The following excerpt is from the introduction to Creative Careers: Making a Living with Your Ideas (New York: Hachette, 2020), written by Jeffrey Madoff, a professor of fashion at The New School. Here a young Madoff has an idea that grows into a lifelong career in which creativity and business acumen go hand in hand.
I graduated from the University of Wisconsin in, Madison with a double major in philosophy and psychology. I tried to get a job as a sage, but he wisdom factories weren’t hiring, so I got a job in a small clothing boutique. One day a friend of mine called and told me he had saved up some money and asked if I could think of a gig that could earn more than bank interest. I knew what sold, I could draw, so I said I’d start a clothing company. I knew nothing about design, nothing about getting clothes made. I thought fabric on the bolt was wholesale since it hadn’t been made into anything yet. I cut a shirt apart so I could see how it was constructed. I learned by asking questions, making mistakes and meeting people who were doing what I wanted to do. I also learned who to trust and who not to trust — sometimes too late.
I had to learn the process of how to turn an idea into an actual piece of wearable clothing, which could be manufactured at a reasonable price, sold to a retailer for a profit, delivered on time and ultimately sold to a consumer. I had to run the business and be creative, designing clothing people would want to buy.
My business grew very quickly. In less than two years I had two factories with over 100 employees in Wisconsin, sales reps across the country and an office in New York. In 1972 I was chosen one of the top ten young designers in the United States. There were only 8 of us at the time, so it wasn’t hard to be the top ten. This was the very start of the contemporary market in fashion.
Celebrities were photographed wearing my designs and were featured in national magazines. My clothing was sold in many of the best stores in the country, a fashion company based in Wisconsin was unheard of.
I was 22 years old. Unlike today, being a young person with a start-up was unusual. Wanting to express my creativity and make a living doing it was not something that was taught in school. I had no one I could talk to who could relate to the issues I was dealing with. I learned by observing, asking questions and having conversations with smart people who had grappled with the same issues I had. There were no courses in school that taught how to make a living with your ideas. I was not prepared for the challenges of being creative and running a business.
I regularly came to New York to buy fabrics and sell to stores. At first I found the City overwhelming. Too many people. Too much noise — but the more time I spent there, the more I wanted to be there. My backer, a banker, lawyer and a very good man, had financed my business because I created jobs for people in Wisconsin. He told me he would not continue to finance my company if I moved to New York. I had a small savings account. Survival money. If I moved I wouldn’t have a job, I didn’t know anyone there, and didn’t have a place to live. I was constantly warned about the huge risk I was taking. People asked me if I was afraid of what would happen if I moved. I wasn’t. I was afraid of what would happen if I stayed. Money comes and goes. Time only goes. I closed the business and moved to New York.
New York exposed me to all sorts of creative people and had an energy that was seductive and expanded my horizons artistically. Through a contact in the fashion business, I worked with Dennis Hopper, Terry Southern and William Burroughs who were trying to put together a film based on Burroughs’ book “Junkie”. I realized that film would give me more opportunities to use my storytelling, visual and collaborative skills. I decided to change careers.
An associate of Burroughs introduced me to some people who were starting a video company to shoot fashion shows, which was a new idea at the time. They were intrigued by my fashion experience. I was intrigued by the medium. I taught myself how to light, shoot and edit.Within a few months I had segments on all three major networks.
I then started my own company. My first client was the legendary designer Halston. Over the next three decades, I worked with some of the top fashion and beauty brands in the world including Ralph Lauren, Victoria’s Secret, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Estee Lauder to create branded video content.
After a Ralph Lauren show, I was approached by Dean Stadel, a professor at Parsons who asked me if I would be a guest lecturer in his class. I did, and loved doing it. He asked me back every semester for four years.
Dean asked me to develop a course that I could teach on a regular basis. My goal was to create a class that I would want to attend. “Creative Careers” started in 2007, and has been fully booked every semester. Each week I interview, and my students ask questions of high profile speakers with successful creative careers and listen to them talk about what they do, how they do it and the obstacles they’ve had to overcome.
The objective is to break down the walls of perception between different businesses – from fashion to visual arts to the start-up world and everything in between and give students a candid behind the scenes look at what it’s really like to build a creative career. These are the strategies that they will need to one day achieve their goals and to sustain them or help them shift strategy when things aren’t working.
When people started telling me how much they wished they’d taken a course like Creative Careers, I began looking for books that shared a similar range of advice, but came up empty-handed. There are plenty of books about how to succeed in business and several on finding inspiration and expressing yourself as an artist, but I couldn’t find any that taught readers how to balance business and creativity so they could earn a living doing what they love. In trying to sell this book, many publishers said why would a business person buy a book about creativity, or they said, why would a creative person want a book about business? They totally missed the point.
Even the most dedicated artists spend up to 80% of their time on the business side of their careers. Knowledge about business is crucial to their survival, but art schools rarely teach about business. And separating people into “business” and “creative” silos is equally unfair to those with a head for business who aren’t taught or encouraged to express themselves creatively.
Author Bio: Ben Jeffrey Madoff is a director, photographer, writer, and professor of fashion at Parsons, The New School in New York City. He is the founder and CEO of Madoff Productions, a film production company that creates award-winning branded content. In addition to his film work, Madoff’s articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Newsweek, The New York Times and other major publications. CREATIVE CAREERS: Making a Living with Your Ideas (Hachette Go; June 16, 2020)
Ben Jeffrey Madoff is a director, photographer, writer, and professor of fashion at Parsons, The New School in New York City. He is the founder and CEO of Madoff Productions.
Copywrite 2020 by B. Jeffrey Madoff. All rights reserved.