I graduated from Parsons, the New School for Design, with the right degree at the wrong time. There were no jobs, everyone was firing and no one was hiring. I called and emailed every possible contact and introduction that I could find, but everyone was scared and unwilling to take a chance on new talent. Despite the fact that I’d completed several internships and had great references, the only option (one that I’m very fortunate to have been able to afford) was to offer my time for free. What I didn’t expect out of this perfect storm of fear and anxiety was that I would find the one thing that every young professional woman seeks with dogged determination: A mentor.
My mentor came in the form of one of the most-loved and well-known fashion and celebrity stylists working at the time: Annabel Tollman. Over the course of that first year working for her, I gave myself over completely to the job, working all hours and taking every task given to me with a smile. As a result, she took me under her wing. Tollman was inspiring, wickedly smart, funny, kind, successful and ultra-glamorous. She cared about her team and about the interns that were putting in the time to learn. After a year of interning, I was hired full-time. And over the course of the next five years, I rose to the most senior position in Tollman’s office. It was the mutual respect that we shared for one another that stays with me: She respected my determination to prove my worth, my willingness to learn and my dedication to her vision. In return, I respected how warm, intelligent and truly generous with her time and expertise she was.
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What many young professionals seeking a mentor don’t understand is that a mentorship isn’t gained or given; it’s earned. Authentic mentorships are based upon a mutual trust and confidence. The ones that last the longest and prove the most beneficial are reciprocal relationships, where a mentee is able to provide something in return for the generosity of advice and guidance. In my case, I was able to truly understand the unique joys and challenges that come with being a fashion stylist. I was able to commiserate because I was in the trenches every day with her. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what every relationship is based upon? A mentorship is an inherently professional relationship, but it is nonetheless a human relationship.
When Tollman died unexpectedly in 2013, I was suddenly pushed out of the nest and into running my own business. Most people doubted that a then-28-year-old could succeed as a stylist in the fashion industry. When I started my company, I only had one client to my name. But because of my mentor and the lessons she provided, I was able to set aside my fear and pursue a career that I am deeply passionate about. Some have credited my rapid ascent in the industry to being in the right place at the right time since I began working with an unknown Kenyan actress named Lupita Nyong’o right before 12 Years a Slave premiered. And they’re right, but just not about the place or time. Meeting my mentor at the precise moment I needed a guiding hand, a tough education and a friend is the true origin of any success I can claim now.
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Every day, there is something I remember from my time with her: A lesson, a word of advice, a joke, a smile. I now feel the duty to pass along these lessons to the women who work in my office and toil tirelessly to execute my vision. Perhaps this is the best part of having a mentor: The eventual process of becoming one.
Micaela Erlanger is a stylist whose clients include Lupita Nyong’o, Meryl Streep, Hilary Swank, Jared Leto, Common and Jennifer Hudson.