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How to Make It as a Celebrity Stylist in 2017

Hint: don't expect it to be glamorous. At least, not always.
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Micaela Erlanger and Lupita Nyong'o. Photo: John Sciulli/Getty Images for Marie Claire

Micaela Erlanger and Lupita Nyong'o. Photo: John Sciulli/Getty Images for Marie Claire

Welcome to Career Week! While we always make career-focused content a priority on Fashionista, we thought spring would be a good time to give you an extra helping of tips and tricks on how to make it in the fashion industry.

Few jobs appear cooler or more glamorous than that of the celebrity stylist. They get to go to fashion shows, pick out beautiful clothes, hang out with A-listers and feel the satisfaction of knowing that your work gets seen by thousands — maybe millions — of people on some of the most esteemed red carpets in the world. In truth, it's one of the hardest jobs in the industry and one of the hardest to get. It requires hustling, paying your dues, being a people person, lots of physical labor and, nowadays, decent social media skills. Understanding fashion, having good taste and knowing how to build a celebrity's persona through clothes is only a small piece of what's required to make it in this field.

Of course, that's not to say it's impossible. We compiled tips from a few of the most powerful celebrity stylists working today, whose collective clientele include the likes of Lupita Nyong'o, Meryl Streep, Rami Malek, Olivia Wilde, Riley Keough, Tessa Thompson and many more to build a comprehensive guide to what it really takes to make it as a respected Hollywood stylist in 2017.

Intern and assist — and do it well.

Most stylists we've interviewed spent a good chunk of time interning, and then assisting, before booking jobs on their own. Whether it's for an individual stylist or a magazine, getting the experience of working with PR companies and pulling clothes from showrooms is extremely valuable. And the work isn't easy: It's a lot of running around and lugging heavy garment bags from point A to point B, but you learn what and where all the important PR companies and showrooms are, and who to be in touch with at each one.

As with most internships, the key is making yourself memorable and needed. "I treated it like my job," says Micaela Erlanger, whose clients include Lupita Nyong'o, Meryl Streep, Michelle Dockery and Jared Leto, of her internship with the late Annabel Tollman. "I was the first person to show up and last person to leave, and no task was too small whether it was getting coffee or shlepping garment bags. I really proved myself and started to gain responsibility."

"What I think the best thing kids can do nowadays is find a mentor and go to work, or become an apprentice and not think that within one year you're going to know it all and you're going go on your own," advised Karla Welch, whose clients include Lorde, Olivia Wilde, Ruth Negga, Sarah Paulson, Justin Bieber and Hailey Steinfeld.

The key to advancing from an intern or freelancer to an assistant? Build trust.  

Of course, there are other avenues.

Ilaria Urbinati, whose clients include Rami Malek, Donald Glover and Riz Ahmed, got her start in retail, then became a buyer and then opened her own store. Through this, she developed relationships with brands and would meet clients who would come into the store — either hers or those she worked for previously — to shop. "There weren't a lot of stylists back then, so often actresses would come in and be like, hey would you consider dressing me for this event I need to go to," she explains.

Make connections literally everywhere, even while working for someone else.

Styling is largely about relationships — with brands, with publicists, with assistants, with receptionists — everyone. "My mentor told me, 'Always introduce yourself.' Always say, 'Hi, I'm so-and-so and I'm from so-and-so's office, and get the receptionist's name and the PR girl's name. When it comes time for you to work as an assistant, you never know when those contacts are going to come in handy," advises Erlanger, who was referred to her first client, Dockery, by a makeup artist she'd previously worked with and stayed in touch with.

When asked last year what she would advise her younger self, Jamie Mizrahi, whose clients include Riley Keough, Ashley Benson and Suki Waterhouse said, "It would probably be to look everyone in the eye and build relationships."

It's also essential to simply be a people person. "You're dealing with so many different personalities — not just the various clients but also their teams, the studios, the makeup and hair people," says Urbinati

Establish good relationships with brands, even while working for someone else.

"Designers will be more likely to loan you clothes for a less established client if you have a good relationship with them," says Urbinati. "Always know your stuff and have done your research because the brands appreciate it when they feel like you have an understanding of the brand and what they stand for so that you represent the designer's vision in a way they're happy with."

Brands also appreciate speedy returns and not hoarding clothes and just generally creating good experiences when you work together.

Find freelance gigs and start small.

Getting a steady assistant job can be tricky. "A lot of people get away with just having one [assistant] and a bunch of freelancers," explains Erlanger, who freelanced for two years before assisting Tollman full-time. "Relationship building is so important and just staying in touch with people and saying, 'Hey I'm around if you need me.'" She did test shoots or would style her film school friends' low-budget projects to gain experience and develop her portfolio, even while she was working for Tollman. 

Freelancing can be inconsistent, though. "I diversified myself and I made sure to build relationships when I was freelancing with a bunch of different people," adds Erlanger. "I made sure I was booked on as many jobs as I possibly could be at any given time because you just never know when the work's going to slow down."

"You get out there, you intern, you try to locate the stylists who need assistants. Go on websites — even Craigslist will have styling intern posts," advised Micah McDonald (part of a styling duo alongside Wayman Bannerman).

Don't be afraid to do your own thing once you've gotten enough experience.

Some stylists, after you assist them, will "pay it forward" and refer you to their agent, but not all of them, says Erlanger. Doing small jobs while assisting someone else could ultimately be the key to breaking out on your own.

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Use social media to your advantage.

All of the stylists we spoke with say social media is crucial now, for a number of reasons: It simply puts more eyeballs on your work, plus brands like it when you post looks with credits and it makes it easier for editors like us to identify what someone is wearing. It can also lead to stylists becoming influencers in their own right. "When we negotiate with brands for design collaborations like I've been doing with Eddie Bauer and other brands, they like to know you have a large following that you can promote the stuff, too," says Urbinati

Know the difference between personal shopping and styling.

"Now there's a lot of street style and now there's a lot of personal shopping and now there's a lot of bloggers and [people who] think anyone can do this and anyone can buy things and return them at the store or whatever, but if you really want to learn how to be a celebrity stylist, you have to develop the relationships with the brands," says Erlanger.

Know fashion and have a vision.

"Do your research; know your stuff. Have an understanding of the brands and their history," advises Urbinati. "It gives you so much reference and context for your job... You don't want to put something on someone just cause it's cute; it makes so much more of an impact if it comes from an inspired place."

Be very organized.

"You have to be so unbelievably organized to be a stylist," says Urbinati. "You're keeping track of so much, so many people, their schedules and events, so many pieces of clothing, jewelry, accessories, underpinnings, so many notes on tailoring and other things, shipments — and it all has to be packed up by the event and organized. You forget one little thing and it's mayhem. On top of that, everything is always super last minute."

Do a great job and the clients will come.

Clients are typically found through networking, referrals, agents and publicists. "Now I usually find clients through their publicist calling my agent," says Urbinati. "You build relationships with one client and if their publicist likes you and they see that you do a great job and make their life easier, as you should be doing, then they hire you for their other clients too."

Of course, it's all about finding that first client. "It's really difficult to get your foot in the door, especially with your first client," said Mizrahi. "Your first client is the one thing that ultimately makes you get everything else." 

"I have developed such great relationships with the clients that I do have that they often refer me to others," says Erlanger.

Timing and having a strong proposal also help.

Bannerman and McDonald were dead set on securing Forest Whitaker as a client. "We knew 'The Butler' was being released later that year and the buzz around it. So we went after him," explained McDonald. "We just put our resources together. Who do we know who knows who? Who would be interested in working with us to get us toward him? What were we willing to offer up to prove ourselves to him? You make those strategic moves to try to get yourself into the room, and once you're in the room, you have to sell it."

Stylists often make moodboards to pitch to potential clients that illustrate looks they might want to go for and how they fit in with the actor's overall persona. Mizrahi described this process thusly: "I'll compose a mood board of press looks, day looks, inspiration; next I'll do evening, red carpet looks. Then I'll do street style, hair and makeup. I'll create a PDF file with, "This is our goal. These are the designer goals. These are the designers you've worn. These are new designers that I think you should have relationships with."

Build trust, and your clients will stay loyal.

"The way to build trust is to always be very honest, to be collaborative and not defensive, to be passionate about your work and always have their best interest at heart — it's really not about you, it's about them," says Urbinati.  "A lot of it is making the process painless for them. They have so much on their plates and so much pressure during a press tour. The last thing they want to stress over is their clothes."

"I'm in the business of relationship building; I hope my clients are lifelong clients," says Erlanger. "This is a very intimate relationship you have with somebody; not only are you trying on clothes and undressing somebody but you're also sharing some of the most important moments in one's professional career with them, so there has to be a real level of trust there and there has to be a real understanding and there has to be a natural click. It's kind of like dating."

Get an agent.

"Believe me, you don't want to deal with all the money talk — that can really sully a relationship," says Urbinati. "They can negotiate and deal with the studios and the publicists and it takes a lot off your plate, like coordinating fittings and schedules."

Representation not easy to get, though. "It's kind of a funny cycle because you can't get an agent without having clients but you need the agents to get you the clients so where do you get the clients on your own?" says Erlanger. "You come with a portfolio and they'll monitor your work and tell you if you're ready or not but you have to have enough work on your own."

Don't expect it to be glamorous.

"If you're not going to step up and understand that's what the job comes with — especially as an intern, heavy work comes with that too, there's going to be someone else who wants it more than you," advises Erlanger. During our interview, she noted that she has a callus on her finger from zipping up garment bags and a crick in her shoulder from hanging up clothes — and this is someone with a full staff and offices on both coasts.

"It's honestly like 90 percent schlepping and 10 percent glamour. But the more established you get, the more you get to enjoy some of the more glamorous perks," says Urbinati. "The problem is nowadays a lot of young kids want the perks right out of the gate. You really have to be willing to bust your ass for many years before getting there. You have to be in it for the right reasons — not for the free handbags and fashion party invites."

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