Samantha Burkhart and I have 21 emails and two months between us by the time I hear her voice beaming through her phone in Los Angeles to mine in New York. My initial interview request came at, uh, a busy time for music's biggest stylist. "Busy" doesn't even feel like the right word — maybe if I put the word "bananas" in front of it.
"I mean, I literally didn't even have a moment to breathe," she tells me."This is definitely a 180 from how the year started out."
Consider Burkhart's clientele: You may know her as the creative force behind the likes of Billie Eilish, Diplo, Katy Perry, Sia, Christina Aguilera, Rosalía and Poppy — to name a few. So between awards shows, music videos, global fashion weeks, press junkets, magazine editorials, performances and anything else for which an international superstar might be tasked with showing and up and wearing something fabulous, yes, Burkhart and her team have been busy. Bananas busy.
But today, no awards shows. No late-night television appearances. No cover shoots. Burkhart is at home with her family in LA. It's raining, she says, and when there's a silent note in our conversation, I can hear the dulcet tones of droplets pattering onto pavement.
My poor timing notwithstanding, I was eager to speak with Burkhart because, well, you can't talk about the music industry right now without talking about Burkhart. The artists with whom she works are at the top of their games — and charts — professionally. But what most excites me about her work is that she also leaves each of her clients looking exaggeratedly and indisputably like "them," a more difficult stylistic feat than many may realize.
In other words: Some stylists work with gamine starlets on the brink of a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Others put Eilish in slime-green Gucci basketball shorts and Perry in butterscotch puff of a Valentino mini-dress, both in the same week.
Like so many stylists Fashionista has spoken with over the years, Burkhart didn't always want to be a stylist. But she was always inundated with fashion and even more, what she calls "really good taste." She grew up watching her mother, an interior decorator, dress in Kenzo and Dior, also acquiring pieces sourced from vintage auctions. Burkhart recalls her grandmother, an antiques dealer, even attending couture shows and buying pieces directly from those collections.
Burkhart spent her first 10 years in England, where she attended an all-girls school with a strict uniform policy. It wasn't until her family moved to Connecticut at 11 that she really had to consider clothing from the perspective of personal style.
"That was kind of a jarring moment because I had to figure out who I was, not only as this English girl coming to America, but also as a pre-teenager buying my own clothes and what that meant," she remembers.
By high school, that really just meant a lot of Gap — a lot of baggy pants, a lot of baby tees, similar styles of which run rampant among Gen-Z-ers on TikTok today. Burkhart offers a metaphor: At her preppy boarding school in Massachusetts, she was a snowboarder in a world of skiers, and her friends in boxy, cableknit sweaters took to calling her "alternateen" a nickname that stuck, and that she loved. ("From an early age, I think I just kind of always did my own thing," she says.) Burkhart did apply to Parsons School of Design to study fashion design, but ultimately elected to study fine art 100 blocks north at Columbia University.
"I had all these different inroads to fashion and it was always something I was interested in, but I never really felt like I should make a career out of it," she says. "I accidentally fell into styling, which is funny to me. It wasn't something I ever set out to do."
And so her fashion education continued outside the classroom. Burkhart describes those years in New York as being akin to the 2003 Macaulay Culkin club-kid vehicle "Party Monster" — "coming up with crazy identities," she says, for all those evenings spent at nightlife establishments like Tunnel and Limelight. Burkhart's first official foray into styling came years later, during a summer that she needed a short-term job.
"My best friend was working with Mariah Carey's day-to-day manager and she was like, 'Do you want to work for Mariah's stylist?' And I was — really — like, 'What's a stylist?'" she says. "I didn't even know that that was a job."
That stylist was Jessica Paster, whose epic mid-aughts client base reads like it was ripped straight from the pages of a 2007 US Weekly: Carey, of course, but also Jessica Simpson, Kate Bosworth, Hilary Duff and Jennifer Hudson. Burkhart showed up for her first day on the job, and within 24 hours, she had become Paster's lead first assistant.
"It was a very different era," she says. "It was a little bit more rarefied in the sense that not everybody had a stylist — just the people who were very visible from a tabloid perspective did. But it wasn't like everybody has a stylist, which is kind of how it is now."
The summer ended and Burkhart went back to her life in fine arts, thinking that she'd had her fill. ("I was like, 'Okay, that was cool, that was insane,'" she laughs. "I don't need to do that again.") But that was also when she began to wonder: What if she did it all again, but this time on her own terms? She already had a wealth of experience in aesthetics, identity and the intersection of the two. She knew fashion, in, out and every which nook and cranny nestled in between. Music offered something that other creative fields didn't: scope.
"I was really into the idea of music artists having such a huge reach and having such a visual component to who they are," she says. "I mean, there's something really beautiful about standing in front of a painting. But if you've spent six months working on a painting and you have 10 people come and see it, it's not the same as doing an artist's tour and having literally millions of people see it."
Every stylist who's "made it," so to speak, has to have gotten their big break somewhere. Burkhart's was Sia, and truth be told, the timing was utter kismet. This was Sia-in-2015 Sia. Sia-who-never-showed-her-face Sia. Sia-sweeping-Grammy-nominations Sia. And Sia called Burkhart five days before the 2015 Grammys, where she was slated to perform her very slick new song, "Chandelier," with Maddie Ziegler and surprise guest Kristen Wiig.
"She was at a point in her career where she wanted to step away to focus on songwriting and not be so visible," says Burkhart. "And so she was at this crossroads where she literally didn't want people to see her and yet, she had to perform. So that became this challenge of, 'Okay, how do you make someone who doesn't want to show their face still intriguing and sweet and charming — and not frightening that they're not showing their face?'"
The answer came via a bow headband: Burkhart sewed exaggerated bangs onto the front of the ribbon. The fans ate it up.
Burkhart began building upon her roster from there, and along came Eilish. In 2015, Burkhart's husband first heard "Ocean Eyes" when it was still just making the rounds on SoundCloud. "He was like, 'Oh, wow, she's 14 and looks really cool and weird,'" she remembers. Burkhart was hooked from first listen.
"Billie's music's beautiful," she says. "And then they see how she looks and it's this juxtaposition between the two things that's captivating. She was this white-haired 14-year-old girl who just looked like nothing else you'd ever seen before. Which is who she's intrinsically stayed true to. And I was really interested."
Burkhart was friends with Eilish's publicist, who got her an introductory meeting with Eilish, but also with Eilish's mom, Eilish's managers and Eilish's best friend Zoe, the latter of whom has 172,000 Instagram followers in her own right.
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"I kind of had to explain to her what a stylist even does," says Burkhart. "Part of it was like, 'Look, you're 14, you're cool. You don't need a stylist, but this is what I do.' I had to explain to her that even with people like Sia, I'm not dictating anything to anybody. I'm not telling people what to wear. I'm coming to them as an artist and collaborating with them. And I think she was open to that. We started working together before she even signed to Interscope."
Five years and the same number of Grammy wins later, Burkhart still doesn't like to say that she styles Eilish. She remains intrinsically part of her own styling — the actual art of putting together an outfit — that Burkhart's job, instead, is to think several steps ahead of her so she's not bringing in ideas that Eilish has already considered or and pieces she's already seen. Eilish wears a lot of custom for this reason — like the head-to-toe Eilish-ified Chanel suit worn to the 2020 Oscars — and not simply because designers are lining up by the droves to dress her.
"She's a custom kind of girl," jokes Burkhart. "There's really only one of her, so there should really only be one of these things in the world, too. I don't mean that in an elitist way. She's really just unique and it ends up just being the thing that makes the most sense for her."
Burkhart's group of artists make for a custom-heavy bunch, actually. Take Rosalía, the 26-year-old Spanish singer and songwriter who first became known for her contemporary interpretations of traditional flamenco music. Fans may find her in bubblegum Off-White tracksuit one moment and a custom Collina Strada unitard — tie-dyed, naturally — with full-bedazzled work boots the next.
Of all of Burkhart's clients, Rosalía is the artist with whom she shares the most similar fashion aesthetic. As a house rule, Burkhart puts her clients' stylistic preferences above her own, but with Rosalía, the Venn diagram is just a circle.
"That's why Rosalía's low-key one of my favorite people to work with," says Burkhart. "If I was a 26-year-old flamenco pop artist who was breaking all the boundaries in the world, being incredible, I would 100% want to wear everything she's wearing."
Like Eilish, Rosalía deeply — esoterically, artistically — understands fashion. If there's one through-line between all of Burkhart's widely-varying clients, Diplo's powder-pink cowboy suits and Poppy's campy femme mini-dresses, it's that she trusts her clients tastes implicitly, to let them exist as the same artists in their clothing as they are creating or performing their music.
"Who are my clients? What is their taste? What do they aspire to most? I put that first before anything else," she says. "It's obviously filtered and I imbue my taste, too, but I'm really trying to get inside the client's head. I climb deep inside who these people are and try to look at it from all perspectives."
Throughout our conversation, the one word that Burkhart keeps returning to is "authenticity" — allowing her clients to be their most authentic selves, encouraging them to create their most authentic art. Authenticity begets authenticity, so Burkhart herself must work intuitively, too. One must nourish oneself in order to feed others.
"I mean, these are artists," she says. "These are people who wake up one day, and they used to love the sky and now they love the forest, you know? These are people who have intense emotional feelings, and things can change. I'll even tell designers I'm working with who ask, 'Is she wearing the look? Is she wearing the look?!' I'm like, 'I hope so?' But literally, until their foot is on that carpet, all bets are off as far as I'm concerned."