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  • Kamilah Stevens

Fashion Creative Nicole Sallis Talks About Evolution & Survival in New York's Fashion Industry

Volume 82 recently caught up with business woman, fashion stylist, designer, fashion forecaster, and Iowa native Nicole Sallis about the highs and lows of sustaining herself as a creative. Having survived the arduous fashion industry in New York City for nearly twenty years, Nicole dropped some interesting jewels with us!

Volume 82: How many years have you worked in fashion?

Nicole: I've worked in fashion for about 17 years. When I moved to New York, I was still in college where my first internship was with Sean John (that’s Sean "Puffy" Combs' former clothing line) before I graduated. So I interned there, went back to finish college at Iowa State University, graduated, and did some other work before returning to New York City a couple of years later.

Volume 82: How much has fashion shifted since you got started in the industry?

Nicole: Oh my God! I think it's shifted so much because of social media and fast fashion. When I started, there was no social media, Facebook, Instagram, or many online boutiques. But now you can create wherever you are, and there's a global audience. Also, the fashion industry now delivers clothes differently. We used to deliver clothes in two or four seasons, such as fall/winter and spring/summer. Now there are fast fashion companies like H&M and Zara who may have 26 deliveries. So instead of delivering spring/summer, these companies and many others like them are producing 13 small collections each spring. So that's why, when you go to certain stores, there is always something new. It's because of fast fashion, a movement that dominates the industry in many ways.

Volume 82: So the processes have totally shifted with fast fashion?

Nicole: Yes! Fast fashion requires you to deliver [new designs and concepts] nearly every other week. The consumption of clothing is very different! People want more, and they want newness all the time.

Volume 82: You're currently a fashion forecaster, right?

Nicole: I am. I'm a Global Trend Forecasting Expert. But, I didn't start my career in forecasting. I actually started as a fashion stylist. Then I moved into creative designing. And, for the last five to six years, I've been forecasting.

Volume 82: Tell us more about what fashion forecasting entails.

Nicole: When you think about a product's life cycle, forecasting is the beginning. I actually go out and look at culture and gather inspiration. I go to art shows, car shows, Instagram, and influencers. Then I ask myself: “What are the similarities and trends that I saw? What's uptrending, and how do I think those things will impact the fashion industry?” Then, my team and I gather that information and create presentations, and we deliver our forecasts to design directors and their teams. Next, the designers incorporate our data into their collections, then the products hit the stores. That's how the beginning of the product development cycle looks.

Volume 82: Interesting! For which companies do you currently create forecasts?

Nicole: I work with HanesBrands, and there are many brands under that umbrella, both nationally and internationally.

Volume 82: What was the transition to forecasting like after starting out as a stylist? I know you had the chance to tap into the entertainment industry and work with different artists. What was that like?

Nicole: You wanna know the truth? [laughing] You want the juice? The juice is that styling is a lot of paper chasing! Styling is a very sought-after position. Everyone thinks they have style and they want to style celebrities, and to be in the mix and be backstage at the Mary J. Blige concert! Honestly, I didn't know anything about styling when I got to New York. I had good taste in theory. I have always had good eclectic taste, and I can put things together. So I felt creative enough that I could come up with looks. But that's not the basis of styling; it's just one aspect of it. The biggest aspect is that you need to have relationships with brands because you need to be able to access their clothes. No one gave me a budget to go to Macy's and put together an outfit. As a stylist, it was up to me to consistently build relationships with designers, brands, etc., so I could influence them to put clothes on the artists that I was working with. It was difficult, because if you're not working with Beyonce or other really popular artists, then a brand might not think it's worth putting their clothes on that person. So that job is really about building relationships!

Volume 82: Makes sense! Without knowing many people at first, how did styling work out for you?

Nicole: I didn't know the business networking aspect of styling when I first started; it was a struggle. Yes, I had good ideas, but I didn't have access to all of the clothes that I wanted. I was new to New York; I'm from Waterloo, Iowa! Anyway, the way that I got my first client was very random. I met my first client, the R&B artist Joe at a bowling alley with some friends. He asked me, "What do you do?" And I said, "I'm a stylist.” And he said, "Cool, I need a stylist," and I said, "Here's my card." When he called me, I freaked out because I didn't have anywhere to pull clothes from! So, I sent out a press release explaining that I was his stylist and a new album was coming out. Not many people responded, but I happened to be designing for a company with a mens' brand, and I literally went to their marketing director and asked them if I could pull clothes from them. They gave me the first looks that I was able to put on Joe to secure him as a client. So those are the kind of moments where you're like, “Am I going to sink or swim?” I did my hardest to swim, and that's how I got started!

Volume 82: Who are some of your other celebrity clients?

Nicole: I was able to design for the New York Knicks NBA team and Nicki Minaj. When I worked for Nicki, I wasn't styling her, I was actually on the development side of creating a clothing line for her to present to a store. I also worked with Angela Simmons to help her with her fashion show. And I've also done creative direction for a number of different people. [laughing] I'm not good at name-dropping!

I worked with the Smith family, Will and Jada. I will say that when I was in L.A., working for the Smiths was one of my favorite experiences. This opportunity was very random for me; it was based on a relationship I had in New York. When I moved to L.A., they needed some creative direction and technical design support to establish the standards for their son, Jaden’s, new clothing line. They called me and said, “Hey, come over to our house." (laughing) I don't tell this story that often! So I went to their house in Calabasas, California, and worked right out of their home several times to develop Jaden's clothing line. (Nicole & Angela Simmons pictured below, working on designs for New York Fashion Week)

Volume 82: That’s very dope! So, let's talk about your role as a trend forecaster.

Nicole: Absolutely! So, as a trend forecaster, I am not just looking at clothes. I look at many things happening in the world. I look at global warming, for example. If I were to tell you how the number of wildfires we experienced recently have affected color trends for the season, you'd be shocked. If you were to sit in one of our meetings where we talk about world events and things we see in culture, you would be amazed to know that those things are influencing a designer at DKNY, and the design will be in stores in two years. So, from a forecasting perspective, we work about three seasons ahead. And although we work ahead, we are constantly updating our designers with information so they can make timely changes.

Some companies can take action immediately, like Zara. Zara is the quickest company to market. If I went to tell Zara about different trends in terms of fabrics or colors that they should incorporate, they can very quickly take that trend, produce it, and get it to the stores. They own their supply chains, so they can design, produce, and put new clothing trends in the stores amazingly fast, sometimes within two weeks. No other company can operate that fast!

I'm working with fashion directors every day and saying to them, "Hey, I love what you're doing here, but if you're able to incorporate these things, I think that you will be really on point for what I'm seeing happening in culture." It's a cool job, and the reason I like my job is because I get to pull from a lot of different hats. I’m not just looking at the runway to see what Prada is doing so I can tell Target this is what Prada is doing. I’m looking at the tech world, and politics, and museums and art. I spot trends across many different industries. I look at things that you probably are not paying attention to. For example, I'll notice an artist who is using hot pink all of a sudden, and then I'll see touches of hot pink on the runway. And then I'll notice Apple is starting to incorporate neon pink in their new marketing campaign.

Volume 82: I see. Sounds exciting! Every fashion stylist has a source of inspiration. What's yours?

Nicole: Initially, my grandmother was an inspiration to me. My grandmother is the coolest. She was magical to me. I would go to her like, “Grandma, I saw this skirt in this magazine, but I got this jacket in my head, and I don't really know how to make it, it has a ruffle on the side and some big sleeves or something," and she would figure out how to sew it and make it, and I would say, "That's magic!" Anything I thought of, she could make it. So when I got to that point as a seamstress, it was the best feeling. (Nicole pictured below, while visiting Greece)

Volume 82: I bet! Where else do you draw inspiration from?

Nicole: I used to go to thrift stores a lot. I love thrift stores. Thrift stores weren't cool when we were younger, but thrifting is cool now! I used to fear that people would say “She shops at Goodwill, she's poor, something is wrong with her.” (laughs) And for me, it was really just about being as creative as possible. I used to make my clothes when I was younger, but I hid that fact because I thought people would think of my clothes as homemade instead of designer- and store-bought things. I would go and buy clothes, cut them up, change the collar or cut stuff off, and sew some fringe on. I would do what's now called upcycling and deconstructing. Now, things are way different. If you're a designer, people think you're cool because you can make stuff!

As a kid, I didn't always feel like I was accepted because of the things I wanted to wear. I just always felt like an outcast. Growing up, I didn't feel like creativity was celebrated. Most of my teachers would say things like, "Fashion styling is not a real career." Then, once I got to 10th, 11th, and 12th grade, I was driven by rebelliousness. And my attitude shifted to “Oh you don't think this is a real career? Or “You think I dress weird?” “Oh, OK!” Then I kind of tapped into the energy of not caring, and I feel like that opened me up to feel like I could be as creative as I wanted to be. And that confidence and energy stuck with me through college and into my styling career.

Volume 82: What trends, brands, or items do you think will always be in style?

Nicole: I don't know that I look at any brand like that. I've learned so much about business trends, branding, and marketing trends. So I think the companies that constantly pivot and can stay connected to what's happening in the world, while still keeping the integrity of their brands, will always be around. A brand that does this well is Apple. Apple has constantly rebranded itself in very slight and small ways. I think Fenty has done this, too. Fenty has embraced the idea of different body types. Now, I used to love Tom Ford when he worked for Gucci. He was my favorite designer. I loved BCBG. I felt like it was my style. I could always go into their stores and find something I loved (I don't want to throw those brands under the bus at this moment, but their brands have changed). Even Christian Dior and Gucci have had their ebb and flow. I've had plenty of seasons where I felt like different brands were not popping, and what they are doing is not connected to where we're going. I've even seen artists like Kanye West be so far forward that they are inspirational, but some of their products don't feel relevant.

Volume 82: Our conversation has been so interesting! What I take away from our discussion is that fashion is much more than designing a hot outfit. As far as your job, you help brands stay relevant; you're a second set of eyes.

Nicole: I am, that's true. For my corporate job, I would say yes. But, regarding my business Design Her Life, I am connected to the idea of how empowerment is connected to fashion. When I coach women business owners about showing up powerfully in the world and being confident and standing in their power, I incorporate a lot of fashion concepts around what I like to call power style assets (PSAs). PSAs connect what you wear to how you feel. There's actually research out there from psychologists about this concept. There are pieces that you can wear that can actually create conversation. Fashion is deeply connected to how you show up in the world. Fashion can help you show up powerfully to influence people, to help you close the damn deal if you need to, and to give you confidence. It's a deep connection. And that’s exactly the intersection of where I want to be. I want to empower women.

I love connecting women to a sense of freedom and being able to create whatever they want in their lives. I've had a lifelong relationship with outside fashion. But Design Her Life is an inside-out makeover process. Design Her Life has evolved into a business consulting and creative direction service. What I do with my company helps clients position themselves and their brand to attract people to connect with them. I'm using that zone of genius to consult and help women from a business perspective. So, I think that's the next chapter of focus for me.

Styling, for me, is a personal thing. It's not just about what I want to put you in. I think there's a balance and a duality to styling. And the duality is based on a client's personality. It's a collaboration of what I see happening in the industry, my influence, and someone's personality. I can put you in anything, but if you don't feel comfortable and connected to what you're wearing, you're not going to feel confident. I'm using those same concepts with women in business in Design Her Life. Now that my skills are more refined, I think I can go anywhere creativity lives and be a director.

Volume 82: If someone were to go in your closet, what top five brands would they see?

Nicole: (Laughing) I'm not a brand faithful person, so I'm not a person that goes and buys the same brand over and over. I think the brand that I have the most of is probably MCM, just because one of my first luxury purchases was an MCM vintage bag. I love vintage stuff! I got it when MCM wasn't really a thing. I bought the bag because it wasn't Gucci or Prada, it wasn't popular; it was vintage. Now years later, everyone has MCM. It's kind of resurged. But vintage is one of my obsessions.

I shop at sample sales all the time. I shop at fast fashion places like Zara and H&M. I shop at designer places like MCM and Christian Dior, but I also shop at thrift stores. I pride myself on being eclectic and being able to put things together in a way that you're probably not going to be able to see at stores. And that's really what I love about vintage. I know that fashion has a life cycle, so what you're buying in the stores right now is fast fashion and probably some cheap fabric that's gonna fall apart in like three washes. I know that I could go to a vintage store and I can probably find a similar print that's better. I could probably find a really beautiful necklace that's made of better material. I can find things that are very representative of what's happening in culture, but it's probably a better quality and it's exclusive, so nobody else can find it! So I guess I would say you'd probably find more vintage items and MCM in my closet than anything else.

By the way, New York has a great vintage and thrift market, and I found a Salvation Army that all the fashionistas and designers used to donate their stuff to. It was the biggest store and I found the best stuff!

Volume 82: I believe it! Anything else you’d like to share?

Nicole: I really want to encourage young women who are in fashion. I want to encourage young women and young designers to be willing to step out. Sometimes you have to step out of your comfort zone and work hard to get the things you want. At this stage in my life, I'm allowing myself the freedom to evolve as a woman and see my own skills and what I enjoy doing from all perspectives. In the same way I advise others, I’m trying not to limit myself either. Instead of wondering what things can look like, I’m trying to do them!

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