Interview: ModCloth’s Danielle Bouchette

The start of this blog was a result of attending the Pittsburgh PodCamp in October 2009.  This is also where I had the chance to meet Alicia Barnes, the PR Manager for who graciously arranged for me to share this interview with all of you!  Thanks Alicia!!  I really didn’t know much about ModCloth, but quickly learned of this specialty online clothier and the incredible success they had been experiencing over the last few years.  I was also incredibly impressed with their use of social media to build a community of followers and buyers of their fashions.  In fact, the website alone gets 80,000-100,000 hits a day from throughout the world.

So it was definitely my pleasure to get a chance to visit the cool offices of located in the Strip District area of Pittsburgh.  Danielle Bouchette is the company’s chief photographer and was the 14th employee hired.  There are now over 100 employees at the company.  Danielle’s photographic experience spans 10 years and involves practically every genre of photography and I think you will find her interview incredibly insightful!!

So Danielle, let’s start with a little bit about your background.

I grew up, went to school, and have had most of my jobs in photography right here in Pittsburgh. I always considered myself a “go with the flow” type of person and remember having a hard time deciding what I wanted to do after high school. There was a flyer hanging outside the door to my guidance counselor’s office my senior year, promoting the “Ringling Brother’s Clown College,” I was actually going to submit an application. Fortuanatley for me, it closed by the time I actually got around to turning it in. I considered being a vet, scuba diving instructor, private detective, journalist, I was all over the place. All I did know was that I couldn’t have a career where I sat behind a
desk all day. This indecision followed me through my time at The University of Pittsburgh, where I eventually applied…last minute. What major did I pick? None! I was undecided for two years, and after maxing out my general studies courses, I was cornered into making a decision about my future. But again, I didn’t. Instead, I dropped out and decided to take a step back and really think about what I wanted to do.

Photography always seemed like something I would enjoy doing, but I never persued it, not even as a hobby. In movies, photographers are portrayed as larger than life characters, artists, fashion photographers, photo journalists, all were very intimidating to a girl whose only contact with a “professional” was having her senior portraits taken. When I actually started considering it as a career path I remembered that the photographer who took my senior portraits seemed to truly love his job, and on top of that, he had a nice house, so maybe I could make a decent living at it, even if I didn’t end up on staff for National Geographic. The only thing holding me back at this point, was the whole “art” thing. I never considered myself the “artsy” type, so how would I explain to my parents I wanted to go to art school?

Still on the fence, I took an Intro to Photography course at the local community college, this is where i discovered there was this whole complicated, challenging, technical side to the field. I was sold! That fall I went to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh for Photography (AIP). Looking back, it’s ironic that so many of my classmates wanted to be fashion photographers. I used to tell myself that was the one genre I couldn’t see getting into. At the time, I was determined to get all of the technical stuff down. I couldn’t understand wanting to haphazardly play around with pretty girls and take images that just “looked cool,” which is what I saw fashion photography as at the time.

In 2001, we were still doing most things with film – the school had one digital camera and to use it, you had to be under constant supervision by a trained faculty member. Because of my fascination with the technology, I spent a lot of time with that “trained faculty member” and the school’s only digital camera. Upon graduation, I was dissapointed when I compared my portfolio to the other student’s. Mine was kind of bland, I had a wine bottle that looked like a wine bottle, a football that looked like a football, even in my photos of pretty girls, they just looked like pretty girls. Everyone else’s seemed so much more creative than mine. But I felt if I kept with the technical stuff, the creativity would follow.

After school, I had my biggest learning experience. I was really scared about going off and working on my own. Someone would ask, “can you take a picture of my kid?” and I would say “no.” “Can you do my wedding?” “Absolutely not!” I felt I needed to spend my time working for and learning from as many photographers, in as many different areas of photography as possible, before I would feel comfortable making a decision about where I would end up.

Right out of school, I went to work with a head shot photographer in NYC. I responded to an ad on Craigslist on a Monday and was called in to be interviewed that Wednesday. Because I didn’t want to not be considered for the position, living so far away, I used my then boyfriend’s, who was living in New York at the time, address. I drove up the next morning and interviewed for the job. During the interview I revealed how far I had traveled and although I like to think it was my skills and portfolio that got me the position, it is safe to say that my eagerness and commitment were also a contributing factor. Wow! My first job working with a professional photographer! Wait, did I say job? It was more like an unpaid internship, but I did get free lunches!

The photographer I worked for was a former assistant to Irving Penn and at the time I was in his studio, he was going on his 10th year shooting head shots for actors. Although he was extremely talented, he was completely burnt out by the business and it showed. That confirmed my decision to keep learning many different areas of the business. That whole job lasted about a month before I ran out of money, but in that month I learned a lot about the business side of things.

The majority of my learning took place right here in Pittsburgh. A commercial studio I was with was photographing for companies like Giant Eagle and GNC. There, I was taking pictures of things like tuna fish cans and soda bottles. Sounds a little boring, but it forced me to learn how to light many different types of products. Photographing cat treats should be easy enough, until you start sifting through 10 containers of fish shaped treats to sort out only a handful of perfect specimins. From there, you delicatley brush away the crumbs from each individual treat, use the air hose to clean out any debri in the clear container and carefully place them all, one by one, back inside. This is all done before you even began to think about how you are going to light it.

I also spent some time working in a portrait studio, I was photographing high school seniors and weddings. With seniors, the focus is on getting them to relax in front of the camera. Not always, but often enough, in a school photo situation you are photographing kids that don’t necessarily want to have their picture taken, add to that equation an overbearing mother and chatty little sister and it can get really uncomfortable for the kid in front of the camera. I became very good at diverting attention away from the awkwardness and getting everyone involved comfortable enough to get some great shots.

Weddings were another area that I never thought I would want to spend much time in, but I would say a large portion of what I have learned over the years came from that experience. You are dropped into every different type lighting situation imaginable. Indoor, outdoor, overcast, mid-day sun, flash, mixed light – you name it you have to know what you are doing. And if you do freak out, because it starts raining or your batteries are dying – you better do it with a smile on your face. There is a resourcefulness that I learned from weddings that I don’t think I could have picked up in any other area of

So I am starting to see how the variety in your background has really prepared you for your current role at Modcloth.

Yes. After working in the portrait studio for 3 years, I was ready to move on, I just wasn’t sure what to move on to. I had started looking into other cities for opportunities I didn’t think I could find here in Pittsburgh. That is when I came across an ad on craislist for a part-time photographer, 1-2 days a week, that was needed to photograph 10-20 products weekly for an online fashion company. I never heard of ModCloth before, but was interested enough to submit my resume. They called me in and after a few trial sessions, I got the job. I think it was the combination of my product background and being able to work with the models that got me hired. A majority of ModCloth models don’t have a lot of professional experience, and it can be intimidating to walk onto a set with stylists, designers, and a photographer, so it was kind of similar to getting that shy high school senior to relax – except our models were dressed a little nicer! If today, I had to pick my perfect job, this would be it (at ModCloth). There is enough variety to keep my interest between the product and the day to day marketing needs of a growing company, and without each of my experiences working for other photographers, I am not sure I would be able to contribute what I have to the company.

Would you say that the education you received at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh was more valuable in giving you the skills to get you are where you are today or more so the real world experience?

I said previously that my real world experience is where I learned the most throughout my journey in photography, but you have to learn the basics somewhere. These days, there is an internet tutorial for anything you could possibly want to learn, especially in photography.  You can also join a Flickr group and meetup with local photographers or have them critique your work in online galleries. It is safe to say that you could teach yourself enough about photography to get by without ever getting a degree. For me however, there is something to be said for the classroom experience. I really enjoyed learning from the teachers I had at AIP.  Working with the students during projects and critiquing each others work, we saw what went into everyones images, specifically where they had problems and we worked out how to avoid them in the future. So, although the learning curve skyrocketed when I got into the “real world,” without the base of knowledge I developed at AIP, I would have never made it there in the first place.

It’s all about how many times you press the shutter button right?

Yeah. Through school I hardly took any photos outside of our given assignments. I was still reading and trying to figure out the mechanics of everything. Even after I graduated and was working with other photographers, I didn’t shoot much on my own. It wasn’t until I bought a digital camera to start shooting weddings with that I really began playing
around and getting *gasp* creative with my photography. The learning curve on a digital camera is so much faster than with the days of film. In one way it can dangerous because you can chimp and see if you get it right, but for those same reasons I was finally able to relax and apply some creativity to my work. With film you had to know how to get it right the first time, there was more of a discipline there and I liked that. But digital has allowed me to trust my knowledge and experiment beyond that.

What would you say are the keys to the success that ModCloth has had over the last couple of years?

Our customer focus. We are a bottom up company. We listen to our customers and are always looking for ways to get them involved in the online shopping process. We might think “wow, this dress is awesome” but they’re not going to buy it just because we told them to. We use Facebook, Twitter, our blog, and other online sources to reach out to our community of customers and find out what they want. It keeps people excited about
ModCloth. We are constantly seeking their input.

Another way we engage our customers is through contests and online communities. I actually started the Twitter contest called “I Spy Thursdays”. We take abstract photos on Thursdays and post them to our Twitter page, the customers then have to search our website for what the product actually is.

On Flickr we have the ModCloth Style Exchange, where customers can post their daily outfit photos. Anything goes, as long as it includes at least one piece of ModCloth clothing. This is a great way for our community to share unique ways of wearing items that they may not have thought of on their own. Another Flickr group we have is for the buyers to share pictures of items they buy during trade shows, this gives customers the oportunity to have a sneak peak of what will be arriving in the coming weeks.

Our demographic is 18-30 year olds, this is the first generation of shoppers to really grow up with the internet and embrace the online shopping experience. I think a lot of our success can be attributed to really paying attention to and addressing the concerns of these online shoppers, as well as engage them through social networks. When the company started (6-7 year ago), we were a vintage only retailer. Back in those days Susan, the owner, photographed many of the products on her dorm room floor. Although a lot has changed since then, we still have our vintage roots and one-of-a-kind items pop up on the site daily. Because customer service has always been one of the company’s many strengths, even back in the dorm room days, it soon developed a strong cult following that has really helped and continues to help us grow.

Is it challenging as a female to not spend your entire paycheck on the Modcloth website?

Coming into my interview for ModCloth, one of the questions Susan asked was “Why are you passionate about fashion?” I couldn’t really give her an answer. Honestly, I was just really into photography. Up until then, jeans and a t-shirt was my uniform. These days, I couldn’t tell you the last time I wore jeans and sneakers and my my closet is about 70-80% ModCloth items!

In part II of the interview on Friday, Danielle will share insights on gear, shooting on location, tips for photographers, and insights into how and where they find the models!