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.
That emerald green Balmain jumpsuit. The hot pink Brandon Maxwell gown. The cutout, safety-pinned Versace. All looks worn by the incredible octogenarian that is Jane Fonda. And all the work of celebrity über-stylist Tanya Gill.
The London-born image maker took a childhood love of fashion and fabrics and transformed it into a chance-meeting with Martin Margiela himself, followed by a move to Los Angeles that laid the foundations for a career working with the world's very best actresses.
Gill attributes her early career success to "luck," but her work with Fonda, as well as with the likes of Kate Winslet, Hilary Swank and more is the byproduct of raw talent, relentless hours of groundwork and a penchant for going against the grain. Who else would hit up Olivier Rousteing to create a custom look for an 80-year-old Hollywood icon?
And with politics hitting the red carpet in a big way in 2018, the role of a stylist has never been more important. Praising the recent Golden Globes blackout for its power in combating injustice, Gill revealed the rush for black gowns wasn't as hectic as we first thought, further proving the sheer — and oftentimes, top secret — communication between women in Hollywood.
We caught up with Gill to find out how she transitioned from fashion forecasting to styling A-listers, what it's like to prove that, clichés aside, age really is nothing but a number and why she's heading into the murky world of virtual reality. Read on for the highlights.
When did your interest in fashion begin?
My mom used to work for The Royal Ballet back in the '60s, making all the costumes by hand. And my dad was an interior designer, so he'd always bring back samples of leather and upholstery fabrics. I was surrounded by a lot of sewing and creativity. One of my first very vivid memories of fashion was going to Biba at London's Derry & Toms department store and seeing all these colors and amazing clothes. It was a fantasy world for a child, and I think I knew at that point that I really wanted to be involved in fashion. My mom would also make jewelry and sell it down Portobello Road, so I was around that Bohemian mix of people, soaking it all up like a sponge.
What first steps did you take toward actually becoming a celebrity stylist?
Everything was very organic. By the time I was 16, I knew I wanted to go to art school, so I went to [the Kingston School of Art in London] and studied for my BA in Fashion and Textiles. Soon after that, I got my first job in fashion forecasting through the dean of my school. I worked in Covent Garden forecasting a few years ahead for fashion design books. And that's when I was sent to Paris.
Which is where you famously bumped into the one and only Martin Margiela. How was that meeting?
I met Martin Margiela when he was leaving Jean Paul Gaultier. I told him that the only person I had ever wanted to work for and so admired was Gaultier. He said he'd take my résumé, and I got an interview and got the job. It was just luck. I worked in Paris for a year doing everything from textile prints and making hats to designing jewelry and helping out with shows. It was a really incredible learning experience for me.
How did you make the move to Hollywood?
While I was in Paris, I was approached by a London agency that looked after photographers, models and stylists. It was the beginning of the era where we were creating what a celebrity stylist would be, so I started working freelance for The Face and Arena magazines. That opened up a lot of doors to do music videos, album covers and advertising campaigns. I was very fortunate that my agency at the time had opened up branches in New York and LA. First, I went to New York and started working immediately. A couple of years later, I transitioned to LA. I had thought that the center of fashion was Europe, but when I moved, I realized that LA was the center of the entertainment industry and a whole new world had opened up. At that time, there was a shift from models on the covers of magazines to celebrities, so I started doing that for GQ and lots more publications.
Do you remember who your first celebrity client was?
I believe it was Iman. There were basically no PRs in LA in the early '90s because there wasn't a lot of fashion when I started out. We were creating it. I did a shoot with photographer Wayne Stambler and Iman, who I knew from going to all the shows in Paris. I brought some unique tribal jewelry from London and then I found a young American designer called Michael Schmidt, [who had] his chain-mail collection. It was very Paco Rabanne on Iman. From there, I was literally working with celebrities every week.
One of your most famous clients now is Jane Fonda. How did the pair of you meet?
Through her manager Jason Weinberg. I'd been working with Hilary Swank, and he introduced me and said, "I have an amazing new client for you." It was Jane Fonda, and my first job with her was for Oprah. I quickly pulled together some clothes, and the rest is history.
Jane is renowned for wearing straight-off-the-runway looks that probably wouldn't be seen on many other 80 year olds working right now. How do you approach her style?
Jane really does have impeccable style. She has such a strong vision. I admire who she is as a woman and she knows what looks amazing on her body. Yet she's always willing to refine and elevate and surprise. As her stylist, I try to show her the balance between new trends that will fit into her own fashion DNA and looks that will suit her personality, rather than her age. Age doesn't come into it. She's okay with getting out of her safety zone and being daring.
You also work with Jane's "Grace and Frankie" co-star Lily Tomlin. How are they different, style-wise?
Lily really does have her own style. I sometimes help her if she’s looking for certain things, but her and Jane are very different. If Lily wants incredible jewelry or an eclectic look for an awards show, I can go and research and find options, but she very much likes to do her own thing. She's such an icon in her own right.
How does styling for the red carpet differ from styling for editorials?
It's very different. With red carpet, you're creating an image for the client and often, you're celebrating an achievement or nomination. It has to be perfect from every angle. For the Oscars and other important events, we'll create custom looks, so it's very detailed. You're always thinking about the global footprint, the digital eyeballs that are going to be watching your work. No pressure, but you want to make your client look and feel their best. There can't be any pins or tricks that we use with editorials. For magazines, it's all designer samples and you have to make them fit whatever size your subject is. Red carpet is all about fittings and tailors and everything being done perfectly. We consider hair, makeup, jewelry, the whole look. The image lives forever. I always have that in the back of my mind.
And how do you go about building relationships with designers?
Well, I built a lot of relationships through the editorial side. If you are working with an Oscar nominee, designers will often reach out. Or you'll talk to your client and they'll suggest people they love and we'll approach that designer. Over years of doing red carpet, you form bonds with designers all over the world. That's really important because you want to know a designer is the right fit for your client. Hundreds of hours can be spent on couture gowns, and sometimes we even have jewelry created or we'll modify specific things, like the length of earrings. We occasionally create shoes or ask for shoes to be designed in a certain color to go with the dress. And the shoes have to be as comfortable as possible. There's a lot more that goes into it than meets the eye.
What has been your most memorable red carpet moment so far?
That's really hard to say, there's so many. A time that was really incredible was going to Cannes with Jane in 2016 when she had the premiere of "Youth" — doing the blue cut-out Versace and the black and pink Schiaparelli, and then the navy sequined Saint Laurent... The memories of all the fittings at the hotel and walking down the corridor to see if the shoes were good. Then going to the ceremony with Jane and making sure the train looked good on the red carpet. That carpet is huge. And [you] always [have] to think about those steps.
Politics is coming into play on the red carpet this year. What are your thoughts on the recent Golden Globes blackout?
The black dress movement was amazing, how it showed this unified front from Hollywood. It was a great way of addressing a very important and timely issue at an event where essentially the whole world is watching. It gives the red carpet so much power; it makes it larger than just who was best-dressed and it allows for a fashion moment that can make a tangible difference.
You'd think that choosing one color would really limit my options as a stylist, but it didn't. We knew a couple of days before the nominations came out that pretty much everyone was going to be wearing black. For some of my clients [editor's note: which, this year, included Missi Pyle and "The Handmaid's Tale"'s Ann Dowd], we had sketches of dresses that were originally in color and we changed them to black. For another client, we just sourced black dresses from designers. There were enough black dresses for everyone. Everyone was on board as a creative community. We were all standing together and wanting to speak out to combat the injustices to people across the board. It was also interesting to see all the ways you could wear black.
Something like that can prove a challenge for stylists. What are the other difficulties in your line of work?
Keeping up to date. It's part of the job, but there are so many more designers now to edit from. Side note: It's really important for young designers to have Instagram accounts because stylists like myself are checking that out. There's always an opportunity to give someone new a chance. People email me and send me lookbooks, but we're also looking for things on social media. Aside from that, you need to be sharp and on-the-ball as a stylist as often, you don't have very much time. Your client trusts you, so it's your job to know them well and bring a few great things rather than racks and racks of stuff that haven't been edited.
You've branched out into other fields by creating fashion TV shows and setting up a mini publication called ICONHOUSE. What else are you working on right now?
With ICONHOUSE, I wanted to build a new digital brand. I've been fortunate to work with a lot of talented people — some of them pretty iconic. I was thinking about how it takes time to develop a career and it's not instant. I was looking at this new society of people who are on Instagram and Snapchat, and how everyone wants to be something immediately without experience or education. So, I wanted to inspire this young audience to really look at art, culture, current events and technology that influence image-makers like myself.
Over the last year, I've been looking into virtual reality and how it can work with the fashion industry. Being in Hollywood and represented by WME which has a VR department, I've had a lot of access to new technology. There was a big push for it two years ago, and then it kind of died. But now, I'm one of the people in Hollywood trying to see how we can make it work with shoppable fashion and other things. I'll let you know when that next chapter happens.
What advice do you have for aspiring stylists?
To get the best education you can. Really study, see which college you want to go to and which is the right one for you. It's a training ground. Find who inspires you and learn from them. And with everything you do, do the best job you can because everything is about getting a good résumé. You want to be referred. You will work with incredibly beautiful clothes, so respect the product. Most importantly, know that you can achieve your dreams with hard work and a good work ethic. Ask yourself why you want this job because it's not all glamour. Sometimes it's really hard, but don't give up.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Homepage photo: Loïc Venance/AFP/Getty Images