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.
"I always joke with Jason and tell him, 'Honestly, if I can be an assistant, I would, because it was the best time of my life,'" he tells Fashionista over the phone. "You really are just carefree and you're learning the mistakes that you're going to make."
Of course, now, he's out on his own, with his own clients, which range from superstar models like Joan Smalls and Paloma Elsesser to the brand Pyer Moss. But he took his time to get there. And that was done intentionally.
"I didn't put a lot of pressure on myself to go out on my own. I just kind of hankered down and learned the industry from a deep level," McNeal explains. "That training that you get from assisting, being in the background — I always say when you're in the background for so long, you see everything that's coming your way. That's really what shaped me into being a stylist, that I took the time to learn the craft from every angle."
Ahead, McNeal talks about his decade in fashion, from rising up to first assistant to seizing opportunities where he saw them to creating images that are larger than himself.
Walk me through the highlight reel of your career. What would you say have been the big moments?
I've been working in fashion for 10 years. I've been working with fashion for a long time. Really, the first half of my career was just assisting, working with some of the best stylists and just getting the right training to lead up to my biggest moments. I'm really overcritical of my work and of everything I do. I take my process really seriously. I like to move slow because I think that the fashion industry changes all the time and the slower you move, the more you can see the changes and adapt.
The biggest moment for me and I think the arc of my career is everything I do at Pyer Moss, [especially] the Fall 2018 American, Also show. Everything we've been doing has been a career highlight. I don't want to say 'career highlight' because I still have so long to go and there are so many things that I want to do. But I think that for me and for other people, too, that's been the thing that's defined me as a stylist, as an image maker and as a voice in this industry.
How did you first meet Kerby Jean-Raymond? How has your work with Pyer Moss evolved?
We're both from Brooklyn. We both grew up in the same area. I just fell in love with him as a person first. We became friends first, and then one day I'm in his office, we're hanging out, I was pulling clothes [for] videos and artists that I worked with and he just was like, 'You want to style my show?'
It really happened so organically — how I think things should happen, when people trust you and see your vision and passion. He just saw that and he was like, 'Yeah, let's work together.'
It was that first show, then it was the second show, then it went from the campaigns to all the visuals you see, and to me having a hand in all those conversations and sitting and working together.
What was that experience like, styling a runway show?
I assisted for six years, so I had so much experience [from having worked] with so many stylists. Preparation and time, that's the combination for being successful. I prepared myself by assisting and learning under people, so for me it really was effortless. It was just betting on myself. Kerby, he's such a good friend and a brother — when you're working and creating in that space of love and family, your first time doesn't feel like your first time in the way we operate. We held each other's hands. It wasn't any pressure really. It really was just me spreading my wings and flying, essentially, doing what I do all the time, on my own.
You mentioned your former boss, Jason Rembert, and the years you spent assisting other stylists. Why was assisting so important to your career?
I fell into fashion because I love fashion so much. And I've had people willing to guide me into doing this — me meeting different stylists and them taking me under their wings, Jason being the one I worked with the longest.
I'd really exhausted assisting, I just plateaued. I was a first assistant, they trusted me so much that I would really do the whole job. For me it happened in more of a natural way, where I just was like, 'What am I doing? What's the next step?' And that was starting my own career.
Everything for me happened brick by brick. With Pyer Moss, I already had while I was an assistant. Then it was like Kilo Kish, then it was Vince Staples. Then, my biggest client was Joan [Smalls].
Joan was somebody I met through another client, Rita Ora, who's one of my best friends. Rita was actually Jason's client, and we worked together for so many years. That's just a friendship, [from] working with a celebrity for so long Through people seeing the work that we were doing with her, that's really how I started to get a lot of other celebrity clients, especially when I went on my own.
My first big person really was Joan. She saw what I was doing with Rita. We clicked on a personal level. Styling for me, it's a very deep process. I really like to understand the person. I think people gravitate towards me because of that.
Me and Joan, every time we saw each other, we would always laugh and have the best time with each other. She also loved my work. And I also was a mega fan of her — obviously, Joan Smalls, she's the omega. One day, she just asked me: 'Hey, do you want to style me?' And I was like, 'Drop everything. Yes I would love to style you.' It was the universe putting everything in place for me, telling me everything was going to be okay. Because she really just came at the best time.
What made celebrity styling appealing to you?
What makes celebrity selling appealing to me is the ability to really transform people, the ability to collaborate and sit with subjects and hone in on an image. Clothes are really a costume of who you are. Clothes are a transformative piece, something that tells the world who we think we are or who we're trying to be that day. You can really hide yourself behind the things that you wear. For celebrities, especially singers and performers, it's really using clothing to tell a story.
I always like to ask my clients, 'How are you feeling today?' I like to go off of how they're feeling in that moment. If you go off that energy, then the visual aspect of it and how it looks always connects. That's why I like celebrity styling — just talking to somebody and sitting with them and a rack of clothes. You can just change it so many different ways. And you see how the world really gravitates towards that.
What was the first look you styled on Joan?
The first job we ever did together was the 2017 VMAs. There was a collaboration with H&M and they made a custom blazer dress that she wore with Lorraine Schwartz jewelry and Gianvito Rossi shoes. I remember the whole thing, the whole process, flying to L.A. I remember it like it was yesterday.
Do you have a personal favorite look you've worked on together?
I have a lot of favorites that were never photographed, that no one is even saw — only like me and her. But public favorites... It's so hard. I did love the look that she went wore to the Met Gala in 2019, this warrior-inspired Prabal Gurung. The 2018 Cannes Film Festival, she wore custom Cavalli— that was just quintessential Joan: She likes to be sexy, but she likes to do it in a confident way. She just takes care of herself mind, body and soul, and that's kind of what you're seeing.
That's a good one. I'm partial to the 2018 CFDA Awards, with Brandon Maxwell.
Oh, yes. Oh my gosh. That process was so fun. Brandon is one of my good friends, just somebody who I lean on and somebody who I look up to and somebody who we have the best time throughout that whole process [with]. That T-shirt with the skirt is quintessential Americana. It's very Brandon and it's very Joan. It was such a great energy around it. We were at Brandon's house and it was the best time.
With Joan, when we do dresses, my goal is always to do something that people can replicate when they're going to prom. And we actually did see a lot of girls do that look for prom. It was the best fulfilling thing, seeing people duplicate it. Girls DM me every time I do a look and ask me, 'Can you help me with my prom? How did you do that?' And I always answer.
Another client of yours is Paloma Elsesser. How did you two connect?
She just called me. I didn't know her. She was kind of new to IMG, and I just fell in love. [With] Paloma, I can have fun — she understands fashion from the same level as I understand it. And Paloma is just who she is and what she stands for. Everything is deeper than clothes.
Paloma doesn't set boundaries for herself in fashion. When you work with somebody who always wants to push it and take it to the next level, it's one of my favorites. She's just so quirky and so out there, and that's really who I am. It's not a lot of times you work with somebody who you can sit [with] and be like, 'Oh let's work with this new brand from London.' You kind of feel like a kid again. She knows how to make fashion exciting.
Paloma is everything she stands for. Every female that I grew up with, they look like Paloma. When you work with somebody like her, the response is greater because people really look like that.
To that point, you two pick such interesting designers to work with, ones that you don't necessarily see not just in a non-sample size but also in a red carpet context: J.W. Anderson, Eckhaus Latta, Matthew Adams Dolan...
I think you have to take it there. The fashion industry, it really is not set up for somebody who is plus-sized. Every time you step on the red carpet, you really have to bring it. You can't really blend in — you have to stand out. And Paloma, she has the best personal style. When you work with somebody who... the foundation is already set, you're really just building on that.
I have so many favorite [looks] from Paloma — honestly, all of them are my favorite. But oh my goodness, a recent one: She was in Mugler in Paris.
It's so different, it's so quirky, but it's sexy. She was the first person to wear the collection, immediately after the show. It was so quick. We were in Paris too and it was two fashion kids really just having a ball. Fashion is really about freedom. It's about expression. It's about having a good time. We really just were like, 'Okay, fuck a red carpet image — and let's just put it on Instagram.'
What's your styling process like?
The care that I have for the subject and the care that I have all around their bodies... When you care about the person and you care about how their body looks and about how [that relates] to clothes, I think that makes for the best outcome of work. A lot of people maybe think about the look first, but I think about the person. How is she going to feel on that day we have the fitting or that event?
My fittings are very long — notoriously long. Like, three hours. It varies with different people, from person to person. But they're long because I like to sit with the person and it's therapeutic, honestly, when you're just like, 'Okay cool, how are you feeling today?' We talk about that and then we try out things based on how we're feeling. What do we want to show the world? That's what I love about my process, because it's really about the level of care you have for a person. Clients, they really love that, because when you look good, you feel good. I really believe that.
You described the story of that Mugler look with Paloma as two fashion kids just playing. Have you had any pinch-me moments in your career, as someone who has always loved fashion?
Honestly, all of the Pyer Moss shows. When I think about the scale of how we do our shows, when I think about what those shows do for my people and what those shows do to me — how people see themselves through my work. I've done so many different things [with Pyer Moss] that relate to my people on a deep level. The world we create is a real one and it's reflective of society. That's [it] for me. If people can see themselves in my work, then that really is the pinch-me moment. That's why we do it. We do it so people can feel something.
When you're in something creatively, you're in it. You're not really thinking about all of those things. You're just doing it. And when you get to come out of it and people are crying or really feeling it, that for me is the thing. Also just me working in fashion this long is a pinch-me moment. Anytime somebody wants me to work with them. I'm so humbled and I'm so grateful for the opportunity. They could have chosen anybody, but they chose me.