By Marina Liao
In a bi-weekly series, we're interviewing female executives, founders, CEOs—basically, boss ladies—on their "power suit" a.k.a. the outfit they wear every day for easy dressing to conquer whatever the job throws at them.
For models immigrating to or applying to work in the United States, the process is often anxiety-inducing and painstakingly bureaucratic. Marilee Holmes, Wilhelmina's VP of operations and general counsel, is there to ease their fears. Holmes, who has a background in immigration law, joined the modeling agency about three years ago and since has been a force in getting models to the U.S. swiftly. She has also built out the company's internal operations structure, dealing with staffing issues, contracts, and corporate litigation. When it comes to securing visas for models (typically O-1) , the filings are a "pretty smooth, steady, and constant" part of her job.
Holmes and her team typically start by looking over a foreign model's "book of business" (a.k.a portfolio) before offering them a work contract and filing for visas. "Because we're putting together a petition to prove that the model is, in fact, a model, they have to have the right type of work to show an established career," she says.
Once that is sorted out, Holmes will collect documents from photographers and casting directors who have worked with the model, and draft a pitch from the company itself on why the model has to work for Wilhelmina and why he or she is "extraordinary." Though the process is filled with legalese, for Holmes the topic of immigration is a passionate and deeply personal one.
"I was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. My mother is from there and my dad was in the Peace Corps. Our family moved to the United States when I was 5 years old because my mom wanted my siblings and me to fully take advantage of the educational opportunities that she didn't have growing up in Africa," Holmes says. "I watched my mom go through the immigration process, being married to a U.S. citizen, having children with dual nationalities at the time, and so that whole process struck a cord with me."
Of course, having someone like Holmes, who specializes in immigration law within Wilhelmina has never been more important. When I inquired about the impact of Donald Trump's immigration policies on her role, she reveals that this administration has brought some difficulties. One challenge, in particular, is the government's request for "future proof of work." Immigration officials want Wilhelmina to guarantee that clients will want to book this model years into their contract.
"If you know anything about the modeling industry, clients can't always guarantee they will use a particular or the same model in a campaign a year from now, even if they use him or her today," Holmes explains. "Before, the government was more in line with this understanding."
Holmes says that the fashion industry as a whole has really stepped up and challenged the USCIS' (US Citizenship and Immigration Service) push back, explaining that there's "little room for that sort of future prediction, and if the USCIS keeps up these challenges, it will be hard to bring in the models needed for the business." She believes the government is starting to turn a corner.
The work never stops for Holmes. So how does a busy woman in the fashion industry like her stay confident and comfortable at the office? We caught up with the powerhouse on all things style, below.
Her Morning Routine
"I have a 6-year-old daughter, so my routine changes as she gets a more independent. On mornings when I get it together to work out, I am up by 5 a.m. On days I don't work out—which are probably more of my mornings—I get up no later than 6 a.m. I make sure I am dressed and ready before she wakes up, give her breakfast, and then walk her to school. Even still, I feel like she and I are always scrambling to get out of the house. I love my walks with her because we talk about everything; it's nice to have that quality time together. Once I drop her off, I commute to work via the subway, and I'm in the office by 9 a.m. I have coffee and breakfast at my desk, then I go through emails and plan my day."
Her Getting Dressed Strategy
"[To plan my outfits] I usually check the news or my phone for the weather. I review my day's calendar for lunch meetings or after work events. Part of my strategy is that I keep a pair of leopard heels in my bag to dress up whatever outfit I am wearing."
Her Work Uniform
"Wilhelmina allows for flexibility in dressing, unlike my former corporate law firm days, when I always had to be in business attire. Now, I often wear jeans, a t-shirt, a dark blazer, and heels. I love to wear dresses and flowing skirts even though it's a bit dressier than our office culture because those pieces make me feel feminine, sexy, and powerful. It also makes it easier to transition to any after-work commitments.
I'm a big fan of Theory and Joie blazers, which are classic and not overly trendy. I also love dresses by DVF and Nanette Lepore, prints from Club Monaco—their cut fits me well—and anything that makes me feel composed and confident. Since I live in New York City, having a nice coat is essential too. I was recently gifted a Mackage coat and can't wait to live in it this winter.
For work bags, I typically carry a Louis Vuitton shoulder bag as well as a black Cuyana bag for bulkier items like shoes, an umbrella, and an iPad. I also never leave the house without my Cartier watch and some perfume—I feel naked without either of those. My two favorite scents are Jo Malone Tuberose and Pleasure Gardenia by Krigler, which I came across several years ago in Los Angeles."
The Three Words That Describe Her Power Outfit
"Feminine, classic, and unfussy."
"This mantra both resonates with me personally and professionally: Better than what happens to you. The meaning is that if something great comes your way, be humble, don't take it for granted, and appreciate the fortune you've received. If something tragic happens—as many experience as part of life—do what it takes to get through it, so it doesn't define you in the end."
If you love Holmes' no-fuss feminine work style, shop her favorite brands below.
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