A communications connoisseur, Emma Whitehair’s career in fashion has spanned over 15 years. From working on Alexander McQueen’s legendary shows of the nineties, to more recently heading up fashion PR at Reiss and Selfridges, Emma now has her own fashion communications agency, Whitehair Co., based in Clerkenwell. In her regular Styloko column, Emma talks to the inspirational people she’s met along the way, convincing them to tell tales and reveal the secrets of their success to the next generation of budding fashionistas. First up, Jackie Dixon:
Stylist-turned-photographer and founder of Show Me Your Wardrobe (the blog and TV show), I’ve known Jackie for about 10 years and she’s always been, let’s see, amazingly unpredictable, stubborn as a mule, and a complete hypochondriac. She’s also a true friend, my go-to for honest (read: brutal) advice, and can totally rock a t-shirt (although that vintage Pat Butcher coat has to go).
I’ve chosen to interview Jackie as she’s a genuine inspiration to me – dynamic, with native wit, tenacity, and an ability to see through the ridiculous. A force of nature, she’s one of those rare ‘real’ people in fashion, and from where I’ve been standing, has literally torpedoed through the industry, collecting an array of equally fabulous friends in the process. Here she tells me her story for Styloko.
JD: Well I started off at the bottom like most people – alphabetising lookbooks. I was interning at Frank magazine and on day three had my ‘big break’: the fashion director, Karina Givargisoff, told me her assistant was too sick to come on a trip to New York. She asked if I could come instead – it was a Vogue cover shoot with Gisele. Of course I lept at the chance. She hired me after this, all while I was still studying for my degree at Central Saint Martins.
EW: A paid position after three days on the job and still at Uni. Hats off. Now please can you share the story of how you got your first proper job, at Vogue? I just love this one…
JD: Ok, so not a lot of people know this but just before I graduated I spotted the editor [of British Vogue] at a car boot sale – I ran home as fast as I could and got my CV. I then went up to her and said: “I’m really sorry to do this to you, but you’re Alexandra Shulman aren’t you?”. I explained a bit about my background, how much I respected her and wanted to work for Vogue, left her with my CV and scuttled off. Two days later I got a call from the managing editor, Francis Bentley, saying: “come in, Alex thought you had ‘panache’”. I mean, panache?! The first thing Francis told me in my interview was not to tell anybody how I met Alex (I worked for Vogue for three years, and on my leaving do Alex told everyone the story, so I guess it’s alright for me to share). She also explained that they didn’t have a job on Vogue at that time but did on Brides. I accepted, stayed a year, learnt the nuts and bolts of working on a magazine, then got the call for fashion features assistant on Vogue.
EW: Weren’t you styling at Vogue?
JD: Not in my first two years no, I was in the fashion features department. This is where I learnt that I actually didn’t want to be a fashion writer. What I was really interested in was styling, but I didn’t even know that it existed as a profession back then. When I heard that fashion director Lucinda Chambers’ assistant had left, I literally ran up to her desk and said ‘hi. I’m Jackie, I’ve been working over there in fashion features for two years, I’d love to assist you’. She gave me the job on the spot, which was an such incredible moment for me. I knew working for Lucinda was going to be tough, yet an apprenticeship like no other. I got to work with Mario Testino, Corinne Day, Paolo Roversi, Patrick Demarchelier, and style the then new girls coming through, Keira Knightley and Sienna Miller. After serving just a year as an assistant, I went on to become a fashion editor at Elle.
EW: This is the point in the story where we first met, I was heading up fashion PR at Reiss and I’m sure I got in touch, gushing about how much I adored your shoots. What you were doing at the time was really different. You styled girls in the way we actually dressed – skinny jeans, beaten up converse, slouchy tees and disheveled hair… dare I ask you to share what it’s really like to work at Elle magazine?
JD: Dare I ask you what it’s really like to be a PR?! Honesty policy: it was brilliant and painful in equal measure; one minute you’re lugging suitcases around or spending hours filling out excel spreadsheets for budgets and carnets, the next you’re with an inspirational celebrity or styling up a beautiful shoot, then back to admin, then off to a press day, then negotiating a permit to shoot in Death Valley etc.. In the long run working on a magazine wasn’t for me. I don’t thrive in a 9-5 (or more realistically 8-8) environment. I prefer being a photographer with no set working hours and I don’t think I could ever go back to being in full-time employment. Working on Elle was a great experience but I’ll leave it to someone else. Also, I think the magazine employment structure is going to change very soon, to accommodate the digital opportunities that are on a par with, if not over-taking, print. I wouldn’t be surprised if magazines culled their full-time staff by 50% and just employed freelancers. Watch this space.
EW: It’s already happening – the landscape’s completely changed from back when you left Elle in 2007. You had hindsight – I, on the other hand, thought that (despite everything) you were mad to walk away from the security and all the perks that come with working at a top magazine, especially at the start of the credit crunch.
JD: Well luckily, one of my first roles was as contributing fashion editor at InStyle magazine, where I travelled the world doing covers with Christina Aguilera, Milla Jovovich, Elizabeth Hurley and so on. Not a bad day’s work. I also freelanced and did stuff for Stella magazine, Grazia, and became Juliette Lewis’s stylist. When she was making the transition from actress to singer, I came up with the look for Juliette & The Licks and we did all her videos. Everyone always asks me what Juliette is like – “I bet she’s really bonkers”, “I bet she’s really cool”. She’s a great inspiration, that’s all I’ll say.
EW: Very diplomatic. As I’m sure you recall, when you told me you wanted to start a blog, as a photographer, I thought you’d lost the plot (again). Having built up a career as a stylist, I couldn’t understand why you wanted to ground zero again…
JD: Your exact words were “don’t be so stupid”. Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith, plus I really wanted another creative outlet. This was when blogging was a huge part of the Zeitgeist, but there were already so many street style blogs, the world didn’t need more. Certainly not another one with of copious posts of me wearing various outfits… whatever you need for that, whether it’s an ego, lashings of self-confidence or clothes in abundance, I just don’t have it. I did have loads of photos of Juliette at the time though. I took pictures of her practically obsessively and her band would make little videos every time I put a look together; it was as if she was showing me her wardrobe. Juliette didn’t want Chanel so I would go to car-boot sales, fancy dress shops, Portobello [market], and would customise everything – it was a really creative process. Then I realised that every time I was on a shoot I would always be like “wow, that intern looks so cool”, “I’m loving what that hairdresser’s assistant is wearing” etc.. That was how Show Me Your Wardrobe was born – I wanted to take photos of people in the creative industry. Juliette was the first person photographed, then I did a friend of mine, model Bill Gentle and, yes, I did Emma Whitehair. From then onwards it became easier to get really cool people involved.
Anyhow, pretty soon after I started Show Me Your Wardrobe, Elle gave me a regular two-page monthly SMYW photo column. Two and a half years later I was still doing it, sometimes we even did seven page SMYW specials. I also did loads of collaborations during this time – Topshop asked me to do ‘Show Me Your Topshop’, I did projects with Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Maybelline, Swarovski Crystalised… the list goes on. Before I knew it, people were asking me to shoot more than they were asking me to style and I realised that this is what I wanted to do. Becoming a photographer was an organic process, I never planned it but the blog just took me there and having been a stylist first it’s like having a secret weapon up your sleeve.
EW: So when did you realise you’d done it, that you’d made the transition to photographer?
JD: I guess it was when somebody asked me what I had coming up (I hadn’t really stopped to think about it until that point). I was doing the campaigns for Miss Selfridge, Timex, Giorgio Armani eyewear, shooting main fashion for The Independent, InStyle, French Glamour. Then one day I had a photo agent and a TV agent, as, oh yeah, Show Me Your Wardrobe is now on Sky Living!
EW: Stylist, to blogger, to photographer, and now TV presenter? Is it a case of Jack (ie) of all trades? I kid, you’ve nailed each of them. It’s actually because of your can-do attitude that I made the move to set up my own PR business. You emailed me daily with “if I can do this [insert picture of big brand campaign] you can do Whitehair Co.”. You bullied me into it! Back to your TV show though: remind me how Zara Martin (of #ShitZaraSays fame) came on board?
JD: We became friends when I shot her for SMYW. Both being quite entrepreneurial, we couldn’t help spitballing ideas, one of them being turning SMYW into TV show. Zara had met the people at Alaska – a great TV production company – through her friend Peaches Geldof, we went and explained our idea, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Show Me Your Wardrobe is on Sky Living on Mondays at 8.30 pm. Follow Jackie Dixon @mrsjackiedixon.