Image from Stylist: The Interpreters of Fashion — Helmut Lang FW 2003, photographed by Inez & VInoodh, styled by Melanie Ward, taken with Instagram
Published: September 01, 1998
Several years ago, about the worst epithet a fashion insider could fling at Ralph Lauren in the face of his undeniable success was to describe him as a stylist. To call a designer a stylist — the implication being that one’s talent is not in creating clothes, but in presenting them — is no longer a barb. The wall between the two is crumbling, as more stylists become the creative forces behind collections and more successful collections resemble the work of a good stylist.
A stylist’s responsibility is not well understood. The job ranges from suggesting how a designer might combine a jacket and skirt for a runway show, to choosing the clothes a rap star will wear in a video or to the MTV Music Awards, to selecting clothes for magazine advertisements and editorial fashion features. Many combine all the roles.
”Stylists help designers complete ideas, and they’re very good at helping you with things you don’t always have time to think about,” said Hussein Chalayan, a designer who works with a stylist, Jane Howe. ”They also see a lot of clothes. And they become like a sounding board.”
As design houses go global, seeking to sell a look with widespread appeal through provocative but easily translatable images, the idea of a person who can set the mood for a collection, or suggest just the right shoes to finish off an outfit, has ballooned in importance. This development pleases many, but it is also setting off alarm bells.
”It’s become very strong in the last three years,” said Franca Sozzani, editor in chief of Italian Vogue. ”Years ago, I don’t remember so many designers calling and asking me who are the best stylists, and so many designers calling me after shows to complain about stylists.”
It is not just designers who are fueling the demand for stylists, who can earn from $1,000 to $10,000 a day. Now, they are sometimes even attracting investors willing to back them in design businesses. In the last six months, three stylists have become the creative heads of companies: Josh Patner is co-designer for his company, Tuleh; Tony Melillo does the same for Nova, and Alexandra White is creative director for Tocca.
Victoria Bartlett, who with Ms. White, Ms. Ward and Joe McKenna is among the top stylists today, has put together a deal with Nigoria of Japan to create her own lingerie line to be sold in shops bearing her name, for which she will also select other merchandise. The opening of the shops, originally scheduled for November, is on hold because of the Asian financial turmoil.
Mr. Patner, who styled for Donna Karan, Byblos, Nicole Miller and L’Uomo Vogue before crossing over to become a designer, said that the rising status of stylists reflects the accelerated pace of fashion. ”The media demands on fashion have generated a need for more change than fashion inherently has,” Mr. Patner said. ”The designers need stylists to push them farther than they might go.”
Many designers have stopped designing and become product managers, he added. Stylists help them shape an international style. Quite simply, good style travels better than good design. The advent of global businesses has meant that designers need someone who can bring the advantage of wide travel and the knowledge of what’s going on in other design rooms. Not that all designers necessarily want to copy, but they need to know what the pulse at that moment is.
No designer with global ambitions ever simply says, ”I’m selling a design.” They’re selling a life style, and stylists understand best how to capture a look, particularly from the streets, at a time when street influence is important.
Some of today’s most successful designers are natural stylists and blur the line between design and styling on the runway. Tom Ford of Gucci, Marc Jacobs and Narciso Rodriguez play as much with mood and how separate pieces are put together as they do with the cut of an armhole. The 1990’s may well be remembered as the age of the stylist in fashion. The previous decade was an era of designers whose clothes spoke definitively by themselves: the color and drape of an Armani suit, the fringe of a Chanel outfit by Karl Lagerfeld, the pouf of a Christian Lacroix skirt, the shirring of an Emmanuel Ungaro dress.
But it was stylists, at the beginning of the 90’s, who were at the heart of the minimalist movement, which displaced many of these big guns. Spreading their point of view from design room to design room, stylists played an important role in banning accessories from the runway and from magazine spreads.
Once it was thought that as minimalism receded, so too would stylists’ influence. But that has not been the case, and in part it is thanks to the rise of the Hollywood celebrity and the pop music star in fashion. Stylists have proved to be fashion’s most direct link to celebrities, exerting an influence on how they dress and serving as de facto gatekeepers to the stars. Designers often get their clothes on celebrities by going through stylists, whom celebrities trust more in matters of dress than they do agents or publicity people. Stylists like Derek Khan, who does most of his work for singers like Monica and Lauryn Hill, and Melanie Ward and Ms. Bartlett, who have dressed stars for music videos and public appearances, offer designers an inside track. In turn, their clout is enhanced.
Mr. Khan confirmed that designers court him because of his connections to stars. Charles Klein, a lawyer specializing in fashion at the firm Davidoff & Malito, who is Mr. Khan’s business manager, said potential business backers are interested in his client for the same reason. ”If you look at the people who are growing in today’s market, they have that mix of music or sports or one or the other,” Mr. Klein said.
The stylists’ rise has not so much eclipsed designers — who have never been known to give up a minute in the spotlight — but design itself. Some fashion insiders noted that several designers now seem to be listening to the same stylists, blurring the differences between their collections, or they approach their collections the way stylists do.
”You take out the labels and you don’t know the difference,” said Ms. Sozzani, who expressed chagrin with the widespread use and influence of stylists. ”Some stylists are great, and I understand you want to compare your opinion with other people — the stylist is very important in this way. But the risk is everything becomes the same. It’s making a lot of confusion.”
Ms. Bartlett, who has worked as a stylist for both Miuccia Prada and Donatella Versace, agreed that sometimes designers lean too heavily on stylists. She even praised Ms. Prada’s recent decision to banish stylists this past season.
Ms. Ward was unhappily at the center of a petite drama in styling two years ago when, working for both Helmut Lang and Calvin Klein, she was accused by some of making Mr. Klein’s collection look startlingly derivative of Mr. Lang’s. There were similarities of color, of cut, and the use of T-shirts instead of shirts. ”I never consciously styled them the same,” Ms. Ward said. ”I remember I raised it with Helmut, and he was very supportive and I appreciate that.”
Mr. Lang, unlike some designers, is candid about Ms. Ward’s contribution to his collections, which she now works on exclusively when not occupied as a fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar. In an article about her own wardrobe in this month’s Harper’s Bazaar, she is called a stylist and design consultant, two job descriptions she believes are interchangeable these days.
”Some designers have made a distinct point of not using stylists,” Ms. Ward said. ”For me, a stylist is a major part of the support system for a designer. But a sign of professionalism is to know when to stop. It’s a question of integrity. You respect them and their style.”
Even so, a stylist with a strong imprint can sometimes make it difficult to detect a designer’s style at all, especially when the designer is a nascent talent.
Mr. Rodriguez said: ”So many young designers are focusing on the styling aspect, which is a mistake. You can make a lot of noise with tricks and styling.”
Mr. Rodriguez, one of the most prominent design talents of the moment, with a strong track record as a designer of his own collection, Loewe and Cerutti, said he had no problem with someone calling him a good stylist: proof that the term as directed at designers has lost its sting. [NYTIMES]