StreetStyleChi Exclusive: LOFT Chief Style Director Alia Ahmed-Yahia Talks Fashion & Business

Last week, LOFT Style Director, Alia Ahmed-Yahia, was in Chicago to celebrate teachers with Lucky Magazine. Alia was previously at ELLE and Vanity Fair, and was quoted by NY Mag, saying that she would probably wear spiked Louboutin’s on the New York Subway. How could you not love this woman?

I got a quick ten minutes with her, and picked her brain regarding what items every women should have in her closet, styling, and advice for beginners in the industry.

Screen Shot 2014-03-25 at 5.15.35 PM

Alex: So how did you get into the industry?

Alia: My first job was at Vanity Fair, I was a stylist and an editor for about eight years. I majored in Journalism, and I came to New York…just no job…basically on a shoe string. I lived with friends in Connecticut and commuted in. I had a friend that was a publisher at Vanity Fair and knew they were looking for a fashion assistant, so I went in knowing absolutely nothing and learned from the ground up.

Alex: Styling someone is like an art. What’s the first thing you look at when you style someone?

Alia: Real people and photo shoots are completely different. Making sure someone is comfortable is most important, and making sure you are being an active listener before coming up with ideas for them because it’s a collaboration when you’re styling somebody. It’s just as much about what are they comfortable in, what do they like…and once you understand that, you can start pulling things together in their comfort zone, and then start putting things together that maybe they hadn’t thought of, or that they would be willing to try. You don’t feel confident in something you aren’t comfortable in.

Alex: How would you style differently on a photo shoot?

Alia: I think a photo shoot is a little bit different because you go into a photo shoot with everything preplanned, and it’s all about putting together a vision. A story needs to visually put together, so you build looks around that story.

Alex: What kind of spring trends are you loving?

Alia: I have to say, I’ve never been big on pastels, but I think because it’s been such a cold winter, there are so many different iterations of pastels out there and they’ve been reinvented as a spring trend. There are really interesting textural mixes so pastels in lace, different kinds of leather…in perforated leather, lazer cut tops, I love it. I also love how Burberry paired a pastel with a heavily saturated bright color in the same color family, so it’s that light and bright effect that looks really interesting. This is the next wave of what monochromatic can look like in a little bit more of a wearable way.

Alex: What are you not so crazy about?

Alia: A trend that I’m not loving…probably the crop top. It’s such a polarizing trend, but there are ways to make it wearable. Most women hear the word crop top and think belly bearing and intimidating, but you just have to style it right. You can add long layers underneath, and make the crop top a layer of your look opposed to just wearing it by itself. There are also a lot of designers doing a crop top with a high waisted skirt, so it actually looks like a dress and doesn’t show that much skin. It’s very flattering for a lot of women’s body shapes. I also like a longer oxford with a crop top over it and a jacket…then you get three layers and it creates an interesting visual.

Alex: I’ve seen that a lot of the recent magazines and all over the runway. What’s a staple piece that every woman should own?

Alia: I’m sort of bias, because I love jewelry, and I think every woman should have a great statement necklace regardless of whether magazines are saying it’s on trend. You can throw on a t-shirt and instantly dress it up. If we’re talking about wardrobe building staples, I would say a great fitting blazer. A lot of women have blazers, but they aren’t fitted. Look for a blazer that accentuating the curves you have and giving your body some shape. The blazer has become a staple in the sense that it’s acceptable for you to wear it over everything…jeans and a tshirt, a dress, a long skirt, even shorts. I would also say grab navy over black. Navy is a universal color that is season-less.

Alex: Last question…what’s one word of advice that you would give a girl looking to get into the industry?

Alia: I would say, cold call people that you admire. Look for businesses that you think are interesting, people you find interesting…people will really surprise you in the sense that when you reach out for somebody and you aren’t necessarily asking for a job, and you’re just asking them about how they got to where they are, or to grab a coffee, a lot of people will get back to you. There is something to be said about someone who is really passionate and proactive about wanting to get into the industry they love. I always really want to support someone that is really excited and passionate, and networking is everything. I don’t know where I’m going to be in five years, I could be working with someone I’ve previously chatted with. Not everyone will get back to you, so don’t get discouraged, but I did it when I was in college.

Alex: Who did you call?

Alia: I cold called the Special Projects Editor of InStyle. She went to Wisconsin, same as myself, so that was my connection. Just find something in common. We had a great phone call, and I’ve never met her, but she gave me a lot of advice. Even just about moving to New York and looking for jobs and who to talk to and who not to talk to. She helped me level set that expectation of what it was going to be like.

 

How To Get Ahead: Whitney Read

A few weeks ago, someone asked me what posts I enjoy reading the most on other blogs and in magazines, and as much as I enjoy style posts and inspiration, I really love reading peoples stories, AKA, how they got to where they are. This inspired me to start a column, called How to Get Ahead, and features people in the industry that I admire and look to for advice.

For my first feature, I asked my friend and mentor, Whitney Read, to share some advice. Previously a PR maven for Skirt PR, she is now the restaurant public relations queen for Monika Dixon PR. Basically, she is someone we can all learn a lot from.

Hope you love it as much as I do,

signature

DSC_0178

My advice for students that are interested in going into Public Relations (or any field really!) is to take advantage of every opportunity that you can.  Not only does experience look good on a resume, but finding a career that you love takes time and a lot of self exploration. Or in my case trial and error!

I stumbled across my first internship on Craigslist. Desperate for experience of any kind, I applied to at least twenty listings and only heard back from one. The company was very vague in the description, using their LLC name instead of the brand. It wasn’t until after they called to set up an interview that I realized the gravitas – the company happened to be the only internationally recognized designer jewelry brand based in Chicago at the time, Lana Jewelry.

 

I was in awe! A thirty-something designer, three twenty-something girls and the designer’s dad ran and international company. Who would have thought? They were savvy and extremely hard working – it was intimidating! I thought interns answered phones and got coffee, but I was doings things like calling buyers at boutiques across the country to set up meetings for our sales manager, and making sure our online orders were getting shipped on time.

 

When my three-month internship ended I asked if I could stay, and two months after that they offered me a part-time sales and marketing position. I started traveling and hosting trunk shows at our Neiman Marcus stores in the south.

 

I graduated the following spring and knew (thought) I wanted to go into fashion, but I also wanted to utilize my business degree. As time went on, while I loved the company and the brand, I realized I was miserable doing sales. I was absolutely torn about what to do. I didn’t want to work anywhere else but I couldn’t stand making another cold call.

 

I left Lana Jewelry to do “freelance consulting” as I explained to my dad. I worked with a former Lana Jewelry co-worker to help indie designers develop their branding while she helped them expand into retail boutiques.

 

Post-graduation bills started collecting and my dad told me to find a real job or move home. I found a salaried job – FAST!  I took the first job offer I received and worked for a manufacturing company in the business district of a Chicago suburb. Talk about depressing. It was a far cry from my downtown office that adorned framed issues of magazines our jewelry was featured in in like Vogue, Elle and the New York Times, but the job description sounded exciting so I thought I could make it work.

 

The money wasn’t worth it – I called my mom dramatically sobbing almost every day. Everyone I followed on Facebook and Twitter seemed to have such glamorous jobs and lives while I was stuck in an office without windows, working with men my parents’ age to market the machinery we manufactured. All that I could think was, “This is not where I thought I would be a year ago.”

 

I knew (thought) I wanted to be back in fashion, no matter the position. I took a weekend job at the Tory Burch flagship store over to keep up with things in the fashion world while I hopelessly looked for another job.  After six months and a hundred applications I got a Facebook message from the owner of Skirt PR, a fashion, beauty and lifestyle agency public relations agency asking if I ever considered a job in PR. Um, YES?! (I had no idea what a publicist did, but YES…)

 

That was when things changed forever.  I was offered an entry-level assistant position and put on various teams for five-or-so different accounts.  I had only worked in-house before that, so working with more than one brand was completely new for me.  Not to mention, a marketing/sales “pitch” to me meant a PowerPoint presentation.  A PR “pitch” means a quick email with an idea for a story. I was in way over my head, but I figured it out quick.

 

Working at an agency opened up my eyes to a lot different industries. While I love fashion, I realized that I enjoyed working with my bar and restaurant clients the most. I always loved getting dressed up and exploring the newest, hottest bars and restaurants with my friends. (I basically spent every dollar I ever made going out.) The hospitality industry is social, fashionable, trendy, young and very vibrant – everything I love.

 

A couple days after I left Skirt I emailed Monika from Monika Dixon PR – I recognized her from a Lana Jewelry luncheon at Neiman Marcus when I was interning there. While working at Skirt I wanted to stay up on others in the industry, so I followed them on Facebook/Twitter etc.  Her agency and clients were always doing the most amazing things. I was so impressed and thought it couldn’t hurt to reach out, so I asked her to grab a coffee.

 

I recognized that she didn’t have any restaurant clients listed on her website, so I was hoping to talk to her about potentially growing that part of her agency.  Not to my knowledge, my email was perfect timing because she was looking for someone with experience in hospitality PR. She had just signed several restaurant clients and was ready to expand her team. It honestly could not have been more perfect.

 

It’s an amazing feeling when you love going to work everyday and I wouldn’t change a single thing that got me here. Through it all I have met the right people, learned something and come closer to finding what’s right for me.  Every horrible job leading up to this point in my career has made me appreciate what I have even more, and it makes me want to work hard to keep it. “Bad days” don’t even seem that horrible anymore because I’ve had much worse.  When I’m working 14 hour days or on weekends, when a client is difficult or an editor blows me off it’s not the end of the world. I feel lucky to have those struggles because they are the nature of the job that I love.

 

ODLR Advice

Screen Shot 2014-01-13 at 6.16.43 PM

Sometimes, we all need a little nudge from Oscar.