NEW YORK, United States — You don’t expect one of fashion’s most sought-after stylists to cite the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, as a key inspiration. Yet Jobs’ now famous advice to Stanford University’s graduating class of 2005 — “stay hungry, stay foolish” — is one of Marie Chaix’s favourite maxims. A fitting one, too, as a drive to push herself beyond her comfort zone has been a constant theme in the professional journey of the smart and modest Frenchwoman whose work has appeared in the Russian, French and Chinese editions of Vogue, along with more niche titles like Self Service, i-D and The Gentlewoman, and includes styling all of Proenza Schouler’s shows and campaigns.
You will never see Chaix posing for a street style blog. And if you meet her off-duty, she is more likely to rave about Steve Jobs than a handbag. Still, in her 30s, the disarmingly unpretentious and reserved Chaix is part of an emerging generation of nerds that is quietly making its mark on the fashion world.
If you use disadvantage to your advantage, it pushes you and makes for more interesting results.
As unexpected as her techie role models are her sports analogies. “It’s almost like exercise, you just flex different muscles on different days,” she says, explaining her work for both independent and more commercial magazines. Working for an independent title, “is more about a concept — and even if you crop the picture and can’t really see the clothes, it’s ok because it’s about building a different type of image.” Meanwhile, at a publication like Teen Vogue, “you have to work with a market editor, respect a price point and things are maybe more conventional creatively: you have a white background, smiling models and so forth. But I love having to work within such limitations because it forces you to be inventive and think differently.”
Indeed, Chaix seems to thrive on constraints. “I think in any situation, if you use disadvantage to your advantage, it pushes you and makes you produce better, more interesting results.”
Curious by nature, always quietly studying her surroundings and absorbed with making things, Chaix was drawn to fashion from a young age, though she initially thought she wanted to be a designer. The daughter of a doctor and a social worker, she grew up in Strasbourg, a city on the Franco-German border known more for being the site of the European Parliament than its creativity. "Fashion is not something people take very seriously where I am from. So I had to fight for it, show that I really wanted to do it and that it could be a serious profession."
In the end, her family was supportive and, at age 18, Chaix went to London to study at Central Saint Martins, where she completed a foundation course in fashion before switching to mixed media. "The great thing about Saint Martins is that it prepares you for this industry in a way where you have to be self-sufficient and self-motivated. Nobody explains to you how to do things, you are just told where the library is and then you’re left to figure things out on your own.”
Chaix still remembers a poster in the restrooms at Saint Martins outlining the slim and diminishing percentage of students that actually go on to have the creative careers they hope for. “It said that, one year after graduation, only 40 percent of students still worked in the creative field; after 5 years just 10 percent; and after 10 years, only 5 percent.”
What some would have found crushing, Chaix found motivating. “It was scary, because as a student you have all these dreams about what you want to do and who you want to become. But I love that the school also made you be aware of what reality is like once you leave this protected environment and to see competitiveness as something positive, as something you can treat as a game and use to your advantage.”
Determined to be in the 5 percent that made it, just a week after finishing school in 2000, Chaix landed an internship at Self Service, the influential Paris-based bi-annual. The publication’s founder Ezra Petronio himself had answered the phone when Chaix called, asking if she could be in the office the following Monday morning. Not only was Chaix there at 9:30am as instructed, but she stayed for 5 years, taking on a permanent position at the magazine that became a “second school” for her.
“At that point, I don’t think I knew how much work and dedication it takes. As a student [working for a fashion magazine] just seems glamorous and you don’t realise how serious and disciplined you have to be in this field.” Chaix started by answering phones and the door, but was soon assisting on shoots, helping with casting and research, and even writing short texts. (At one point, she wanted to become a writer, but changed paths after realising she was better at styling.)
When Chaix left Self Service to become a freelancer, in 2006, she decided to return to London. "It was a bigger platform for me to develop professionally than Paris. I could work for magazines like i-D, Dazed and AnOther and still build a commercial career — and coming from France, the English carefreeness seemed so liberating.”
While she now splits her time between New York and Paris (with frequent trips to Milan), Chaix fondly remembers the British capital, where she spent a total of six formative years. London’s energy, openness and sense of possibility, as well as the fearlessness and passion of its inhabitants, left an indelible mark on the stylist and have informed her work to this date. “Working in a studio in Hackney, not sleeping for three days, and the budget is tiny, and everybody is having tea and toast — there’s a rawness to it that I just love.”
As a freelancer, Chaix collaborates with designers, consults for brands on runway shows and ad campaigns, and — working alongside photographers — directs fashion editorials. “It’s always a collaboration, so it depends on the designer or photographer I am working with, everyone has a different process.”
Sometimes Chaix doesn’t enter the picture until a collection is finished and her task is to edit down hundreds of pieces to 40 looks that will have the most impact on the runway. Other assignments, like her ongoing collaboration with Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler, are more organic and she acts as a soundboard from the earliest stages of design.
In practical terms, Chaix’s job mostly consists of making the dozens of seemingly small choices that can go into making a collection, a single look or a fashion image stand out, or be forgotten. For almost every brand or magazine for which Chaix works, she starts by envisioning a certain woman, idealised but also drawn from real-world observations: “Who is she, is she sensual, distant, iconic, full of energy or something else?” Based on this, Chaix decides “the way she holds the bag. Is she on heels or on flats? How's her hair? Is the shirt untucked to suggest carelessness, or should it read clean or sophisticated? It’s about conveying the attitude the designer or photographer is after.”
While such choices may seem trivial, they can be critical to a magazine or label’s success and Chaix’s clients appreciate her keen eye and thorough process, which can involve everything from vintage research to simply walking the streets. In fact, Chaix frequently avoids public transport and cars in favour of walking. “That way, I can interact with people, look at things and feel the pace of the city.”
Indeed, Chaix’s research is by no means restricted to the traditional confines of fashion. The stylist loves to immerse herself in subcultures until she understands them well enough to be able to channel their essence. For a documentary she is currently working on, this has meant spending time immersed in the world of boxing. “I took it all in, the incredible mix of people, the sweat, the physicality, the rituals, the mental focus, old men that have been there forever,” she recounts excitedly.
It’s clear that working with Proenza Schouler has been particularly rewarding for the stylist, professionally as well as personally. She recalls in particular working on the label’s Spring 2011 collection as a career highlight. “It all came together that season. And it also had to do with that unique feeling you get when you are part of a team and you feel really strong about what you are creating together, it just feels right. It’s emotional, because at that moment it becomes a human experience rather than just a job and it can give you goosebumps.”
"This job is about challenge. It’s about changing and moving. That’s what I like about sports as well. You have to be very curious and take in as much as you can, but stay true to yourself and don’t compare yourself, because you’re different, and that’s what will make your work unique,” she says.
“Keep an open mind, be creatively flexible and be patient. If you have to spend time answering the phone, just answer the phone in the best way you can — eventually people will notice. You have to use what you have and then maximise it. That will earn you people’s trust. It doesn’t come easily."