They’re Hollywood’s hidden power brokers: the stylist whose choice of red-carpet outfits can make a star’s name – or destroy it. Christa D’Souza investigates the secret world of schmooze and subterfuge behind the awards-night frocks. Portraits by Kayt Jones
Its a beautiful morning in Beverly Hills, the sky is vivid blue and I have just pitched up at the office of Kristen “New Moon” Stewart’s stylist, Tara Swennen. Swennen, 32, has a wide smile on her face and perfectly tonged hair, despite having slept a maximum of three hours last night. Why? This is Oscar week, the Superbowl of the red-carpet awards, the crowning moment of a Hollywood stylist’s career, if you like. Ever since the Oscar nominations were announced (on February 5, at 1:13am Pacific Standard Time), sleep has not exactly got top priority.
“I’ve been surviving on take-out and caffeine, “Swennen says, as we wade through teetering piles of Fed Ex boxes and rack after rack of frocks she’s called in from fashion PRs for the event – Valentino, Oscar de la Renta, Stella McCartney, Carolina Herrera, Balmain; you name it, she’s got it. “And then there is this,” she says, motioning towards a slinky number by Kaufmann Franco, “if one of your girls is having a hot-body moment, but I would have to warn them that Anne Hathaway has worn it before.” (God forbid that someone’s worn it before, although wearing a dress that’s been seen on someone else can be a tactical manoeuvre: “Yes, we’ve seen that dress before – but who wore it best?”)
Swennen, who made her name by styling Miley Cyrus, has other clients on the red carpet in 72 hours’ time: among them the ravishing Paula Patton (the teacher in Precious), and former catwalk model Angie Harmon. Kristen Stewart, though, is Swennen’s current main “girl”. Luckily the choice for Stewart’s look for the 82nd Academy Awards has been nailed down to two:an inky-blue strapless sheath, custom-designed by LA-based designer Monique Lhuillier, “and backup”. Boy, it’s been a long haul. From the moment Swennen started the “online strategising campaign” three months ago, she must have pulled in easily around 100 dresses for Stewart to see. “Forget vacations, or children or even pets in this job,”she says cheerfully. “Forget eating sitting down, actually. My poor husband. I think I drive him mad.”
Meanwhile, in Jessica Paster’s living room up in the hills above Hollywood, things are a tiny bit more hectic. Paster is a small legend in the world of Hollywood styling, having virtually invented the profession back in the mid-Nineties when the idea of a middleman between designer and actress was the anomaly rather than the rule. She was the person Rachel Zoe, current queen of the Hollywood stylist, publicly vowed to topple when she arrived in LA back in 2000.
An underwear designer by training, Paster’s past clients include Kim Basinger, Kate Hudson, and Charlize Theron. Her client list now includes Avril Lavigne, Dakota Fanning, Christina Applegate and Emily Blunt (none of whom are actually going to the Oscars, but Emily, for sure, is going to some of the parties around it). Remember that famous pink ruffled mermaid Dolce dress Blunt wore to the Golden Globes earlier this year? That was Paster: As was that Galliano “hummingbird” gown Cate Blanchett wore at that 1999 Academy Awards. But we don’t talk about Cate now, because Cate has defected to New York Times Magazine stylist Elizabeth Stewart.
“Look: hair, make-up, spouses, they’re all going to leave,” says Paster, wiggling her bouncy, almost spherical form onto the edge of a sofa and surveying the chaos of polythene-wrapped frocks and clothes racks and shoes strewn around the floor, all to the hysterical accompaniment of her constantly barking poodle. “Have I been heartbroken? Yes, I have, because I love my clients…”
Welcome to the world of the Hollywood stylist: a world – thanks to Jessica Paster; who was one of the first stylist to command upwards of $5,000 day; thanks to Rachel Zoe, who made the job so deliciously high-pofile; thanks to Kelly Cutrone of reality show The Hills for goodness’ sake – that everyone suddenly seems to want to join, and maybe get their own TV show off the back of it, too. A world, it is true, where the fairytale dreams you spin into reality will be soon by 40 to 50 million viewers across the globe; a world where you have the power to help a fledgling actress become a star; indelibly print her in the public consciousness, connect her with her audience, bless her; had gone out and done it herself.
At the same time, its a world beset by defections, subterfuge and rumours. Heard the one about the stylist who has kept a closet full of borrowed frocks for six months just so nobody else’s clients can wear them? Or the one stylist who used to call in pieces on the pretence of showing them to A-listers and then selling them to C-listers for the night? Or, indeed, the stylist whose incontinent dog relieved itself all over a client’s Oscar gown, and the actress ended up having to wear it, with stain in full view, to accept her award?
“Hmm,” sniff Penelope Cruz’s stylist, Christina Ehrlich, “I would never let my dogs anywhere near the clothes…”
It is now the day after the Oscars and we are in the warehouse-like West Hollywood “factory” that Ehrlich shares with fellow stylist Estee Stanley and an army of assistants. Like many of the Hollywood stylist, Ehrlich watched the awards from the comfort of her sofa. The debrief, that’s always the best part. Didn’t Demi (styled by Zoe) look divine in her nude Versace? Weren’t they weird, those cinnamon-bun things on Charlize’s chest? And how fabulous did Sandra look in that silver Marchesa? It’s a wonder she didn’t thank her stylist, Deborah Waknin, when she got up on the podium. (On the other hand, didn’t Bullock recently say her stepdaughter was going to be picking out her dress?)
Racks stretch around the room, bulging with gowns which Ehrlich, a former ballet dancer who got her break styling singer Mandy Moore, has pulled in. Behind the desk is a bed for one of her three Eskimo dogs, freshly upholstered in Missioni. At the far end of the room is a long, long rack with a big sign attached to it reading “Penelope Cruz: do not touch”. On it is the asymmetrical burgundy taffeta Donna Karen dress that Cruz wore last night, and which Ehrlich first spotted last October while on a visit to “all my fashion PRs in Manhattan”. She saw the half-finished dress on a mannequin and asked there and then to have in made in Cruz’s exact measurements. “I had a head start, because we knew she’d be presenting after she won an award last year for Vicky Christina Barcelona; we weren’t waiting for the nominations” – when, no doubt, there is a bit of a scramble.
Ehrlich lives and breathes red-carpet frocks. If she’s not “Styling.com-ing” in the middle of the night for clients, she’ll be in the front row at the shows, seeing if there is something good for Penelope’s next outing. An intense, lanky brunette dressed in Isabel Marant, Ehrlich had only one client on the Oscar carpet this time around, but there have been six. “Plus their boyfriends. Then there were the agents, the publicist and the relatives to dress.” Aside from Cruz, whom she started styling almost seven years ago, her “girls” have included Jessica Biel, Ashley Olsen, and Nicole Richie.
Like Swennan, Ehrlich is one of the new guard. Zoe, who who was profiled in this magazine a few years ago, has one of the most impressive rosters of clients in the business, including Anne Hathaway, Demi Moore, and Cameron Diaz. Up there too is Leslie Fremar, a former US Voguette, who despite being weeks from giving birth was dressing her clients – who include Julianne Moore, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jennifer Connelly – for the Oscars.
What does it take to be at the top? Negotiating, schmoozing, witch-doctoring even (because aren’t there always good-luck and bad-luck dresses?) – these are all great credentials for being a Hollywood stylist. Tenacity, that’s a big plus too. “When it’s the night before and you’ve got to get what your client wants, it’s like a druggie looking for supplies. “says Elizabeth Saltzman of Vanity Fair, who currently styles her good friends Gwyneth Paltrow and Uma Therman.
“You better believe it,” says Ehrlich. “Its not like I call up Oscar de la Renta and go ‘I’ll have three dresses, please’, and they go ‘Right, they’re on their way.’ No, no, no!” Ehrlich realises only too well that only part of the job is about the frocks and that at least 60 percent of it psychology. “I have a caretaker personality,” she says. “I like looking after people, but I also see myself as a translator. Say I have a client who only wants to wear Marchesa, and it’s an actress Marchesa isn’t – let’s say – savvy to yet, I have to give her a version of Marchesa and be able to talk up that not-Marchesa designer. Then there’s the client who comes in with the tearsheet of the dress she wants to wear, and you’re looking at this picture of a 16-year-old who weighs maybe 100lb and is wearing something so transparent you can see a bit of nipple. You just, very diplomatically, have to translate.”
“It most certainly isn’t just thinking I know about a pretty dress,” agrees British expat Annabel Tollman, Scarlett Johansson’s stylist. “It’s about managing people, it’s about politicking the publicist and the agents and the film studios. And then there’s the actress herself. See, they have opinions. But you get more skilled at it the more you do it.”
“Oh, there’s a whole lot of schmoozing that goes on,” says fellow Brit Cher Coulter, a down-to-earth blonde who came out to LA seven years as a graduate of St. Martins and now counts Kate Bosworth, Sienna Miller, Emily Mortimer, and Liv Tyler as regular clients. “Especially of the publicist, because if an actress is busy, her publicist is the first one she listens to.”
“Dear God, does the publicist have a huge hold,” says Tara Swennen. “You’re always getting from them: ‘She’ll never wear it, she’ll never wear it.’ And you have to go, in a sweet appeasing voice, ‘I’m sure you’re right, but that doesn’t mean she can’t try it on, does it?’ Oh, it can be insane sometimes!”
How, tough, does it all happen? How do a stylist and their client get hooked up? How does the hopefully beautiful relationship start? For Tollman and Scarlett Johansson, who met on an interview shoot on the back of Lost in Translation, it was a little uncanny. Both had Scandinavian forebears and both had almost the exact same body shape. “Oh God, you mean like dogs who look like their owners? But I’m a lot bigger than her!” wails Tollman down the phone from New York. “Yes, I guess we’re both chesty, we’ve both got hourglass figures. But am I trying to clone me? No, it’s not that. I feel it’s the other way round actually. I feel almost as though I get into her skin sometimes and I’ll look in the mirror at what I’ve put on and realize I’m channeling her.”
Coulter gravitates towards clients who are mates, or mates of mates. “I can only work with people I like,” she says shortly, “because I am not good at playing those flattering games. I can’t do that whole ‘Oh my Gaaahd, I’m going to die, you look so fabulous’ for the 75 millionth time, for example. But there are plenty of people who will.” A former menswear designer, whose gang of mates include Orlando Bloom, Liberty Ross and Sienna Miller and Guillory, Coulter considers Bosworth (whom she met through Bloom) as much a friend as an employer. Indeed, she spent most of last night, post-Oscars as the actress’s plus-one. “But I knew my place,” she laughs. “Those parties are the only time directors get to talk to actresses without having to go through agents or publicist. I just followed and watched.”
“I think it’s impossible not to get close,” offers Andrea Leiberman, the veteran stylist to Jennifer Lopez and Gwen Stefani, “impossible not to care when you know all their little idiosyncrasies, all their schtick. Its a short relationship if you don’t love them just a little bit, I think.”
Being besties with one’s client, though…can’t that get tricky? Shouldn’t there be some sort of separation between church and state? “If you mix business and pleasure, in my opinion, you are going to get hurt,” says Elizabeth Saltzman. “You cannot be under any illusions, this is a job.”
And when that beautiful relationship comes to an end? Even the best stylist have shelf lives, don’t they? “Look it’s a relationship,” says Liberman, who worked with Lopez for 12 years, “and you know sometimes, maybe you absolutely can’t deliver? Like you have tickets to go on vacation with your family, what are you going to do? The thing about Jen is she still calls me when she’s doing movies and needs help. And of course I’ll go, ‘Yeah, I’ll help you, you’re my girl, no problem.”
“Every relationship comes to an end,” offers Ehrlich carefully, I have ways of looking at it when I have a (prim pause here) client-who-then-becomes-not-my-client. You either grow with the person or not, and rejection is a big part of the business anyway, so we’re all used to it.” Yes. Like the time Nicole very publicly dropped Rachel Zoe and very publicly took on Ehrlich in her stead.
Jessica Paster is more blunt: “An actress will drop you in favor of her grandmother. With an insecure actress, you’re fucked…”
To be one of the new-guard red-carpet stylist, then, you’ve got to be comfortable in the role of second fiddle. And you’ve got to have thick skin, too, because those Hollywood folk, beneath that sparkly white veneer of pleasantness, they can be plenty mean. A battle-scarred magazine stylist I talked to remembered being asked to dress one particular actress for the Oscars – after which, she says, she ran back to New York, “feeling like the crazy man with his hands over his ears in the Edvard Much picture.”
Hugely circumspect abou the whole thing is Tiina Laakkonen, Carey Mulligan’s stylist, who met her on a shoot. Laakkonen, an elegant, somewhat austere ice-blond who used to work for British Vogue and is now a freelance stylist at the New York Times Style Magazine, was thrust into the world of red-carpet styling via the runway success of An Education. “It doesn’t have a lot to do with pushing the boundaries of fashion, “she says, with a discreet arch of an eyebrow. “A lot of the stylist don’t seem to be much more than glorified personal shoppers.” Laakkonen and I are at the bar of her hotel having a coffee. She is dumbstruck when I tell her of pulling 100 dresses for a client. “The way I work is I present a point of view,” she says. “It’s not a particularly democratic way of working, but then that whole ‘styling by committee’ method where the publicist , the agent etc get involved, it’s not my thing. If I had to find 30 dresses, I’d go insane. In fact I don’t think there were as many as five I’d have put on Carey.”
The dress Mulligan eventually wore to the Oscars was a black strapless frock custom-designed by Miuccia Prada, intricately embroidered with cogs and knives and scissors. It was one of only three choices (the second was also by Prada; the third, the stylist’s etiquette won’t permit Laakkonen to say). Laakkonen and Prada had been collaborating on it for months, sketches winging their way across the Atlantic until is was just so. A far cry from merely calling in a dress from a fashion PR contact, that’s for sure.
Some people loved it. Joan Rivers and plenty of bloggers hated it. “I thought she looked fresh, intelligent, edgy, herself,” shrugs Laakkonen. “But I’m fascinated by the whole process and I’d absolutely adore to dress someone like Tilda Swinton or Meryl Streep. I wish there was more crossover between editorial and red carpet. I mean, a lot of those dresses out there are borderline pageant styles. Actually, I might go further – slutty prom.”
At the other end of of the screen-star spectrum, though by no means less important, are the music stars. And of course, their all-important stylist. Andrea Lieberman and Arianne Phillips are the pioneers of their field. In their wake is B Akerlund, whom I go to visit at her new split-level house overlooking the entire panorama of LA. It was Akerlund who styled Lady Gaga’s infamous “Paparazzi” video, with the Chanel wheelchair and the crystal studded neck brace. (Her husband, esteemed video director Jonas Akerlund, shot it.)
“Originally I said no, because I was still on maternity leave after the twins,” says Akerlund, 34, a gothy babe in black lipstick and leggings, who is refreshingly unfazed by the whole Oscar kerfuffle. She has worked with Justin Timberlake, Robbie Williams and Keith Flint of the Prodigy; now she styles for Fergie and the Black Eye Peas…and Madonna. Those costumes in the singer’s film Filth and Wisdom, and for the Live Earth show? Those were created and styled by Akerlund. The biggest event in her diary? The Grammys, obviously. “But red carpet isn’t really my thing. Unless I’m doing Madonna, I don’t want to do it, frankly.”
Madonna and Akerlund have an unspoken language between them, apparently. “It’s the most collaborative, amazing experience,” she says in her little-girl voice, while her spookily well-behaved twins, identically dressed as always, coo gently in the background. “We understand each other’s vision so well, it’s like a formula.” And as for that separation between church and state? Oh, they’re friends too. On Oscar night they went to Madonna’s no-press dance party at the music producer Guy Oseary’s. Tonight she going over there with her husband for dinner. Akerlund has her future all sewn up. “I don’t see myself doing it at 60 years old, it’s too much. My heroine is the famous costume designer Colleen Atwood. That’s what I want to do. Movies, they’re my retirement plan.” Certainly she’s not going back to the red carpet. “That whole juggling game they have to play? The fight for the dresses? I know there’s a science to it, but to me that’s not being creative, that’s being a bulldog. Then there’s all that hoarding they do…”
“The whole business has changed ,” says Anna Bingemann. Nicole Kidman, Rachel Weiz, Naomi Watts, Uma Thurman, Gwyneth Paltrow – you name it, the Australian-born Bingemann has worked with them all. She fell into the job in the Nineties after being asked by her friend L’Wren Scott to help on the set of Eyes Wide Shut. She’s calling from New York, where she now lives with her daughter and her husband, Griffin Dunne. “When I started out, TV wasn’t such a key player. It was all about movies. Now with TV stars becoming such a red-carpet presence, you’ve doubled the amount of traffic; almost by definition, everything’s been sort of ‘watered down’.” She recalls too, how in her day, the bonus of the job was collaborating with the designer: “I remember I saw this amazing T-shirt at Versace and the design team created a whole dress based on it for Uma. One really felt one was creating something new.”
Tollman, too, balks a little at the idea of just pulling off the rack for the Oscars. Take that waist-cinching Roland Mouret dress Scarlett Johansson wore to the 2005 ceremony. “The three of us were inspired by the unforgettable dress Hepburn wore in the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” recalls Tollman. “We’d originally looked at the Givenchy archive, but the shape didn’t have a waist. So we ‘borrowed’ the black colour, the unusual neckline and the long silhouette. Then Scarlett customised it with a tiara and masses of curly hair. There were just tons and tons of sketches that were faxed back and forth for that look.”
But, generally speaking, none of this detail comes without a price. As Anna Bingemann cites, because of budgets being slashed, sometimes even samples of what was on the runway are being limited. “When there’s only one sample being made from those top houses, of course there is less to go round.” Hmm. Budgets. Certainly, if you talk to any of the old guard, no way is it like it was before the recession. Those tails of flying first class everywhere with one’s client, getting put up in a suite right next to hers in order to be able to get the tit tape positioned just-so for every single event on the gruelling worldwide press junket – they’re almost all gone.
“My rate?” asks Swennen. “It ranges: anything from $250 a day to $2,000 a day, depending on whether the movie is an indie, like The Runaways, or something like a New Moon, which was a nationwide franchise. It also depends whether you’ve got the star or the fourth actress on the movie. $5,000? Now? That’s very rare.” (For the New York premiere of The Runaways she has packed a carefully labelled trunk for Kristen Stewart, containing a sequenced Emilio Pucci minidress and something Stewart calls the “banana split” dress, from Valentino Couture.)
As for the designers putting their hands in their pockets? Well. There is the story of the designer paying for an actress’s lipo is she’d wear his clothes, and as another stylist (who preferred not to be identified) tells me, “I did get paid a ‘consulting fee’ of $10,000 once for showing a designer’s sketches to an actress.”Not so much when you consider that some clever nerd calculated that a dress worn on the Oscar carpet by an ultra A-list actress is equal to $1 million in free advertising.
Then, er, you’ve got the British designers, some of whom, Coulter confides, can’t even afford to have the sample shipped over. “I like to support the British designers, I do, “says Coulter. “Like when we put Kate in that pink Preen dress it helped them. I mean, beyond with sales. But I get frustrated with some of them. Like with this dress I’d called in from Peter Pilotto. It didn’t work for Kate, so I asked if I could use it on one of my other girls, who was going to all the parties. They said no, that didn’t work for them, and I felt like saying, get over it boys!”
What, then, about the actresses? Will they pony up if neither the studio nor anybody else will? “Ha-ha!” one stylist emails, on the condition I keep her anonymous, “maybe some do… the tacit understanding between me and my girls is if I do the presenting and the parties and the charity doodads for free, they will hopefully remember to insist on using me the moment she gets a whopping great cosmetics or fragrance account.”
“Everything is a backhander,” sighs Laakkonen, who willingly put herself and her assistant up at a hotel during the Oscar weekend, knowing what a tiny budget the An Education people had. “Everyone trying to make out of the situation, which is all very well, but when you look at all the hard work and fighting and negotiating and nastiness and wheeler-dealing that went into that one dress on the red carpet, you can’t help thinking…Whoah! All that for this poor result? It shouldn’t be!”
If you are of a sensitive disposition or offended by the “filthy lucre” aspect, then, beware. If you are in the business for self-promotion, doubly beware. But if you’re a “sucker for glamour”, as Annabel Tollman puts it, “if the feeling of seeing one of one’s girls on the carpet looking the best and feeling the most confident she ever has in her life with 50 million people looking on, of creating an image that will endure presses your buttons,” it can be the best.
“Oh God,” agrees Andrea Lieberman, “I’m glad I’m out of it now; it really takes it out of you. But oh, that feeling of making someone feel good, of making them feel strong enough to be able to go out on stage and kill it. Just the thought of it gives me chills…”