Last week, I spent a few days in LA soaking up the other side of the fashion industry, one that loves the art as much as we do, but revolves almost entirely around celebrities.
So I dove right in, starting with a celebrity stylist: Nicole Chavez. Never heard of her? Well, you probably love her work since she styles Rachel Bilson (who, let’s face it, is best known for her style), Scarlett Johansson and Kristen Bell. I’d spent time with my fair share of editorial stylists, but for a career that has the same name, it couldn’t be more different.
We spent the day pulling clothes for three events for Scarlett – Comic Con, the LA Shorts Film Festival and a Dolce & Gabbana in-store appearance – which means we ran from her loft to a designer’s house to Dolce’s showroom to Prada’s store stopping to pick up shoes on the way and unloading FedEx boxes at home. It was a never ending parade of pulling and editing and choosing and trying on and my peppering Nicole with a million questions.
So how’d she get started? What was it like working on The OC? Does she ever want to do editorial? Find out after the jump!
Where are you from?
I’m from La Canada, which is around here. My parents are still there. It’s really beautiful – relaxed, simple, easy; there was trendy fashion, but not like actual LA. I was really into fashion though, like really into it. I was reading Vogue at a super young age. So I had it in me, but I wasn’t a crazy dresser or anything. I would always dress kind of older Not in a cougar way or anything. but just not in a very high school way. I wore this one outfit, a long knit skirt that was striped beige, black and gray. It was really fitted and then I wore an oversize sweater over it with big pockets. It was very French, very Chanel and now I’m like who wears that in high school? But I loved it. It was one of my favorite outfits.
Nicole & Preen’s Power Dress
I was really into vintage and stuff, but I never really defined it as a career. I was really into photography. I made up my own independent study and my dad had dabbled in it a bit when he was younger so he let me use my camera and I had a little dark room at school that I never wanted to come out of. And I was actually pretty good. I got a couple of scholarships to art schools, but I wanted a more liberal arts education I guess, so I went to Cal Poly. And they did have a small art program.
So you did do photography?
It was a graphic design program and more commercially driven than anything I wanted to do, but in the process I kind of discovered that I was interested in styling. Though I didn’t really know it existed as a career.
Because it kind of didn’t at that point, I mean no one ever talked about it.
No not at all, especially not on the west coast. New York was full of editorial stylists, but no one knew about celebrity stylists in 1998. So while I was doing my photo shoots in school, people started asking me to style theirs, too. I was like a little creative director for my friends – from picking the models to the clothes to the hair to the makeup. And I loved it. I flourished. So when I was done I thought I should probably focus more on fashion than photography. I just came home and kind of tried to figure out what was up.
Racks of clothes for Scarlett in Nicole’s loft
Which we’re all kind of trying to do!
Yeah! So I helped out a family friend who was an interior designer and from there helped out a client who needed a nanny. The client worked at Disney and so one day he was like, “okay what do you want to do with your life” and when I said maybe costume design he put me in touch with people and I got the opportunity to go to Florida to work on a movie. I obviously had to get myself there and it didn’t pay anything, but it was a golden opportunity and kind of the best learning experience.
What movie was it?
It was called Big Trouble. It’s a Barry Sonnenfeld film and I really learned a lot. It was a big ensemble cast and I got to see the inside of movie making and I was totally hooked. I loved being on location and meeting so many new people so when I got back to LA I joined the union and then I just started working regularly until I landed The OC.
Tell me about that.
A friend of mine got the costuming job on The OC and I came on the team and that’s where I met Rachel. We started working together for events during the year. I left The OC after season two just to see if I could do it. And styling and costuming couldn’t be more different. It was a giant leap of faith.
Pulling clothes at Dolce
What was costuming like?
I loved it. It’s a team effort all the way. You have designers and stylists and shoppers and there’s a huge vision and anywhere from 50 to 250 people in the costuming department.
Yeah, when I worked on Poseidon we had over 150. I was one of the shoppers and there were eight of us. We just shopped! For the principal characters, for the extras – there were tons of stunts so we needed multiples of everything – and it was supposed to be a really upscale cruise so it was very high fashion.
What was the transition like from film to the TV?
There’s a huge difference. The biggest one is that with film there’s an end date whereas with TV we shoot for ten months of the year. You basically sleep on Saturday because you wrap Friday at 5 or 6 in the morning.
Yeah. What happens with the shooting schedule is you start Monday really early. Like 5 in the morning because wardrobe is the first thing in since we have to get the clothes ready for the actors and then the last ones to leave since we have to get everything cleaned, organized etc. So as the work week progressed things go over and calls get pushed back so by Friday you’re not starting until 11am which means you don’t finish until like 7am the next day – Saturday. So you go home and sleep and if you’re ambitious and young, like I was then, I’d try to go out and have some sort of social life and then I’d run all my errands for my whole life on Sunday and then go to bed early because I’d have to be there at 5 the next morning! For ten months. And that’s only a year! These shows can go on for six, seven years. It’s a really heavy schedule. But it does become your family and it was a really fun show to work on.
Especially the first two seasons!
Yeah definitely. It was an amazing time. We used to all sit around on set watching the episodes before they aired which of course just made me cry and cry which in turn made all the boys make fun of me. It was such a cool thing to be a part of, but I needed to try my own thing.
So did you and Rachel just hit it off? I mean that’s a big jump to take with just one client.
Yeah we totally clicked. (Nicole’s assistant chimes in, “They’re basically the same person when it comes to fashion”) We’d look at magazines and just “Oh my god” over the same exact things so it was like dressing myself but the Barbie version which is way more fun. The first thing we ever did – it makes me giddy just thinking about it – but I’d seen Kirsten Dunst wear Jovovich-Hawk to the Mona Lisa Smile premiere. It was this gorgeous teal dress so I started Googling and they’d just launched the line and it was like their first collection and I found Milla’s agent or publicist or something. I just emailed the first person I could find online connected to Milla and said I was interested in working with her on a dress for Rachel for the Teen Choice Awards which, when I think about it, was kind of creepy. But it totally worked! And Milla made something for her, this little patterned dress with a jacket and she wore a little braid.
What color was it?
It was navy, with little splashes of orange.
I totally remember that!
I love that dress. She let me wear it to my 10 year high school reunion. But anyway, from there, I think I just got really excited about the whole thing, the potential. I just started emailing people and getting really into it.
Racks of shoe samples in Nicole’s studio
Well once you had an official client it must’ve been easy to get more girls, or feel like a “real stylist”?
It didn’t feel real though. Not until I got Kristen [Bell] which was a good year later. With Rachel, I was like her buddy and we hung out and talked about clothes. But she told Kristen about me – they were at the same table at the Emmys, I think.
So you’ve been working with Rachel ever since then and I love her, but I mean, she’s kind of only been known for her amazing style since then which in turn says a lot about you.
Well Rachel’s just one of those people who could wear a trash bag and look amazing. Her sense of style is innate and she has such a killer little body and she truly loves fashion.
Does your style help extend into her everyday life or do you think your influence ends on the red carpet?
I’m definitely just there for her for events.
So it’s all word of mouth then, the way you get clients?
Yeah totally. I didn’t have an agent for a really long time, now I do and he brokers my deals and helps me with press and makes sure everything’s taken care of and I’m not forgetting all the little but important business-y things.
Pulling jewelry at Sonia Boyajian’s studio
So how does it work now? Does a girl call and say, “I have an event on this day”?
Basically their publicist talks to my agent and they coordinate schedules.
And do you start from scratch? Do you guys talk about a look, an idea, or do you do it all and then let them choose from something edited?
At this point they know that I know what I’m doing I think. I always take into consideration – and I think this comes from costuming – but it’s very character driven. So it’s like what are you promoting? Where are you doing it? What’s the temperature? Who’s your character in the film? So it’s all of those elements.
So if you’re promoting the same movie in LA and then in London they’d be totally different?
Definitely, because London’s style couldn’t be more different from LA’s. And also, I really like everything to be cohesive and have a tone. Like when we did The Last Kiss, in the movie, Rachel plays this flirty vixen so her clothes for the press tour were probably the sexiest you’ve ever seen her. And I don’t know if I just do it because I’m subconsciously thinking about it or what, it’s just kind of a feeling. Even if I haven’t seen the movie I’ll watch the trailers and ask questions etc. Because let’s say you’re promoting an animated Disney movie and you show up in some little leather ensemble that might’ve been more appropriate for Transformers. I mean I definitely think about that stuff. And I like to stay within a palette.
Throughout the press tour?
Yeah I just don’t want it to feel disjointed. And on top of everything I just want it to feel like the girls. It’s really important to me with every single one of my clients, that the girls all have their own sense of style and it’s pretty distinguishable.
That’s of a lot to take into consideration.
Yeah I mean at this point I know the venues, the events, like first Letterman, then Regis and Kelly etc. so it’s kind of, weirdly, like a consistent schedule.
Scarlett at Comic Con
So do you give them one outfit, three and they choose, or what?
It all comes together in the fitting. It’s really a personal thing. Some girls feel more comfortable with backup options and some just want me to tell them what to wear and how to do it. So it’s really a personality thing, because the other part of my job is being able to read their energy, their personality, because ultimately it’s their second skin and if they’re not comfortable in it than the whole thing’s going to be off so it’s most important that they’re comfortable and they get the final say.
So walk me through the schedule, from learning about the event to the night itself.
Well I get the call and I find out what it is. Then I go and flip through my lookbooks, Style.com, etc. and I make lists of what I want and once I’m done with that I sit down and email all of them. Then they get back to me, “oh it’s with Vogue, Elle, it’s already been worn whatever” and then I have to either find a way to get it for a day or I find substitutions because there are always super strong pieces in the collection, but that’s the piece everyone wants.
Yeah god that brings back nightmares from my super brief PR stint. Ther’es nothing worse than when a magazine like Vogue and a star like Scarlett Johansson want the same dress on the same day.
And I mean editorial usually wins which I totally understand, and I feel honored when we get it. It’s great. And then there are certain people I work with regularly who know the way that I work and know that if I say I’m going to send it back tomorrow I’m going to send it back tomorrow which makes things so much easier because then I get what I want.
Nicole & Kristen at Philip Lim’s party
So then what?
Well I like to make sure I have everything there – the clothes, the shoes, the accessories, jeans, tees, undergarments.
All of it! And then we do the fitting. And I’m lucky if I get two hours to fit them head to toe for a whole press tour and interviews and everything else. So I just need to know inside and out what we have, what works with what and what my backup plan is if something goes wrong. I just have to be really organized. So we bring them the clothes, we bring the tailor, we do the fitting.
And then that’s it.
Well if they’re in town I usually go over and help them get dressed and just hang out with hair and makeup. I’m big on teamwork so even if I have an idea or a vision about the whole look I definitely let them do their thing.
It sounds like such a whirlwind, and so much fun. Do you ever think about doing editorial work?
Oh yeah I love editorial. Sometimes I wish I could be in New York and get to do that whole side of it. I mean I love working in that. I always tell people I want to intern.
Really? Have you done it? I mean it sounds like that’s what you did in college that made you fall in love with it in the first place.
I did have a brief stint doing Seventeen covers and I loved doing that. They’re mostly celebrity based covers so I got to do that from here and it was so much fun. I would love to do little stories like I did for WhoWhatWear.
What’s the biggest difference between editorial work and celebrity styling.
Probably the research. In editorial you have to constantly keep up with everything that’s going on and just be so aware. I mean I have to do that on my end to but it’s very different in that an editorial stylist really has to bring something new to the table every time. You have to have something to say. But I do like finding that stuff! I like the research and I kind of do it anyway so it would be nice to channel that into something. I’ve toyed with the idea of doing a blog.
You should! I can’t believe a stylist hasn’t already started one.
Well Rachel [Zoe] is coming out with hers. But I’ve been feeling it out, to see if it feels organic and I actually just hired my first intern. She’s from where I grew up and already has a blog and could be a huge help. Which is how things usually happen for me – I throw the idea out in the universe and it just comes back to me so it’s really cool and I think I’m going to play with that idea.
Well I’m sure you have a ton of ideas, as a really creative person, and your job doesn’t allow you to really go crazy like an editorial stylist can.
I just have a lot to say! Like even beauty stuff, I’m such a product whore and I’m always learning about the newest, coolest stuff and I want to tell people about it. So I’ve been Twittering, which I’m slowly learning and it’s so much fun. I want people to ask me fashion questions.
Well you should definitely start a blog! I’d read it.
I just feel like there’s such a voice that’s missing out there. Like I wasn’t raised super high fashion, I never had it around me, it just really inspired me and I think I’m really approachable and want to help people out.
I mean the difference between you and a lot of the editorial stylists in New York is vast. They’re so nice, but they’re so intimidating. You’re so down to earth.
And I love that, I love looking at them and their work and I find them totally inspiring but it’s just not me.