Lists of the most powerful people in Hollywood are nothing new. The celebrity world has long been built on the shoulders of a series of power brokers—producers, agents, directors and managers that call the shots and have the wherewithal to propel a newcomer to star status. There is, however, a new addition to the list: the super stylist. Once a behind-the-scenes luxury for some stars, now an essential part of any celebrity team, the fashion stylist is Hollywood’s newest power broker—with almost as much clout to make or break a career as any producer might have.
Celebrated for the past five years in The Hollywood Reporter’s annual list of the 25 most powerful stylists, these professionals have the power to steer their clients towards magazine covers, lucrative brand deals and social media streams—or away from them—through their decisions and choices. And the world of the red carpet they dominate is changing as their power builds. Red-carpet dressing once followed a fairly standard formula but now, in Hollywood and beyond, there are processes and politics involved to secure the right look.
One of the most marked differences in celebrity dressing nowadays is the symbiotic and profitable relationship enjoyed by personalities and brands, as well as the instant effects collaborations can have as they are played out over social media. The red carpet is as much a catwalk opportunity for both labels and stars as seasonal fashion shows, so it’s no surprise that most of the stylists currently at the top of their game come from a high-fashion background.
That’s certainly the case for Elizabeth Stewart, this year’s No. 3 on the Hollywood Reporter list and the woman responsible for dressing the likes of Cate Blanchett, Jessica Chastain, Sandra Bullock and Julia Roberts. “I started working in editorial for The New York Times Style Magazine T and before that for W Magazine as a writer. I switched to styling covers, which led me to meet celebrities, and then segued into red-carpet styling,” she says. That sort of fashion expertise is what brings clients to her now. “I spent years working for Women’s Wear Daily in the Paris office, so I’m very familiar with the couture ateliers and what goes into making a custom dress. I think this background plus years of working as a fashion editor really helps in what I do today.”
She is not alone in bringing an editorial eye to the red carpet. In Asia, it’s people with similar experience that personalities are turning to when it comes to creating the right impact with their look. Grace Lam, senior fashion style editor at Vogue China for close to a decade, is now one of the most prominent on the scene. Lam works with a list of clients that reads like a who’s who of local stars. “Maggie Cheung, Fan Bingbing, Li Bingbing, Chris Li Yuchun, Angelababy, Aaron Kwok and Daniel Wu as well as supermodels Gisele, Liu Wen, Sun Feifei, Ju Xiao Wen, Du Juan and many more. Celebrities are taking more care and thought in what they wear these days, especially on the red carpet. They want to stand out and they want to have an immediate impact,” she explains.
For Sean Kunjambu, the art director, curator and stylist on many a celebrity’s speed dial, the route might not have been so mapped out, but it’s helped him arrive in the same place, working with everyone from Maggie Q to Maggie Cheung. “I kind of just fell into styling. I started off as a fashion writer. I had to take some pictures to accompany my stories and my editor said that my visual language was stronger than my written form. As a stylist, I collaborate quite closely with the photographer, model or celebrity, hair, make-up and set production. I think most of my clients and collaborators appreciate that I get involved above and beyond the clothes.”
This ability to get involved beyond outfit choice speaks to how much of a details game red-carpet dressing is these days—in terms of the actual look chosen as well as the finer touches. When it comes to the former, the pairing of a specific brand and season with a certain personality can have inordinate power when it’s done right. “Actresses have a very big impact on the fashion industry in that a designer can see an increase in sales, brand awareness etcetera,” says Cristina Ehrlich, the stylist behind Brie Larson and Penelope Cruz’s looks and the current No. 2 on the Hollywood Reporter list. “Likewise, an actress wearing a particular designer can elevate her presence in the fashion industry among other designers.”
Kunjambu agrees. “When a celebrity makes an effort to be portrayed in the right way, they will get noticed. This could lead to other roles or endorsements. And for the brand, a great look on a celebrity can sell out the garment instantly.” It’s for this reason that the rush to secure fresh-off-the-catwalk looks from the very hottest brands is now one of the central tenets of being a successful stylist; it’s not just the dress you choose, but who it’s by and how long it’s been around that can up your client’s cachet.
Take one of Stewart’s most recent coups, for example. “As a true fashion person, I am always looking forward. This week, Cate Blanchett wore a Gucci spring look that had just showed to an IWC gala at the London Film Festival. As of this minute, it’s my favourite look.” Given that Blanchett wore the silk-gazar gown just 14 days after Gucci first unveiled it on the catwalk in Milan, it’s hardly surprising she sees it as a success.
The other way in which the details have never mattered more is when it comes to pulling together the final look. Today, hair and make-up is as closely considered as outfit choice—just ask Amanda Harrington, the founder of InParlour, an all-round beauty agency responsible for making sure the likes of the Victoria’s Secret girls, Cara and Poppy Delevingne and Blake Lively, look all right on the night. “We travel with people when necessary, providing hair, make-up, contour tanning, nails, eyelash extensions and this brilliant thing which is a lymphatic massage to reduce puffiness in the face before an event.”
In a similar way to the stylists, Harrington is also on the hunt for the most recent, relevant look to ensure her clients stand out. “I like people to keep current, changeable and on trend. Recently we really nailed it with Poppy Delevingne and a look she wore to the Serpentine party in London. She was on the front page of all the papers the next day—and that was solely down to a choice of lipstick.”
All of the above has never been more prescient. In a world dominated by social media, the wrong look has as big an impact as the right one, and the pressure is on to get it right, wherever you may be. “The red carpet scene in Asia has evolved greatly because the events here are now seen from a global standpoint,” says Kunjambu. “The looks and trends have to be more up to date and international. Of course, social media has also changed the game dramatically—and it’s always a nice feeling when someone you dressed is trending.”
For the personalities themselves, it’s not just nice, it’s essential. And it’s why Sean and his fellow super stylists could not be more in demand right now.
This article was originally published in the January 2017 issue of Hong Kong Tatler.