In this “How I Made It in Fashion” series, BuzzFeed Fashion pulls back the curtain on some of the industry’s most influential and successful members. Here, creative agency owner Jae Choi talks collaborating with Lady Gaga; “giving birth” to her newest venture, creative agency theCollectiveShift; and why she feels the fashion industry embraces diversity more it’s given credit for.
The job of a photographer’s agent depends on the agent and the photographer. I’m used to working very closely with the artists. I’ve been working with Inez [van Lamsweerde] & Vinoodh [Matadin] for 17 years. We’re a team; we collaborate. They have visions, and it’s my job to make those visions come true. I am the behind-the-scenes liaison between the client and the artist. Because when you’re working in a commercial platform where the clients are putting in [a lot of] dollars for, say, an advertising campaign, there has to be a marriage of the minds. I think you need to be on the same wavelength as your artists. It’s almost like downloading what’s in their brain into mine; [for me] it’s difficult to do my job without it. But it depends how you work with your artists. We’re very involved in the whole process; some agents are more about brokering the deals, then they step out.
I think [the collaboration between Inez & Vinoodh and Lady Gaga] works really beautifully. We don’t look at the project in the traditional sense of, “Oh, I’m hiring you to shoot this,” and neither does Gaga and her team. We truly look at it as two artists coming together to collaborate. And when you have that kind of openness and generosity, it just flows. It’s about the two sides working together, instead of going back and forth saying, “Well, I want this and you want that.” Everybody pitches in for the good of the project. Gaga gives generously, Inez & Vinoodh gives generously — you’ll see that in the pictures, the videos, and everything they do together. It’s about mutual respect, and understanding.
I don’t remember a singular moment, but certainly from a young age I was interested in fashion. I even studied it in high school — I went to the High School of Fashion Industries in New York. That was a period when I collected every single fashion magazine, and bought Interview magazine religiously [in particular]. Many people find themselves through fashion; sometimes they can [only] express themselves through the way they dress. In society, you are judged by your appearance first, so there’s a “transformative magic” that happens with clothing.
My very first job in the industry was working in office management for an advertising agency [then called] Arnell/Bickford and Associates. It was in its heyday — we were based at 100 Grand Street, which is now Le Pain Quotidien. [We] were doing accounts for Ray-Ban and DKNY. [The agency worked on] that DKNY mural on the side of the building at the southeast corner of Houston Street. It’s no longer there, but for a long while it was one of the most recognizable things in this area.
I left after a few years to freelance for a while — I wanted a job where you could come home and didn’t have to think about anything else. So I waited tables, floated around, traveled a bit, and then decided, OK, I need to get back into a real career. At that time [some of my old Arnell/Bickford colleagues] were at the production agency Art + Commerce. There was an agent looking for an assistant, and they asked if I would be interested. I said absolutely, and I got the job.
I worked with Becky, the agent there, for four to five years — assisting her with all of her artists, including Inez & Vinoodh. And [eventually] it came to a point where I felt I needed to have independent relationships with artists. Art + Commerce supported me in moving forward to the next level, establishing myself as an agent, starting to build up [my own] roster of talents. Inez & Vinoodh made the decision to work with me. There was a level of comfort and understanding; they felt that they had a connection with me that they wanted to continue with.
I’m still giving birth [to my agency theCollectiveShift]. Art + Commerce was such an inspirational, and aspirational, place to work. It was the place to be, so in order for me to take that next step, well — there was no next step. I was there! It was that time in your life where you’re at a crossroads and you say, “OK, I want to go to the next level, what does that mean?” The only natural progression was to go out on my own. I had very specific ideas about my artists’ representation of artists — I really wanted to work with a group of artists that I felt encompassed the best [in their field], original in whatever discipline. I really wanted it to be about management on a more individual, independent, and collaborative level. So we only work with artists whom we really respect and admire. We don’t have a lot of people on the roster, but that’s the intention.
It’s not so much that we’re sitting around waiting for the phone to ring and you say, “Oh, [person] A is not available, what about [person] B?” It’s not about calendar juggling. It’s really working with the artists and saying, “Where do you want to be? Where do you want to take this?” It’s about creating a goal and plan together. It has to be together; when I say we really get involved, we do. There’s a lot of stress and unpleasantness that may come with the job, [but] working with such talented people is inspiring. Inez & Vinoodh are definitely perfectionists, as am I. They make me want to do better. Their vision, their tireless striving to do something great, makes me want to do more.
I feel that’s the same for all our artists. For example, take [the photographer/director] Clang. He’s not the kind of artist that’s in the business for any reason other than just the pure enjoyment of creating new work and developing that. Everyone that we work with is, and that’s why we work with them. At the end of day, our product is our people, our creatives. And when you believe in your product, your job is so much easier — because you’re selling what you believe in.
Instincts are very important — being able to read people in situations. In some ways, it’s a little like playing chess. You plan every situation. You know that one move is going to lead to X, Y, and Z. You’re anticipating things coming up. But there’s always the wild card, so you have to be someone who is very flexible; you have to thrive on excitement, deadlines, and chaos. And you need to have love for the art [being produced], but not necessarily be feeling that you’re the creator. You can be the appreciator.
I think it’s hard to quantify [what is] a crazy demand. I’m sure there are a lot of things that people outside of our industry, if they heard stories, sure, they would deem it as crazy. But for us, it’s normal — I’ve heard it all. It’s to get the job done, and it always comes with a reason. It’s not superfluous. I can say, we’re casting a lamb [for a photo shoot], or, you know, I’m dumbing it down, but it can also be a pink elephant. This isn’t crazy, though, as the creative requires that pink elephant. Maybe the craziest demand is some sort of expectation of having some kind of normal life.
If you compare [fashion] with other businesses, I think there’s probably less of a division between men and women, or between people [of different ethnicities]. At theCollectiveShift there’s no physical “thing” required of you, just your creative talent. In that way, I think it’s more open to different mind types — we work in an industry that’s accepting of homosexuality and different cultural backgrounds. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that [held back] me in terms of being, I guess as some people may call it, a minority. I’ve never thought of it as, “Oh, I’m a woman, I have a disadvantage. I’m Korean, I have a disadvantage.” You can choose to either buy into that or just say, “I don’t like that and I’m not going to condone that.” I consider myself quite lucky, actually.
You need to have a keen sense of business. The industry as a whole has become much more of a business and much more competitive. When I first started, there weren’t nearly as many photographers, stylists, and hair and makeup artists out there. And the technological aspects have changed — how we communicate, how we see, how our artists’ work is disseminated. There’s more of a demand, and everything moves quicker. You have to know what’s right and what’s wrong, and what’s a smart [decision]. Do the research. At this day and age, everything is at your fingertips. If you know who’s the kind of person that inspires you, find out who represents them, and try to reach out to get an internship. Understand where you want to be. It’s about engrossing yourself in the business. There are no rules — it’s not like in order to do this, you have to do something else. Some of the most successful agents now have come out of internships. And I remember them.
—As told to James Lim