Author, as told to
In the latest installment of our anonymous interview series, we talk to fashion stylist who gets celebrity clients red-carpet ready.
I’m a fashion stylist, and got into the business twenty years ago in Toronto, Canada. I started out by styling models for their portfolios. At the time, there were a lot more fashion magazines in Europe, so it was easier to get a portfolio together over there than it was in North America, and that’s exactly what I did. It seemed to be what a lot of people were doing back then.
I started apprenticing with a guy who was based out of Europe. I ended up going to Vienna, Austria and working with him for about six months. It was all German-speaking, which was intimidating because I didn’t know the language at all.
Now, the best way to get into styling is by assisting as many top stylists as you can, because when those stylists aren’t available, the assistants usually take over their gigs. I’ve seen top stylists working with big-name celebrity clients, but then they can’t take the job for whatever reason and their assistant ends up going on tour with Madonna.
SOMETIMES, THE PEOPLE YOU’RE WORKING WITH have so much on their plate that they forget to communicate everything they want. There are a lot of surprises on the job. A lot of times, clients will want something the night before or the day of the shoot. There was a time when I might’ve said, “That’s not be possible.” But now it’s like, “Whatever you need. Absolutely!” It’s all about keeping a positive attitude, though, of course, deep inside you’re compelled to snap. “What are you talking about? This wasn’t part of the deal!” You just try to stay calm, organized and prepared for whatever might come your way, for instance, making sure that you’ve got a seamstress on hand for the fitting. There can be a lot of miscommunication, so you learn to ask questions and clarify things in advance.
This profession is not for the faint of heart. It’s not for someone who has too many obligations or needs structure in their life. People are constantly haranguing you to be ready at a moment’s notice, especially in television. When you’re working on a music video or TV commercial, you might start at 8:00 AM and do 19-, 20-hour shoot. You’ll have the second Director of Photography shaking you down, like, “You ready, you ready?” So, you rush to the set, but when you get there, you’re waiting around for an hour. It’s kind of ridiculous! That element of the job can be quite frustrating.
There have been moments when I’ve felt like I was on the verge of a meltdown. But I try not to lose it, mostly for the sake of my team. Often, it’s my poor assistants that are dealing with the brunt of it. It’s really about not letting them see you sweat. You have to lead by example.
The fashion industry
by the numbers
THE VALUE of the global fashion industry.
THE VALUE of the New York fashion industry.
THE VALUE of fashion imports to the United States.
THE VALUE of fashion exports from the United States.
THE PERCENTAGE of US fashion imports that come from China (with 11% from Vietnam, 6% from Bangladesh, 6% from Indonesia and 5% from Mexico rounding out the top five).
THE AMOUNT Americans spend on fashion each year.
THE NUMBER of people employed by the fashion industry in the United States.
A fine line
FROM THE OUTSIDE, THIS JOB IS SEEN AS ONE BIG PARTY—it seems like we’re always joking around and having fun. Plus, there’s the access to stars and samples. It gives you an illusion that it’s so glamorous and so easy, but so much money goes into these photo shoots that it’s definitely still work. There have been times when some interns have shown up in heels like they’re the models. I recently told a new assistant, “Make sure you’re wearing sneakers and dress comfortably, because you’re going to be bending down—don’t wear a short skirt!” It’s kind of a fine line between being a professional and still being fun to be around.
For me, the biggest thing is only working with people who are very reliable. Some of my assistants have told me that they’ve hired interns who couldn’t even make it through a whole day of prep. It’s also usually a bad idea to work with people you’re close with in a non-business capacity. Personally, I’ve had times when I’ve tried to hire friends and family who are like, “I really want to work with you!” or “I need money!” But then, they’d show up an hour late and be all over the place, and I’d never work with the client again.
You’re only as good as your last job. If you screw up once—even if you’ve worked with a client a dozen times before—most of the time they’ll never hire you again. They’re under no obligation to give you a second chance.
in the United States
THE NUMBER of people employed as fashion designers.
THE AVERAGE SALARY of a fashion designer.
in the United States
THE NUMBER of people employed in apparel manufacturing.
THE AVERAGE SALARY of a patternmaker (compared to $59,750 for a marketing researcher or specialist and $67,110 for a computer professional).
Milking Matt Dillon
IT’S A WELL-KNOWN FACT THAT EDITORIAL PHOTO SHOOTS don’t really pay well. There are frequently scenarios where you have to spend money to work. This is across the board in fashion, from makeup artists to hair stylists. But you do it anyway because it’s great for your portfolio.
For instance, I recently did a shoot with Matt Dillon. The client was like, “Oh, sorry we have no budget.” But, then again, you’re getting pictures of a celebrity for your portfolio, which only helps you book more work down the line. It’s an investment in your future, in your profession, because the more people see your name and work circulating, the more people will want to hire you.
On the flipside, you have to make sure you’re booking a nice balance of unpaid editorial work and well-compensated commercial work. The jobs you really want to do for financial gain are TV commercials, print ads, things like that. I just saw a colleague of mine the other day, who recently assisted on a huge advertising job, and she revealed that the stylist made at least $100k on this single one- or two-month contract. So, financially, you could stand to earn a lot of money, but the amount of people getting the big bucks, I would say, is maybe like 1% of the industry.
in the United States
THE NUMBER of people employed as wholesale merchandisers.
THE AVERAGE SALARY of an installation, maintenance and repair worker (compared to $50,120 for a graphic designer and $47,630 for a planning and expediting clerk).
No moms allowed
I WAS SPEAKING TO ONE OF MY ASSISTANTS in Toronto yesterday and she said, “Nobody I know that’s a stylist, except for one person, really has children.” It takes up a lot of your time and that’s what we focus on. Keep in mind, this is someone in Toronto, where I feel people are a little more family-oriented than people in New York might be. This profession is self-selecting in the sense that it attracts people who are ambitious, individualistic and possibly a little self-centered.
I don’t have kids myself. I’m dating a person now, and when it comes to relationships, I need someone who is open-minded and easygoing. I had one boyfriend who couldn’t understand my constantly fluctuating schedule. There were definitely times when we’d have plans, but I’d have to say, “Sorry! Just got a job,” and cancel on him. It’s definitely not a place for codependency.
The retail sector
in the United States
THE NUMBER of people employed in retail.
THE AVERAGE SALARY of retail worker.
YOU REALLY HAVE TO BE CAREFUL. The physical aspects of styling can be pretty taxing. The average amount of stuff you’re schlepping around town is at least 200 or 300 lbs per job—just huge hockey bags overloaded with clothes, shoes, accessories, steamers, lint rollers, body tape, you name it. In New York, I don’t have my own car, so I use a lot of car services to lug it from one place to the next.
I also hire plenty of help because I know some older colleagues who now have knee or back problems because they didn’t want to shell out for assistance in the past. I like to have two people helping me at all times. I feel like it’s totally worth it, because a good chiropractor is going to cost you a lot more money in the long run.
I’VE WORKED WITH CLIENTS, SOME OF THEM CELEBRITIES, who grew up poor, and their idea of vegetables was canned beans or something. To me that’s just astonishing.
As far as food on set goes, I would say photo shoots usually have better catering than music videos or TV commercials. There are just way more people to feed when you’re working on anything for television: there are the PAs, the lighting guys, a lot more men in general, so I find that the food is a lot heartier and comes in bigger portions, but is usually not as good or nutritious. On photo shoots, there’s typically really great food most of the time—like, pretty upmarket stuff.
Red carpet politics
I STYLED KELLY CLARKSON FOR YEARS. She was a pleasure to work with—super cool, super nice, super professional. I’ve worked with her at the Grammys and the American Music Awards. I’ve also worked with another celebrity for the Golden Globes, as well as a couple of people from Boardwalk Empire. These big events usually go by so fast—the outfit has usually already been decided on a few days before, and you’re basically only there to put the outfit on them, tweak it, and scram.
If the celebrity has a performance, it’s not like you’re backstage or in the audience watching it. At the AMAs, for example, we were waiting in this random, remote parking lot. Someone came and loaded us in a golf cart and took us to the location. We prepared the celebrity and left for the day. There’s no glamour in the job. You’re not part of any of that aspect. Oh, and it’s definitely high stress. Everything is so quick!
The more exciting and enjoyable parts of award shows is rehearsals, because then you’re seeing all these different people in their element, but without their full hair and makeup. You can see the real person. You’re basically watching them onstage with maybe 20 other people in the audience—mainly employees who are producing the show. Behind the scenes—that’s where the action is.
I HATE TO SAY THIS, BUT IT’S TRUE. In terms of the ideal subject, it’s usually someone with a slim figure who can fit into sample sizes. That applies to males and females alike. You just get a lot more options for someone if they’re a size 2. It’s an unfortunate reality of the industry, but that’s the system that we’re presently dealing with.
Especially when you’re working with a big celebrity, you can call in so much amazing clothing, but only if it’ll fit them. If you’re working with someone who is plus-size, it can be a more challenging. That’s when you have to have things custom made for the person, since most womenswear designers, at least, produce clothing that terminates at, like, a size 10 or 12.
Not to mention, if someone has a model-type body, they’re going to look good in everything. It just makes my job easier.
IN 2014, the median salary of a fashion stylist was $49,263, with the job market expected to shrink 3% between 2012 and 2022.
Source: United States Bureau of Labor Statistics and Payscale.com via Learn.org
USUALLY, WITH CELEBRITIES, it’s more of a collaboration. There’s definitely a lot of back and forth. You’ll have your curated rack of clothes, and you say, “This is what I’m thinking: I love everything here because I’ve pulled it all, but these are my 3 favorite things. What do you think?” And sometimes they don’t like those things, and you’ll have to go and re-shop the whole wardrobe for the client.
And, of course, there have been times when a celebrity just wants to do things their own way. You’ll roll up the shirt sleeves a certain way, and they’ll go, “No, I don’t like it rolled up” and take it upon themselves to roll them down. Or they’ll have something specific in mind that they want to wear. There are those times when I’ve had celebrities bring me their own clothes that are just atrocious. They’ll show something that’s all wrinkled and say, “Oh, I just love this jacket!” Deep down, I’m like, “Hello! I’ve got a rack full of amazing suits!” or “My god, it looks terrible on you. What were you thinking even buying it? Forget wearing it for the shoot, it’s not even good to wear on a day-to-day basis!”
It’s definitely frustrating at times. But you just kind of have to go with it. “Sure, whatever makes you happy,” you’ll say. The most important thing is making the celebrity comfortable, because that’s what will make the best picture in the end. If I have a problem with the celebrity, the photographer could have a problem with them, and it can unravel into this domino effect of negativity.
Styling is obviously important to a celebrity’s image, but it’s just not worth the battle. Because if they feel uncomfortable, they’ll run and tell their publicist, and they’re honestly the ones who you have to watch out for. Publicists are the gatekeepers of the industry and they can be difficult to manage. I’ve worked with a lot of celebrities who’ll say, “Sure, I’ll wear that little black dress,” and then the publicist swoops in and is like, “Oh no, that’s way too much cleavage, there’s no way we’re wearing that dress.” The publicist has quite a lot of input. They’re the ones who usually make the final decisison.
On and off
THERE ARE SOME CELEBRITIES who just don’t care about clothes or fashion at all. It’s particularly true of comedians. They’re the most casual people around, because their platform is all about making people laugh and is inherently less dependent on image.
You’d think comedians are always on the ball, but when they’re getting their hair and makeup done, and getting dressed, they’ll be so serious that they almost look like they’re meditating. Maybe they’ve got a lot going on in their heads, I’m not sure. But they’ll be super, super pensive and reserved while we’re getting them ready. Then, the minute they get in front of the camera, they’re back at it. But the second the camera stops shooting, they clam up gain. It’s like they have this uncanny ability to turning their personalities on and off.