"We've both been doing this for 10 years separately and we were both really fed up, to be honest, with different parts of the industry that felt ageist, racist, sexist," Edmiston tells Fashionista, over Zoom, from London. "I was ready to go and open a rescue shelter for animals in Oxford."
For his part, Smith had, after a career of working at institutions like Vogue and collaborating with fashion brands on dressing talent for the red carpet, grown exhausted by this feeling that he "had been fighting this uphill battle alone."
"I was like, 'You know what? I'm done. I can't tell the fashion industry that they're racist, that they're ageist, that they're sexist one more time,'" he says. "You do it and you do it and you do it, and then you're labeled as the aggressive person — 'Oh, he's touchy. He's very sensitive about these topics.' Fashion knows that it's racist. It's almost like nobody was acknowledging this elephant in the room, and it's such a shame that it took what happened for fashion to finally realize how ugly of a face it had."
Last spring, Smith and Edmiston were put in touch through photographer Misan Harriman, a mutual friend. They started texting, and had plans to meet up for a coffee. Then, George Floyd was murdered by police officers in Minnesota.
"That threw everything off," Smith remembers. "I kind of went to this internal stress, being a Black man from the South. I hosted an event, Let's Talk About Race, in the park across the street from my flat. About 20 or 30 people came, and the dialogue opened." Edmiston was one of those people.
The spark between them, they both say, was instantaneous. They got together for dinner and met each others' partners and families. The intent wasn't to go into business together, at least not initially. It just happened organically.
"I was listening to what Sarah loved, and she listened to what I loved," Smith notes. "That's the thing: We listened to each other. That was a rarity that we hadn't found from agents, from publicists, from designers... I was like, 'Should we partner?' And she was like, 'Yeah, why not?' There was not pomp or circumstance. It was like, 'If this is going to work, great. If it's not, great.' There was no pressure."
Zadrian & Sarah announced themselves as an official styling duo in September, represented by The Wall Group. Their first client was Naama Preis, who they dressed in Chanel Haute Couture for the 2020 Venice Film Festival. (It was the first time either of them had worked with the Israeli actor. They slid into her DM's.)
"Just to see and speak with Naama, as we were doing the fitting — she said, 'You guys have made this experience so memorable for me.'" Smith recalls. "The way that we approached her and the way that we do it is in a way that's really authentic to the talent. Chanel has been so good about [that.] They really want to make sure that they're not just putting us into a pigeonhole, like, 'This is the chignon, this is the look.' They really give you the breadth to create and make sure that when you see that person in that look, that it's them — they just happen to wear Chanel."
That debut set Zadrian & Sarah at "quite a high standard," as Smith puts it, but it's one they've continued to meet — and raise. Most recently, they dressed three nominees for the 2021 BAFTAs in custom looks from three different esteemed houses: Kosar Ali in Alexander McQueen, Kingsley Ben-Adir in Dior Men by Kim Jones and Bukky Bakray in Prada.
Independently of each other, Smith and Edmiston are both "born hustlers," he says: "When we saw the pandemic coming in and everything was quieting down... Sarah and I found each other and I was like, 'You know what? We still have bills to pay. Sarah has a daughter to put in school. We have to figure this out.' We personally started watching films, looking at the film festivals line-ups, following Variety and WWD and all the entertainment press and finding people that we wanted to work with. We started sliding into DMs. We started sending emails."
They've gone on to work with Ben-Adir throughout his promotional tour for "One Night in Miami," with Taye Diggs when he hosted the Critic's Choice Awards, with "Bridgerton" star Florence Hunt and "Fate: The Winx Saga" actor Precious Mustapha, and many more. And people have taken notice.
"What's happening now is that we're having a lot of publicists email us," Smith notes. "It's a bit scary, because we're like, 'Can we do this client?' It's a small industry, and I think that publicists are hearing from the clients themselves, 'It was a joyous experience. I felt seen.'"
They both admit that their process for styling a client for a red carpet hasn't changed all that much under current circumstances — or even because they're working as a duo.
"To be honest, we worked so internationally always," Edmiston says. "There's a certain amount of already being versed in doing the WhatsApps and doing the images... because we're based in London, but really, Zadrian was in L.A. 24 hours ago and in the [pre-pandemic] world, we go to New York and we Eurostar to Paris in a heartbeat. It is different, but it's not that different."
How it usually goes: They'll get in touch with a prospective client's team or vice versa and, if there's interest from both parties, they'll hop on the phone. "That first Zoom call — and we always did this, we used to do this in person, but now it's via Zoom — we literally just sit there and we chat, we have a laugh and we talk about what they like, just to get to know them," Smith explains. "There have been meetings where we hang up and we go, 'That's not our person. There's not a connection, there's not a chemistry.' And that's okay, because every girl and every boy is not your client."
If there's a match, they'll set up another call, this time to go over fashion direction and present boards outlining their ideas for day, evening and red carpet looks, and for the client to give feedback.
"Through that research, we're discovering this person's fashion narrative," Smith says. "By the time you come into the fitting, you love everything. You have a couple things that don't work when you put them on, but because we've taken that time to really go through with you and we have a WhatsApp group where they could be at dinner and go, 'Oh my god, this lady in this restaurant, I love her earrings,' and send us a picture... All that informs the fashion, because we want it to feel authentic and we honor them."
What makes their partnership work, they argue, is that there's no room for ego. "Truthfully, we work in such a family-oriented way, with our studio manager and Zadrian's partner and my husband," Edmiston notes. "If you're in a fitting, there are two rescue dogs and a small seven-year-old is likely to tell you what she thinks about your dress and leave. We view our clients very much as human, so it's about making them comfortable, making it fun, making it flow, making it of ease. And we also want them to be that way with us."
Smith adds: "For us, it's not a competition anymore. We just want to do great work. We want to bring joy to people's lives. So we're communicating with them so that there are no surprises: 'This is what we have, do you like it? Great. If you don't, let us try to fix it.'"
They're not ones to follow to red-carpet trends — their work is guided, first and foremost, by the individual they're dressing. However, they do now have to consider how a garment or an accessory will read on a Zoom live-stream, from the waist-up, something they didn't really have to think about before the pandemic had celebrities logging on to awards shows from their homes.
"Sometimes, especially with chiffons, the movement is everything in a dress — but we're not walking a carpet anywhere so a dress that would have wowed and had magic and subtlety and a story is just going to come up flat," Edmiston explains. "You have to change what you perceive as beautiful. What's going to wow people? And then how much do you want to wow? In what way do you want to wow?"
There is one other unexpected responsibility that has emerged: Since they'll often find themselves physically with the client right before they log on to a remote event, Smith and Edmiston have had to, on occasion, step in as IT, helping them find the right Zoom link or even advising on the best angle to set the camera at.
The rush to get the looks and have the client ready for the function on time, though? That's still the same. "Everything is still very last minute dot com," Smith confirms.
What has happened, they argue, is that a client might now have a deeper, more intimate understanding of the nitty-gritty aspects of a stylist's job.
"We had to ship these boxes and every time it came back, [the client] was like, 'Okay, what's your fee? I'm going to make sure that I pay that times two, because now I understand what you do and I never want to do it,'" Smith says. "It allowed them and their teams to see the job that we have, because unfortunately, oftentimes, people think that this is a hobby, not a career."
Edmiston builds on that: "Part of our job is to make sure they rock up to a fitting that is on time and calm but full of rows and rows of beautiful things that are exactly in their aesthetic. But sometimes that gives off the impression that it's just a ride. What we never need to say to them is that we're up til 1:00 a.m. doing boards and chasing the look they preferred that's been stuck somewhere, that we're onto FedEx for three days and when the doorbell finally goes at 10:00 p.m. we're thrilled and we unpack it, steam it and have it on the rail. The client doesn't need to know or see that."
Then, there's the fact that the industry is changing. As a duo, Zadrian & Sarah have made it a point to work with people and with brands that align with them on fundamental values, in an effort to combat the racism, sexism, ageism and other -isms that had gotten them feeling so disillusioned with the industry to begin with. The bio on their joint Instagram account reads, "Fashion is a conduit for empowering and dignifying narratives."
"Anyone who's still operating under the same manual book as before, pre-BLM, pre-pandemic, it's very dated," Smith argues. "I actually just had a designer email me wanting one of our clients to do something for a show and they were like, 'She has to wear this look and have her hair in a chignon and wear red lipstick.' I told the client, and she was like, 'I'm a grown-ass woman.' What world are you living in? That's just not the ticket anymore. And I think that if anyone in the fashion space continues to do that, it becomes jarring. It's just like, 'You know what? You stay in that corner.'"
Edmiston says, "In these fittings, we had a client say, 'I've never seen myself like this.' And I just lost it, because that's heartbreaking, and we hear it all the time. When people don't feel like they're represented by the fashion community, when they're not told that they're the vision of beauty and when you have these girls share with you how that's made them feel, you're like, 'Well, that's not happening on our watch. That's not the narrative that's going to be allowed to continue with any brand we work with, with any client we work with.'"
They're finding that there's more curiosity on behalf of clients, too. According to Smith, they'll now ask, "'What is this brand's stance on this movement? Does this brand support working mothers? Have they dressed other minority clients?'"
"The most annoying thing is [looking at] the brands who we've had a conversation with, and they go, 'Okay, yep. We're going to look and fix this.' And then it's like, 'You're still not...' Then you have the audacity to ask, 'Can we please dress your nominee?,'" he adds. "No, you cannot dress our nominee because you haven't done the work."
Edmiston commends her business partner because, as she puts it: "People are open to that dialogue now because of him. Zadrian sent those emails [calling out bad behavior in the industry] when no one was open. It's great when people are acknowledged for doing it at the time of openness, but what you really need to do is acknowledge the people that did it for almost a decade when there was no openness, because that's the really hard work."
Over the past year — and in the seven months they've worked as a team — Zadrian & Sarah have learned to extend themselves more grace, both in work and in life. "We've given ourselves more space to not be perfect," Smith says. "We're both perfectionists, sometimes to our own detriment." (To which Edmiston adds: "We're recovering perfectionists, because we acknowledge that we're working on it.")
The way that the pandemic has necessitated us to change the way we go about everything, Smith continues, has grounded him: It's reminded him that he's human, and that finding that balance between work and real life is essential. "Don't get me wrong: We still work blistering hard," he notes. "But I think that we're both making it a point to say, 'You know what, I need to take the day off.'"
For Edmiston, working in partnership with Smith has given her a flexibility and freedom she had trouble finding before as a working mother. "Fashion's not easy with kids — people need you to pretend you don't have them, pretend you don't have other pressures," she says. "For Zadrian to come into my life and be like, 'She needs to do pickup. She needs to do drop off. She has a parent-teacher thing,' and the openness of which he supports me as a working mother, blows my mind continuously... He reminds me to still be me. I'm endlessly grateful for that. And yes, the work has never been more fun or better."
Looking at a post-pandemic future, Zadrian & Sarah are optimistic that the lessons learned over the past twelve-plus months will stay.
"I'm going to go really hopeful here — and possibly a bit naïve — and say I hope what sticks is that everybody is a bit more humane, a bit kinder and a bit more grounded," Edmiston says. "I hope that that's the lasting change, that that's how styling will be different coming out of this, that it becomes more about the individual and the person, about kindness and holding space for each other."
Smith, meanwhile, thinks that virtual events will continue to be a thing — "that's just something we'll be able to integrating into our planning now, continue to think about, 'Does it look great for Zoom?" And also that, moving forward, brands will continue to be held accountable for their behavior.
"If you're not doing the right thing, then we have to talk to you about it. And if you don't want to do the right thing, then we won't work with you," he argues. "I think before, there was a fear — 'Oh my god, it's XXX brand, we can't piss them off.' No, it's not about pissing you off. If it's not right, we're going to make sure you know why it's not right. You need to fix it. And if you don't want to fix it, then we wish you the best.'"