Lessons from Off the Beaten (Career) Path

Harris, KemalBorrowing clothes to put on models for photo shoots—in this behind-the-scenes-reality-TV-show world, we all know that’s what a stylist does. But back when Kemal Harris was quitting her day job to become a stylist in her small Canadian town, it was a far-fetched idea rather than an actual job description. “My parents didn’t understand it. They asked, ‘Are you making the clothes?’” recalls Harris, laughing. “They thought I was crazy.”

At times, Harris wondered if her parents were right. “Being your own small business, chasing down payments, doing the marketing and everything by yourself while the whole time you’re being judged for your artistic eye and vision—it was really like being dropped in the middle of nowhere with no GPS,” says Harris, who has since done the styling for magazines, ad campaigns, the red carpet—and most recently for Robin Wright’s character on House of Cards, Claire Underwood, for seasons three and four. It was tough, but for Harris and people with creative yearnings like her, staying at a desk job isn’t an option. Here’s what she has learned from pursuing her passion and forging her own career path.

You’re probably readier than you think.

If Harris could tell her younger self anything, it would be to take the leap earlier than she did. “Looking back, I see that I was stronger and more capable than I knew,” she says. “But there’s no school for what I wanted to do, so I had no track to follow and I moved slowly first quitting my job and then moving to New York.”

Mentors don’t have to be formally established.

When Harris started out styling, she learned a lot from observing a fashion editor named John Gerhardt. In addition to his knowledge and understanding about fashion, “he had such composure and politeness and humor—he was, and still is, the antithesis of the cliché of fashion people,” she says. “I remember thinking this is how a successful professional acts and this is what I need to do to elevate my career.”

Your past jobs are never a waste of your time.

Harris’s first job was selling art in a gallery. “It was just for the summer when I was in school, but I learned how to talk to strangers and about building relationships,” Harris says. “It was also where I first learned the subtle art of persuasion. I had to convince people they needed this piece of art, and now I use those same skills to convince people to trust me that they look great in this dress.”

If you have questions, ask them.

When you’re going from shoot to shoot, there are a lot of small moving parts. Harris, who now has a full-time assistant and lots of interns to help her, learned the hard way the importance of good communication. The most memorable experience: at a shoot on a glacier in Iceland, it hadn’t occurred to the producer that the model would need a place to change clothes. “I had wondered but I didn’t ask,” Harris says. “Now I always ask.” (The model ended up changing in the cab of the snowmobile that brought them to the site.)

Have goals but be flexible about them.

Harris never dreamed of styling celebrities—or being a costume designer for a drama series. But when the economy crashed in 2008, her editorial and advertising work slowed down, and her agency asked her if she would work with a singer who needed to be styled for her album and videos as well as the Grammy’s. “It was out of my comfort zone, but I told myself that if I wanted to be comfortable I should have stayed at my office job,” she recalls. The same flexibility has led to her working on House of Cards. “Now for goals, I think of the talent I want to work with, but I am open to all possibilities,” she adds.

You will work as hard when you’re successful—and you’ll love it.

“I work as hard as I did when I was starting out,” Harris says. “If anything, I work harder now. Not because I have to. But because I want to. When you get to do what you love, you don’t ever want to let up.”

▶ Read more from the November 2015 newsletter.