“Ooh, you SHOP for a living? That must be much be so much fun!”
When I tell people about my job—costume design and styling for the entertainment industry— and that much of the work revolves around shopping, they are often amazed to learn that such a position even exists. And when I explain that “shopper” is an actual job title, and that pretty much every theatrical production, film, and television show employs one or more shoppers, I’m often presented with questions about what the job entails, or how to get into the field.
After graduate school, I spent several years as a shopper for the Metropolitan Opera, one of the largest and busiest union costume shops in New York. All day, every day, I swatched, sourced, and purchased fabrics and trims, as well as other necessities such as leathers, notions, beads, buttons, crystals, feathers, tools, sewing supplies, and anything else that goes into creating a garment.
Over the years I have also shopped extensively for television, including shows such as Conan and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. When shopping for television and film, the job is often less about fabrics and more about finding off-the-rack garments in specific colors or styles. (There are exceptions, of course. Shoppers for a period piece such as Boardwalk Empire often need to source fabrics, since garments from the time period are not readily available at Macy’s!)
For TV/film jobs, shoppers find themselves frequenting both big chain/department stores and smaller local boutiques, depending on the budget and the requirements of the project. A show about modern-day teenagers might mean lots of trips to Forever 21, while shopping for a 1970s or 80s piece might make vintage and thrift stores the go-to resource.
Like television, shopping for theatre also varies based on the project. Theatrical costume shops (these are the shops responsible for building the costumes for Broadway shows, as well as national tours and other events such as ballet, opera, circuses, parades, etc.) generally employ an in-house shopper; depending on the venue, the theatre or production may have its own shoppers as well. The requirements of shopping for a theatrical production can vary greatly, depending on whether the show will be mostly built (such as a period piece) or bought (as is often the case with modern-dress productions), as well as other factors such as timing and budget.
There are plenty of great things about shopping for a living. For starters, there is no need for a gym membership—shoppers exercise just by showing up for work! In New York City, shopping doesn’t mean hopping in a car and driving from point A to point B, it means walking from store- to-store, as well as numerous trips up and down subway steps. It’s not unusual to log 10+ miles a day without even trying. Also, shoppers are constantly lifting heavy bags or transporting giant rolls of fabric, eliminating any need to lift weights after work.
Shopping is the perfect job on days when the weather is nice. While everyone else is stuck in an office, shoppers get to be “out and about” experiencing the sunlight and warmth. Shopping is also a fantastic way to make connections and learn the way around the city (one of the perks of being a shopper is the ability to know where to buy just about anything!) which is why it often makes a fantastic post-college or post-grad school job.
There are downsides, too, of course. Shopping is physically demanding, and it’s no fun on a bitterly cold or rainy day. Not being able to locate something can prove frustrating—a discontinued item or change in dye lots can often mean re-starting a search from scratch, and it’s equally frustrating to find the perfect product, only to discover that there isn’t enough yardage available, or that the size you need has been sold out for weeks. Shopping (and returning!) during the holiday season equals grumpy cashiers and long waits in line. And in New York City, where more and more small local stores are being forced to close or move to an “online only” model, the lack of resources can present a challenge, especially when shopping with time constraints might mean that online ordering is not an option.
While shopping for the Met, where much of my job revolved around sourcing fabrics and trims, I spent the majority of my work day in the Garment District. Located on the west side of midtown Manhattan, the Garment District is best described as the heart of the fashion industry in NYC. The neighborhood boasts the headquarters of countless fashion labels, as well as most of the city’s fabric, trim, and notions stores. The area also plays home to numerous sample makers, theatrical costume shops, pleaters, tailors, patternmakers, fabric and leather wholesalers, button makers, and countless other industry suppliers, as well as wholesale clothing companies and designer showrooms. Spending most of my day within the borders of the Garment District, I quickly developed a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the resources in the neighborhood, as well as relationships with many of the salespeople and businesses that make the garment industry tick.
My company, Seek, offers guided tours of the Garment District led by working costume and fashion designers who are also fully licensed New York City Sightseeing Guides. Amid streets bustling with designers and with racks of clothing whizzing by, tour participants will experience firsthand what it’s like to be a part of the New York garment industry. Along the way, guests will learn the history of the garment industry and see important neighborhood landmarks like the Fashion Walk of Fame, the famous “Needle Threading a Button” statue, and Project Runway locations like Mood Fabrics and Bryant Park.
Seek offers public group tours of the NYC Garment District (select Saturdays from April - October, priced at $45/person) as well as private Garment District tours for those who’d prefer a more intimate experience. SewCanShe readers are invited to enter the code SEWCAN in the discount field at checkout to receive an exclusive 20% discount on a private or public Garment District tour, when you book by 5/1/16.
Rebecca Frey is a New York City-based costume designer and wardrobe stylist with more than twelve years of experience in the entertainment industry. Her television credits include The Meredith Vieira Show, Conan, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, The Today Show, and Comedy Central’s Night of Too Many Stars. She has also worked on Broadway and at the Metropolitan Opera, and her work has appeared in the pages of Entertainment Weekly and Glamour. Rebecca holds an M.F.A. in Costume Design from Carnegie Mellon University and is also a licensed New York City Sightseeing Guide with a specific interest in the city’s garment and retail industries. Rebecca is the owner/founder of Seek, a New York City-based company which provides costume design and styling services, as well as tourist-oriented shopping and fashion history tours. For more information, visit www.seeknewyorkllc.com or www.seeknewyorktours.com.