THE STYLE SERIES: How a fashion school dropout broke into the industry with a Teen Vogue internship, made her way up Vogue's corporate ladder, and eventually struck out on her own — including a gig styling Solange's visual album

THE STYLE SERIES: How a fashion school dropout broke into the industry with a Teen Vogue internship, made her way up Vogue's corporate ladder, and eventually struck out on her own — including a gig styling Solange's visual album
  • Mecca James-Williams started her career in the fashion industry interning at Teen Vogue.
  • She worked her way up to become the first assistant to Italian fashion editor Giovanna Battaglia Engelbert.
  • After years as a marketing assistant and stylist, James-Williams is preparing to launch her own styling business.
  • In an interview with Business Insider, James-Williams talks about launching her career without a college degree and what scares her the most about striking out on her own.
  • This is part of Business Insider's "The Style Series," highlighting fashion entrepreneurs around the world.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Mecca James-Williams knows how to work for what she wants.

She made her way up Vogue's corporate ladder, becoming a marketing assistant and eventually a stylist working with some of the most important people in the fashion industry.

After dropping out of fashion school, James-Williams took the industry by storm, landing jobs at Vogue, Condé Nast International, and Opening Ceremony, before becoming the first assistant to Italian fashion editor Giovanna Battaglia Engelbert.

Now, after years of working for other people, James-Williams is launching her own company. One of her first big clients was Solange; James-Williams worked on styling the artist's latest visual album "When I Get Home." More recently, James-Williams styled a shoot for the Wall Street Journal. She's also involved in the newly launched Black in Fashion Council, which advocates for diversity and inclusion in the fashion industry.

In an interview with Business Insider, James-Williams talks about imposter syndrome, branding herself, and working her way up the corporate ladder.

"I am from Woodbridge, Virginia, so the DMV area."

I was born in California, raised between Virginia and New York. We moved around a little bit when I was younger. But Virginia is where I call home.

I did always know I had a huge passion for fashion. Growing up, I would always put together outfits, [from] thrift stores [and other places], figuring out a way to make it all come together. I've always had a unique sense of style and sense of purpose with fashion.

"I went to LIM College, but I dropped out. It was just too expensive."

I moved to New York when I was 17 — fresh out of high school. I studied fashion merchandising at LIM for a year, and then it was just something that neither my parents or I could afford. I had to make a decision, and my decision was to literally throw myself into the [fashion] industry and figure out a way to make it.

"When I first went into the industry, I thought I wanted to be a fashion writer."

But my very first internship was a styling internship with [stylist] Heather Mary Jackson. From there, I knew I wanted to do styling.

"I interned for the contributing editor, at the time, for Teen Vogue."

And when I tell you I did everything from buying her groceries, taking her son to school, steaming clothing, going to different companies to pick up the clothes … It was a very hands-on [job] — a little gruesome sometimes. But [it gave me] the experience of what the fashion industry was like from the styling perspective. She also worked a little bit with Condé Nast International, so I started working with them.  

Then, I joined Opening Ceremony as their fashion assistant. I was at Condé Nast International at the same time. I just pivoted from fashion assisting to styling and marketing, because that's something that I wanted to do.

"Back in the day, Condé Nast International had their own offices and they operated differently with each country in mind."

When I was working for Vogue Paris, France had a whole different attitude and a whole different feel from Vogue Italia. And Vogue Japan had a whole different feel and look from Vogue China. That was a very beautiful opportunity to learn different tools and have experiences with different publications in different countries.

"I've been a market assistant for most of my career."

Fashion market assistant is a huge role. There were times where I was assisting Vogue Paris Editor-in-Chief Emmanuelle Alt. So I would be on set calling in all the merchandise.

At Opening Ceremony, I started as a fashion assistant before I became a stylist there. And my job was to know what clothing was in the store for us to style for their eCommerce sites. I then moved on to work for [Italian fashion editor] Giovanna Battaglia Engelbert, and I was her first assistant.

"Giovanna was a phenomenal boss."

She was fun to be around. I remember us running through the airport, eating Shake Shack, but then also being in Mexico with a client, ensuring that we got everything we needed, sewing things, making sure the clothing was ready and right. She taught me how to have fun in a very fickle industry.

"I want to create a name for myself."

When it comes to the strategy of creating your styling business — to say that I am Mecca James-Williams, Style by MJW — you have to walk out on faith and take a leap. I definitely took a leap. You're only as good as your marketing strategy is. Knowing the brands, what they're carrying, and knowing how to get it… If you do not know that, and if you don't have a Rolodex of contacts or relationships, you need to start at square one. 

"I recently did a job, and it didn't go so well. It was with a celebrity and it didn't go the way I wanted."

The synergy just didn't work out. And you know, that happens: Everything isn't a perfect, beautiful creation. Everything doesn't always mesh well.  That made me realize I am a commodity just as anybody else is. The craft that I can bring to the table is mine. And if it works, it works. And if it doesn't, you just move on.

"Social media has given me an opportunity to bring my ideas to the world without any influence from outside sources."

I grow the people who follow me [on social media] very organically. I keep it very personal there. You're going to see me dancing in my apartment. You're going to see the editorials that I'm working on. I keep it very fresh. I do have some branded content, but not too much. You still get to really understand who I am, as a stylist, who I am as a creative, and what I bring to the table. 

"I learned how to take a step back when I need to step back." 

I typically prioritize an hour for myself. That could be meditation. It could be going to sleep on my couch mindlessly, not thinking too much about work.

"The coronavirus has been a pause and a moment of re-alignment and redirection for me and my business."

Professionally, there have been several changes. I am now 100% freelance, and working on projects that are social-driven for the moment.

It's been a great moment of reflection, and an opportunity to re-configure the ways in which I want to create and the why. While it's hard in many ways, I've appreciated the slow moments as well. Some next steps are more collaborations with brands, creating social and online content from my home for my home decor platform and my brand.

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