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8 Things We Learned at Fashionista's West Coast Conference

"Scandal" costume designer Lyn Paolo and stylists Cher Coulter, Emily Current and Meritt Elliott taught us how to become a stylist/costume designer at the fashion website's November conference. And we took notes.

Emily Current, left, and Merrit Elliott
Getty Images

Earlier this month, our friends over at Fashionista.com hosted their first West Coast conference, "How to Make It in Fashion," where style industry insiders dispensed wisdom on thriving in their respective fields.

While a New York event in June featured Zac Posen (this month's guest editor on Pret-a-Reporter), Rebecca and Uri Minkoff and Man Repeller's Leandra Medine speaking to fashion's most eager up-and-comers, the L.A. lineup suffered no shortage of star power: Fashionista welcomed one of The Hollywood Reporter's power stylists, L'Wren Scott, as well as Jessica Alba imagemakers Emily Current and Meritt Elliott, Kate Bosworth stylist Cher Coulter and Scandal costume designer Lyn Paolo to various panels, where they each offered advice on how to become a working Hollywood wardrobe maven.

Taking a seat with the stylish crowd at the W Hotel in Hollywood, we took a few notes to help you figure out how you, too, can make it in the always harried, often intimidating world of fashion styling and costume designing. 

PHOTOS: THR's 25 Most Powerful Stylists 2013

On becoming a stylist:

Have a Backup Plan

Elliott recalled the time when she and partner Current (the duo is credited with creating the boyfriend jean that exploded in 2008) had shipped some clothes to New York for an advertising job. But when it turned out that an assistant had marked the box incorrectly, they had to hire somebody to drive out to New Jersey at 4 a.m. to pick up the package from the FedEx facility where all their items were being held. Moral of the story? Always have a backup plan and know where other pieces can be found in the city where the shoot is taking place. 

"Fit" Is Important

"We're obsessed with fit. I think fit is what defines us as stylists," said Current, referring to her most important order of business when dressing a client. "It's making sure something fits so perfectly that the person looks incredible. As Who What Wear editorial director Hillary Kerr, who moderated the paneljoked, "So it should be called a fit-ist, instead of a stylist." Having a design background doesn't hurt either. Coulter pointed out that "knowing what the tailor is saying is really valuable" when parts of an outfit need to be tweaked.

Respect = Compliment

It's a community within the styling world, and as Current put it, "it's the ultimate compliment" when stylists support and respect each other's work, "because they know about the work that goes into it."

Intern

"It's the only way [to learn]," advised Coulter, who strongly advocates those interested in the industry to, well, work for peanut butter sandwiches in exchange for what will almost always prove to be a valuable education. "In your mind, you can think it's this or that until you're actually in there seeing what it's all about. Read fashion magazines. Know editors, photographers and new fashion designers. It's a full-time thing, and you have to be very passionate about it because if you're not -- there are a million other people out there who will be."

PHOTOS: Inside the Fast-Paced World of ABC's 'Scandal' 

On becoming a costume designer:

Be Able to Explain Yourself

Not only does being a costume designer require you to be creative, organized and financially skilled -- being able to express yourself clearly is another valuable skill. "When you're dealing with a production manager who doesn't understand anything about fashion, and you're trying to explain to him why you need $10,000 in your budget, you'd better know why or he's just not going to give you your money and your show is going to look awful," said Paolo, the Scandal costume designer, who has made Kerry Washington's character Olivia Pope a modern fashion icon.

Focus on Storytelling

Paolo made it clear that costume design isn't only about styling or fashion design, it's about being able to tell a story and staying true to the script -- which becomes the road map for doing research and developing a show's characters. The research process includes using multiple sources to find the needed info, pulling images from both historical and modern pages, and creating mood boards to present your vision to the director and a show's crew.

Be Decisive

Paolo described a gown that had been designed for the show as "literally falling apart" before filming, recalling that she had to decide whether or not it was worth fixing considering the time constraints. Paolo and her team went ahead and looked for a new dress, but she ultimately decided to mend the original dress. "You have to be able to stand up for what you believe in and what you want to show the audience," she said.

Organization Is Key

"I have seen many truly talented costume designers who have failed in their aspirations, and this is why -- you have to be talented, first and foremost, but you also have to be organized. You have to be a leader. You have to be fierce, and sadly, you do have to be physically responsible," noted Paolo. "This can be a difficult balance to achieve, but with hard work and resilience, it can be achieved." She added, with a projection of Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In as her backdrop, "I want women to understand that being fierce is not being bitchy or pushy."

stephanie.chan@thr.com 

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