus...

“That statement is exactly how you find yourself doing the same desk job 15 years later, wondering where the time has gone.”

Do you look forward to having your own assistant?
“YES. Imagine what life would be like if you didn’t have to deal with the dumb time-stealing trivialities of life. Like calling Time Warner. Adding up receipts for your taxes. I’ve been asked to wash people’s cars, pick their kids up — basic human tasks that get in the way if you don’t have someone doing it for you.”

Do you want your boss’ job?
“It’s definitely something I’ve thought about. It’s not my ultimate dream right at this moment, but I could see it as a possibility in the future. I wouldn’t be unhappy doing it.”

What can you take with you that you’ve learned as PA throughout your career?

“You definitely learn how to treat people. You do see the work that goes into everything, which I appreciate — this wide perspective — a lot of moving parts.”


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