Do what you love — it’s something we hear uttered constantly, but for many, figuring out what that thing is can be difficult and often resemble a mix between what you’re naturally good at, and what makes you happy. And sometimes, it takes the perspective of someone outside of yourself to come to that realization. For AL Malonga, and many entrepreneurs, figuring out that she wanted to be a stylist happened both naturally and by happenstance.
For as long as she can remember, AL’s been helping friends and family put together outfits, shop, and sort their closets, but it wasn’t until her roommate suggested that she start a fashion blog that she realized it was a possible career path. At the time, she had just moved to New York City from Paris, and she felt lost in a sea of people she didn’t know. A blog seemed like a great way to reach the community right outside her door, and as a result of putting herself out there, her brand exploded, and she saw that what she was naturally good at was exactly what she was meant to do.
On top of running the blog Wardrobe Breakdown, AL offers styling, fashion design and personal shopping for private clients, editorial shoots, theatre performances and commercial sets. We’re thrilled to have AL aboard today to give us a peek inside her busy and fashionable life and offer some nuggets of wisdom, including how it feels to wear many hats, the importance of not giving your skills away for free, and how — if you can’t get through the front door — you must create your own window. –Sabrina
Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?
I tend to choose to do things the hard way, haha! But honestly, when I realized that I had had a skill for a long time, that could become my career, I was already too experienced and I had been an employee for too many people for too long in different careers. Without a proper “fashion education” background, I figured I would have a hard time getting through the front door, and I would have to create my own window. Freelancing seemed like my only option, since my sense of style, my taste, and my take on style were already pronounced when I decided to build my brand.
Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was and how you knew it was what you wanted to do?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always helped people around me putting together outfits, shopping, and sorting their closets. I guess I knew that “stylist” as a job existed, but didn’t think for the longest time that it was an option for me. When I moved from Paris to New York City four years ago, it was partly to focus on what I wanted to do with my life on my own. By the end of that transition, it became obvious to me that this was the passion that I wanted to pursue, and that I didn’t have to give it away for free.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
It actually came from my roommate. She saw me struggling as a foreigner in NYC, with no network whatsoever, and told me to start a style blog, as she noticed how people approached me on the street about my look. I was completely absent from social media, not even on Facebook two years ago. Now my street-style blog, Wardrobe Breakdown, has 13,000 followers on Instagram, and it gave me the exposure that I needed for people to know what I do. Best advice: put yourself out there!
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
The hectic multitasking, and many hats that I have to wear. I probably need very soon to delegate in the areas that I am the least excited about — as the administrative part, contracts, bookings and invoices — so I can enjoy focusing mainly on the creative part.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
To be even more organized than I already am! It is easy to be in over your head when you are doing everything yourself. Prioritize.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?
Nothing very specific, but an overall certainty that being an over-achiever and trying too hard doesn’t always serve my best interest.
If you were magically given 3 more hours per day, what would you do with them?
I should probably dedicate those hours to myself. Sleep a bit more, because I barely do. Eat better, because I often forget. Stretch and swim, because my body will only be able to take so much at this pace:).
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
My social life is definitely the part that took the biggest hit. I had to moonlight as a bartender to support myself, so no more weekends or evenings to socialize or date.
Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?
I started two and a half years ago working as a stylist with no degree and zero network, in NYC, a city unknown to me and where nobody knew me, just reinventing myself. And I work! People hire me and refer me, it’s amazing.
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
Unfortunately, I’m afraid I can’t be of any help on that. Things happened for me organically and instinctively. I talk to people, I search the internet, I walk miles around town to find the best spots, and I work hard.
Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.
I’m not sure that I have a good example for this one. I did quit a office position in communications at a global company in Paris to move across the world and start over, at the bottom. But I was never going to stay there and do that job forever, it was only one of my many professional experiences. For me, it wasn’t so much failing or quitting, I needed uprooting, and I’m glad I took the chance and did.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
It’s a long, rocky road, and can be pretty lonely and stressful if you don’t have the stomach for it.
In the beginning (it lasts a while and I’m not even out of that phase), they’ll have no more time: if you work for yourself and something you believe in, you work 24/7. They won’t really be able to pay themselves, because you always need to reinvest in the business to feed it and help it grow. They’ll have moments of doubts and will need to remind themselves every day, when it’s hard, why they’re chasing that dream.
What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?
My blog and Instagram, then my emails.
What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?
Since you have less weight on your own, it can be difficult to have “access.” In my line of work, because I do not work for a famous stylist or magazine, I can get easily dismissed by big name brands’ PR representatives, showrooms, etc., which makes my work complicated as I always need to pull clothes. My way around that was to specialize in emergent designers, who still need the exposure, and in vintage pieces.
I also found it difficult to figure out the value/price to put on my work, because my legitimacy was questionned and I don’t have an agency to represent me and negotiate my bookings. But you start a bit low, and gradually get to a fairer rate, as you build your reputation.