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The Red Carpet's Other Race Problem

Blockbuster films with diverse casts, including Black Panther and Girls Trip, are creating new opportunities for stylists of colour as well. But behind the scenes, hidden barriers stand between black stylists and the A-list.
Law Roach and Rihanna attend Rihanna's 4th Annual Diamond Ball benefitting The Clara Lionel Foundation at Cipriani Wall Street on September 13, 2018 in New York City | Source: Getty Images
By
  • Melissa Magsaysay
BoF PROFESSIONAL

LOS ANGELES, United States — For Hollywood stylists, making that first A-list connection is everything. A stylist whose client list is topped by an in-demand actor or actress will suddenly find brands and publicists clamouring to work with them. That attention leads to collaborations with yet more big stars, and a career is born.

Until recently, the ranks of stylists who made that leap were primarily white. That's started to change with the success of films like "Get Out," "Girls Trip" and "Black Panther," whose diverse casts have hit the awards show circuit and chosen equally diverse stylists to help them get red-carpet ready. Talents like Jason Rembert, Law Roach, Ade Samuel, Mecca Cox, Jason Bolden, Solange Franklin and styling duo Wayman Bannerman and Micah McDonald increasingly dress artists of all ethnicities, genders and genres.

But making the leap to A-list stylist still has plenty of obstacles. Publicists and agents, who play matchmaker between stylists and celebrities, often assume black stylists are only right to style black clients. That bias — conscious or not — makes a stylist’s race, rather than their aesthetic or relationship with designers, a primary factor in determining their clientele. It’s also why reaching the top tier has proven so elusive; in the eight years The Hollywood Reporter has published its list of the top 25 stylists, black stylists have appeared on it only eight times.

“When I reach out (to artist agencies) I feel I’m pigeonholed because all they see is black artists,” said Casey Billingsley, a former creative director at Motown records who styles Keri Hilson, Faithe Herman and Cassie among others. “If you want access (to Hollywood) in any way, shape or form you have to conform in some way.”

In the eight years The Hollywood Reporter has published its list of the top 25 stylists, black stylists have made the list eight times.

Stylists and agents who work with them say it’s symptomatic of Hollywood’s larger race problem. People of colour are underrepresented in many fields, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. Productions starring majority-black casts tend to have lower budgets and receive less publicity.

That disparity “trickles down to stylists” who work primarily with black talent, said Samantha Jeudy Tyler, agency director at Starworks Artists, which represents editorial and celebrity stylists. Stars are walking billboards for their stylists, so less exposure can mean fewer opportunities to work with fashion brands, publicists and other celebrities.

"Brands will still pass on someone like Taraji [P Henson] who has every accolade and every social media metric," said Bolden, who styles Henson along with Yara Shahidi, Ava Duvernay and Ryan Coogler. "Yet you will see someone who has zero accolades, zero proof of metric and sell-through and they will still lend the collection to them. That's confusing to me."

Black stylists face a tough choice: advancing within the Hollywood establishment can mean doing a disservice to the clients who gave them their start. Some also feel that conforming to traditional Hollywood standards only perpetuates the inaccurate perception that having a roster of black clients and being an A-list stylist are mutually exclusive.

In hindsight I should have been prouder of the women I was working with, that that was good enough.

Law Roach, who has a reputation for dressing clients like Celine Dion, Zendaya and Anne Hathaway in statement-making couture, said when he was transitioning from the music industry to movies, he felt the need to diversify his roster in order to be respected.

“Early in my career I would walk away from agencies unsigned, knowing that I didn’t get signed because I was working primarily with women of colour,” he said. “It forces you to feel like you’re not good enough, so maybe what I did to strategise and diversify was maybe not the right thing to do. In hindsight I should have been prouder of the women I was working with, that that was good enough.”

Bolden said he was once told by a talent manager that he needed to add more white clients. He said he has purposely built his client list not by the colour of their skin, but by working with people he feels are moving the needle culturally and making inroads for diversity in entertainment.

“I want to work with people who want to work with me,” he said. “It just so happens they look like me. I’m grateful to work with people who are shifting our culture and women of all nationalities.”

Hollywood’s need for predictability is part of the issue, said stylist Mecca Cox.

“I think it is incumbent upon ‘the powers that be’ to check in with their own inherent bias, and make sure that they are not unwittingly perpetuating prejudice behind the scenes even as the foreground is finally becoming more colourful,” she said.

For example, many brands default to working with stars who look like the majority of their customers. That reduces commercial opportunities for black stars and stylists.

“Brands naturally cater to the majority of the existing customer base, choosing a face that physically represents that customer,” said Rosalind Dean, managing partner at public relations firm Aimé & Dean, which handles public relations for Starworks Artists about brand deals for stylists. “If that customer is a white woman, the chances of a black stylist or celebrity collaboration are drastically lowered. I'd love to see more brands break that cycle.”

Several stylists said placing on The Hollywood Reporter’s power ranking — effectively the Oscars of styling — is a key career step that until recently seemed all-but unattainable. Placing on the list is validation and recognition of a stylist’s work from the prior year and the visibility and opportunities that can come from being on it can take a stylist’s career to the next level. The halo effect of the list positions stylists to be more visible to publicists and even stars themselves, some of whom are now requesting stylists directly after seeing their work on THR’s list.

If that customer is a white woman, the chances of a black stylist or celebrity collaboration are drastically lowered.

However, when the list launched in 2011, the only black stylist named was June Ambrose, known mostly for her work with musicians such as Missy Elliott and Jay-Z. It took until 2015 for a second to appear, with Rembert placing number 22 for his work with clients like Issa Rae, Rita Ora and Zayn Malik. Bolden and Roach made it in 2017, with Roach becoming the first black stylist to appear on the issue's cover. And then there was a breakthrough last year, with Roach, Bolden, Rembert and Bannerman and McDonald (clients include Regina King and Tessa Thompson) securing spots.

“I remember four years ago I was the only one,” said Rembert, who will launch his own women’s collection called Aliétte during New York Fashion Week. “Now to see all of my friends on the list and even higher than me… it's amazing, because I pushed the needle forward and they're pushing it even further. If more and more come after us and continue to push it, we're going to see a change.”

As talent and films have become more diverse, said Carol McColgin, fashion and beauty director of The Hollywood Reporter, so will the stylists featured in this year's issue.

"We're looking at the talent on the red carpet first and foremost, so that's what determines the stylists who are being recognised for their work during awards season," she said, adding that the publication has featured Lupita Nyong'o, Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Zendaya, Michael B Jordan, Yara Shahidi and Tessa Thompson in photo shoots for the stylist issue.

Several stylists interviewed for this story credited Lysa Cooper, whose career as a celebrity image maker includes creating looks for Rihanna, Beyoncé and Kanye West, with paving the way for their own success. Cooper told BoF she's hopeful that recent signs of change will last.

“It’s been really interesting to watch this unfold, it’s necessary and inevitable,” she said. “It’s a big moment for all black stylists. It’s a chance to get out of our heads and into our hearts and operate from our gut rather than fear. And to remember that when you open the door, hold your foot down so everybody else can get in.”

Editor's Note: This article was revised on 8 February, 2019. A previous version of this article misstated that Zayn Malik is a client of Jason Bolden. This is incorrect. He is a client of Jason Rembert. 

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