Gabriela Moussaieff is a prolific set-design agent with a roster of 12 artists spanning Paris, London and New York. Last year she co-curated an immersive performance ‘Rooms’ with FKA Twigs which showcased the work of her artists and promoted the importance of set design within both the fashion and entertainment industries. Here she reveals how she makes her week work and her on-going struggle to find mental peace.
I work for an agency called Streeters, which represents artists across the fashion industry. I direct the set design roster, which I set up almost four years ago now. I get into the office in Shoreditch by 10.30am most mornings, but I start answering emails from 8am. At any one time I’m probably working across 10 shoots, but everything depends on the artists. Two on my roster are based in New York, two in Paris and the rest in London.
I never book any meetings on a Monday. Shoots often happen over the weekend or on Friday evening, so Monday morning is all about catching up with anything non-urgent that I didn’t deal with over the weekend. I make my own schedule for the week and decide which business meetings and client dinners I’ll be going to. Sometimes I’ll also be on a photoshoot during the week, so it’s a chance to manage my time.
My office is full of women so style-wise I don’t feel like I need to impress anyone. As the days go by I’ve actually got lazier and realised that I just want to be comfortable. I’m sitting in a chair for nine or ten hours and unless I have meetings—which I always dress up for—I will wear tracksuit bottoms or leggings and a nice knit or hoodie. It is ultra-casual, but all beautifully made by brands like Celine, Balenciaga, Chloe or Vetements. I also always bring a touch of polish with my accessories—a great McQueen bag or Miu Miu ribbon-tied ballet flats or Chanel trainers. Or if I’m feeling a bit less lazy I’ll wear some Vetements platform boots. For meetings, I’ll make the effort with a Stella McCartney jumpsuit or over the knee boots, jeans and a nice knit by Isabel Marant. I don’t wear makeup often though.
‘Agent’ is quite a board description of the actual job I do. It’s really about managing each artist and deciding who they should be working with. I negotiate fees on the budget and go back and forth between all the different parties because there are so many revisions on a brief with lots of different opinions filtering in from the art director, the stylist and the client. It’s also about giving each artist a strategy and creating goals for them and their career each year. Each artist has their own USP and I try and keep everyone very distinct and original on my roster so there is no crossover in talent.
From Tuesday the week is mix of emails, admin and meetings. I’m very reactive and really quick—something which is essential for any agent. Because if a job comes in for tomorrow and you take an hour to respond, the client will probably go elsewhere. It’s also an hour I’ve lost in prepping the job. That speed can work against me in some ways too, but honestly I answer my emails so quickly because my memory isn’t great— if I don’t respond to them immediately, I might forget to reply entirely. It’s far better to deal with anything that comes in right at the moment and not ever put anything off.
Obviously the talent is key, but success for my artists is also based on the relationships I have with clients. It’s more important than say an agent for photography, because more often than not a client will have a firm idea of who they want to shoot with and it can be much harder to make suggestions. For set design it can sometimes be more about loyalty to an agency. Success for me is being the point of call for as many great clients as possible. That’s the one thing that I try and create in every single city I work across—London, Paris, New York, L.A. So when I do client meetings, it’s about creating new relationships or maintaining existing ones. I do at least two dinners a week, most often on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
For lunches, I’m on a health kick at the moment—though not succeeding every day. I go to Bel Air which has great salads and a seasonally changing menu of hot food, most of it gluten and dairy free. When it comes to client lunches I eat a lot at Andina which is a Peruvian on the corner of Redchurch Street, then Shoreditch House because it’s so easy. For dinners, I’ve made a huge list of restaurants I want to explore after reading A.A.Gill’s food reviews. Honey and Smoke was the most recent experiment—the food was fantastic, but I wasn’t so impressed by the ambience. The Barbary is also great. I do have my tried and tested options: E&O, Modern Pantry, Granger & Co and Roka—the places you know you can rely on.
In the context of agency work, the one thing that I feel very fortunate about is that my training was so different from most of my peers. My mind is very much business-focused. Most agents get caught up on bookings and taking care of their artists, ferrying them from here to there. Which I don’t do. I take look after their career, but I’m not booking their doctor’s appointments. I’ve always kept the private and professional logistics separate and I’m immediately open with my artists about that arrangement. You can end up feeding the monster, which is something that happens so much across the agenting world. Ultimately it distracts you from what you’re actually supposed to be doing and it all becomes about the five star hotel that you need to sort out for your artist in Rome on a Gucci job. You have to keep coming back to what being an agent is really about.
The job can be very stressful. If I’m pitching for a job in L.A., I can be answering emails until 3am. Often more than the stress, it’s the exhaustion that takes its toll. When I was younger, I had such a hunger for success that I’d never switch off for a minute and I’d constantly be on my toes. That can, of course, be emotionally and mentally draining. In saying that, I’ve also trained all my artists to be very self-sufficient. They all have studios, so they are well organized to deal with the logistical side of things if work comes in last minute.
“It’s easy to forget that when I’m travelling, I basically have to do double the amount of work. While it might look like a glamorous, jet-set life on social media, that’s just one second that I stopped to take a picture—the rest of the time I’m trying to keep my head above water rather than sitting in a spa all day.”
I have everything organized in my head, it’s like a web. There’s always a lot of admin to deal with from billing, sending deal memos and making sure that all the artists get call sheets. I’ve become so used to that side of the job that it’s like second nature. The other thing I’m very anal about is ensuring every artist’s portfolio is kept up to date every month and looking really current. These days when everything is digital, what you see is basically what you’re getting. From a sales perspective, it’s so important. I usually make sure all that side of things are tied up end of day Friday and I don’t hang around. As soon as the work’s done, I’m out of the office.
I answer emails over the weekend, but I’ve made a point of leaving my Blackberry at home. Everyone loves to judge me for my Blackberry, but there is no distraction on it—it’s there for your emails and emails only. There are no apps to check, no Whatsapp. I have gone through stages where I was glued to it and would look at throughout the weekend, but I try to be much more disciplined now.
I travel to New York and Paris twice a year and then there will be a trip to L.A. too. It’s easy to forget that when I’m travelling, I basically have double the amount of work to do. You have to constantly find time to catch up with what you’re missing in the office in-between back-to-back meetings, plus you’re working on two different time zones. While it might look like a glamorous, jet-set life on social media, that’s just one second that I stopped to take a picture—the rest of the time I’m trying to keep my head above water rather than sitting in a spa all day.
“Sometimes I have to be hardcore. A lot of people regard me as a very tough agent and I will always defend my artists and be a fierce middle man when necessary.”
I’m actually trying to travel less for work simply because of the toll it takes on my workload. I do like to work remotely from abroad—usually in really serene locations, just to change the environment around my desk. I find that when I work remotely (not going to meetings, but just working my regular office day from somewhere else), I get much more done. My office can get really hectic and I find I’m more focused when I’m in a calm place. Recently I went to Morocco and then to Turkey on a detox and worked so efficiently from there. That actually really helped my state of mind, because I had the opportunity to clear my head. The only time I really can change my mental state and fully switch off is over the Christmas holidays—24th December-2nd January, so just over a week. That is the only chance I have to start to miss work, or even get a little bit excited about coming back.
I always knew I wanted to work in fashion, but my family weren’t exactly impressed, because they really value financial success and fashion can be incredibly poorly paid. It didn’t deter me, but I was adamant that I would provide well for myself and prove them wrong—so it took me a while to work out how to combine those two elements. I tried out quite a few different jobs and from the age of 16 did work experience across lots of different areas of the industry. I interned with Luella Bartley who was my favorite designer at the time for example, but each of the placements only lasted for a week or so and I very quickly realised they weren’t right for me.
I studied French and Economics at University and during my year abroad in Paris, instead of just working on my course, I decided to get a job as well. Every day I’d work 7am-midday at the Sorbonne, then I’d do 1 til the end of the working day at Art Partner—the biggest agency in the world for fashion photography. A lot of it was updating portfolios for Mert & Marcus, Mario Testino and big name photographers like that, and through the experience I began to think about the possibility of agency work.
“I’m not good at compartmentalizing at all. My main resolution for 2017 is to learn how to switch off more, meditate and bring more silence into my life.”
After I graduated I came back to London and ended up trying out loads of different jobs outside of fashion. I got a job in Formula 1 and worked in the pit lane looking after the Red Bull team. I travelled the world doing all the races and it was a huge experience, because I was the only woman in the environment. However, it was also completely brainless, so I ended up quitting again. Then I worked in a pub, which I also quit. Finally I decided it was a good idea to get a job as an agent. My first proper agency role was at The Magnet Agency, From there I learnt about set design and slowly began to make it my niche. The rest is history.
I’m not good at compartmentalizing at all. My main resolution for 2017—and it was my main resolution last year too—is to learn how to switch off more, meditate and bring more silence into my life. When I’m doing yoga for example, I’ll be thinking about things I need to do at work. When I have a massage, I’ll be thinking about the details of a deal. Or it’s ‘Oh shit, I forgot to do that’. I rarely manage to switch my brain off. It’s a hard but vital skill, which I know I need to work on.
One of my set designers works with the most intense clients in the industry but she’s so zen and doesn’t let anything affect her too much, which is why people book her over and over again. She spends time every summer and Christmas on silent and meditative retreats so she rests both her body and mind before the start of the new year. I really look up to her and I think it’s a massive key to her success. She was doing a shoot in L.A. last month and the turnaround to create a huge set-build was just a couple of days over Thanksgiving when everything was shut. And she managed to pull it off. It was an insane achievement, but she just takes it all in her stride.
“When I’m doing yoga, I’ll be thinking about things I need to do at work. When I have a massage, I’ll be thinking about the details of a deal.”
Last season I decided to give myself more stress by doing an event with FKA Twigs—an immersive performance across twelve rooms designed by each of my set designers. Each artist was free to create the set of their dreams, something which really reflected their personal taste. The whole purpose was to get the entertainment and fashion industry to see the showcase and what was behind each set designer’s mind. But it was also to promote set design as a medium and emphasise how important it is. Of course, it’s the background, but it’s still vital to any creative vision. Managing the project at the same time as my day job was a full-on experience and something I’m not keen to repeat any time soon. But it was incredible to see it all come together.
“The one thing that I do found tricky in this industry is that it’s hard to know people’s real intentions. Are people your friend, or are they hanging around because you’re useful to them? It can be really cut-throat and you have to play the game to maintain a level of success.”
I get a lot of job satisfaction when we win good jobs or book with photographers we’ve wanted to work with. One of my artists might say it’s their dream to do this or that advertising campaign and when we sign it, you feel true work satisfaction. Those kinds of things happen quite often. But you know, I lose jobs as well. I try not to let it get to me for longer than half an hour and force myself to move on. Something else inevitably happens to grab my attention—it’s a very fast paced job in that way. When I first started at Streeters and I lost jobs I would take it to heart. Now my mentality is that it will come back round—or else something else will. The one thing that I do found tricky in this industry is that it’s hard to know people’s real intentions. Are people your friend, or are they hanging around because you’re useful to them? It can be really cut-throat and you have to play the game to maintain a level of success.
Sometimes I have to be hardcore. A lot of people regard me as a very tough agent and I will always defend my artists and be a fierce middle man when necessary. But sometimes it’s really hard—you have to behave a certain way to be successful in this industry. I’m a straightforward person, which I think has really worked in my favor. I don’t do bullshit and in such a fast-paced environment, people want answers and they don’t want it sugar-coated. I also like making people feel good about themselves and I think that’s so important because there’s so much insecurity. As a person, I have an instinct to make people feel good about themselves and that’s another indispensable quality to have as an agent. I want my artists to feel really proud of what they’ve achieved and even if things go wrong, I try and keep them focused on the positives. And even though I can be really reactive and tough, I try to be nice to everyone, regardless who they are. From the intern to the boss, you never know where they are going to end up. That is such a key lesson for working in fashion and so many people don’t do it.
I play my career season to season. At the moment, the whole industry is in flux from an agency perspective. A lot of the bigger artists are choosing to work with just a manager and feel that they don’t need an agent in the same way. That is obviously trickling down, so we need to see where that all lands. I don’t have an ultimate ambition or a level that I want to get to and I’d say goals are actually more for my personal life. Though I can’t ever imagine retiring and I would definitely be a working mum. I couldn’t do the stay at home thing. It’s just all about finding the right balance and that’s really what I need to work on the most right now.