LONDON, United Kingdom — Once upon a time, stylists — or sittings editors, as they were once known — were largely anonymous figures gathering together the best clothes from the latest collections and artfully composing looks to be shot for glossy magazines.
Today, fashion stylists are more visible than ever and the profession has become highly desirable for a younger generation that is more informed than ever about the inner workings of the industry. But as fashion publishers become more heavily dependent on advertisers, the nature of the profession is changing. This change is most visible in terms of the restrictions placed upon stylists by fashion brands to only feature “full looks” from a given collection.
“I definitely feel that it’s become more common in the past couple of years,” says one established stylist, speaking on condition of anonymity, who started out by assisting top-tier figures and has six years’ experience working on editorial shoots. “It’s been specifically noticeable when a house takes on a new creative director, and the style of the brand is being redeveloped or fully changed. It does really affect the job. Either one really needs to find a look in the collection that loosely works with the theme of the shoot — this especially comes across when shooting advertisers — or it might even restrict the photographer, forcing one to shoot it only partially as a portrait or detail shot.”
You’re not a good stylist if you do full looks — you’re a dresser.
Certainly, the brands that hold the most sway over how their collections are styled for editorial are those with hefty advertising budgets, and this power proves particularly valuable when a new brand aesthetic is being established.
Of all the fashion houses to issue styling diktats to fashion magazines — including major labels like Saint Laurent, Céline, Christian Dior, Balenciaga and Louis Vuitton — Calvin Klein, it appears, is currently the most demanding. With Raf Simons in place as its recently appointed chief creative officer, the New York-based brand is keen to cement the Belgian designer’s vision for the brand by issuing stern commandments for editors. The rule is that any items from Simons’ debut ready-to-wear collection (Autumn/Winter 2017) must be photographed as a full catwalk look, not styled with any other brands (even non-branded apparel and vintage clothing) or even items from other looks from the same catwalk collection. Even accessories must not be worn with any other piece of clothing: the brand will provide a nude nylon bodysuit to accompany a pair of boots. Essentially, the clothes shouldn’t be styled at all, but merely placed on the model as seen on the runway and in the brand’s advertising campaigns.
“A full look gives a stronger message,” says a senior fashion publicist, also speaking anonymously. “With a new creative director, a change in aesthetic means that you can define what the look is and it boils down to having a very clear vision and a purer communication of it.” From a publicist’s point of view, there’s also the logistics benefit of sending each complete look as a package. “A look will go from shoot to shoot,” the publicist explains. “If you split a look up, it becomes fragmented. When it’s [sent out and photographed] as a full look, it’s not split up between five different shoots around the world.”
This new normal in fashion photography has left many stylists frustrated, however. “You’re not a good stylist if you do full looks — you’re a dresser,” asserts Alexandra Carl, fashion director of Rika, a biannual style title, who has also contributed to W and Vogue Italia. “It takes away the creativity and kills the inspiration because it’s so heavily controlled. How am I or a photographer going to make a stamp on it?” As an independent title, Carl says that the pressure from advertisers on Rika is not as strong as when she works on mainstream publications. “People should look at the credits and be surprised,” she says. “The Balenciaga collection is already beautiful, so it’s not difficult to make it look good as it is. It’s much harder to mix in commercial pieces and make it look cool.”
I have to explain to people, ‘This shoe is the reason we’re on this shoot. It's paying for the shoot.
On the other hand, some argue that a seasoned stylist can and should work within the parameters of such restrictions and produce inspiring imagery regardless of pressure from all-important advertiser brands. “When you work editorially, you get a list of advertisers and that has been going on for a really long time — I was a baby at Bazaar when I got that list,” Melanie Ward told BoF earlier this year. “I have to explain to people, ‘This shoe is the reason we’re on this shoot. It's paying for the shoot, so it’s up to us to just take a beautiful picture with this shoe and see the character and imagine her wearing the shoe and she has to own the shoe.’ You have to rise to the challenge and not be negative about everything. Take it as a positive challenge!”
The heavily controlled restrictions placed upon traditional magazines have coincided with the rise of social media and a surge of more relatable imagery from personal style bloggers and influencers, who mix high street brands with high-end labels and profit from lucrative affiliate partnerships with multi-brand e-commerce sites. “[It] can be traced back to ‘real people’ wanting to see fashion clothes worn in real life,” says Camille Charrière, who began her personal style blog, Camille Over the Rainbow, in 2010 and now has over half a million followers on Instagram. “If magazines refuse to mix the high and the low, or at least all the high together, I do think that could explain why people would be less interested in buying into that type of content as its too contrived to reflect the way we consume fashion nowadays.” She adds that stylists should be able to work with creative autonomy and that when editorials resemble “marketing tools” it is “something that millennials, in particular, are simply not interested in.”
Do style bloggers and influencers face the same pressure from brands to wear ‘full looks’? “All the time,” says Charrière. “But I simply refuse to work under those conditions, as it's not doing anyone any favours. It’s not what my audience wants to see and by agreeing I wouldn’t be doing the brand any service either. The most important thing is to stick to your own voice. Brands will just have to learn to trust us, as we do them.”
For a new generation of creatives, single-look styling can also have negative financial repercussions. “A lot of the time, when you’re shooting an editorial as a young creative, there’s very little budget or none at all,” says London-based photographer Daisy Walker. “You’re basically shooting for free to advertise yourself and the advertisers are dictating to magazines, who are then dictating to [creatives].” The result, she says, is that the images end up looking nothing like the original pitch and the creatives involved are left with a portfolio that is not a true representation of their talent.
As the aforementioned anonymous stylist notes: “Ironically, one gets paid to style a campaign, or even an advertorial, where full looks are naturally being shot, so shooting full looks due to a policy in an average editorial isn’t far from doing commercial work for the brand, but without a fee.”
Updated 6:40pm GMT on 28 August 2017: A representative for Saint Laurent has denied the brand demands "full look" styling from editors, saying it doesn't require full looks exactly as shown on the runway and allows accessories of other brands to be styled with its ready-to-wear products.