How Solange Franklin Went From Pre-Med to Styling Magazine Covers

Ana Colón

Working in fashion wasn't something she'd ever considered. But looking back, she says she's been the most successful at "willing to align myself to get where I want to go."

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.

Before Solange Franklin was styling Tracee Ellis Ross for the cover of Porter, Solange Knowles for the cover of L'Officiel or a whole crew of talent for Teen Vogue's annual Young Hollywood portfolio, she was on a whole different track — a pre-med track, to be precise. 

As she tells it, growing up in the Midwest, the career paths she felt she could pursue felt a little more traditional: journalist, lawyer, doctor. (Hence, pre-med.) She loved fashion magazines — would consume them voraciously — but she didn't see herself in the pages. 

"I typically don't call out publications, but I would peruse my favorite magazine, read every single page, and religiously just take the entire beauty section and pluck it over — like, 'This doesn't apply to me,'" she says over the phone. "'I know I'm not going to be in here, so why would I even bother reading about the hair and skin products?' I could ignore the price tags on the dresses, but the beauty products didn't make sense to me."

In college, she created her own major while completing her pre-med requirements and working in labs. But outside of her coursework, she'd read the blogs that were starting to very slightly lift the curtain on the fashion industry and give outsiders a peek into how it operates and how the people who work in it got their start. And that's where Franklin saw an opportunity. 

It wasn't something she'd ever considered or even thought was possible, working in fashion. But looking back on her career, she says she's been the most successful at "willing to align myself to get where I want to go." 

"Once you know what you want, at least then you can break it down into what's achievable," Franklin explains. "Some of us just don't know what we want, but once we do, we start researching to figure out how to do it anyway."

First step was getting an internship. (She did, at Teen Vogue, and then at Essence after graduation.) Early on, styling caught Franklin's eye. "I think people don't understand how instrumental stylists are to making a picture happen," she says. "Of course, it varies per shoot, but you just don't think how they're influencing everything in some way, from set to nails to hair and makeup. It's much more than picking the clothes." 

From interning, Franklin began assisting, and then eventually struck out on her own. Now, she splits her time between editorial (which still makes up most of her work and she describes as her true love) and celebrity styling (with clients that have included Zazie Beetz and Kate Bosworth). Ahead, read about her professional journey, from how her undergraduate education shaped her worldview and how she fell into styling (and other gigs she took on to make ends meet) to working with paradigm-shifting women and creating imagery that represents and celebrates community.  

If you were to go through the highlight reel of your career, what are the moments that really stand out to you?

I went to a liberal arts school — no focus in fashion. I did not think that fashion was a viable career for me. I was an African American studies major. Initially, I was pre-med and a self-design major: race, gender and health relations. Once I took all my bio courses and fun things like that, I was like, "Actually I feel like I want to try to pursue fashion, in some manner." 

I was already very committed [to pre-med]. I'd done my internship and my summers in labs, but I felt that I had a strong enough trajectory to come back to a career in medicine if fashion didn't work out. I was like, "Okay, I can do a post-bac or something after, if I really want to. But I'd rather try now." It opened up my schedule to use the other side of my brain, like [take classes in] costume construction and delve more into African American literature. 

I feel like that liberal arts education honestly has given me a wonderful background for what I do in media and in fashion, putting women and people of color forward, which has always been at the center of my goal of who I want to serve, as somebody who was like, "Well, if I'm going to be in publishing, then this is absolutely something to look out for." 

Was there something that triggered that switch that made you think to try to pursue fashion professionally?

This was the advent of blogs. I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa — I'm a Midwest girl — and the industry there is insurance, or very straightforward careers like medicine. I was like, "Okay, I like to write, but I don't feel like I want to be a journalist." Much respect to all the writers. We did have publishing in Des Moines, but that seemed like a writing path rather than a fashion path. So it just wasn't something that I could see or imagine. 

My best friend and I would scour the Teen Vogue blog, and I was just like, "Oh, I want to be closer to this. How are they making these things? Who's behind this product that I love so much?" I do remember reading Eva Chen's profile — I don't know if she was the beauty director at the time, but she was definitely an editor — and she was talking about how she was pre-med at Johns Hopkins. I was like, "Okay, this type of woman can like make it in this career and be seen as formidable, effective and inspiring and also look just full of joy." I remember feeling like I wanted that, I could do that.

At what point did you land on styling, specifically, as a path that you wanted to pursue?

Oh man, baby Solange. So I was interning at Teen Vogue, actually, when I was still in college, and I remember being in this ecosystem and seeing how everybody does this dance together — the fashion director meets with the market director meets with the freelance stylist that comes in, then the beauty director... Just to see how a magazine comes together. It's not just about one single shoot: It's about a theme, it's about the writers, it's about everything.

But I remember seeing the stylist, and I would be helping them by funneling the merchandise and in rare instances get to help choose some of the looks for shoots. I was like, "I want to be close to this part of the job. I feel like this is the heartbeat of the creativity of the magazine, where your hands get dirty in the best of ways, for creating the images that go into the hands of little girls in the country" — which is who I imagined working for: my younger self, especially for me as a girl of color and in predominantly white spaces and at a time when magazines were not focused on centering us in any kind of major way. 

Teen Vogue was famous for having way more racks than American Vogue. You just had your hands in dreamy, frosty fashion and poppy stuff because [the reader is] 14 and they're more experimental. You're not as worried about, "Can I wear this to the office?" But I thought that I wanted to be a market editor because I didn't feel like I had all the sewing skills or something to be a certain type of stylist.

I felt like [styling] was something that I admired but couldn't do. I could be of assistance. I just wanted to be within proximity. [I was] watching and absorbing, I just didn't feel worthy of it. But I positioned myself to be of use.

What was your first fashion job?

I was a paid intern at Essence when I graduated, which was essentially a freelance assistant position. Everybody was just astounded that I'd gotten a job in the great recession. It didn't matter if it was an internship — you were getting paid to work in fashion. I was over the moon. I'd dreamt of working at Essence. I knew that I had the internship well before graduation, so I could actually breathe and enjoy myself, which was super rare, and I knew it was on a path I wanted to go, so I feel very grateful for that. 

But in terms of the financial side of it, just negotiating and being socialized — Time, Inc. [Essence's parent company] had a very clear outline of what their internship program entailed, inclusive of payment. I don't feel there was room to negotiate there. I compromised on post-graduate title at Essence, but I knew and believed this to be acceptable for the financial climate and my experience at the time. Teen Vogue was my first salaried position, and HR told me the salary was non-negotiable. I believed her and it didn't occur to me that that could be the starting point to a negotiation. (I learned this later from male colleagues.) These experiences, graduating during the great recession; being a woman of color who was told I should be grateful for not only being employed, but vying for competitive publishing positions; and the general socialization of women to accept what's presented to them in corporate settings, led me to undervalue myself monetarily. I've had to deprogram a lot to fight for what I feel is right and it has not been easy in an industry that does not compensate junior level associates well, if at all. 

How did you go about, then, getting the skills you felt you needed to become a stylist?

When I was at Essence, print was queen. And so I was like, "I want to be a market editor. I want to be in the mastheads. I want to be a full-time employee." I felt like I had the taste level and the logistical capability — because that's what people don't realize: how organized you have to be to produce these shoots. I felt like I had the strength and the overall wherewithal to be a great market editor. 

Coinciding with the recession, we saw the jobs dissipate and magazines fold. I was like, "What else do I do?" I felt positioned to be the market editor. Then I was like, "Is this a dream that's still realistic?" [Styling] wasn't even necessarily my first choice. I felt like I meandered into it. 

I started freelancing. I felt like, "Okay, I need to stay close to magazines, but in the meantime I know how to be on set. I know how to be of assistance." I didn't realize that that was such a transferable skill, being a market assistant to being a stylist. I felt like I was actually forced to do this just to survive in New York. I was a casting assistant. What else did I do? Talk about #10YearChallenge: I was going door to door working with the census 10 years ago. 

More specific to styling, freelance is about word of mouth. This set me up for my career as an independent contractor, inadvertently. It wasn't something I was pursuing for freedom — I was like, "I feel like I'm a good bee in the hive. I don't need to be the queen bee, doing their own thing." I do remember at Essence, the managing editor saying, "You never know who's watching you." It's the advice you get from a career site hat you just think seems trite advice, right? But somebody from some random department could just be like, "I've watched this girl." And this would happen to me. Like, the tailor on set passed my resume to this stylist, and therefore I got to go on this campaign. I definitely feel like the freelance path elucidated the power of people seeing you no matter where you are, especially when you stand out for being different and then also for being a hard worker.

In terms of concrete steps, I'd say it was truly just scouring the internet for anybody's anecdote — Ed2010 was a thing — and talking to people. I kind of collected mentors without saying, "You're my mentor." It was more that I showed up to them and made myself indispensable; in exchange, I'm observing what this person is doing that I respect. And then I think, in turn, people take you under their wing in whatever capacity they can offer. 

The assistant gig that you're probably most well known for is your work with Giovanna Battaglia. How did you get that job? 

I got that job from my days at Teen Vogue. Giovanna's first assistant at the time knew me from then, so when my name came across her desk as somebody to work as a second assistant, she was like, "Oh, I know Solange. She can handle this 100%." I had been recommended by Melaney Oldenhof, who's an amazing stylist that I had been freelancing [for]. This is where the word of mouth and the tiny village of networks overlap, which is incredibly exciting and comforting, in many ways. It was also terrifying, because I think we've all failed in some regard, and I was like, "Oh, so if I mess this up, everyone will know." That kind of fear would drive you, I think, to excellence. It's also, of course, a bit unfair for some people. But anyway, I got that job by word of mouth. 

I started off as a freelance second assistant for her. Giovanna's first assistant, Michaela Dosamantes, eventually left to go assist Carine Roitfeld, and basically positioned me to take over her job. I think in many ways I was groomed to do so, but in others... Whenever you take that next step, you don't know what that other person was doing until you're in their shoes. I became Giovanna's first assistant because Michaela said that I should be, and I think Giovanna was like, "Okay, I like her," but it's such an intimate relationship, stylists and their assistants. You really have to speak a language without speaking. And that took a lot of time to develop, but I think it does, for any stylist relationship. 

A highlight from that, really, was just exposure. This was the bridge between, "We'll pay to send crews to the middle of Russia to get the shot," versus, "We need to do five shoots in one day in studio because we don't have the budget" — straddling old-world glamour, in many ways, and the new wave of, "We've got to make this work on $10." 

[It taught me] a 360 degree thoroughness. As a first assistant, you learn how to run the business of styling in many regards. Now, there's a dearth of information to understand how to operate as your own entity, especially if you don't have financial backing from somewhere else — and this is compounded with financial strains within the entire industry. But in terms of how I operate, I think it's seeing the amount of time and preparation that goes into a shoot, from mood-boarding to the true artistry of collaboration, and seeing that magic come together in the different ways. I think I've learned to give people the space to be creative, and that you're in the room for a reason. Why stifle that for your creative collaborators? 

One thing that I did learn from Giovanna that I love is that it shouldn't make sense. It shouldn't be what's so easy to digest, because if it's exactly the dress that you would walk out onto the street in, then what are you pushing? I think it's one thing to be a documentarian. It's another to be a dreamer, or someone who's pushing some type of vision. I feel like I've internalized that in terms of [asking]: Are you replicating something that already exists or are you creating dynamic here and how? And I appreciate that.

Tell me about the transition of going out on your own as a stylist. What made you feel ready?

First of all, it's so bizarre with styling. It's like, you're an intern, then you're an assistant, then you're a stylist. There's no true junior or senior stylist assistant role in the independent contractor world — maybe within a structured company, yes. But there are, of course, levels to what the assistants can do: It could just be that you're on set steaming; you could have chosen the model and the makeup and put together an entire mood board. It's just a vast difference in what you can achieve. 

I think people have different ideas of what it means to be ready to do something on your own. I'm definitely more of an observer. I'd rather gather all the information that I possibly can before I make a move, which can honestly work to your detriment. I don't know if I just lacked confidence, but I felt like there are so many different ways that we can do this, I wanted to see how the best do it to then know who I'm going to be. I really admire the people that have a strident vision of, "This is exactly my aesthetic, this is exactly what I want to do." That's just never been who I am. I think if I forced myself to be that, I would not be in this job now, because I wouldn't have said yes to so many meandering opportunities.

I felt like I had the confidence to finally leave after people were like, "Listen, you could miss your exit. You don't want to stay too long." I had famous photographers be like, "Never leave. It will never be the same." It's like living between this fear of missing out and the fear of starting too soon and not being enough. But I was being offered jobs while also assisting. So I was like, "Listen, I've been offered not just editorials, but paid jobs. If only I had the time to say yes to everything, I could develop the base to survive."

I was really grateful that I had visibility as Giovanna's assistant. For instance, I was doing a lot of styling for Paper [as editor-at-large] — that was confidence-inspiring, to be like, "I'm valued within this elite structure that I'm working in, with Gio and her world, and then I can explore my own voice in Paper." I both had a steady income and was able to accept the title and opportunity to be my own entity. 

I've maintained a lot of the same clients. Now that said, even with all the people that I interviewed and spoke to, some things just did not occur to me [about going on my own]. Like, I didn't understand that you might have three clients, but you really need six clients to survive because three may not be available for shooting, or they want to work with another stylist. It's incredibly hard to understand how to financially plan for this lifestyle because, especially at that time [when I started on my own], even the 30-day payment periods didn't exist for freelancers. So you're like, "Okay. They said they're going to pay me by August 1st, I should be able to pay my rent by September 1st, but [the check's not coming. What do I do?" How do you safeguard against that other than just writing to 100 million people and saying, "I want to work, I want to work." It's just so not standardized in the industry. So many professional safeguards don't exist. 

What have been projects that you've worked out since you've gone out on your own that stand out to you?

Being able to work with somebody like Serena Williams, because that's part of our job, and they're not coming to be idolized — they're brought in as a collaborator. That's what I appreciate about jobs: I love watching that communication between artists and the team, like how much these revered people respect magazine folks and like what we do. It's validating, in so many ways. 

I remember working with her on a GQ shoot and then she asked me to do a Gatorade commercial with her. I was like, "Wow, Serena Williams has asked me to fly across the country to work on her specific commercial. She could have had anybody in the world." So it's moments like that where you're like, "The little girl from Iowa needs to pinch herself." It's not something where I've been chomping at the bit to get to Hollywood, but I highly revere these women that embody defiance. 

That's how I made the transition to doing VIPs — through meeting them through editorial, which is my true love and what I've been trained in. VIP dressing is based on the subject that I pursue or that I find intriguing to collaborate with, like Zazie Beetz. They want to feel like the best version of themselves and to incorporate their vision and their identity into how they're presented to the world. It doesn't work to say, "I've made a mood board. You're trying to veer from the mood board. What's going on?" That's been an interesting, very cool negotiation. I've really enjoyed meeting these women, like Kerry Washington for a Marie Claire cover and then dressing her. It establishes a relationship where I think they see what you can do and how you can create. 

Getting to do the Met Gala [with Kate Bosworth] was incredible — working with Oscar de la Renta team, getting to see the sketches that designers make for custom looks. You can go back and forth talking about fabric choices and silhouettes, and just think: These are the people that we revere the most in the industry, the designers. To have that direct portal feels like a different level of artistry. 

How do you want people to know and recognize your styling work?

Honestly it all comes back to what I said from my little baby pre-med days: I work to serve women, people of color and underrepresented communities. My medium or my tools might change, but I hope that that shines through in my work. 

I feel like there's just a sense of vibrancy and joy that I equate to freedom, with the power to dream and the desire to be unrestricted in many ways. That's so powerful because it unleashes your ability to succeed in how you see yourself, which then allows you the agency to do whatever you want. It doesn't have to be restricted to glamour. 

I guess how I want people to see my work is empowering, and worthy of a collective shift. Aesthetically speaking, just vibrant — that doesn't have to be just with color or silhouette, it's about the framing of the subject and letting that person lead. I really hope that comes through, through the alchemy that we all achieve together. That's what makes me really happy and excited and shiver with pride, looking at what you've created with people.

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