They were both studying sociology, but spent more of their time scouring Goodwill and Southern California flea markets for vintage bell bottoms than worrying about a sociology career.
After graduation they went their separate ways, but reunited and became unstoppable stylists first within the music industry, then among celebrities and through their prolific editorial work for Nylon Magazine. In 2008, they revolutionized denim with the boyfriend jean under their newly launched label, Current/Elliot.
Now everyone in the world makes boyfriend jeans, but they’ve stayed more than relevant with a carefully edited collection of denim pieces, including dresses, jackets and yes, a baggy jean or two. After the jump we talk about how they got started, and how they built two different, very successful careers.
So I know you’re from Northern California. How did you end up in LA?
Emily: I left Davis for UCLA, which is where I met Meritt. We were the total hippie chicks at UCLA. We bonded over bell bottoms actually, 684 elephant bells because we both wear bell bottoms and everyone–
What are 684s?
E: Giant 70s vintage jeans that are just ridiculous. And no girls wore bell bottoms at the time–it was the era of ripped, zipped back BisousBisous pants and like Guess platform boots, so this is like ‘95 to ’99.
So you bonded over jeans?
Merrit: Yeah and then we started going to flea markets together over the weekend and sharing our finds, but we were actually studying sociology.
E: And we sat next to each other at graduation, just serendipitously and we started talking about what we should do in the future and we both kind of went on to do other things, at least a little bit, but we were freelance styling on the side until we joined forces to become a styling team!
What was that conversation like?
M: Pretty dorky. I mean UCLA’s not the most creative school and at graduation we were both wearing long vintage dresses under our gowns and we were just like what do we love, what do we want to do? We complement each other well, so we figured we should stay in touch and at least hang out, and eventually do something together.
What were your favorite vintage stores then?
M: Well we used to take the bus to the flea markets on the weekends.
E: And there were so many amazing places even in Santa Monica back then, and this great place by the school. We were the only ones who went, it probably closed down after we graduated.
M: It’s true, we were the only ones ever there.
So after college, you each went your own way.
E: Yeah, I was styling and doing in house work for one brand. The styling work was both editorial and celebrity – I mean all of the same things I do now but on a much smaller level.
M: I did freelance writing for Conde, Allure, etc.
E: Yeah I mean when you’re young you’re just trying to build your book and get yourself together, and then it was like it all came together and actually worked and made sense when we joined forces.
M: And it was a slow process. She built her portfolio and I built mine and she met clients and I met clients and when we hedged them together we all of a sudden had this momentum. We never assisted or anything, we sort of just said yes to everything and figured it out as we went along. And then before we knew it we were styling big bands for their album covers and music videos and runway shows.
E: There are two of us, so one could just nod yes and the other could quickly figure it out.
How do you start? Once the two of you came together, what’s the first thing that happens?
E: You know people are always asking that – always – and now we have these amazing assistants and I want to be able to guide them and teach them, but that moment when it happens, it just happens you know? It’s like when people say they’re getting married and they knew because it just happened, it just happened! It worked. We got one client at Interscope and from there we became the go-to band stylists. And at that point it was all about music. The music industry’s changed so much.
What was your first big shoot? The first one that made you go, “Wow, this is awesome.”
E: Mischa Barton, believe it or not. I know that’s not band related, but she’d just started acting and she was major.
M: And then every new band that got signed to the label, they’d bring to us, sit us down and make us listen to the album and ask, “What do you see?”
E: It was like an image development thing at the beginning, which we’re so grateful for because that’s not how styling is these days, but it totally informs what we do and how we still style. We got to brand ourselves as stylists who think about what works business-wise and not just, “That’s pretty,” though we do that, too.
What was the biggest challenge when you started?
M: I mean when you start out and you’re that young you’re broke anyway, so you really have nothing to lose. It’s not like we quite our day jobs, and we were so resourceful. Like, “Oh I heard so and so started a business,” so we’d take them to lunch and get everything out of them, like how does it work? Everyone we knew, we’d say something like, “Hey! I’ll make you a customized shirt if you show us how to use this computer program, or how to get a business license.”
E: When you’re young and hungry and there’s two of you together, it’s just so much fun. But the hardest part is meeting the designers and getting enough cred to be able to pull what you want. But we were just so nice, and we really tried to be kind and thoughtful and return perfectly and be so responsible and that really helps. Those designer relationships are hard to build.
M: Yeah it was kind of like do one favor for everyone, and it always works in your favor.
How’d you transition from music into fashion?
E: We got an agent pretty quickly. And then it was a natural progression.
M: You know we’d do a music video and meet the director who’d ask us to do his commercial, which would lead to a fashion client.
What’s it like styling commercials?
E: It’s so different.
M: I love it!
E: We have a little bit of a different—
M: I hate editorial—
E: And I love editorial.
M: And I love ad jobs and commercials.
What’s the process like?
M: Ad jobs? Way more of sitting down at a round table, story boards, market research. They hire you to come in and do everything.
E: But there are more rules. You want to get the best you can within certain parameters—and there are a lot of parameters.
Can you give me an example?
E: We just did Neutrogena with Vanessa and Emma Roberts.
M: We’ve done so many beauty ones—Sally Hansen, Carls Jr., K-Mart…For Neutrogena it was like here, you know the girls, you know the product, make them look the best you can and it has to be about the product. So we have a pretty defined roll.
And you like that?
M: Yeah it’s fun!
E: I like it, too. Don’t get me wrong- I like weird feathered things and high fashion, I like the freedom of editorial. But editorial’s a labor of love and at the end of the day after an ad job, it’s like, “I can pay my rent.”
LA’s not as editorial a town, have you ever been tempted by New York?
E: Oh yeah definitely.
M: No. I’m a warm weather girl, but there’s a freedom to styling in New York. Though I’m totally intimidated by that whole getting clothes in a cab kind of thing.
E: We used to work there a lot. Last time we were there we were in Silvercup Studios for like a week and I felt really bad for the girls who work there. I mean we work on the beach, even our studios are on the beach. And these girls have to work like underground in Long Island City and there was like a murder across the street, and it’s pouring rain and I’m just like, “LA’s great.”
M: It’s just different. We do do editorial here, but it’s just very celebrity driven.
So are your creative ideas restricted by the celebrity then? Not necessarily in a bad way, but do you feel that?
What’s one of the most fulfilling jobs you’ve ever worked on?
E: Probably anytime it’s with one of our repeat clients whom we just love: Mandy Moore, Emma Roberts, or back when Fiona [Apple] was promoting stuff. I think when you work with the same people over and over and then you build a rapport with the people they’re surrounded by and it becomes such a team. When Mandy’s last record came out and we built a whole world around it, a mood, and the process becomes organic and so fun.
Do you prefer working with models or celebrities?
E: It depends! It depends on what the project is.
Your answers are too diplomatic!
M: It’s true though! I would say that over the last two years we’re really celebrity oriented.
I think that’s the nature of LA though, I mean few people in New York are working with celebrities. And they’re kind of scary, in a too-cool way. It’s so much more laid back here.
E: Also, our lookbook shoots for Current/Elliot have been such an outlet for us. We’ve been able to create our own world.
Speaking of, let’s talk about the transition from superstar styling team to denim designers.
M: While styling, we were consulting with a lot of brands. And always thinking outside the box and the denim was just a natural progression. We had our vintage denim – bell bottoms, boyfriend jeans – we wore it all the time and we’d start bringing it on shoots and ad jobs and people would always ask, “Oh I want that in the shoot! That has to be in the editorial.”
I hate that in magazines. Half the time I see something amazing it says, “Stylist’s Own.”
M: Or vintage! So then there was so much demand that we started buying every pair of vintage jeans on site and keeping them at a studio with a tailor. It was just out of control.
E: But remember, this was the era of rhinestoned butterflied butts on jeans.
So you tailored the vintage jeans?
M: Oh yeah, we’d take the whole thing apart.
E: Which is why, when we were consulting for Serge Azria’s company Joie, it just happened so organically. We wore the jeans everyday and it was like, “Let’s just re-create these.
E: Everything was so dark, so dressy. There was pink, it’s slutty, you can’t put that with a really glittery top on the red carpet—it looks…
But they did!
M: They did.
E: And most of the vintage jeans that we used were men’s. They had character, the silhouettes were different.
M: Fashion just needed an ease, and denim was the perfect place for it. We just happened to be there at the right time, and everyone unanimously agreed with us.
E: Well, I have to say, we were in a position to create this out of nothing. We could’ve bought a ton of vintage jeans and re-built them, but thank goodness we were in a position in which someone believed in us—when we were consulting for Joie—and he believed in us at a time in which no one was interested in investing in denim.
Because there are 8 million ‘high-fashion’denim brands?
M: Yeah it’s like there was a new denim line every week—and they all think they’re so different. There was something missing.
E: Serge really let us do something wild. I’m shocked that he let us go there, because it was baggy and ridiculous and it’s hard to even imagine now, but there were no baggy boyfriend jeans on the market. It was ridiculous.
M: So we holed away and hired a few of our friends who really know denim and started printing our tags and ironing on current/elliot patches and finally we show it to him, to Serge, and he was ecstatic.
E: He’d wanted this, something like this, for so long.
M: And he was just thrilled that exactly what we all thought could be great actually came to life.
E: And we were just thrilled to have the samples. We didn’t really expect much more to happen.
Really though? I mean you put that much thought and effort into something you believe in and you would’ve been ok with it ending there?
M: Well we had a celebrity fitting that night, and we were like, “Ok, at least we have our real jobs to go back to.” So it was nice to be distracted. But then we’re at Ashley Tisdale’s house and we get a call from Serge, “The buyers loved it! It’s a brand! We’re going to Coterie next week.”
E: So we did. We went to Coterie that week, went to New York and met with Vogue next week, Bismarck Phillips, just everything in a week, it was crazy.
How did Vogue happen?
E: Meredith Melling Burke was wearing vintage bell bottoms and someone asked her, “Are you wearing Current/Elliot?”
M: And she asked, “What’s that?”
E: And then researched it and tracked us down. And then Barneys jumped in and wanted to launch in first.
M: When people like something, when they’re excited, you don’t have to sell it.
And they were everywhere overnight. Was that weird for you?
M: No. I mean I don’t believe that. It all felt the same.
E: We don’t see a lot of the press, so it hasn’t impacted us at all.
M: There are a few moments. I went to my hometown’s 4th of July parade, and I looked around and saw all of these girls in Current/Elliot and that was a little weird. When you’re in LA you’re in this little bubble and everyone’s wearing it, but it’s just LA.
What’s it like seeing the boyfriend jean everywhere?
E: It can be kind of depressing to go shopping. But our debut collection was 22 pieces, 22 pieces cherry picked from denim’s history—and the boyfriend jean was just one of those 22 pieces.
But it’s what made an impact.
M: But for us, there was so much more. There was no straight leg, no bootcut. The elephant bells? People flipped out over those just as much as the boyfriends. The press was so into the boyfriend, but regular girls were dying for those elephant bells because I don’t think anyone had ever done the true, low-pocket skinny, skinny leg elephant bell at the time.
E: The boyfriend somehow blew up, but I never would have expected it. The whole story, that whole season, was about what we really believed in, as a whole.
Which is probably why Current/Elliot’s still at the top of the pile. How do you balance your two worlds?
M: We just keep them totally separate. We have different offices, different assistants, different hours in the day assigned to each.
E: But at the same time, these worlds are so alike, styling and design. I mean, if we hadn’t come from ten years of styling I don’t know if this would’ve been so easy, day to day. And luckily, for the parts that are difficult for creative souls, we have a great partner.
It’s pretty inspiring to watch you both do each job so well. Thank you!
M: Thank you!
E: Thanks love!