Representing the creative future

Alice Bouleau knows how to land a design job (she’s the one recruiting for them)

The Sterling International hiring consultant talked to us about matchmaking, salaries, and fashion’s obsession with age

You know that friend who is always trying to set you up with another friend – being an uninvited matchmaker and finding never-ending joy in bringing people together? Well, being a recruiter is a little bit like that, except you know a hell of a lot more about design studios, company hierarchies, and creative psychology. The core, however, is the same: passion. Or at least it is according to Alice Bouleau, head of the creative pole at Sterling International, an executive search firm with offices in Paris, Milan, Brussels, and New York. The French native and former design assistant at Proenza Schouler comes brimming with it: a deep respect for the fashion industry and an innate desire to connect with those who work in it.

That passion was evident from the moment the consultant started talking about the graduate collections of the students at HEAD in Geneva, where she first met our editor-in-chief Olya – who instantly realized the unique perspective recruiters have on our industry. Forever in the shadows (not a place everyone is happy to work from, Alice reminded us), they are usually the first to hear about in-house politics and a change of the guards. They have an in-depth understanding of company structures and detailed insights into the most taboo of all topics: salaries.

The train back from Switzerland barely arrived in Paris and Alice received our interview request. We couldn’t wait to ask her all the crucial questions like “Why are creative directors getting increasingly younger?” and “How can they be paid such an astronomical amount while their interns work for free?”

I’m very interested in your personal career journey because you told me you started working in design at Proenza Schouler. It’s very rare to have a recruiter with a design background. How did that transition happen and how does that help you on the job today?

Our Founder at Sterling wants everyone who works for him to have an “operational” background. It’s atypical on the market, but none of us were recruiters before starting here! For me, it was a very unusual path. I always knew I wanted to have a creative function, I even worked as a journalist at some point. I studied design and started as a freelance design and development assistant at Proenza Schouler. At one point, I had to move back to Paris. There, I worked for Proenza Schouler for 2 more years remotely, then met with a recruiter, aka an executive search consultant if you want to use the official title. That was Michael Boroian, the founder and president of Sterling International… and after our first meeting, he asked me whether I would consider a job in creative recruitment as he felt I was a “natural”. Which felt insane! But that’s where I’m at now.

“You have to be able to work knowing that it will never be about you.” – Alice Bouleau

To be a good executive search consultant, you need a few things – a deep knowledge of the industry, because you need to have credibility towards your audience. You need to understand brand aesthetics and universes, otherwise, there’ll be a disconnect. Another key element is discretion. You have to be able to work knowing that it will never be about you. It’s about the brand and the talent. We’re here to make the marriage happen, and you need to have that drive to find the perfect fit, you need to be excited about the perfect match. Either you have it or you don’t, the love for connecting people, it’s all about passion at the end of the day. You need to be able to look beyond the CV and LinkedIn, to truly analyze the hard and soft skills. That is not something you learn in school. That is why I understand Michael doesn’t look into those traditional backgrounds.

Recruitment is a dream job for a lot of fashion students because you work with so many creative people. In your case, a chance meeting helped you into this career. Is there a more straightforward path?

You would usually start as a research assistant, which relies on supporting the team from an administrative point of view. Then as a next step, a researcher role which focuses on scouting and identification. From there, you slowly move into consulting where you interview talent and make suggestions on who to put forward. For a lot of people who are interested in this career path, research assistant position would be the easiest way in.

What we need from a researcher, is someone who knows the industry inside out and has outstanding organizational efficiency skills. Again, it’s someone who has this love and passion for this industry, but also someone who realizes it’s not about them. They need to realize that from this way onwards, they won’t be the center of attention. In this job, you always remain an advisor to the talent, but at Sterling we never say “I’m the one who placed so-and-so in this house.” When you think about it, the final decision is never made by us; we advise, but the final decision is made by the brand. In my team now, I have two girls who have a background in design and decided to join Sterling like I did. I’m aware that it can be a tough decision, it’s a sacrifice, knowing that you’ll not be designing again, but I do see our job as highly creative.

“We often tell clients, if you need to place a square within a square, just use LinkedIn, you’ll be faster.” – Alice Bouleau

What is your relationship to the young talent, not just prospective clients, but anyone you are in contact with? I can imagine a personal connection is important to your job. Does that make the job harder? It must be emotional at times, to have that influence on people’s careers.

We really build relationships as early as we can and in the long term. Opportunities are just that: opportunities. A missed job opportunity doesn’t mean our relationship stops there. When we launch a new creative search, most of the candidates are people we already know. It can happen that it’s people we’ve observed from afar but don’t have a close relationship with. Of course, it’s human to feel less connected to some people compared to others – but that is not why they would get the job. It’s about the fit of the candidate with the job, not the fit of the candidate with us. We always tell designers to see other recruiters, because we are not agents, each firm has their own clients and opportunities that could fit them, and as Michael always says “candidates do not belong to anyone”, therefore I don’t think they should give up on their dreams just because we get along with them.

For anyone who would consider this career path, it’s important to know that you always shortlist multiple candidates for a single position, so there is always disappointment from the side of the designer who does not get the job. That is something you need to learn to deal with, and yes it can take a heavy toll emotionally to have to give the bad news to several great talents. I must say as a highly sensitive person, I am still learning to grow tougher on this so it does not impact me too much…

Then again, at Sterling we do like to have a good time with our candidates and clients. This job is so time-consuming, we want to have fun while doing it.

“What matters is not finding the most talented person, but the person who is the best fit for that specific environment.” – Alice Bouleau

Could you walk us through the recruitment process?

The most important thing is that before we start even looking for someone, we spend time with the brand to make sure we really understand the job and the need. We often tell clients, if you need to place a square within a square, just use LinkedIn, you’ll be faster. Our approach is very different. We are here to advise on the job and the necessity of the recruitment itself, which means we ask questions like – what are you looking to accomplish with this recruitment? Perhaps the person for the job is already working internally. In that case, we will involve the current employees in the recruitment process and assessment, to assure they have an equal chance at getting the job.

So, we try to spend time with the client and visit the studio, so we can define the ideal candidate profile. We need to understand the company culture, we want to know why the previous person left their job. What matters is not finding the most talented person, but the person who is the best fit for that specific environment. In a way, it’s a jeweler’s job, someone can be the most beautiful stone, but they won’t work in the setting.

Once we have gathered that information, we start our search, for which we have specific tools. We send them to the client to make sure we are perfectly aligned and can get into “sniper mode”. Before we do identification, we usually already have two or three people in mind. Those are the benchmark candidates, the people who are a natural fit. We present them to our clients straight away.

“I try to assess from the conversation whether the person has the right level of diplomacy, emotional intelligence, patience, or team spirit. You can gather a lot from a single conversation.” – Alice Bouleau

Besides that, we do scouting, or what we call identification, for which we first use our internal database, which is only accessible to people within Sterling.

We obviously also use LinkedIn or even Instagram, and word of mouth. When we launch a search, we also do what we call “sourcing”: we will call people whom we know and trust. We’ll ask them for their advice on talents we should consider for a role, without mentioning the name of the brand. That way, you get new ideas and also a sort of pre-referencing on the candidate : you know that they matter, even before you do the interview. Once we have a list of people, someone in the research team will do the first pitch call. This first connection is simply to establish whether there is an interest from the side of the designer, and whether they fit the selection criteria for the role. After that, we set up an interview. I always try to be as transparent as possible, I am here to answer as many questions as I can for the candidates. I’m a facilitator, and an ambassador of the brand. I try to assess from the conversation whether the person has the right level of diplomacy, emotional intelligence, patience, or team spirit. You can gather a lot from a single conversation.

“If you’re annoying, no one will want to work with you no matter how talented you are.” – Alice Bouleau

The first interview with the client, is never a one-way interview. It’s also up to the designer to question whether the company is one they want to work for. 50% of the reason someone is successful, are their soft skills. If you don’t get along with the company culture and the team in place, it’s just not going to work. Also let’s just say – if you’re annoying, no one will want to work with you no matter how talented you are.

That is why we set up a first client meeting, to see if the chemistry is there. Bringing it back to the metaphor of marriage, this first meeting is like a first date. Sometimes, clients will say – this was a great profile but we missed the spark. That’s sad, but it happens, and it’s pretty natural.

“Brands don’t want someone to just repeat what has already been done. If you’re already completely aligned with the brand, how can you bring something new?” – Alice Bouleau

Oh yes, those chemistry meetings are really important.

That is why I always tell clients and candidates if you need a couple more dates before you can make a decision and “get engaged”, go for it!

It’s common for designers to make projects as part of their application. What is inside those files and presentations?

It’s important to mention that projects are only as good as the briefs. If the brief is not putting them in the right direction, it can set candidates up for failure. Carte blanche isn’t always the right way to proceed.

For young designers who are asked to do projects, it’s important to focus on what they will bring, rather than just giving a copy of what the brand already does. Brands don’t want someone to just repeat what has already been done. If you’re already completely aligned with the brand, how can you bring something new?

Then, it’s not just about what I call “lookbook portfolios”, images of perfect end products. I want to see the process. How did you go from the mood board to the final result? How many rough sketches did you do to get there?

“Some people were not able to stay in this industry because they didn’t want to work for someone younger.” – Alice Bouleau

The industry puts a lot of emphasis on young designers. Firstly, creative director positions are often given to people in their twenties. It doesn’t seem that recruitment agencies aren’t scared of inexperience, which you don’t see in any other industry. How do you recognise the talent when there has been so little time to actually produce work? Secondly, even the design teams appear very young, where are all the designers over the age of 40? Visiting studios, I’m always shocked at how young the teams are.

On the creative director side, brands are often looking for a fresh new face, the person that they will say they and only they recognized. I’m being a bit cynical here, but you can tell that sometimes the motivation of the brand is to promote the fact that they were the one who spotted the star in the making, before their big breakout. Of course, this is not what makes the success of a brand, even the consumers know that. At the end of the day, what makes the success of a brand is the vision and the support team in charge of getting its message across. There are so many brands, and so many products coming out all the time. How do you cut through the noise? You need to be seen by the right people. This move towards those fresh faces is about finding the person to address the right community. There are a lot of very strong designers who will create an incredible product, but they may lack the vision.

“In fashion, we tend to think that being young is fundamentally better. But age is overrated.” – Alice Bouleau

Your question about studios becoming younger really comes down to the fit between people. Some people were not able to stay in this industry because they didn’t want to work for someone younger. As long as the design team has that humility, it can work really well. A collection is a collective effort, so you need a good ecosystem to support the vision of the creative director and of the brand. When a company invests in the vision of a creative director, without creating the right “ecosystem” around them, their ideas will never be able to grow and become something.

And about the lack of experience – a lot of it has to do with the nature of fashion. Fashion is supposed to be the now and the next. It’s an expression of who we are and a snapshot of the current social, political, economic, and creative trends. What better way to speak about it than hiring someone who is in the now? I don’t necessarily agree that only 20-year-olds are in the now. In fashion, we tend to think that being young is fundamentally better. But age is overrated.

I agree! But when you start working in the industry, you can be forced to specialize. Very early on, you become head of denim, and you don’t see anything but denim for your entire career, so it can be tricky to keep having that overview of the entire industry.

When you’re in school, you see the industry from the outside. So when you start in this industry, you do have a fresh new eye on it, and as you grow you get more formatted. That is true in any job. We often hear executives say they prefer to go with someone who is less experienced, because they can still be trained, and are more malleable to fit their needs. In French we say, “Je préfère une tête bien faite, à une tête bien pleine,” meaning, “I would rather have a brain that is well built over a brain that is full”. It’s about preferring someone who is street-smart over someone who knows everything already. Creative directors want to train their own team, so they can really leave their mark through the support of like-minded creatives. Just look at the old team of Phoebe!

I’m currently hearing a lot of criticism about the focus on young talent. On one hand, there are great opportunities for young people. But then I also see young people burn out in six months, and their careers might be over. Who takes the responsibility there? Do you ever feel responsible when placing a young person in an extremely challenging job?

At Sterling, we have so far never placed a very young person in such a high-up position. That is not because we don’t consider them at all. We have spoken to younger designers and it just didn’t work out. For some of them, I even include them in the process knowing that they won’t make it to the end, just to train them for those discussions, so that they are ready when the time is right. But we always have so many discussions, for any job, because we wouldn’t want to sign with just anyone and have them fail because they couldn’t handle it. We would always make sure that candidates are aware of what they are getting into and that they get the right support from the company.

It’s not easy, you become a public figure from one day to the next. Doing interviews, being recognized in the street, having this many employees depend on you,… It’s a lot of responsibility, and I wouldn’t want to put anyone in a situation where they break under this type of pressure.

Also, let’s be real, another reason why companies prefer junior talent could be financial reasons. It’s never the biggest driver, but a younger designer will cost less than a seasoned star designer.

“This “millions of girls would kill for this job” concept is so outdated.” – Alice Bouleau

Oh absolutely! What are some positive changes you’ve seen in the industry since you started and what would you still like to see change in the future?

There are so many topics, but an important change I would like to see for design teams is related to management training. It might sound silly but look at the industry and the CV’s of those who are in management positions. They often started as interns, and then grew slowly to junior designers, senior designers, head designers, etc. At which point in their promotions did they get any training in management, interpersonal relations, or leadership skills? This industry promotes people based on their talent in designing a successful product. At which point does this include their capacity to guide people, hire staff, and create a healthy working environment?

“We are making fashion, we are not curing cancer, saving lives. Why are designers ending up in the hospital during fashion week?” – Alice Bouleau

There are so many toxic managers in this field creating greater damages than collections. We are making fashion, we are not curing cancer, saving lives. Why are designers ending up in the hospital during fashion week? It doesn’t make any sense. It takes time to change, and the best way to change it would be for companies to provide coaching and management training to their leaders. We hear so many stories of creative directors that break under pressure and create toxic environments, it’s easy to blame them – I often do – but what tools were they offered to find another healthier path? Then you get the survivor syndrome, talents that survived in this environment and reproduce the same toxic patterns because they think it is the only way to survive and make it in this industry.

“In fashion, we’re not promoting talent, most of the time we’re promoting privilege.” – Alice Bouleau

Every generation wants to change something. Today, to the next generation of designers, it’s very important to have a healthy work-life balance. Gen Z is not taking any of these “dream” job selling points because most of them choose above all a healthy working environment. And companies are starting to get that message, because we always give feedback to the client, and if they have multiple candidates refuse a position because they heard the working environment was unhealthy, these brands realise they need to make some changes. They have to adjust if they want to keep attracting top candidates because, as one of my team members would say, otherwise “beggars can’t be choosers” and they’ll have to deal with picking from a small pool of candidates. This “millions of girls would kill for this job” concept is so outdated.

Another issue I will never stop talking about are unpaid internships. If you need to intern for free for two years before you can enter this industry, then any conversation around inclusivity and diversity is empty. The barriers to being able to start as a designer are insane; first, let’s be real, you need to be brought up in a background with a family that will allow you to follow a creative education. Education is unaffordable. If this is supposed to be an industry based on talent, then we need to support kids with precarious backgrounds.

I’ve met interns who had been interns for four years without being paid in New York City. Obviously, if I apply for a job next to this kid, having interned for 6 months, I can’t compete. Who has a family that can support them for so long? In fashion, we’re not promoting talent, most of the time I feel that we’re promoting privilege. We need to help to change that, and that goes through the schools and the brands that invest in the schools.

This is interesting. I wonder whether students are so scared of the power and influence of big luxury brands, they are scared to stand up. They’ll complain about the tiny designers who cannot afford to pay anyone, but they’ll never complain about the houses under Kering or LVMH, because they believe that if they complain once, they’ll never work within the group.

When you go for a small independent designer, you should know what you’re getting into, but you should also realise what you’re getting out of it. When it’s a one-(wo)man show type of brand, there is so much to learn, you can have so much insight into how the business works. If you can afford it, you should definitely go for it. Most of the time the fact that internships in these small companies are unpaid is not out of them being selfish, it’s because they may not even be profitable businesses yet. My problem lies with big houses.

“It can always be your last job. It’s a very unforgiving industry. You need to be smart about the money because it won’t last forever.” – Alice Bouleau

Yeah, especially if the creative director is paid this astronomical figure. The difference in pay between the top and bottom can be huge while their age gap or the difference in experience is tiny. I always wonder where these figures come from and why they aren’t incentivized to share.

These figures can be astronomical. It can seem insane, but it’s just like soccer players – we know that many creative directors won’t stay on these salaries for very long. Besides the superstars, how many creative directors can have that type of position for more than two or three times in their careers? It can always be your last job. It’s a very unforgiving industry. You need to be smart about the money because it won’t be forever.

“I do observe extremely talented kids leaving school and being clueless about the job search and the reality of working in a studio.” – Alice Bouleau

What advice do you have for graduates heading into the industry? What should they concentrate on?

That is literally the theme of a five-hour workshop I give in schools – it will be difficult to answer this question within one interview! I don’t want to act like a mean girl towards fashion schools but I do observe extremely talented kids leaving school and being clueless about the job search and the reality of working in a studio. So if you read this please try to research the reality of this industry, to meet with some professionals, and most of all you need to know how to pitch and how to sell. There is a big disconnect between schools and the reality of the market. It’s not just about raw talent, it’s about how they can integrate as efficient players within a design team.

How important is the first brand you work for, in terms of a name on the CV?

We advise students not to be too focused on it. We always hear the same names of “usual suspects” top luxury brands that students want to work for but when you look at spectacular career paths, it’s people who had the instinct to go work for Jacquemus or Marine Serre five years ago, to follow JW when he arrived at Loewe, etc. It’s not because you did an internship at a huge house, that you’ll become yourself “huge”. You need to have something to show in your portfolio. If you work as Intern N°324 in a huge house, what are you going to bring to your profile, what skills are you going to add under your belt?