Editors, Stylists, Designers and More Speak Candidly On Finding a Path to a Fashion Career

Last night, a few Mochi staffers attended the “Asian Americans in Fashion Panel,” hosted by Columbia University’s Asian Pacific American Awareness Month and Hoot magazine team. For anyone passionate about pursuing a career in fashion, this event was beyond inspiring. Filled with a star-studded panel of some of the fashion industry’s most respected and successful figures, it was an intimate event where the audience had a rare chance to ask questions and hear candid stories behind all of their success. The opening question of the night began on a humble note, as moderator SuChin Pak asked the panelists what they were doing as 18-year-old college students. Surprisingly, most of them weren’t studying fashion or had any clue about pursuing a career in fashion. Designer Phillip Lim spent his first years in college figuring out how to get out of accounting class. After an epiphany in his junior year of college, he realized studying business was not for him and decided to study home economics instead.

It was a similar story for others. Carol Lim, CEO & co-owner of Opening Ceremony, studied economics and worked in investment banking for five years before making the career shift to fashion. Stylist Tina Chai was set to become a lawyer after graduating, but decided to pursue fashion magazines instead. Patrick Li, creative director of Principal of Li, Inc. was on a pre-med track, fascinated with radiology and X-rays, until he got a D in Biology and realized medicine was not for him.

The common link behind their backgrounds was that many dealt with the pressures of having Asian parents who expected their kids to become doctors, lawyers or accountants. At the end of day, they simply weren’t happy with their career paths, and made the bold move to pursue what they loved. And it’s fashion that they undeniably love.

Joe Zee, creative director of Elle, was obsessed with fashion magazines when he was a teen, and studied every issue cover to cover (including the masthead). Zee was so certain that he was going to work in fashion that he only had a plan A, because as he said, “your plan B will always only be a plan B.”

The key to finding the perfect marriage between your interests and your career comes with timing, experience and guts. For E.J. Samson, online editor of Teen Vogue, it was a combination of timing and humility. His first job out of school was anything but glamorous, as he recalled how one of the first things he had to do was move a computer out of the room. His dedication to the job nonetheless paid off, as his boss at that time eventually moved on to become managing editor at Teen Vogue, which opened the door for him to work at the magazine. For Philip Lim, he was all guts. Despite credit card debts and low-paid jobs out of school, Lim expressed, “I was never worried about tomorrow." When offered a chance to move to New York City to start his business, Lim went for it even though it meant leaving behind his family and comfortable life in California.

While there is unfortunately no step-by-step guide to “how to become Joe Zee,” the basic advice for those aspiring to work in fashion is to keep on pursuing what you love––and as Lim said, “with humility, tenacity and persistence.” It was hard not to be motivated by their fearless, all-or-nothing attitudes, especially after seeing the genuine passion they have for their jobs now, proving that the risk is all worth it. As Zee and model Ujjwala Raut both echoed, “life is short"––so do what you makes you happy.