A couple of years ago, I began going to business school to learn the basics of how to run my styling business. After all, we stylists have to deal with cash flow statements and managing our money and assistants, even if we are just “creatives” who play with clothing. As I entered into the alien world of business 101, I was surrounded by corporate business people that didn’t have the slightest idea what a “fashion stylist” was or what could be expected of one. In most cases, I would anticipate the need to go into my 2 minute speech which explains my role, how it works, and with whom I work, whenever I met someone new. Even when I got my speech down to what I thought was a decent explanation, I still got blank stares back.
The uninitiated couldn’t seem to understand the gist of what a stylist did. In a nut shell, here was my speech: "stylists work with creative teams including photographers, design teams, or art directors to create a vision for an image or brand. At the same time, we also face the challenge of making the clothes look awesome (regardless of their quality)." Due to the general lack of understanding regarding my role, I started to think more about what I really do as a stylist. I guess the reason that it is not easy to explain is because a stylists’ responsibilities change quite a bit depending on the kind of job or project we are working on that day. When I am shooting an editorial, I have the privilege of collaborating with some of the world’s best editor-in-chiefs (EIC’s for short) on creating stories for their magazines. With an editorial and the approval of the EIC, I get to choose the concept, photographer, hair and makeup teams, models, and of course the clothes.
However, on an advertising shoot for a brand, I become a backseat passenger. My focus shifts to making the clothes look chic and expensive, while the art director commands the concept, chooses the photographer, hair and makeup teams, and casting. On advertisement jobs, stylists are there to support the photographers and art directors, helping with ideas when needed but also staying out of the way when there are too many cooks in the kitchen.
For runway shows or creative consultation, stylists are “shot callers.” We work directly with the designer and his or her team to research inspiration, edit fabrics and silhouettes, design or edit accessories, choose hair/makeup and casting directors, or work on music for the show. In cases such as this, stylists have an influence on almost every creative element.
Working with celebrities is a completely different skill set. Pulling for red carpet events means knowing how to make the client look skinny and classic, while at the same time, keeping them off the “worst dressed list.” Some clothes that look amazing in a photograph or on the runway can look just plain crazy on the red carpet. Plenty of stylists and their clients have learned that lesson the hard way. Styling with celebrities is always about staying true to the personality of the client while elevating it with chic edge and striving for an image of them on the red carpet that will be considered timeless for years to come. One day at business school, a fellow student (and lead engineer at a major IT firm) asked me how the role of stylist had come about. He wanted to know what lead people to need a stylist, whether it be a company, magazine or celebrity. As I begin to think about styling’s history and what has influenced me as a stylist, I started to realize the role is very much a mash-up of several different roles originating from the late 1800s and early 1900s. It is the combination of a Fashion Editor, Costume Designer, and Salon Directrice.
Fashion Editors were invented in 1867 when the Harper & Brothers Company created Harper’s Bazar (what we now know as Harper’s Bazaar). Harper’s Bazar was aimed at middle and upper class women assembling photographers, artists, designers and writers to deliver a “sophisticated” perspective into the world of fashion, beauty, and popular culture. Naturally, competition arose. Vogue followed in 1892 as a weekly publication (It became a monthly publication in the '70s). It too chronicled and captured the trends of fashion and beauty of America’s prominent socialites.
Eventually, fashion editors roles changed from documenting trends to providing their own creative opinions. Fashion editors began to choose the clothes and accessories to appear on the pages, first for illustrations and then eventually for photographs in the 1930s (hello Irving Penn and Richard Avedon!!). Fashion magazines caused a new shift. Women used to buy clothes based on what socialites or celebrities wore. When these stories (heavily influenced by fashion editors) came along, women had a new resource for inspiration and what to purchase for their wardrobes. As the role of fashion editor grew over time, creative editors began to appear. Creative editors began pushing the boundaries of a fashion image encompassing street culture, youth culture, and fashion culture all in one. The first woman I really noticed pushing the envelope, in my study of fashion history, was Carmel Snow. Mrs. Snow changed fashion images from stagnate posing models to girls running down a beach. This change seems small, I am sure, but she brought new life to Harper’s Bazaar’s pages. Mrs. Snow also discovered Diana Vreeland, one of the greatest fashion editors of all time. Mrs. Vreeland brought a sense of fantasy, imagination, and story to the pictures she styled. Around the 1930s, the editors began truly collaborating with the photographers, rather than just rolling in a rack of clothes chosen by the EIC. Mrs. Vreeland and Mrs. Snow where the initial spearheads in this innovative and collaborative approach.
As magazines began to create more fabulous, imaginative, and seductive images of the clothing and accessories on their pages, the fashion designers of the time began to advertise more due to the fact that the magazines and their editors were increasing product sales. Fashion editors and their magazines began to make or break a designer’s career through coverage and support. Top fashion editors also became confidants to designers. They often visited the designer’s studio to examine the collections prior to the debut runway shows and advised on hair, makeup, or models. These patterns of interaction lead the way for how current “freelance” stylists now work with designers and brands. It was a two-way street. Designers got the advice from editors and editors got a glimpse into what’s next and could begin to lead the magazine pages in the appropriate direction, e.g. Grace Mirabella’s relationship with Halston. Now, with all of the research I have done and with what little information on the history of stylists exists, it seems to me that the freelance stylist came into existence sometime in the 1970s. When I worked at KCD many moons ago with Nian Fish, she spoke to me about the first stylists. From Nian’s story, I remember her speaking of the Goodman sisters (including Vogue’s Tonne Goodman) and Kezia Keeble (who started KCD, then Keeble, Cavaco & Duka). I am sure there are more stylists from this first generation but I cannot quite piece it together, something I look forward to doing here in this column for Fashionista. (I'll be doing this through interviews with the old guard and fashion icons who were working in those days.) Similar to magazine fashion editors of the 1930s, stylists of the 1970s began to nurture some of fashion’s most iconic photographers, like Steven Meisel, Bruce Weber, and Helmut Newton. Although my knowledge of this beginning is sketchy at best, what I do know is that fashion editors who were beginning to be known as stylists were also being offered top creative positions at fashion houses. For instance, in her time between working as a fashion editor at British Vogue and American Vogue, Grace Coddington briefly took a position at Calvin Klein. Grace left Calvin when offered a position as one of the top creative editors at Anna Wintour’s American Vogue in 1988. Another role that I believe inspired and informed fashion editors and stylists early on was that of salon directrice. A salon directrice was the head honcho at the couture houses, dressing and handling the clientele when the designer was not able to do so themselves. As the clientele and business grew, a designer would be more and more caught up with designing new collections. The salon directrice would be carefully chosen to represent the house and take care of all of its customers. These women were impeccably chic. They knew all about how to complement a woman’s features, how to dress appropriately for numerous occasions and what their clientele already owned as to not repeat unnecessary styles or silhouettes when working with a woman on her new clothing orders.
I learned about this position from a book I stumbled on at the bookstore called A Guide to Elegance by Geneveive Antoine Dariaux. Madam Dariaux was a salon directrice in Paris for Nina Ricci starting in the 1960s. I highly recommend this book: just to learn some of the amazing old rules that women used to abide by. (Personally, I like to learn the rules, so I can then figure out how to break them.)
As I put together the puzzle pieces from the many fashion books I have read, it seems to me that the Salon Directrice role was invented somewhere around the mid to late 1930s when Balenciaga, Chanel, and Dior boutiques were filled to the brim with women clamoring for there couture. Although a salon directrice may have known nothing about creating a fashion image, these women sure knew a lot about dressing to accentuate one’s best features (always useful for a fashion image or celebrity client). They knew how to achieve many things through a lady’s wardrobe via strategy such as, how to impress royalty, how to impress a spouse, or how to “procure” a husband, etc. Many of these concerns were also addressed in the fashion magazines at the time. While fashion editors were creating the fantasy of what to wear to impress for the pages of magazines, salon directrices were actually on the forefront speaking and learning with their customers. Reading Madam Dariaux’s book about her experiences working with women and their wardrobes helped me form more of a background about how to work with my celebrity clients and styling them appropriately for their events. The last position I have found highly influential as a stylist is the role of a costume designer in films. Costume designers informed most of pop culture about fashion as early as the 1920s. These specialty designers not only conceived of the garments, but also created the icons we know as “Movie Stars.” Costume designers collaborated with film directors and talent to create character appropriate status, emotion, and seduction through the wardrobe.
When it’s possible, I try to create a character through my fashion stories for editorials or for the runway. I have so much respect for the talent of the costume designers who create characters for full length films repeatedly. The most influential costume designers I have had the pleasure of researching and being obsessed with are Edith Head and Adrian. Edith Head was a creative visionary and won eight Oscars. She won more than any other woman in history. Mrs. Head was rumored to be Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite designer, and also dressed Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Grace Kelly, Liz Taylor and Audrey Hepburn. To say the least, she was truly a fashion icon.
As for Adrian, he was a fashion star in his own right. He collaborated with Greta Garbo to establish her look. He also created what I consider wardrobe strategies for Jean Harlow (who can forget those silk sheaths?!), Katherine Hepburn (the ultimate gender bending socialite) and Joan Crawford (John Galliano owes this man a lot of Dior show credit!!) Adrian was also the genius behind the Wizard of Oz (hello, ruby slippers) and Cecil B DeMille’s epics. I found this rumored quote from Adrian when I was researching him about why he quit:
"It was because of Garbo that I left M-G-M. In her last picture they wanted to make her a sweater girl, a real American type. I said, 'When the glamour ends for Garbo, it also ends for me. She has created a type. If you destroy that illusion, you destroy her.' When Garbo walked out of the studio, glamour went with her, and so did I." These three roles have influenced me as a stylist and fashion geek tremendously over the past decade, and will, with any luck, inspire some of you. In this column, I hope to really explore what I do as a stylist, where we get our inspiration, where the business is going, and speak with other fashion icons such as the ones mentioned here.
Recommending Reading: Stylist by Sarah Mower D.V. by Diana Vreeland A Guide to Elegance by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux Grace by Grace Coddington