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The ever-evolving role of the fashion stylist

By Jackie Mallon

Feb 20, 2018

At the turn of the millennium, fashion stylists seemed to explode onto the scene like never before. Climbing out from the glossy pages of magazine editorial, they were styling runway presentations––Lori Goldstein was flown in every season for Versace womenswear and Bill Mullen for menswear. Hollywood had come a-calling and stylists formed relationships with A-list celebrities becoming household names via red carpet entertainment shows––Rachel Zoe parlayed her fame into her own reality TV show. The cult of the stylist was in full effect.

But behind the scenes jobbing stylists, usually vulnerable freelancers with little security and backache from lugging clothes and accessories around town, were doing what they always did, reinterpreting runway pieces in new contexts for magazine editorial––just as a DJ might remix a track for a club audience, a stylist reconfigures garments in new harmonies for clients hungry for something different. Their names usually comes after the photographer’s in the photoshoot’s credits, but their signature style can become recognizable and sought after. Melanie Ward’s career stemmed from her unmanicured anti-supermodel aesthetic which inspired her to pair designer clothing with customized Army Surplus treasures photographed on street characters, or photoshoots in which she accessorized a 15-year-old Kate Moss with a daisy chain necklace. The resulting images came to encapsulate the mood of the 90s. Edward Enninful, the creative director at British Vogue, joined i-D as a stylist at age eighteen where he became known for a distinctly London vision of youth culture that had widespread influence. But like many other jobs in our industry, the role of fashion stylist is currently being redefined, making a career like Ward’s or Enninful’s more complicated today.

Since the arrival of Tavi Gevinson’s Style Rookie fashion blog in 2008, every social media darling with any clout has effectively become a stylist, working mass market looks with designer pieces––perhaps bought, perhaps given––eveningwear with daywear, in a topsy-turvy unconventional style designed to appeal to their tens of thousands of followers.

A case of all or nothing

Recently, design houses have issued new rules on how stylists must use their garments in editorial. “Calvin Klein, it appears, is currently the most demanding,” reported the Business of Fashion, as Raf Simons allows only full head-to-toe looks to be used, instead of fragments of looks that could be styled with other brands, non-branded apparel, or vintage. Celine and Christian Dior are also listed by BoF as proponents of the practice. While it’s inevitable that a new creative director will want to cement control over his vision, and magazines must adhere to their dictates so dependent are they on advertising, it renders editorial another arm of the brand’s communication strategy and might beg the question: is the brand valuing instant gratification over long-term strategy?

Teen Vogue is the latest print publication to fall in a long casualty list and it won’t be the last. All trend analysis confirms that the one thing millennials hate is to feel marketed to, that they are instinctively resistant to brand manipulation. In our mix-and-match, informal culture in which Susie Bubble or Alexa Chung’s Instagram outfits-of-the-day resonate with their followers more than Vogue’s photoshoots, could these full-look restrictions actually imbue a new allure and exclusivity to designer collections? Can runway looks triumph over real life lewks.?

What a stylist has to say

Established stylists who regularly work with the industry’s powerful names are often reluctant to discuss their profession’s pitfalls or do so under conditions of anonymity. But we spoke to London-based self-described “independent creative stylist,” Deborah Latouche, about how these limitations might impact her creativity or if she considers them a welcome challenge.

“It is quite a common thing amongst some brands,” said Latouche. “It doesn't apply to me often as I don't work for the Vogues of this world––yet!” A former designer who realized while working in Milan, that she enjoyed the expirience of photoshoots more, she says, “It’s great mixing different ideas together and making it your own. If I am asked to shoot complete looks I do feel a little frustrated as for me the joy of editorial is being able to play around and try to create something that is my own vision, my own visual expression.”

The rewards of collaboration

While it shouldn’t all be about the stylist who is essentially a middle man, and editorial has always been a highly collaborative endeavor, there has traditionally been opportunity for a stylist to leave an imprint, even make a name for themselves. Otherwise their role become similar to that of a dresser. The Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC is one of few schools that offer Fashion Styling in its prospectus, listing on their website “courses and workshops on how to create characters and set solutions utilizing merchandise and props, while working with photographers and camera professionals for fashion photography, publication layouts, and media assignments.” Creating characters is at the romanticized heart of the most memorable and seductive fashion editorials, and those visual narratives form the pages of a stylist’s portfolio which she presents to future clients. The use of the word solutions reminds us that the end result of the collaboration between designers, photographers, and stylists must lead to sales. Traditionally this has been a straightforward partnership with all sides getting something out of it.

“I understand why designers like the looks left complete,” says Latouche, “it keeps the brand identity intact and retains their narrative of the season and, of course, more of the brand is shot. But if all high end designers did that, editorials would simply become an advert, uninspiring, and stylists would become irrelevant, and the job that I love would become very boring indeed.”

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Header image: DeborahLatouche.com, photo credit Jonny Storey, model Clara Benjamin, hair Peter Beckett, make-up Liberty Shaw; Photo of Rachel Zoe at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week show September 9, 2007 Wikimedia Commons, Christopher Peterson