Starting as a fashion blogger or creative is hard. There are a few rules and a lot of unknown. You see some people do it, but you have no idea, how they achieved it. Soon after starting you discover everybody wants everything for free and after some time you get totally depressed and you doubt you’ll ever get paid for what you do. It’s even more frustrating, when people tell you, also known people in your industry, that you’re really good. And you keep thinking: „If I’m good, why am I not getting a penny from my work?”. Sounds familiar? Well, if not, you didn’t really start yet. Because, as bad as it may seem, everybody starting in the industry knows this problem. I decided to dig a little and find out if, for how long and why sometimes working for free can be good.

Should you work for free?

A few weeks ago, I talked to one of my best friends, who is a successful viola player: she works at the Philharmonic and every day she gets new calls inviting her to take part in new concerts. The musician’s world is the same complicated as every artistic industry, so I asked her, how she managed to achieve such success and job stability. She told me one thing: “I started by playing for free”. Turned out, during her studies on Music Academy, she was happily taking part in every event she was invited to play with. For free. That way, she was getting experience and recognition. After some time, or actually a few years of playing just for fun, she started being offered payments for her work. And thanks to the contacts she created during those years, she never has problems with finding a job.

How long should you work for free?

This story made me think a lot about the position of creatives in the fashion industry. Our business is not easy. I observe my husband, who’s a doctor – in medicine, there are clear rules: you have to work x years studying, then x years making specialization and later things will get better. So you know, that even if at the moment you’re working like a slave, who has a deadline when it will end. We don’t. On the opposite, for us, there is not only one single way you can enter the industry, like a medical exam, for example. You can start in all imaginable and unimaginable ways. There are a few more standard ways, like: “Work as the photographer’s assistant and later you’ll become a photographer yourself”, but it’s not obligatory. You can start as a make-up artist and turn into a successful photographer, you can build your career as a fashion blogger and later become a fashion designer. The possibilities are endless. So there are pros and cons. The worst thing is, you never know how long you’ll have to work for free.

What about schools?

Fashion schools may help, but it’s not that they’ll find you a job or do the homework for you. They may teach you the techniques and suggest you the best ways how to start, sometimes maybe provide you with some contacts, and that’s it. You have to make it yourself. My dear friend, who is a make-up artist told me that when she started school, she was told that she has to work for free for 3 years and later she can start earning well. Even if it’s still nothing sure, at least a number to refer to is better than nothing.

Patience is the key

All the success stories have two things in common: patience and persistence. You just have to keep going, till you make it. As Albert Einstein said: “You never fail until you stop trying”.

What you get from working for free?

As I already mentioned, working for free has many advantages:

  • Low responsibility – you’re not paid and you’re just starting, so if you make a mistake nobody can really blame you or make a big problem from it. This is the best way to learn – working in practices but being able to make mistakes without killing consequences.
  • Getting experience – making mistakes and finding yourself in new situations grows your experience. No school can teach you as much as working. Finding solutions to unexpected problems and dealing with new challenges increase not only your abilities but also your self-confidence.
  • Portfolio – you won’t get paid without a good portfolio. Finding new interesting collaborations, even if at that moment unpaid, can pay off in the future.
  • Creating connections – working for free, you meet many people. Those connections may turn into paid jobs later, so don’t underestimate them.

Attention! Danger zone!

Unfortunately, working for free or without much experience can lead to unpleasant situations. You have to be careful, as some people or institutions will try to use you.

Something like this happened to my friend – a student of styling. She got a seemingly great opportunity, to work with a print magazine. They agreed that she would get paid for the job, but they didn’t sign any contract, bah, they didn’t even set the price! She did the job and the magazine stopped answering her messages. Unfortunately, after a year since the job was done, they still didn’t pay her. 

Every time you decide for a free or low paid collaboration, evaluate if it’s really worth it. Sometimes it might seem like an amazing opportunity that in fact is not such a game changer. I thought my participation in Milan Fashion Week will immediately kickstart my career. It wasn’t really so. It gave me some advantage and experience, but unlike I thought, I didn’t stop struggling to find clients.

But it’s not fair!

I couldn’t agree more. I get tons of messages from models or successful bloggers who just want to use me and get pictures for free, even if they are clearly on such a level, they are not starting anymore and they can invest in their business.

Lately, I got really angry, when it turned out I sent my pictures to Landscape Magazine and I received a message saying: Thank you, we decided to publish one of your pictures in our magazine. However, please note, we don’t provide free copies not tear sheets”. What does it mean? Usually, when magazines publish your pictures for free, they provide you with so-called ‘tear sheets’, meaning a pdf with your editorial. Sometimes they send you the whole digital copy of the magazine, but this is rare. However, usually, they at least give you a pdf showing you how your images look in the magazine. Landscape Magazine doesn’t do either that. They used my picture for free, but to see it, I have to buy the magazine. And that’s still not the end! On their website, you can’t just buy 1 issue. The minimal subscription is 3 issues! So to see my 1 picture in the magazine, I’d have to buy 3 issues. Thank you very much. I just learned not to send them anything anymore.

What can you do for free to get recognition and experience?

  1. Guest posts – this is one of the fastest ways to get recognition and build your brand
  2. Hotel collaborations – this works well for a blogger. Many hotels are ready to offer you free accommodation in one of their hotels in exchange for promotion on social media and/or your blog.
  3. Brand collaborations/showroom collaborations – at the beginning, you can try doing a few brand collaborations for free, to get experience and seem more professional while applying for new ones. However, if you don’t feel comfortable with doing it for free, try collaborating with showrooms and boutiques: they can lend you some amazing clothes for your photoshoots. This way you can raise the level of your pictures and your professionality. Even if you may think, you should get paid for every promotion you do, think about some of them as an investment. If your Instagram account/blog look really professional and interesting, paid brand collaborations will arrive.
  4. Photoshoots – whether you’re a blogger, mua, photographer, stylist or any other creative, you can always benefit from good photoshoots. In the end, your portfolio is mostly done from images, so make sure they are good. In the photoshoots world, you will often meet with the term TFP. It means Time For Pictures = for free. It’s a method to find you, collaborators, grow your portfolio and simply practice and have fun.
  5. Events – sometimes just showing on an important event can have an impact on your personal brand, so don’t reject invitations easily. It grows your recognition, allows you to meet new people and allow you to learn how it all looks from the inside.
  6. Submit to magazines – there are numerous fashion magazines that allow you to submit your pictures for consideration and possible publication. Mostly these are really small magazines, usually online ones with “print on demand” possibility. Some of them will ask you to pay a submission fee, which totally frustrates me. I know these are small magazines, but we, the creatives, are the ones who should get paid for our work, so I absolutely never pay for submitting my pictures. However, there are many others where the submission is for free. Getting published in such magazines maybe doesn’t make you famous instantly, but gives you more credibility. Attention! To submit the pictures you have to be the photographer or have special permission. If you’re not a photographer and you’d like your pictures to get published, suggest to your photographer to submit the pictures or ask if you can do it. 

I hope this post explains, why sometimes working for free can be good. Some stories I described may seem quite depressing and I’m sorry about that. I just wanted to warn you how to avoid some of the mistakes others did. Starting in every industry is difficult, so don’t get discouraged. It’s good to know you’re not alone in all this mess. Value your time and work, but also consider that you’re just starting. Finding a balance between those two things isn’t easy, but it’s doable. So cheer up!

What are your experiences with working for free or starting in the fashion industry? Or what was the best advice an older colleague gave you? Share them in the comments!