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The Unglamorous Reality of Being a Stylist to the Stars

Movie studios are slashing marketing budgets as the supply of celebrity stylists grows, spelling longer hours at lower pay.
Celebrity stylist Ty Hunter attends to Beyoncé's dress at the Met Ball 2015 | Source: Getty
By
  • Melissa Magsaysay

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NEW YORK, United States — It's early Saturday morning and stylist Chris Horan is dashing to grab breakfast in the café downstairs from his hotel before a full day of fittings and events.

The Los Angeles-based stylist flew in late the night before and over the course of five days will be thrust into a whirlwind of various New York Fashion Week events where his longtime clients, actresses Debby Ryan and Rowan Blanchard, will need to be impeccably dressed.

For Ryan, Horan designed four looks for shows and parties, plus a few street style ensembles designed to catch the eye of paparazzi who cluster outside NYFW events. He also outfitted Blanchard in two looks to wear to shows and dinners. Horan is simultaneously orchestrating six looks for model and actress Hari Nef, who attended the Toronto International Film Festival the same week, plus styling a music video for pop singer Alex Aiono back in LA, and several looks for country singer Cam for a gig in Nashville.

Welcome to the hectic life of a celebrity stylist. A dream job to many an aspiring fashionista, the profession has undergone a transformation in recent years. Where studios once paid hefty day rates to those tasked with glamming up their stars for award shows and press junkets, now stylists are often paid less and on a per-look basis. That puts even top-tier stylists on a never-ending treadmill of events, red carpets and day-to-day styling jobs. The best receive an average of $500 for a single look, but costs range from shipping a gown cross-country to tailoring and dry cleaning.

"What nobody tells you when you're fighting to make it is that it never gets easier," Horan said. "No matter how successful I get, it's always going to be this crazy grind with unpredictable hours and unending stress. But it will always be worth it, because I love what I do and I love my clients."

Hollywood studios pay for promoting their projects and their stars’ press obligations. Until a few years ago, that typically included how the stars looked, from the red carpet to interviews. But promotion budgets have been stretched as streaming services undercut studio revenue, and “peak tv” has flooded the market with projects needing publicity.

"Ten years ago, studios would plan a world premiere, and maybe a press junket when promoting a film. The top two or three talents on the project would promote it, and that was it," said Alexandra Feldman, an agent at Starworks Artists, which represents stylists Joseph Cassell, Cher Coulter and Wayman and Micah. "Now, you can have six to 10 cast members actively promoting a film… the budgets are simply spread so thin."

At the same time, the boom in celebrity culture online has inspired a flood of people to try their luck as stylists. People new to the business are often willing to work below-market, or even for free, driving down rates, said Kent Belden, chief executive and owner of The Only Agency, which represents top stylists including Law Roach and Penny Lovell.

Lauren Kelly, style division director of LA-based artists' agency Forward Artists, which represents Cristina Ehrlich, Micaela Erlanger and Rob and Mariel, said stylists’ rates have dropped by more than 50 percent in some cases, and that doesn’t factor in the expenses studios no longer cover.

Horan receives about $500 per look, which can take up to three days of his time between research, travelling to a showroom to pull clothing, fittings, dressing and returns. Shipping costs alone can eat up a third of his fee. Designers often chip in on expenses for awards shows or a movie premiere that will generate global press, but stylists can be on their own for lower-profile events like press junkets.

Elizabeth Stewart, a stylist who dresses Cate Blanchett, Julia Roberts, Jessica Chastain and Viola Davis, said her biggest cost is labour. She said she needs an employee at her studio to handle deliveries, pack returns and communicate with clients and designers. A major fitting requires two or three assistants for errands ranging from rushing shoes to the cobbler to dry cleaning.

Often, stylists will eat these costs as an investment in their clients. If a celebrity becomes known for their look, endorsement deals can follow, which in turn creates more styling work. Among many ad campaigns for her clients, Stewart styled Blanchett for Armani's Sì perfume ads and Roberts in Givenchy's 2014 campaign.

Combined, these factors make income and expenses hard to predict, stylists say.

"There's no monthly average for expenses," said veteran stylist Kate Young, who works with Selena Gomez, Michelle Williams and Dakota Johnson. "Sometimes I'm busy and working on a New York client who fits samples easily, and sometimes I'm working with someone in LA who needs every look tailored. The extra looks, plus airport, dinner and cocktails, can sometimes get expensive because clients need and expect them, and no one is covering them."

Some stylists are finding a new revenue stream online. Social media and the appetite for insider access to fashion is putting stylists at the forefront as influencers, some with a following that's nearly as large as the talent they work with. Celebrities often tag their "glam teams" in posts on social media, and savvy stylists can then capitalise on this form of fame to evolve their career beyond dressing clients and into broader opportunities like brand partnerships and creative direction, said Kate Stirling, director of The Wall Group, which represents names like Leslie Fremar, Ilaria Urbinati and Karla Welch along with Kate Young and Elizabeth Stewart.

“Social media has opened up all these doors and new opportunities for our stylists,” she said. “Now, brands are really looking to create bigger relationships with them.”

She cites stylist Jamie Mizrahi (who has 143k followers on Instagram and styles Katy Perry, Nicole Richie and Riley Keough) and signed on as the creative director for Juicy Couture in 2017 as someone who has built her own brand partially through the social platform. Karla Welch (171k Instagram followers and styles Justin Bieber, Elisabeth Moss and Tracee Ellis Ross) has partnered with brands including Levi's and Hanes on collaborations as part of her xKarla label.

“It’s important to take time out to have some sort of social media presence,” Stewart said. “This affects the kind of paid jobs we receive, which is important since the studio jobs can be break even.”

Kelly advises today’s working stylists to stay within their budget and to be transparent with the client about what they can accomplish for the rates they charge. A business manager is a must, both to manage finances and along with the agent, develop a strategy to build a stylist’s brand.

“Starting up a business is expensive,” she said. “There are a lot of talented stylists coming up these days, vying for the same opportunities, so everyone has to find ways to set themselves apart.”

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