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How Elizabeth Saltzman Went From Assisting Polly Mellen to Styling Gwyneth Paltrow and Saoirse Ronan

The industry veteran talks Time's Up, avoiding social media and getting Ronan to wear pink and sparkles.
Gemma Arterton and Saltzman. David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images

Gemma Arterton and Saltzman. David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images

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.

Saoirse Ronan's prominence throughout the 2018 awards season has been a joy to watch, not only because her professional recognition is extremely well-deserved for her performance in the excellent "Lady Bird," but also because she has become a veritable fashion darling with every turn on the red carpet. From the absolutely delightful pink-and-red Gucci number she wore on Jan. 2 to the Palm Springs Film Festival, to the beautiful pink Louis Vuitton number she wore to the SAG Awards, to the inevitably wonderful thing she'll wear to Sunday's Oscars ceremony, Ronan consistently looks every bit the movie star while not shying way from capital-F Fashion or veering too mature.

That is all thanks to stylist Elizabeth Saltzman, an industry veteran who brings a sharp editorial eye to celebrity clients like Ronan, Gwyneth Paltrow and Uma Thurman.

Surprisingly, Saltzman initially avoided fashion — her mother was a fashion director for Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman, and she worried she wouldn't live up to that legacy — but ultimately found her way there, hopping from architecture to retail, to doing PR at Giorgio Armani, to rising the ranks at Vogue and then joining Vanity Fair as fashion director. Her path to red carpet dominance has been a bit indirect, and she still doesn't see herself as one of the Hollywood power stylists we often write about. She also shies away from social media and self-promotion in a way that's refreshingly unusual these days. In fact, it's a wonder she agreed to do this interview, but we're glad she did.

We caught up with Saltzman at the Beverly Hills Hotel's iconic Fountain Coffee Room — where she remembers annual 3 a.m. post-Oscars breakfast meetings with her Vanity Fair team — to chat about making it in fashion, convincing Ronan to wear pink, her honest thoughts on the Time's Up movement and more.

Were you always interested in fashion?

It wasn't a natural thing. It was a natural thing that I liked fashion, that I really appreciated it. But I didn't want to go into it, because my mom was into it, and I didn't think that I could ever better her. She was such an idol to me and to so many of my friends and in the business. I just thought I had to be myself, and not try and be someone else. And I really thought I'd be an architect; that made so much sense to me until I found out you had to take seven years of math.

The '70s was when I was watching fashion and nightlife. And those are my influences: Studio 54, Diana Vreeland's Vogue. It was just such a special moment.

I was not a math person, [architecture] wasn't what I thought it was going to be, and the only job I could really get was folding clothes for a store. That was a great job, you have to start somewhere. I got lucky, because it was a cool, cool, cool store. It's called Parachute. And it's really funny, a lot of the people that have come out of there have done really exceptional things. It was Ruben Toledo, myself, James [Jebbia] from Supreme, I mean we were all those kids in that store at the same time.

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When did you start thinking about styling as a career? 

I was in editorial at magazines for 20-plus years. First American Vogue, and then Vanity Fair. And, in between, Mademoiselle, which we called 'Milly.' And it was really a good time, but I would always hire stylists, because I could see the whole picture at the end, but I didn't understand how to create and work with models, because they were all so perfect and beautiful that I sort of just wanted to see them and not the clothes. Whereas I really enjoyed working with real people, and celebrities or presidents or, you know, just anyone that wasn't a model. 

I liked giving them the confidence. I just owe my thanks to Valentino and Giancarlo Giammetti, and Gwyneth Paltrow, because I was living in London, they called me and said, 'You know your friend Gwyneth, you should help her.' I said, 'She doesn't need any help, she's doing pretty perfectly.' And I said, 'Gee, Gwyneth do you need help?' and she said, 'Yes! I would love that,' and it just happened. It was really fun and it allowed me to really work on a trust situation, where someone let me figure out how I could listen to them and take what they were telling me they wanted to portray and be. I liked it, it was like a puzzle.

There was just loads and loads of other women that came along and that was fun, but it also allowed me to still continue to shoot for the magazines, still allowed me to work with designers and do their shows, and come up with ideas and throw parties. So I got to do it all, instead of just styling.

Gwyneth Paltrow with Saltzman. Photo: Donato Sardella/Getty Images for The Hollywood Reporter

Gwyneth Paltrow with Saltzman. Photo: Donato Sardella/Getty Images for The Hollywood Reporter

Do you think of yourself as a Hollywood stylist?

I don't think I'll ever be as talented as, you know, many of my favorite stylists, whether it be Kate Young, or Karla [Welch]. I love those girls. We are a good, happy pack and I just marvel at how much they do and how well they do and then someone says, 'You know you're doing the same thing?' Like, no I'm not. I do different stuff and they're just so cool and it's just fun, because I'm like the OG of it all. There's just so few older people out in it. 

Backtracking a bit, how did you get your foot in the door at Vogue?

I was working for Giorgio Armani, and I got recruited for a bunch of jobs at Vogue, and they were all great assistant jobs and that was really awesome, but none of them hit home. I was at dinner with Calvin Klein, Ian Schraeger and Norma Kamali — this whole posse. I explained that I'd met this really amazing editor at Vogue, who just seemed so eccentric and different and passionate and I really wanted to feel that passion at work. She had offered me a job and it was really great because they just turned around and said, 'That's Polly Mellen, she is the greatest editor — take that job.' And I was like, I'll be making a fourth of what I make now.

I went in as Polly's assistant, and I can honestly say she changed my life, because to learn from someone who is so well respected, by the industry in those days, when there were so few greats, and to be trained to think about respect and respecting the designers and not blowing yourself up and not making yourself the star. Which seems funny since I'm the one sitting here being interviewed. But it's not that I think that way ever — it's all about making the other people be important. I suck at social media, because it's painful for me to think about shooting a picture of myself where I'm not making fun of myself... I love having fun, but I'm not selling something. The public doesn't need to know me. The industry can, but the public, let them know the girls that we're promoting. They have to sell movies.

The opposite mindset is pretty common these days.

But I think that, that's not long term. It's not going to work because you blow up and then you miss ultimately what you love, which is making dresses come to life, which is thinking of an image and having it move and making it go. 

Aside from styling celebrities you're also doing editorial and runway: Do you like having that mix?

Yeah, I like doing it all and keeping myself interested and relevant and on top of things and meeting new people and young people and getting out there.

I don't think anyone just does celebrity anymore. I think we're all working on philanthropy projects. I think we all work with designer collaborations. I think we've all done our own line of things. I think gone are the days of one job.

How do you think working in editorial helped prepare you for celebrity styling? 

Everything. I think like any job, if you start at the top, you just don't know the bones and the road map, and you don't understand what everybody does. I think that it's great to really learn every aspect, have appreciation so that everyone's on board on your team. It's really good to understand that things can't happen in 30 seconds. For instance, when a personality, or a celebrity would call and say, 'Hey, I've got this last minute thing, do you have any dresses?' They think we have a magical cupboard of clothes.

Saoirse Ronan in Louis Vuitton at the SAG Awards. Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Saoirse Ronan in Louis Vuitton at the SAG Awards. Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

When you start working with a new client, what are those early discussions like?

I think it takes a while to get in a groove. Saoirse and I were in a groove from day one, but that's sort of rare. Most of them, it's a gut instinct. When I meet them, I like to meet with them and hear what they want or don't want. And see if I am even the one for them. Because I really try to bring out what I think is the best, and maybe that's not what's the best for them. 

You know the first things Saoirse said to me was, 'I don't do pink, I don't like sparkles,' and basically that's been my focus of it: picking sparkles, because usually you say what you're most afraid of.

How do new clients come to you?

It could be the agent, could be their PR lady or maybe it's someone who's been on the scene with me or maybe it's another celebrity. Maybe it's a designer. You just never know what happens, I mean, we just got two, or three new ones this last two weeks, which was almost overwhelming because that doesn't give me enough time to really know someone.

When it's an editorial shoot, that's different than them walking out as themselves. An editorial shoot is never their fault. 

Do you feel like that is more pressure?

Sure, because you want to make them feel the best that they can feel, the most confident out there, you want them to feel like the best version of themselves where they just can have fun, because it's work. This is not fun. People think going to these red carpets is fun. And of course, it's not torture, but it's work. It's a concept photo shoot, and people now are looking for the negative.

Saoirse always looks amazing, but she definitely isn't playing it totally safe.

You know the idea there was, she's 23 [when we started working together], she's more confident than she was two years ago. She and Greta [Gerwig] did not expect this movie to go where it's gone; it's an indie film. When we met this time around, I was like, 'What do you want to do?' And she had just come off of filming "Mary Queen of Scots" and her hair was a third orange, a third whatever and a third something else. And she said, 'I just want to be a little bit more editorial. I want to have some fun.' And I love that way, but you also have to remember that we're also on a campaign trail, so you don't want to alienate people, and make it weird. But you do want to make it interesting to those of us that are in it.

It's interesting that her career kind of plays into it too.

I think it does and it doesn't. The career played into it this time just by chance, because it happened when one movie ended, and this wasn't supposed, I mean no one knew that this was going to happen.

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So you didn't think you'd be planning for a whole award season?

Yes I did, because the buzz was too great, and you can only hope, keep your fingers, legs, toes and eyes crossed. We just had to believe. We didn't discuss it, I just had to believe it was going there. I just thought, that's an awful lot of buzz so early. For me the planning was to just kind of enjoy, experiment, do what we did until January, and then January, come out hitting.

And starting with the Gucci dress, which was that kind of like oh, this is January second. That was the wake-up.

Saoirse Ronan in Gucci at the Palm Springs Film Festival. Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Saoirse Ronan in Gucci at the Palm Springs Film Festival. Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

When there's so much buzz around a performance or film, is that something you take to the designers and the brands or even use as leverage?

At this point, the designers are fairly smart and the teams that they surround themselves with are very smart about planning whose brand-right, who maybe isn't contracted to another brand, who's open, who fits there and then who would be someone they could invest in long-term. 

The leveraging is less on our side at this point. But, in saying that, with many of the people I work with, yeah, especially if they haven't heard of them. 

I'm sure you have strong enough relationships with brands yourself also.

A lot of times if the PR is not interested in it, rather than going directly over their head and going to the designer I [will ask], 'Do you want to just like flip that to your designer just to make sure that's a firm no, because I have a really decent relationship.' A lot of people said no to Saoirse in the beginning. A lot. And that's OK; I said no to a lot of designers in the beginning. 

With Saoirse, do you have favorite looks for her in the past year?

The Gucci dress. I think I'm still apologizing to them because I held on to it from the day it happened [on the runway]. I held on for dear life to that one.

How do you feel social media has impacted your job?

Yeah, it's part of the job now. I just refuse to do that part of my job. And it really angers, like there's two or three girls that work for me, that get so angry with me that I don't post. It's important to do, but at the same time I don't feel that it's my lifeline.

What would you say is the most challenging part of your job?

Making sure that I give 100 percent of myself to everybody while teaching my team to be equal to everyone they work with, and being a good boss. Balancing the mom/work thing. That's hard. But just in work alone, I would say making sure that everyone genuinely feels that they've got me and I've got them. Because, ultimately there's one me.

I just don't want anyone else to get beaten up because of my mistakes. That would bum me out. I want people to succeed, because of themselves, because they chose me, and it's a whole team. I think it's about how we all work as a team and the hard part is too much waste that we create. I just want to make sure I'm not wasting resources, environment or energy that could be spent on other things. 

What's the most important thing you've learned in your career so far?

Be yourself, don't try to be someone else, you are good enough. And to treat everyone equally.

What would you say is the best part of your job?

People, smiles, making people's lives better, actually changing people's lives. Being able to raise confidence in people, being able to eliminate stress from people, being able to raise money for charities because of what we do. Being able to help a designer go up. Being able to create jobs and sales and anything that's just positive. 

What would you tell a young designer that wants a celebrity to wear their designs?

Reach out. There's Instagram if you can't get me to pay attention or any of us to pay attention on email, send it. Send me a picture. Tell me what you're thinking, and be patient. 

I wanted to ask about Time's Up: What was your initial reaction when you heard about the Globes dress code and how did you navigate that?

I will be brutally honest, because I think that's important. When I heard that it was black, my heart sank. Because I just thought, if we're coming together, then we are all in this powerful movement, shouldn't it be white or pink or red? Or, you know, suffragette... white/green/purple. Then I understood. Black was, everyone could do it, it was attainable. It was as easy as it could be. So I was grateful, I was excited to be a part of something that would let a lot of people know that their voices would be heard. I was excited to raise a lot of money, not me, but to be a part of that movement.

I think what it actually did in the fashion world is something that none of us expected it to do. It became the time when we all as stylists worked with the designers, we were in open conversation, the secrecy was gone. The camaraderie was in. We were in this together, so let's make it great. This is powerful, meaningful, exciting.

How did you guys help each other?

I think I let upwards of 15 stylists know that it was going down. I just told everybody as soon as I got the message. I truly got on board. 

Then when it happened in London [at the BAFTAs], I think that was harder on people, because your dresses had been planned already. It was really short notice, but also powerful. I mean, anything for equality. It was such a positive, memorable thing. I can't think of a negative.

Some designers were disappointed because, on the red carpet, reporters weren't asking the question, 'What are you wearing?'.

No, it could hurt someone financially. But I do believe that we're going to have that moment come because I think that there is the auction of all the dresses now. 

Yes, they would have spent a lot of money, and time and effort. They've helped a lot more people. I've used my designers more to make sure that they had a different moment as well. 

What is your approach to the Oscars? Do you think of it as saving the best dress for last?

I think each thing is important, but it is the Oscars. I think that everyone knows that it's the final stretch, so it revs up and everyone gets excited. I mean today it's a little bit like Groundhog Day, where it's like, ahhh, I can't see another pair of shoes, you know. But I do think of it as the last one, and I also think about after the Oscars night so we can just go dancing and that always plays a part of, in my head: Is my woman comfortable enough? Is she going to be able to last for nine or 10 hours in the dress? It's definitely the last one, and it should be the big grand finale, and I think it's the most impactful. And the press plays it up more than most, but I also still think of it as just a fresh carpet and another time to try something out.

Do you already know what everyone's wearing?

Yeah, yeah, well... Saoirse is kind of doing that little scale of justice, where I know what she's wearing but we have two dresses by the same designer, and I'm giggling, because I think everyone's thinking that it's one and I know it's the other, which, I love, because it's funny. 

Any other hints?

I would say I'm holding true to the girl, and that I'm having respect for her, and it's personal. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Homepage photo: David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images

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