Tilly Macalister-Smith is a London-based fashion writer and editor, and Fashion Features Director for Matchesfashion.com. She spent five years working for British Vogue, and has contributed to The Business of Fashion, RUSSH, Wallpaper.com and ShowStudio. She has also worked with several luxury brands and is part of an advisory panel for the British Fashion Council. She spoke to us about the changing nature of today’s fashion industry and shared her valuable advice on different routes into the fashion workplace.
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experiences with us Tilly.
Of course! The fashion industry is changing so much at the moment. There are a lot of opportunities opening up that weren’t there before because of digital, and print media is having to adapt to that. There is a real shift occurring in the landscape of the industry as a whole, so it’s a really interesting time to be involved in it.
Can you tell me a little bit about your role at Matches- what can a typical day involve for you?
As Fashion Features Director, I oversee the digital womenswear fashion features content for our online publication The Style Report, and seasonal print editions. My days can vary between attending ideas meetings, writing designer profiles, representing the business at press events, travelling to Paris or New York or working with our video director- video is really expanding as a medium at the moment. I also work very closely with our product copy team to keep a handle on the tone of voice used across the site, making sure everything looks and sounds the way we want it to, and in a way that’s in keeping with our overall voice. Our readers are very interested in what goes on behind the scenes, so we work hard to keep our tone informative yet still intimate and accessible. We really have to maximize our material to make sure everything works in a very timely way, as well as keeping an eye on new emerging designers. It all requires a lot of organization!
You studied Fashion Communication and Promotion at Central St. Martins- how important is a fashion-specific qualification to working in the industry?
At Central St. Martins, the connections I made were invaluable, although you don’t realize it at the time- I was going to school every day with the designers, writers and stylists of the future, which was amazing. I think fashion-specific degrees can give you a more realistic approach to the industry as it’s not spoon-fed- you’re really thinking for yourself and that’s quite a learning curve. It was also great to have that chance to really explore all the different options available to you in this business.
What was your experience of internships like when you were first starting out? Internships, in the fashion industry in particular, have received a lot of negative press in recent years – do you think it’s important to see more promotion of the positive aspects of these placements?
Personally, I think it’s a shame that such stringent regulations are coming into force regarding unpaid internships because I think it will take away a lot of invaluable opportunities. I did unpaid internships for about two years and it’s hard work, but none of us were doing it for the money- we really loved it. I spent 3 months with the designer Jonathan Saunders at his London studio, which was amazing and I kept going back. Everything happened under one roof- the cutting, sewing, screen printing, planning the shows- so I was really observing the designer first hand. I was also able to accompany him to Paris and to New York when he first showed there. These young, emerging designers just cannot afford to pay their volunteers, yet it’s one of the best environments in which to learn about all the different sides of this industry. There aren’t many places left where you can be so immersed in it all.
I interned at Men’s Vogue in the US as I was interested in menswear at the time, and that was incredibly exciting. They had writers from The New Yorker and The New York Times who were writing about art, architecture, travel, everything really, and I loved that. Afterwards, I moved to British Vogue to intern and never left! When money isn’t involved, I think it sorts the wheat from the chaff really. You work out whether it is the right thing for you.
How can someone distinguish themselves in such a fiercely competitive industry as fashion? There are so many options now in terms of fashion courses, internships and, of course, social media.
I would say don’t overthink it. People get far too caught up in trying to ‘distinguish’ themselves but there will always be a place for you if you work hard and you’re passionate about what you’re doing. There are so many personal style blogs out there, alongside things like Instagram and Twitter, but I think you should only do that if you truly love it. I think there might be a backlash against all that- some of the people I respect the most in this industry don’t buy into all that and, of course, it’s nice to keep something reserved. There’s no substitute for knowledge, enthusiasm and experience really, so my advice would be to educate yourself the best you can and be passionate. And, as with everything in life, timing is very important- if I’d interned at Vogue a month later, I may never have got that job. You have to be in the right place at the right time.
What is your advice to aspiring fashion journalists in terms of getting your work out there and published?
There has been a huge surge in online publications in recent years that are always desperate for good ideas. As a fashion journalist, it’s not just about being able to put words on a page- you have to become an ideas machine! And remember that people will never not thank you for sending over those ideas. Make your application specific, do as much research as you can and educate yourself about the industry as a whole. Take my time at Jonathan Saunders, for example. I never wanted to design myself but that placement was invaluable from a journalistic perspective as I came to understand the whole process. Now, when I’m writing about a garment, I’m not just looking at what’s in front of me- I actually know what went into it.