In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
We all experienced a deep sense of satisfaction last week when Beyoncé finally posted her instantly iconic first Instagram photo after having given birth to twins Sir and Rumi. But it's unlikely that any of us felt the satisfaction of Zerina Akers, who had styled the dramatic look herself, choosing a romantic, ruffly floral robe by up-and-coming menswear brand Palomo Spain.
As Beyoncé's "personal stylist and wardrobe curator," Akers is behind the colorful, Gucci-filled looks you see on the music legend's carefully curated Instagram account. She also styles Yara Shahidi and Beyoncé protégés Chloe and Halle on occasion.
As the bicoastal celebrity stylist explained to me one recent afternoon at the Palihouse Hotel in West Hollywood (where she's promoting a new partnership with Dove), she's consciously made social media a part of her career. "I think it's a way to really teach a lot of young fashionistas coming up," she says. "Whether you see someone that represents you... a woman, a black woman, or just to see that it's possible."
Akers declined to discuss her famous clients in specific, but we caught up with her to chat about how she got her start in fashion, how she typically finds new clients (she doesn't use an agent) and her big, big plans for the future. Read on for our interview.
Were you always interested in fashion?
I really developed a love for it, I believe, in high school. I used to design clothes, and I put on a 70-piece show. It was all the seniors in high school, and I just remember the feeling of, I put so much work into it. Sleepless nights. So for everything to actually go down the runway, and it be celebrated, and people stood up and started cheering, that was a moment for me.
It's definitely something I sort of constantly revisit. Wanting to get back to that point. Not necessarily get back to that point, but stay as motivated and as inspired, where I'm willing to put my all into my work.
How did you get your foot in the door in fashion?
I went to school for it [at L.I.M.], and my first internship was actually at W Magazine. I was able to just learn a lot there. I ended up freelancing there on and off for about three years, then went onto publications from there. Worked with different stylists. Places like Women's Wear Daily, assisting people like Camilla Nickerson, Lori Goldstein. I just kept growing. I was constantly interested in every sector of the industry. I did internships with different stylists, and then on the flip side with the PR companies. I was interested in different facets of the industry.
How did you get your first styling gigs on your own?
It was through assisting. I was fortunate enough to work with a stylist [Ray Oliveira] that was willing to really teach and share, and we learned a lot from each other. One of his clients one day, they needed someone to do a small, more like digital e-comm thing, and he passed it on to me. And that was how I got started. A year a later, I was fully on my own.
What were some of the challenges of going off on your own, and finding your own clients and all that?
Well, you have got to figure out who you are, and be yourself. You're coming across so many different personalities, so many different people, you have got to be firm in who you are, and be confident, and be cool. Most people will appreciate you being genuine above all.
In terms of finding new clients, is that typically via word of mouth? Do you have an agent that helps you?
I don't really have one at moment. It's been all pretty much word of mouth, or social media, and things like that. I also do pitch myself. I think it's really important to constantly just pitch yourself, and put yourself out there, and getting in the habit of communicating and having dialogue with different people that are in your industry. Not necessarily creating competition, but finding friends and a support system as well as constantly connecting with potential clients or like-minded individuals in the industry.
I would say for young college students and high school students coming up is: don't be afraid to ask for an informational interview. A lot of people will be willing to lend their time and their morning and just chat with you. And then that one informational interview then becomes a network contact, because you guys have literally sat down at a table and even had a soda together. They'll remember you when they run into you at an event.
What do you typically look for in a potential client?
I don't discriminate. I like to keep myself open to working with a multitude of different people, with different body types, because that's a part of the professionalism. That's a part of the craft is to really figure out how to establish and maintain that relationship no matter who the person is. Or they may be a little bit more aggressive, or a little bit more opinionated, or a little more laid back and will go with the flow, but you have to be ready and willing and able to roll with the punches.
How does social media factor into your job?
I've chosen to make it important. I will say that. I wouldn't say that it's the end all be all. I wouldn't say that you have to have it. I know a number of stylists that don't ever post their work, or that have maybe 200 followers and they are styling Miu Miu campaigns and Prada campaigns. They're working within their vision to create what they want to, and they're not necessarily confined by social media.
I've chosen to make it a part of my brand and to help strengthen my brand, because I love images and imagery, and I love sharing. I think it's a way to really teach a lot of young fashionistas coming up. I think it's a great way for them to see what's going on. Whether you see someone that represents you: a woman, a black woman, or just to see that it's possible. Just to see that, listen, you don't have to have the biggest clients. There's not one road to success. I think social media has really worked to help people have a visual of what they want to do and realize that.
Tell me about working with Dove. What does it have to do with styling?
To be able to work with that company, I think, right now it's big. And then the product's great. Dove Invisible Dry Spray, it's so useful for my work [because it doesn't leave marks]. Trying to get a client out the door, and all of a sudden [you see] white marks. It's like, 'Oh wait, there's zebra stripes so you can't go out there.'
What's your approach when you first meet a client and start working with them?
I think for me it has to be a collaborative effort. Because at the end of the day, I want to enhance who my client is. I don't want to mask it, I don't want to put them in a costume. I want to really elevate and enhance and amplify who they are, and bring them that confidence and that comfort to the surface. It's often with managers and publicists, you don't necessarily talk to the client directly, initially.
Other than that, I try to do a lot of research and really dig and see, even if it's visually, through photos, what they like, who they are, kind of check out their demeanor in photos and things like that. Then I create boards to present and just to have, to give people who may not have necessarily the fashion brain something to look at and something to understand visually.
In terms of building relationships with brands and designers, do you make an effort to highlight emerging designers?
That's my favorite thing to do, because I think there are so many brands out here, and I think there's a lot of money being spent. I feel like there's more than enough to go around. There's a lot of young, really awesome creative minds that are doing a lot of really great work. I try to, whenever I can, give them a platform to showcase it.
What's a mistake that you've made that you learned from? Or an important lesson you've learned so far in your career?
The biggest thing, [I never regret] what I've done, it's what I didn't do. Even if it was, like, not going to that event because I was tired. I should have just got up and dragged myself out and just went. I'm always really proud when I do do that and I persevered through.
Is there any other advice, besides what you've already mentioned, that you would give to an aspiring celebrity stylist?
I would say really figure out what it is that you want to do, be firm, and persevere. Reach out, whoever it is.
You don't necessarily need someone else to support your movement and to support your career path. Just start shooting. Whatever you're doing, if you love to do it, start doing it. If you want to go in your closet and pull out your clothes and make a look. Go take pictures and grab a friend and just do really cool pictures. Go on Polyvore and create looks and start there. It's going to be that practice that makes perfect, and then that really prepares you for the right moment.
Where do you see yourself in five years? Do you have certain goals for what you want to accomplish?
I have a ton of goals. Wish me luck. I would like to try my hand at design.
I would like to consult with more brands on whatever. Even if it's just making things more wearable. I would like to work closely with a designer as well. Just to become a part of that process. Another thing I would say is that I hope that in five years I love what I'm doing just as much as I do today.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.