Working “for exposure”

Every professional artist I know, defined as people who bring in most of their income from their good, whether that’s dress-making, makeup, or painting, has been asked to work “for exposure.”  I’m frequently asked to make things for sorority girls to wear to parties, payment being exposure, and their friends will see and want my stuff.  I’ve been asked to make things for magazine concept shoots, payment being exposure, where credit is alway in tiny, faint print in the very middle, where it’s obvious we aren’t actually supposed to see it.  I’ve been asked to make things for kids’ birthdays, payment being exposure, because “Little Darling’s friends will want it and beg their parents for it” (these parties aren’t in the same group as parties for children who aren’t going to see their next birthday–I  absolutely will do what I can for terminally ill children).  I’ve been asked can I pretty please make this elaborate costume for a Halloween party, payment being exposure, since everyone will see it?  The bonus kick there was the time I was asked if I could make something that could be tossed in the washer in case someone got too drunk and threw up on it.  Um…I won’t share the thoughts I had.

Exposure doesn’t pay the costs of fabrics, and in fact, it’s one of the worst insults an artist can receive.  It’s not an honor to be asked to work for free, especially when that free also includes expecting us to foot the bills.  It’s worse than…

That’s a popular meme in the sewing world, but it’s a step up from being asked to work for exposure.  See, when artists are asked to make things for exposure, we are told that what we make isn’t even worth the cost of the supplies.

Now, like my post about the cost of fabrics and having to weed out which suppliers lie, something very public spurred me to write about this touchy topic.  Donald Trump’s ex-wife and still-friend, Marla Maples, is trying to get cosmetology services for herself and their daughter, Tiffany, for free, “for exposure.”  Now this is par for the course for Trump himself, with his record of not paying bills and stiffing those he owed.  But what makes Marla and Tiffany’s brazen attempt at “paying” in “exposure” is that they aren’t even pretending to be interested in paying.  They aren’t ordering something under the guise of payment, then not following through.  They’re doing what so many others do and are openly saying that services aren’t worth anything.   Expecting services or good for free is entitlement of the highest order.  Stylist Tricia Kelly received a veiled threat to her business for refusing.

This is one dark side of being in any artistic field.  If artistic people give in, our reputation as someone who doesn’t value our work enough to charge spreads, and if we don’t, we are sometimes told that others will hear about how mean and selfish we are.  For the sake of professionalism, we are expected to stay quiet about it.  After all, divulging information about personal conversations is a major no-no in any industry.  Confidentiality in conversations is taken as a given.

At least Veruca Salt expected someone to pay. When Veruca Salt is a step up, you’re doing something wrong.

I’m not sure why people see wealthy people are worthy of being paid.  No one would think of asking a celebrity to appear at an event or give a performance for free, on their own dime, “for the exposure.”  So why do so many people think that we small-timers should expect to do things for free?  We are the ones less likely to have the funds to buy supplies like that.  No, it doesn’t work to say that we have the free time, so may as well get exposure.

For one, we aren’t sitting around staring at the wall wishing to be making things for free.  We have family and friends we spend time with, maybe some good books, or we’re using that time honing our skills.  Working, whether for pay or for free, takes away from those things.

Second, unless someone is a personal friend, that person doesn’t know how much time we have available.  I personally usually have a little time to be online during the day because I’m often up until 6am working.  So being able to reach me at 4pm doesn’t mean I’m doing nothing.  Chance are you caught me taking a brief break from homeschooling my daughter, doing some house cleaning, or maybe I’m actually standing in line at the grocery store or am behind the wheel at a red light.  Right now, I’m eating a very late lunch while typing, and then I need to go get my sewing room in order to continue working.

And third, saying we may as well work for exposure than sit there twiddling our thumbs completely glosses over how we’re being asked not only to work for free, but to dig into our pockets to buy what’s needed to do what you want.

Sometimes we’ll work for the cost of supplies if the proposed item is something we really want to add to our portfolios, or if it involves skills we’d like to get to work at on someone else’s dime (i.e. someone else paying for the supplies for us to hone new skills), but this needs to be our offer to make.  We’re the ones who know what will bolster our portfolios, or what we’d like to work on doing better.

Now I know there’s this idea that something costing a lot of money means we’re…

The reality is that a lot of what’s charged goes to supplies.  People in some artistic fields do tend to make decent livings pretty easily.  The seamstresses I know who make the most make a lot of costume-quality things because they need to turn things out fast enough to make $200 for a dress worth their time.  A lot of seamstresses have other sources of income or a spouse who covers most of the household bills (like me).  Cosmetology does tend to be one of the more reliable fields, but that doesn’t mean it’s right to ask for them, or any of us, to give and do things “for exposure.”  There are still supplies to be bought, taxes to be paid, time away from our families and friends.

Asking us to work for exposure is like someone asking you to do whatever it is you do for work for, say, a positive Yelp review.  That’s exposure.  But is it going to pay your bills?  How likely is it going to bring in business you wouldn’t have otherwise had?  Let’s say there’s a chance you might get one new person paying you for business six months down the road since that review tipped the scales.  Is that going to be worth the free goods and services you provided?  Unless you are sincerely willing to work for 100% free, please, don’t ask artists of any kind to work “for exposure.”

We love what we do.  Every artistic person is in it first and foremost for the love of it, but we can’t keep doing what we do when payment is “exposure.”  We simply can’t, just as you can’t work for the “exposure” of Yelp reviews.

Aside from the insult and our pockets rarely being deep enough, we know that exposure is likely to be to others who also want things for free, and they now have a lead on someone who will give things away.  If you still decide to ask someone to make something “for the exposure,” don’t be surprised to receive a curt response, or no response.  We work hard at what we do, and that’s worth at least…

…at least that $50.

A word or 1,257 about pricing fabric

On occasion, I have people who decide to try to verify my pricing by doing layperson google searches for fabric.  I have long discouraged this not for any nefarious reason on my part, but because of how many websites, both small and large, misrepresent what they’re selling.  Something I spend a lot of time doing is checking various public and wholesale websites and ordering swatches to verify what they’re selling.  In 2016, I ordered eight lengths of fabric that were supposed to be silk that all ended up being polyester.   I had a feeling they might, but how amazing would it be to find embroidered silk velvet for $16/yd?  Unfortunately, it was indeed too good to be true.  But those false listings make my pricing appear artificially high.
Now there is a reason I am writing about this right now, the that reason is the currently-live Joann Fabrics listing for Simple Luxuries-100% Silk Yoryu Black & White Packed Dot Fabric (note September 16, 2017: Joann Fabrics finally removed the link.  It’s a good thing, then, that I had it archived.) It’s a lovely-looking black silk dotted fabric, also known as dotted swiss. Now silk dotted swiss isn’t a cheap fabric.  I got some on clearance for $45 per yard.  Ah, now it seems like I overpaid when that listing on one of the nation’s largest fabric store’s website says it’s $30.  Right?

No, I did not.  There are two things to keep in mind.

First, the quality of fabrics varies tremendously.  I’ve seen silk duchess satins what would make you weep for the sheer luxury of them, and I’ve seen some that would make you cry for feeling ripped off by the shameful quality.  I’ve seen sandwashed silk charmeuse that would make you want to get naked and rub that gloriousness all over your skin, and some that’s an insult to silk.  This affects price.  Sometimes the lower quality stuff has a use.  The Goblin Queen gown I’m working on is one such time when a lower quality silk is the better one to use.  The ultra-slubbiness of the silk dupioni is perfect for this, and it was still $24 per yard.  But more often than not, a better quality is desired, and that means a higher cost.

The second reason is this.  Look back at that listing.  Here, I’ll show it to you:

Ah, nice!  Yes, yes!  100% silk, just $30 a yard!  What a savings, especially when that’s the regular price and I paid $45 on sale!  But…BUT!  Let’s scroll on down.

Do you see what I see?  Look again.  Read it all.  Don’t be blinded by the sequins in your eyes (Chicago-reference FTW) on that bargain price of $30 for silk dotted fabric.  Brush it out and look closer.  Here:

Do you see it yet?

Bingo.  For a brief moment, I was excited to think I may have found a new source for silk dotted fabric, but it’s my job to look closer, and there, the catch.  That 100% silk is really 100% polyester.  Now you can see how that $45 I paid on sale per yard isn’t a rip-off.  I got silk.  $30 for that polyester. Joann’s, at least, bothered to mention it somewhere.  Many websites claiming to sell silk aren’t selling silk.  Some do sell real silk.  I don’t deny that at all.  Some absolutely are selling what they claim.  But many aren’t.  My job includes figuring out which is which.  When I give pricing, I give that pricing with the experience of someone who makes it my business to know what sites are honest, and which are lying in their titles and burying the truth further down the page, if they bother disclosing the truth at all.

Another issue with silk is all the art silk saris out of India.  Lovely things, all that art silk.  Perfect for artists!  It wouldn’t be art silk if it wasn’t intended for artists, right?  Too bad there should be a period.  It’s art. silk.  Suddenly it looks different.  Hm, what is it, if not artistic silks for artists?  Artificial.  It’s artificial silk.  It’s usually polyester.  Disappointingly, those $20-silk saris are usually polyester.  Silk saris, REAL silk saris, can easily cost $80-$150 or more.  Each.  Even the vintage ones.  There’s a large market around the world for real silk saris, even at $150.  For real, zardosi silk, that’s a bargain since more saris are about five yards.  $30 a yard for that silk.  That’s an incredible deal.

Since I want my clients to get what they pay for, I don’t play the plausible deniability game that I see go on on Etsy.  I’ve seen gowns made from Joann Fabric’s Silky Solid Silkessence (it even says “silk” in the title, twice!) being passed off as silk.  The sellers either don’t know the difference, of they’re going to claim that, well, the end of the bolt called it “silk essence” (it’s often written as two words on the bolt), so it MUST be silk.  Their low prices are quite often based on what they think is unbelievably cheap silk, when it’s really anything from polyester to rayon to acetate.  By comparison, my prices can seem high, but my prices aren’t artificially high.  My prices accurately reflect real, true, genuine silk.

To make sure you get what you order, I spend a lot of money throughout the year, that I do NOT work into my pricing for my clients, buying fabrics from suppliers around the entire world, on every continent but Antarctica, searching and buying and verifying, then, when I find good silk, checking again later to make sure the quality is consistent.  I call this fabric-hunting.  Fabric-shopping is when I place an order with a trusted supplier.  Sometimes the hunt turns up something great, and sometimes…

…sometimes that silk/cotton blend ends up being…

…polyester.  That is a burn-test to check the fiber content.  $16/yd for embroidered cotton/silk velvet was indeed too good to be true.  I know this because I’ve laid out the money to research.  Eight times in 2016 alone I got something other than silk.  This is part of my job, and I take it seriously to make sure that you are getting real silk, real wool, real cotton, and if you want a synthetic, the best of the synthetics.  I’ve got 18 years of experience doing this as a business.

So this is why I prefer my clients to not try to verify my fabric pricing.  There are too many fraudulent listings out there (again, Joann Fabrics, one of the largest fabric stores in the world, has one such listing live on their website as of this very moment, but then admits the truth further down than most people will read), and too much tricky language.  No one cringes at the price of fabric more than I do. I’m the one who has to break it to people that that dream gown will take $1500 in just fabrics when th budget is $1200.  I’m the one who risks people thinking I’m making it up.  Quite often, I personally eat some of the cost because I feel bad that good fabric costs so much, but I want to add that gown to my portfolio, or someone is so sweet that I really want to make it happen.  I often worry about who will think I’m making up fabric pricing, which more and more often has resulted in me making nothing for my labor by the time all is said and done.

Too bad the ones making things up are far more likely to be the fabric-sellers themselves, from small operations out of China to large stores in America.  Let the buyer beware, but let this buyer–me–be the one to take the risks.

An addition to this post:

Just to make some of you choke, here is what I paid for 100% mulberry silk velvet, at the only place I was able to find the right shade of green that wasn’t too olive, too emerald, or too bright.  I bought 15 yards.  $2,550 for just the velvet for the outside of a McGonagall robe.  Most silk velvets online are actually blends with as little as 10% silk, and many velvets claiming to be 100% silk have a 100% silk ground (the back), but a rayon pile, making their actual silk content closer to 30% total.  All I can figure for why that’s done so much, aside from charging more for the claim of 100% silk, is that they’re measuring the part that’s silk, so maybe that justifies calling it 100% silk to them?  This bottle-green passed the burn test for silk, and comes from a store I trust, one that has since drastically shrunk its silk section.  The pile is silk as well, and that price is actually a great price for mulberry silk.

To search this blog, please see the categories and search feature in the footer of any page or in the sidebar to the right.  This blog does not contain everything I’ve made.  More can be found at my Aria Couture Facebook page.  As time allows, I will move some things from my defunct website here, as well as move creations from my Facebook page here.  I encourage you to follow both this website as well as my page!


If you’re here for my Beauty and the Beast costume studies:

To my surprise, tens of thousands of people are, and to make it easier, I’m going to post those here.

Emma’s (“Belle’s) yellow gown from Beauty and the Beast: A Costume Study
Beast’s Ball Ensemble:  Costume Study
Provincial Belle: A Costume Study
Gaston: A Costume Study
Pre-movie costuming thoughts about Beauty and the Beast
Post-Beauty and the Beast costuming thoughts