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How Hollywood Stylists Can — and Just Might — Unionise

Strict labour laws in the US have long stood in the way of unionising efforts in creative industries like fashion. But in light of Hollywood’s historic strike and the ever-burgeoning gig economy, the tides may be shifting.
Jennifer Lawrence at the Oscars red carpet in 2013.
Hollywood stylists in the US are considered independent contractors, which exempt them from being able to unionise. (Getty)
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Key insights

  • Talks of a stylists’ union are in motion, according to sources in the industry, though an official organisation may be years away.
  • But cultural and political attitudes toward organised labour are shifting, and imminent policy changes in the US may be favourable to stylist union efforts.
  • Next month, the US Department of Labor is expected to finalise a new worker classification rule that may reverse the current employer-friendly guidelines established under the Trump administration.

Amid the ongoing strike in Hollywood, talks of a stylists’ union are in motion, according to sources in the industry.

The formation of an official organisation may be years away, however.

“There’s not going to be a union overnight, full stop,” said stylist Micaela Erlanger. “Right now, it’s about getting aligned with our community.”

Still, the tides are turning, and union advocates can count on a number of cultural and political tailwinds. After decades of public disapproval, unions are once again in favour. Workers from varying industries have voted to collectively bargain with their employers in recent years, from media companies like Condé Nast to Amazon warehouse workers and rideshare drivers.

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Under the National Labor Relations Act, all employees of a company have the right to organise unions, but not independent contractors, an exception that has made unionising extremely difficult for creative industries like fashion in the United States. By contrast, UK’s labour laws recognises three different categories of employees, including independent contractors, who are permitted to unionise. But in June, the US National Labor Relations Board — the federal agency that oversees labour disputes, including whether a group of individuals has the right to unionise — issued a ruling in favour of the Atlanta Opera’s makeup artists, wig artists, and hairstylists seeking union representation by granting them status as employees rather than independent contractors.

It’s a positive sign for the Hollywood stylists advocating for their own union, because like Uber drivers and the Atlanta Opera’s makeup artists, stylists are considered independent contractors rather than employees of the movie studios that cut their pay checks. The NLRB decision to change the classification process, as well as its lenient ruling, could portend similar outcomes in the future, according to Susan Scafidi, founder of the Fashion Law Institute and law professor at Fordham University.

“There is a cultural movement that’s allowed unions to grow in recent years,” said Scafidi. “A lot of it has to do with the changes in the economy where the number of gig workers has increased.”

Why Do Celebrity Stylists Want to Unionise?

The main concern among nearly all celebrity stylists is the most typical industry rate: $500 per outfit on the red carpet, paid by the movie studio hosting the each event. This $500 flat rate doesn’t take into account expenses such as tailoring, courier services, stylist assistants and travel costs. It doesn’t matter if a stylist spends days or even weeks on an outfit — the $500 rate is pretty much the ironclad standard and has been since 2016, according to Michael Miller, a stylist based in London and a co-founder of the UK’s Celebrity Stylists Union.

“Of $500, my agent would take 20 percent, and then my assistant’s rate is $300 per day,” Erlanger said. “Forget the messenger, the boob tape, the seamless panties, forget about any of that. Forget about me making a living.”

Sometimes, stylists will receive upwards of $750 per outfit, according to Erlanger, but rates overall have been drastically reduced compared to in previous decades, when stylists had a day rate and a separate budget for their assistants. Now, only the most elite stylists, who make up a fraction of the vocation, can command lucrative salaries and other streams of income, such as working with brands.

“We’re floating all of the additional expenses on our own credit cards,” she added, noting that with her experience and success in the field, she personally has been able to ask for higher rates and pursue additional income streams. “[But] a lot of young stylists are going bankrupt.”

Forming a union will allow stylists to also negotiate for health benefits, retirement plans, payment schedules and a safe work environment, conditions that traditional employees are entitled to but not independent contractors.

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Is There an Existing Union for Stylists?

Yes, but only in the UK. The London-based Celebrity Stylists Union formed last year as part of BECTU, the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union.

BECTU has 40,000 members in the film and television industry, working behind-the-scenes as prop managers, lighting technicians, hair and makeup artists, grips, assistant directors and more. BECTU has an American counterpart, IATSE, or International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, with more than 170,000 union members. IATSE has a costume design branch called the Costume Designers Guild, but it currently represents traditional film and TV costume designers, not stylists.

So far, the UK’s Celebrity Stylists Union has 35 members, according to Miller, who also acts as a branch secretary for BECTU. His founding partners include fellow stylists Adele Cany, Emily Tighe, Gareth Scourfield, Sarah Edmiston and Victoria Adcock.

The group is still working to finalise a contract in order to begin negotiations with studios, Miller said. But already, it’s seen some sway. According to Miller, a few union members reported that Paramount Plus improved their payment terms after they mentioned they were part of BECTU, from 90 days to be paid from invoice to 30.

Unfortunately, the group cannot extend membership overseas due to differing labour laws in the US and UK. If American stylists were to follow suit, they’d have to establish their own entity.

What Is the Unionising Process?

The easiest way for US stylists to unionise, according to lawyers, is to imitate their British cohorts: join an already-established entity like IATSE or its branch, the Costume Designers Guild.

“There’s an institution in place, and you’re not starting from the ground up,” said Kaitlin Puccio, fashion attorney and former model.

But before they can join forces with an existing union, organisers will first have to commit to being the driving force behind the efforts: forming the initial organising committee and start raising awareness among their peers. This involves hosting information sessions, distributing materials and educating other stylists about the advantages of being in a union. Before they can file for union certification, the group will need more than half of all celebrity stylists in the field to commit to membership.

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“The stylists need to agree that the union is the most important thing, and that means once they join, they can’t work on non-union productions,” Puccio said. “This way, any studio that wants to hire the best of the best needs to have a union contract. But before the union gets its feet under it, the individuals need to agree to this.”

Once the organisers have a set list of potential members — stylists that have committed to joining the union — they will then be able to form a strategic plan outlining the goals and objectives for the union, including the terms they will push for. As part of this process, the members will also decide on how they will communicate their plans to the public, akin to creating a PR campaign.

After they decide on a comprehensive strategy and a significant number of members, organisers will petition with the NLRB to establish the union as the official representative of the workers.

When Will It Happen?

This won’t be an easy process. It often takes months, if not years, of organising before the union can be officially recognised, and the work doesn’t stop there. The employer — in this case, the studios paying stylists for dressing actors for events that promote their movies — may decide to challenge the right of stylists to unionise under the independent contractor premise. If so, it will be up to the NLRB to issue a decision.

They may see a boost come October, when the US Department of Labor is expected to finalise a new worker classification rule that will reverse the current employer-friendly guidelines established under the Trump administration.

To further expedite the process, stylists should enlist the support of their agencies as well as their celebrity clients, who have more bargaining power with movie studios regarding pay.

“In my mind this would be more organised if we had the support from the agencies that represent us and if there was a way to involve the talent,” said Erlanger. “Our voices are louder together.”

Further Reading

What if Fashion Went on Strike?

Workers in Hollywood and fashion share many of the same grievances, from compensation to the artificial intelligence threat. Could a labour reckoning be in the apparel industry’s future too?

What the Hollywood Strike Means for Fashion

While red carpets have momentarily dried up for brands and stylists, the SAG and WGA’s simultaneous strikes pose an unlikely opportunity for fashion companies to tap celebrity talent.

About the author
Cathaleen Chen
Cathaleen Chen

Cathaleen Chen is Retail Correspondent at The Business of Fashion. She is based in New York and drives BoF’s coverage of the retail and direct-to-consumer sectors.

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