In conversation with Thea Lewis-Yates

Here at Sondr, we love meeting other creatives. In our demi-shine diaries, we spotlight those who inspire others. So, fashion stylist Thea Lewis-Yates was one of the first on our list. 

Thea Lewis-Yates - Elle Mauritius Shoot

Talking long days on set, personal style and motherhood, we explore her thoughts on unpaid internships and what needs to change in the industry. We go back to the start of her exciting career to find out how she got started:

Sham: Was getting an internship pretty straight forward? Do you think it’s more competitive now? 

I wrote to pretty much every magazine I liked! I was utterly naive, with no idea how the process worked. But, luckily I secured my first internship at Dazed.

It was obviously competitive, but pre-social media, the term ‘stylist' wasn't really used outside of the industry. Nowadays, we’re used to seeing behind the scenes imagery online, even someone completely removed from the sector understands the roles involved in a shoot. So I think there’s more competition, simply because there’s more visibility.

What do you think as to the value of unpaid internships? As someone in a position of power, do you think there is value in it or would you want to see changes to that?

This is such a complex question. In terms of gaining on-set experience, seeing how shoots work, learning ’shoot etiquette’ and working with creatives, I think short-term internships do have a place. And can be beneficial for both intern and stylist. 

They can also show what this job is really like - which you can’t really learn in a classroom - and that isn’t always what’s portrayed on social media. There’s a huge gap between expectations and reality. For instance - you might see glamorous BTS images on Instagram. But, what you don’t see is the six flights of stairs that you’ve had to drag suitcases up and the 15 hour long shoot day! 

Saying that, unpaid internships can be exploited by employers and that absolutely must be clamped down on. I offer four week-long expenses-paid internships, designed to work around University or another role. I personally disagree with six-month unpaid internships. These are so clearly weighted in favour of the employer, offering only repetitive ‘work’ for the apprentice .

What kind of change would you like to see in the industry?

For so long, fashion existed in a strange bubble. One where the only people available to hold it to account are those in the industry itself. However, I think we are seeing change. 

I love what Edward Enniful is doing at British Vogue. The inclusion of different ages, sizes, backgrounds, gender identities and ethnicities is crucial in representing our diverse society. More support for young design and photographic talent, who often don’t have trust-funds paving the way. The pathway to success in fashion has long been nepotistic, reliant on existing contacts within the industry and wealthy parents to support endless unpaid internships. As a result of these socio-economic factors, the troubling result was an almost entirely white, middle-class industry. It finally feels like that’s changing, but there’s still lots left to do. 

I also think we need better regulations on payment. I am constantly hearing stories of photographers, stylists and models experiencing late, or even in some cases, non-existent payment. As a self-employed person, you’re in a very vulnerable position - kick up too much of a fuss, the client will never book you again. Stay silent and you don’t get paid.

We also need to change the way we think about sustainability. The responsibility shouldn’t be on a 14-year-old consumer buying from Boohoo. The onus should be on our government. We need to ensure that that sustainability isn’t a trend, and is instead ingrained in the industry. 

Who were your role models? 

After interning at Esquire I assisted their brilliant fashion-editor-at-large for a year or so, a wonderful man called Tony Lewis. Tony was the best - creative, cool and so supportive of me, encouraging me to take my own styling jobs rather than just assisting. I owe him a lot. 

The fashion industry is also one of the few that is saturated by women. There are lots of advantages to this, like taking my son on set on occasions. There’s something really powerful about working with so many talented women, particularly the camaraderie, support and encouragement.

Thea Lewis-Yates - L'Officiel Shoot

                                                                                                                                                                         Styling for L'Officiel Ukraine

Where did you learn the most?

Harrods Magazine, where I started as Junior Fashion Ed at 24 and left as Style Editor nearly 3 years later. I was so green when I started, and every day I learnt new skills. Liaising with photographers, working with my editor and AD, keeping a super-demanding and high profile luxury client like Harrods happy, while also creating interesting editorial content. 

We worked 12 hour days, 5 or 6 days a week - but I loved it, such an interesting and exciting time for me. 

What made you decide to freelance? How did you decide the time was right?

I’m not sure it was! I’m grateful that it worked out, but it wasn’t necessarily a strategic move. Working at Harrods Magazine was amazing, I loved it. However, my role there meant that I couldn’t pursue any other projects. I remember feeling ‘it’s now or never’. I couldn’t be that impulsive now, especially as I have a family. But, at the time, it was absolutely the right choice for me.

What has been your favourite editorials or projects to work on and why?

I used to be Fashion Editor at Large on Elle Malaysia, a role which I loved. I’d work from the UK, but we’d often shoot abroad - the editor at the time, Kate Guest, gave me enormous creative freedom. We’d shoot amazing models, with great photographers, in the most inspiring locations. 

My Elle cover was definitely a career highlight. 

I currently work regularly with Liberty London on a range of their campaigns. I’ve been shooting with Liberty for nearly three years now and they’re still my dream client. Liberty has long been my favourite London department store - their buy is consistently on point, plus the vast visual history and provenance of the brand is ever-inspiring. 

Thea Lewis-Yates - Elle Cover

Thea Lewis-Yates - Liberty SS20 lookbook

                               Liberty SS20 lookbook

What’s your favourite part of the job?

So many different elements, it’s hard to choose. Working with clever, creative people. Fulfilling a brief. Travel. Styling is a chaotic and exhausting job, but I (mostly) love it all.

Has motherhood changed the way you approach your personal style?

I’ve always been quite feminine in my aesthetic, and this has probably ramped up a bit with becoming a mother.

You learn that there’s something deeply powerful about being female - the ability to create life, grow and nurture it. While balancing this with a career and so many other factors. Someone might see a girl in a pretty dress and see powerlessness or whimsy . For me, it’s the total opposite. I find great strength in traditionally ‘feminine’ attributes like nurturing, collaborating, creating, dreaming…

Thea Lewis-Yates with her son Mackie

   Thea with her son Mackie

How has your personal style changed over the years?

My friends and I lived in vintage clothing - more affordable and more interesting than the high street. Fifteen years ago, vintage was so much cheaper than it is nowadays. I remember going to Beyond Retro on Cheshire street for Debbie Harry-inspired vintage stuff. I’d come out with an enormous bag full for £30!

My style then was probably very hit and miss - a bit 50’s, a bit 80’s, a lot more colour than I wear now. I feel like pre-social media, it was easier for people to experiment - and even get it badly wrong on occasions! Most importantly, you could have fun with your clothes.

I find that Instagram makes fashion quite monotonous.

Thea Lewis-Yates - Russh Shoot                                                                                                                                             Styling for Russh magazine in Morocco

Who are your fashion icons?

Too many to list. I love women who made (or make) clothes look authentic, with their own idiosyncratic style. Jane Birken, Anita Pallenberg, Sharon Tate, Florence Welsh, Lou Dillion, Leandra Medine….

You’ve kindly used our products in your shoots - what drew you to Sondr?

The personal, unique nature of the brand - and the talismanic quality of the pieces feels very current and intriguing.I think it’s reflective of how women wear and buy jewellery now. Almost like curating a unique ‘collection’ of treasures, all with some personal meaning and provenance.

Thea Lewis-Yates wearing the Celebration Coin

                    Thea wearing her Sondr London Celebration Coin necklace

What advice would you give to those looking to get a foothold in the industry?

Work hard. Be proactive and meticulous. Listen to any advice you can get. Say yes to everything (at the start). Most importantly - be nice.

 

Thea Lewis-Yates - L'Officiel covers

Photography

Dan Smith (Elle Malaysia), David Vail (LOfficiel UA), Anya Holdstock (Elle Malaysia), Umit Savaci (Liberty lookbook),Amie Milne (Russh Magazine), Petrovsky & Ramone, Ina Lekiewicz, Dan Smith L’Officiel covers (left to right) .