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How Dianne Garcia Successfully Ditched College to Style Hip-Hop and R&B's Biggest Names

She's Top Dawg Entertainment's go-to stylist, working with SZA, Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q.
Dianne Garcia. Photo: Courtesy

Dianne Garcia. Photo: Courtesy

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.

When Dianne Garcia had an opportunity to transfer to FIT to study design and merchandising, she was just getting started as a stylist assistant. "Do I move to New York and get a fat student loan, or do I continue on this styling path?" Garcia asked herself. She was born and is "permanently based" in Los Angeles, though she spent the majority of her youth growing up in Thailand. 

"I already had a job assisting, and [I knew] in a few years I could start styling on my own and not have to go into debt and waste the time," says Garcia. "It's hard to go to school and work at the same time — you're not graduating fast enough and you're broke because you're not working enough." 

Garcia decided to pass on moving across the country in order to keep her styling gig. What made sense to her was survival, and so she got to work. (She eventually did go to New York for a brief moment, as well as Miami.) The decision paid off in the end, even if Garcia's first-ever assistant job involved her boss leaving her on a music video set all by herself.

After years of assisting and later styling on her own, Garcia built a friendship with Jerome D, a director who worked on Kendrick Lamar's early music videos, like "Poetic Justice" and "Swimming Pools (Drank)." He introduced her to Dave Free, Lamar's manager and president of Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE), and from there, Garcia has become TDE's go-to stylist for its talented roster of artists, including Lamar, Schoolboy Q and the rapidly rising R&B star SZA.

In between working on separate tours for Lamar and SZA, as well as prepping for the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday night — Lamar garners the most nominations for his music video "Humble," while SZA is up for "Best New Artist" — we managed to catch Garcia on the phone from LA to talk about why she enjoys styling musicians, the best and most challenging parts of her job and where she sees her career going next.

How did you decide it was a good time to start styling on your own?

I don't think there's a time when you're really ready — you kind of just have to do it. After a few years as an assistant, you learn everything that you have to [know about] how to get this job done. So I started doing a few videos here and there, and I thought, 'You know, I could really do this.'

Of course, in the beginning, the jobs are really scarce, budgets are lower, you're dressing extras and smaller artists. But a few years into it, things start to snowball — you learn to be more confident in what you're doing and become self-assured. The energy starts moving that way and you're getting the bigger jobs. The artists that you work with and have a good relationship with, they start getting bigger as well, and as long you keep that relationship, you grow together.

Why do you style musical artists specifically?

I grew up in the MTV age. There's that aspiration there when you're a kid. You want to be a part of it. With music, there's context you can go off of. There's the vibe, the artist, history and personality that you can build upon and create this bigger picture for them so that they can communicate their art. That's what I like about it. I like understanding who the artist is and their background and who they are as a person; why they wear certain brands and shoes and colors. I like putting that spin to context and seeing it come to life. It's magic when you're working on a music video and there's this ecosystem of people in so many different departments and everyone has to work cohesively to achieve the same thing.

Is the creative approach different when it comes to styling a music video compared to a live performance or an entire tour?

There are definitely different approaches. Live performances have so many things that go into them because it's live TV. [Artists] need to be able to move, and it's not just about putting the clothes together. Can the clothing allow them to perform? How do we tweak the tailoring? Do we add gussets to the pants? There's a lot of technicality to doing a performance. The clothes have to be able to breathe, and if it's a tour, they have to be able to last throughout the entire tour. How do we make that happen? How many different copies do we make, and if there's a wardrobe mishap, what do we do?

Red carpet is a lot easier — it's kind of like you're searching for pieces that are going to look good when you're just standing there. It's cool. A lot of stylists do red carpet and that's what they do, but I like doing performances because it can only live once and then it's done. There's a certain gratification to it. You put so much work into it. There's this huge concept: the lights, the pyro, the dancers and the music are all working together and then it's done.

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We're huge fans of SZA here at Fashionista. Tell us about her style and the creative process with her.

I think she really knows what she wants. Her clothes kind of reflect the vibe of her music. It's this '90s girl next door, super-relatable vibe. My most important thing for SZA is to make sure, from woman to woman, that she feels good and is comfortable when she goes up on stage so she can project that message to the world. It's a collaborative process. I've known her for quite a few years, so I know what she likes. She gives me direction off of that, and we meet in between.

Kendrick Lamar has evolved so much as an artist. Does that reflect in his style as well?

The most important thing [for him] is the music, and the music always leads the clothes. That's my philosophy. I don't ever want it to be about me as a stylist getting my look in or getting the fancy designer stuff. It's always like, 'What does the music say and how do the clothes suit him so it all makes sense as a whole?' As the music evolves and he's taking more risks, we're allowed to do that with the clothes, too. We can have more fun. We're doing a bigger tour; we're having songs with Rihanna that are a little bit more lighthearted, and the clothes can reflect that. That's the only way I can put it.

We're having a lot more fun now. He's embracing himself as this enormous artist. But we don't want the clothes to overpower that. The message is always him as a conscious artist speaking on social issues and struggles in America. It wouldn't make sense to come out in something extremely flamboyant.

What's the best part of your job?

I work with respected artists who are also very good people at the core. I also work with people who are young and creative, and we're all the same age. I have a huge crew of women that I work with who are business-savvy, smart and really driven. That's the best part of my job. I work for people who are extremely nice and gracious, no matter how successful and how talented they are. Every day we get to communicate on a personal level, and we intuitively understand each other — we're able to create and put [something] out into the world. That's the most gratifying thing about my job.

And what's the most challenging?

Time. A lot of things happen at the very last minute, and it's really common with this job for everything to have a quick turnaround. Often, time is working against me. Sometimes I have to work for 14 or 16 hours and not sleep, but it balances out. You're working for good people who appreciate you and who are good artists, and you know you're going to put out good content. It makes the job a lot easier. At the end of the day, it's time. It's hard to take a vacation or take time personally and recently, to maintain a relationship. You're always on-call and on the go and on somebody else's schedule. But like I said, if you work with good people, you don't feel burnt out.

Where do you see your career going next?

Styling is always going to be at the forefront. I work with people that I really love and I want to continue that — to grow with them and see them grow. I'm already pretty choosy with who I work with because I don't have a lot of time, but I hope that it gets to the point where I can really pick and choose what I truly want to do and only do things that are aligned with myself creatively. I do eventually want to move into creative direction, helping people conceptualize things, and I would even be down to dive deeper into the design and production aspects of it when I'm ready. But I know that's it's also a commitment and it's going to take a team and time, which I may not have quite yet, but I think everything will happen organically.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into styling professionally?

I think people should set themselves up for success, whatever that may be. Test shooting and setting up a website even if you don't have a lot of work. It's about putting that energy forward. Allow yourself to stay within that productive energy realm and not be stagnant. I feel like the best assistants I've had have assisted various people. Every stylist has a different style and a different rolodex and resources. When you work with different people, you pick up on what works and what doesn't. Learning how to maneuver around people and personalities is also really important. Maintain your relationship with brands and be extremely resourceful because there's no specific way of getting stuff done. You have to constantly learn.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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