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Fashion Forward

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In 2009, Michaela Vattimo got the same dreaded news thousands of American workers were hearing. She'd been laid off from her marketing and PR job at Chico's FAS Fort Myers headquarters, and she had to figure out a new plan for herself.

“It was a challenging time for everyone,” she says. “Businesses weren't hiring and were cutting budgets, especially for marketing. But like everything, there's always that silver lining.”

For Vattimo, her silver lining was the formation of her own Naples-based business, Michaela & Co. After her layoff, the one-time model started off by providing personal shopping services for clients and producing fashion shows. Now she's a go-to wardrobe and food stylist for many local advertising agencies and production companies. She's also expanded into creative direction and project management.

“I recovered from my layoff by reaching out to my Southwest Florida community contacts, business friends, and media relations contacts, who just kind of wrapped their arms around me,” says Vattimo. “In a small community like this, we're eager to help one another.”

In the past five years, Vattimo has seen the company's profits double, and she now has some two dozen regular clients who keep her busy. (She declines to disclose specific revenue figures.) Vattimo also has plans for future growth, which include expanding her business into Tennessee — where she has a second home — and hiring some contract stylists.

“In the next five years, I'd love to be able to tell you that I'm working in the Southeast United States,” she says. “And that I have stylists and production managers working for me, so that when production companies call me I'm helping put together the hair and makeup and stylists, almost like I'm a one-stop shop. I do see where there's a need for that, and I know that I can't do this all by myself. “

Find the runway

What truly helped get Vattimo's business off the ground was her reinvigoration of an old-school idea. When she decided to turn to freelance styling work after her layoff, one place where she saw potential was at local shopping malls, which were near ghost towns from the recession.

“I reached out to them and proposed a modern approach to an outdated idea — mall fashion shows,” she says.

Places like the Bell Tower Shops, Gulf Coast Town Center, Coastland Center and Village Shops on Venetian Bay signed up. “It was just a way to create something unique and something that was free for everyone to attend,” says Vattimo.

She still dabbles in that kind of work, producing an annual fashion show for the Village Shops. She contributed to a rebranding of the event earlier this year that led to a 30% increase in attendance.

While Vattimo built her retail connections, she also reached out to media contacts, getting hired to style editorial content in local magazines and sharing her knowledge on local TV stations. “I decided to market and brand myself as Southwest Florida's fashion stylist,” she says.

The next step was to build relationships with local advertising agencies and production companies. That proved a major growth driver for her business and helped her create a niche as a stylist for high-end lifestyle advertising campaigns for real-estate developers, resorts and other businesses.

“I realized that there wasn't anyone locally styling photo shoots,” says Vattimo. “Companies were bringing in stylists from Orlando or Miami. It didn't take long for word to spread, and I was being hired for campaigns and working with some really creative people while building my book at the same time.”

Here's how her business works: An advertising agency or production company hires Vattimo to be part of a team working on a campaign. Once the creative direction is established and models or other talent are chosen, Vattimo puts together the wardrobe for the campaign. She also styles other elements as well. For a recent job for a residential community, she created a dinner party scene in addition to overseeing the wardrobe.

“When we have a high-end client and a high-end project, Michaela is our go-to person,” says Cecily Lancit, co-owner of Naples video production company Lancit Digital Media and president of Paradise Coast TV, which provides in-room television content for Southwest Florida hotels. “She's a team player and has great contacts. When I hire Michaela, I know that when we get ready to roll that she's going to have the talent ready and they're going to look terrific.”

Lancit admires what she calls Vattimo's “golden Rolodex.” Because Vattimo tries to create situations that benefit everyone involved, she's forged strong relationships with a variety of local businesses that she can call on for all kinds of reasons.

“With the retailers I have partnerships with, just using their products for an advertising campaign is not necessarily a win-win situation for them,” says Vattimo. “I always go back to that, so I'm also promoting their events and announcements on social media or selling their merchandise to the models. I want to have that relationship where we're helping one another.”

That approach hasn't gone unnoticed. “She brings all of her clients together,” says Melissa Rambo, marketing manager for the Village Shops on Venetian Bay. “She just thinks this might be great for another a client. She's made a lot of connections for us that way, as well as for our retailers.”

Vattimo once connected a client, Port Royal Jewelers in Naples, with a niche jewelry photographer. “Her networking ability is tremendous,” says William Boyajian, Port Royal Jewelers resident artist and manufacturing designer.

More than looks

You can't get far in Vattimo's line of work without a sense of fashion. And that's something that's readily apparent to clients.

“She's an impeccable dresser,” says Boyajian. “The style she has is very eclectic yet balanced. So I knew she understands style. Advertising is a form of style, and I felt like she could assess what our needs were and promote that correctly.”

But it takes more than an ability to accessorize and a familiarity with fashion houses to succeed. Vattimo's job is a lot of hard work — think 12-hour shoots out in the sun and last-minute scrambles to deal with wardrobe changes. She's even offered up her own clothing at times when quick substitutions are needed.

“You may have to get on your knees and hem pants on a model,” says Vattimo. “You're standing, sweating and moving constantly. And you've only got minutes to do it.”

That workplace reality sometimes makes finding assistants challenging. “People see the glamour of it when they see my website or social media posts,” says Vattimo. “They don't understand all the work that goes into it. I can't tell you how many times a month I have people who message me through social media saying they would love to work with me. When I tell them exactly what this job entails, that usually diffuses some of the people. It's not for everybody.”

Vattimo has seen demand for her services increase over the years, and she works not just in the Fort Myers-Naples area, but also in Sarasota and the Tampa area. “And I see that there could be some opportunity to continue moving throughout the state of Florida,” she says. In addition to her styling services, she's delved into creative direction and project management, especially for smaller companies that may not have a big advertising budget.

About three-quarters of the ad agencies she works with are based in Florida. For the ones she works with outside the state, there sometimes are some celebrity encounters. Like the time she worked with baseball legend Joe Torre, who liked some of the outfits she pulled for him so much he bought them.

Vattimo has seen more competition pop up over time. “I have to make sure that I'm continuing to grow and reach out to production companies that may not have worked with me before or even knew I existed,” she says. “You continue to source new work. Or if I haven't worked with a company or agency in a while, I just remind them about myself or see what they're working on.”

Growth goals are also fueling her expansion into Tennessee. A native of the Volunteer State, Vattimo toyed with moving back there after her layoff. But with all her contacts in Southwest Florida, that was the best place to start a business. Now five years in, she has a second home in Knoxville, where she hopes to pick up clients during the slower summer months.

Knoxville has a lot of things working in its favor. In addition to its proximity to celeb-filled Nashville, it's also the home base for companies like HGTV, Ruby Tuesday, Regal Entertainment Group and Bush Brothers and Co. the Bush's Best baked beans business.

“I see a lot of opportunities,” says Vattimo. “But I'm a one-woman show right now. So I'm going to take it one step at a time and see where the growth takes me.”


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