Emily McDonald, The Stylist LA

Ever find yourself staring into your closet, agonizing over having nothing to wear? Emily McDonald has got you covered. Thanks to Emily’s inner “entrepreneuress” and love for designer fashion, the vision for The Stylist LA was created.  

In 2009, Emily, 27, opened The Stylist LA, which allows women the unique opportunity to rent dresses and accessories. Although a quick Google search may yield results on Rent the Runway, which sports a similar business concept, Emily has made sure to offer customers a distinctive experience that makes her company stand out. Within a few minutes of meeting Emily you’ll catch on to her contagious energy, and end up begging for her styling assistance. But it’s not just her energy that attracts repeat customers. It’s the ability to visit The Stylist LA office and try on dresses in person, guaranteeing the perfect fit, it’s peace of mind while maintaining your budget and sanity and it’s the confidence you get knowing that you’ll look great at your next big event. Forget the mani/pedi girl date—for a similar price, head over to The Stylist LA, rent a killer dress and paint the town red.  

Sometimes the best ideas are the ones staring us in the face—or hiding in the closet. Emily has proven that the success of a business is all in the community and experience you create. The Stylist LA is not just likeable—it’s lovable, and has eliminated the dreaded “what do I wear” conundrum.

Her Starting Point

What was your first job post-grad?

My first job out of college was as an assistant to the COO of Yaya Aflalo, a high-end women’s clothing line. I saw the job posted online and realized that I knew the girl who held the position at the time. I contacted her about the job and get some pointers. She put in a good word for me, I interviewed and then got the job!

Have you always had an interest in fashion? How and when did you decide you wanted to pursue a career in the field?

Yes! When I was younger, there was a short period when I thought I wanted to do interior design, but for the most part it has always been fashion. At five, I declared that I someday wanted to have my own clothing store.

In addition to attending the University of Southern California (USC), you also attended the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM). Was it important for you to have a formal training in fashion? How has your education helped your career?

I think that attending FIDM gave me a well-rounded education. I honestly believe that everything I have learned and experienced has played a big role in where I am today. At FIDM, it wasn’t just the technical education that I benefited from, but also the mentors I found, the contacts I made and the industry internships I had.

Where did the inspiration for The Stylist LA come from? 

I have definitely always had an entrepreneurial drive. The idea for The Stylist LA came about when I was at USC. I was in a sorority and saw how often girls needed dresses and how it was a struggle to buy one for every event. At the same time, I was interning at a fashion PR firm, and saw how celebrities “borrowed” clothing for events. I started to think how genius it would be if girls could rent items from the ultimate in closets.

Her Big Break

Tell us about the process of starting The Stylist LA. How did you learn how to launch a business and handle the administrative duties that came with starting one?

My favorite phrase during startup was “fake it till you make it.” Plus, I’m a big fan of Google. I’m always worried there is something I should know how to do better, or that I should know more about, so I end up doing a lot of online reading. That’s basically the way I learned in the beginning. And I also turned to my mentors and other professionals and asked a lot of questions. I must say though, there were still things I missed and/or did incorrectly, but I wouldn’t change any of that. I think it is all a part of the startup process—making mistakes, fixing them, learning and moving on.

What type of marketing do you use to build your brand? How do you attract new clients?

Almost everything is word-of-mouth. We have always tried to give clients the best experience we possibly can. Then we hope that, in return, they refer their friends to us (which is how we get most of our clients!). We do some Facebook advertising, but mostly depend on referrals.

How do you decide which dresses to carry, and how do you stay so organized with each unique order?

At The Stylist LA we do a lot of listening to our clients. I pay close attention to their feedback, including what they like and what they don’t like. I usually find new brands through client recommendations and we base a lot of our buying on what clients are saying they want. I also keep a close eye on what celebrities are wearing on the red carpet to stay on trend. Staying organized is hard, especially right now as we grow rapidly. We are in the process of implementing new systems to help our inventory stay better organized. That is definitely one of our biggest challenges right now.

The Stylist LA probably gets compared to Rent the Runway often. What sets you apart? 

We do get compared to them, but we are quite different. We focus more on personal attention rather than an e-commerce experience. We have built our brand on close relationships with our clients. We target a younger audience and our style is more “west coast” than that of Rent the Runway. We carry a lot of Southern California brands and we focus on what clients on the west coast are specifically interested in.

Her Perspective

What is the most challenging part of your job? How do you overcome it? 

This answer changes from week to week. Right now our biggest challenge is managing our operations while the company grows rapidly. We are dealing with “growing pains” as we try to keep up with demand.

Personally, I have a really hard time giving up control of certain aspects of the business and delegating. When the company started, I did every single thing that needed to be done, so it is a hard transition giving things up.

If we had the chance to peek at your schedule, what would an average day look like?

6:30 a.m.: Alarm goes off. I immediately check emails and catch up on social media.

7:00 a.m.: Time to workout in order to clear my head before the day gets started.

8:00 a.m.: I shower and get ready for the day, chug a few cups of coffee and catch up on emails, news etc. I’m usually in the office between 9:00 and 10:00 a.m., depending on the day.

10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.: If it’s a photo shoot day, we typically start in the morning. We shoot new arrivals, themed shoots and videos. If it isn’t a photo shoot day, then this time is usually reserved for meetings or catch-up on emails and business work.

12:00 to 1:00 p.m.: I meet with Teri, our creative director, to go over things coming up, showroom maintenance, social media strategy, etc. If I’m lucky, I’ll have a few minutes to eat lunch at my desk.

1:00 to 5:00 p.m.: We use this time to ship to clients who have placed online orders or meet with clients in the showroom. Sometimes I am out of the office during this time meeting with designers and picking up new inventory.

The evening hours vary depending on whether we are doing an event or not. If we aren’t, I usually stay at the office until about 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. meeting with clients. But if we do have an event, we pack up dresses and jewelry around 4:30 p.m. and head out to show dresses.

Then it’s time to go home, eat some dinner and wind down. I try and get in bed by 11:00 p.m., and then I’m glued to my iPad reading business or fashion blogs, books and checking our social media. I am Instagram-obsessed!

The advice “find what you’re passionate about” is given often to young women exploring careers. Easier said then done. What advice would you give to women trying to figure out what they’re passionate about?

I think the most important way to find your passion is to try new things! It is just as important to decide what you don’t like as it is to decide what you do like. Take classes, pick up new hobbies, read anything you can get your hands on and talk to people. Think you are interested in a certain industry?  Meet with an expert in the field, read about it and learn as much as you can.

Arm yourself with knowledge and be honest with yourself. Don’t go for a career because it’s what you think you should do or because others expect it. Listen to your gut and get out there. Start interning and working as soon as you can. There are so many ways to incorporate your passion into your work. And my most important piece of advice—don’t stop until you find it. Life is too short to do anything other than what you love. 

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned since starting your own business?

Too many to count! I learn new lessons every day. However, I would say trust your gut. Whenever I have gone against mine for business decisions, things have not gone well.

At the end of the day, if you are the one that knows the ins and outs of the business, your gut is often right. Yes, you should listen to other people, but I think it’s important to stay true to yourself and what your company stands for.

If you could pin your success down to one thing or one moment, what would that be?

Moving into our new space and seeing clients reactions when they see it! Our new showroom was a big step for us. The space really exudes our brand image and I am very proud when clients see how far we have come!

In what ways do you want to see The Stylist LA grow?

I’m going to have to keep some of this a secret but I will say this—I want The Stylist LA to reach a wider range of women and continue to make girls feel great in the perfect dress. I hope that we can expand our services and our reach through web and brick and mortar showrooms. The last year has been a whirlwind, and I can’t wait to see where we are a year from now. I am positive we have many exciting things to come.

Career Contessa Interview, Emily McDonald, The Stylist LA