Once relegated to the backstage areas of fashion shows and award ceremonies, in recent years stylists have stepped out from behind the curtain and into the limelight. Kate Young, stylist to Selena Gomez, Dakota Johnson and Margot Robbie, has over 300k followers on Instagram alone, while Rachel Zoe and Brad Goreski have become celebrities in their own right, launching TV shows off the back of their red-carpet work. As a result, the job of celebrity stylist has become much sought-after. Although it may seem incredibly glamorous to be the person responsible for an actress’s red-carpet look, any professional will tell you that the day-to-day demands of the role are often anything but. Here’s a rundown of the essential skills you need to succeed as a stylist.
Fashion, celebrity, hair and make-up, catalogue stylists – what’s the difference?
In fashion, stylists primarily fall into two camps: personal stylists, who help celebrity clients develop a signature look, and editorial stylists, who create aesthetics for magazine photo shoots and ad campaigns (in this sort of role it’s more likely for them to be called fashion editors). There are also hair and make-up stylists, fashion show stylists and catalogue stylists, who arrange products and clothing in a way that sells.
How do you become a stylist?
Micaela Erlanger, best known for dressing celebrities like Lupita Nyong’o, Meryl Streep and Diane Kruger, got her start as a stylist by interning for several years before landing a job in New York assisting the late Annabel Tollman, who made her name dressing celebrity clients including the Olsen twins, Shakira and Liv Tyler. Erlanger took any internship she could find while studying business at Parsons School of Design, something she recommends to any aspiring celebrity or personal stylist.
“It was integral to getting me experience and ultimately giving me a breadth of knowledge where I could become an assistant and move up the food chain,” Erlanger says. “I interned every single summer and every semester. I treated every internship with the same dedication I did school. If you are unclear of your direction at any point, getting that hands-on experience is absolutely critical and empowering. I really got a taste of what styling was like on set and in a safe environment where I could contribute.” Like many stylists, Erlanger accepts interns for college credit every term at her New York studio. Many of these internships are listed on career job sites or can be found by following stylists on Twitter and Instagram, as they often post for applications. “I want to instil responsibility and mutual respect in our interns,” Erlanger notes. “There are so many different things you can do now in the styling world, so you get a really good dose of that working with me.”
Choose your course carefully
Studying fashion at university is common for stylists, particularly degrees that involve fashion history or the business of fashion, but it’s not the only path. Elizabeth Stewart, who styles Jessica Chastain, Gal Gadot and Cate Blanchett, attended the University of South Carolina, where she gained a degree in journalism. “I either wanted to work for a magazine or in advertising,” Stewart says. “I interned at a TV station during college and actually got two local commercials on the air. My first break [in fashion] was a job at Women’s Wear Daily and getting sent to Paris, where I learned what goes into designing and making clothes in the couture ateliers.” It’s also worth noting that going to university is not essential if you want to pursue a career as a stylist. Due to the rise in university fees in the UK, many young people interested in becoming stylists prefer to get straight into the field through work experience. It’s very much a personal choice and no answer is right or wrong.
Build connections and value your relationships
Natalie Brewster, global fashion director at Matches Fashion, recommends networking as much as possible as you come up in the industry. “It’s very much about making connections when you’re starting out, then growing and building those creative teams together,” says Brewster, who previously worked for Vogue Russia. “I still work with a lot of the photographers, and hair and make-up artists whom I assisted when I started, and hope I continue to do so. It’s also the connections you make with PRs and designers. When I got my first digital fashion editor role it was through an introduction by a PR friend.”
Erlanger’s big break came in 2013 when she was hired to dress Downtown Abbey star Michelle Dockery for the Golden Globes – and the gold and white Alexandre Vauthier gown she chose for the actress was a sensation on the red carpet. She met Dockery through a make-up artist friend, a chance encounter that changed her career. “Your relationships are important,” Erlanger says. “Michelle hired me to style her for the Golden Globes and SAG Awards. It was a huge opportunity and I knew I had to nail it. I wanted to be a stylist and that was my opportunity to really prove it. Michelle then introduced me to Lupita and that really transformed my career.”
Start as an assistant so you have a genuine understanding of the role
Being a stylist is not just red-carpet glitz. Stewart recommends that anyone considering this career path first ask themselves how hard they’re prepared to work. “A lot of people have great taste and style, but it has to be combined with hard work and no ego, because 90 per cent of the job is not glamorous at all.”
“Understand that it is work,” says Elizabeth Saltzman, the Vogue contributing editor and London-based stylist to Gwyneth Paltrow and Saoirse Ronan, who transitioned from senior fashion editor at Vogue to celebrity stylist after many years in magazine editorial. “Educate yourself. Look at everything you can look at. It’s not just about a dress. If you still want to get in after that, then you need to be an assistant. I always say four years as a proper assistant. The first year to fumble and learn from your boss, the second year to start to find your feet, the third year to have no more fuck-ups and the fourth year to be able to step out.” She adds, “A positive attitude and organisation are key. Always return things in better condition than when you found them. Always say thank you. Return every email. And always treat everyone equally.”
Find a distinctive point of view
Executive deputy editor and fashion director at T Magazine China Lucia Liu emphasises that it’s important to hone your own aesthetic as a stylist. She frequently works on projects as a creative director, providing art direction for magazine and advertising photo shoots, and always tries to listen to the opinions of others without internalising them too much. “Taste is a very personal thing,” she notes. “The style you give to others might not be understood at first. It takes time. It’s very important that you believe in yourself. You have to be patient and passionate. You can’t just have passion for the career for two years – you have to have the passion for over 20 years.”
“The best way to become a stylist is to go out there and try it,” says Erlanger. “In general, our job is to be able to interpret any vision and be able to execute that. You have to be adaptable. It’s a collaboration, so understanding how that process works is important. And that’s not something that can be learned in school. You have to get out there and get your hands dirty and watch and listen. You don’t get anywhere by just sitting around. You’ve got to go for it.”
From the experts: a step-by-step guide to becoming a stylist
- Begin by getting a relevant degree or qualification. This can be during university or by taking courses on your own time. Or don’t. There’s no correct answer. Think about what matters to you most: is it an education or are you keen to get your portfolio started soon?
- Gain real-world experience in the field, potentially with an internship. This can help determine what sort of stylist you want to become and guide future goals.
- Network with other industry professionals, make valuable connections and build a reputation for excellence. It’s important to sell yourself in order to earn a loyal clientele.
- Put in the hours and hard work, and be willing to do what it takes to prove yourself. Remember that it’s not about fame, it’s about doing the job well.
- Develop a point of view and a personal aesthetic, and share that with your clients. This will help set you and your work apart.