The business of style: 'A dress can change things for a girl'

It’s January. For some people that means post-Christmas blues and failed resolutions, but for dedicated followers of fashion, January means only one thing - awards season is upon us.

From now until the end of February, barely a day will go by when someone, somewhere isn’t getting an award for something.

There’ll be luncheons for the nominees, dinners for the winners, and the nail-biting moment when the Carpenter’s Guild of America decide if Casey Affleck’s off-screen antics should come between him and a little golden hammer.

The self-congratulatory orgy reaches its climax with the Oscars on February 26.

When the nominees for Hollywood’s biggest prize are announced in two weeks, it will mark the culmination of months of campaigning by a host of well-and-not-so-well-known faces.

For the best actress nominees - your Natalie Portmans, Emma Stones and Amy Adamses - the Oscars also mark the culmination of a sustained fashion assault, because as Oscar-watchers know, the Academy likes its actresses to impress on the red carpet as much as they impress on the silver screen.

Fashion faux pas are frowned upon, but every red carpet win has the potential to propel them closer to the big prize.

Sartorial success is rewarded with column inches, blog posts and magazine covers which contribute to the buzz around an actress and her performance - the sense that she has ‘winner’ written all over her.

Oscar strategists know many Academy members will never watch the nominated performances; they’ll simply vote for the ones that have garnered the most hype.

So from that first whiff of Oscar buzz, fashion becomes an essential weapon in the actress’s arsenal, and these days, the Most Valuable Player in a celebrity’s entourage is not their manager, or their agent - it’s their stylist.

Over the last decade, the business of red carpet styling has become so vital to the celebrity ecosystem that even the men daren’t show their faces on a red carpet unless they’ve paid someone to tell them what black tuxedo to wear.

The power and influence of the industry’s top stylists is now so great that each year, after the Oscars, The Hollywood Reporter ranks their top 25.

Every March, fashion observers watch with glee as the power stylist power balance shifts.

Stylist A might lose a high profile client and drop out of the rankings, while Stylist B reinvents that same client’s red carpet persona and rockets into the top five.

The rankings will reveal if the gamble paid off for the heavy-hitter who took a chance on an up-and-coming starlet, and if the investment was worth it for the ingénue who forked out for a top tier stylist.

In this list, stalwart combinations like perennial crowd-pleaser Cate Blanchett and her long-time stylist Elizabeth Stewart are pitted against plucky newcomers like Alicia Vikander and her stylist, Victoria Sekrier.

In a move reminiscent of the parallel successes of Lupita Nyong’o and her stylist, Michaela Erlanger during Nyongo’s 2014 Oscar run, Vikander chose the unknown Sekrier to style her in 2015. Dozens of daring ensembles later, one had an Oscar and the other had leap-frogged into THR’s number 5 spot.

But with no other clients, and a low-key 2016 for Vikander, Sekrier is likely to drop out of the rankings for 2017.

In the competitive world of celebrity styling, you’re only as good as your last fashion moment.

To accompany the much-anticipated list, the magazine shoots four covers, featuring four buzz-worthy stylists and their most high profile clients.

A dead cert to rise in the rankings and land a cover this year is last year’s number 9, Karla Welch.

Stylist to awards season fixture Sarah Paulson, and fashion darling Olivia Wilde, last year Welch landed one of 2016’s biggest rising stars - Irish actress Ruth Negga.

The pair has since orchestrated her rise from indie actress to American Vogue cover star - and it should be noted that last year’s January cover girl, Alicia Vikander, went on to win the Best Actress Oscar.

Nothing says ‘winner’ like the Wintour seal of approval, and in a tight race that will probably see Portman, Stone and Adams nominated alongside Meryl Streep, it just might give Negga the edge for that sought after fifth slot.

Regardless, it is proof that she and Welch have succeeded in establishing her fashion credentials, and that’s what earns a good stylist their MVP status.

While Negga’s performance in Loving is garnering Oscar buzz and critical acclaim, that alone wouldn’t be enough to propel her to the level of fame a Vogue cover warrants. That’s where fashion comes into play.

As Welch once put it, “A dress can change things for a girl”, and increasingly the Hollywood system is recognising the role fashion plays in bolstering a publicity push for an actress or her movie.

With her power-stylist status, Welch has access to the best designers; she knows how to wield the power of fashion to maximum effect; and designers trust her not to make them look bad.

With a client who’s willing to play the fashion game, the spoils are theirs for the taking.

In the hands of a pro, red carpet styling benefits everyone involved. By becoming indispensible cogs in the celebrity machine, stylists can charge studios astronomical fees for their services.

Mean while fashionable stars can leverage their personal style and use it to their professional advantage.

They can land lucrative fashion campaigns, brand ambassadorships, and even be paid six-figure sums to wear designer items on the red carpet.

For designers, the value of a red carpet appearance is hard to quantify, but Irish designer, Helen Cody - who has dressed stars like Amy Huberman and Sarah Greene - “still can’t believe how much impact a red carpet appearance can have”.

“I’ve had to rename my dancing disc dress the ‘Amy’, since Amy Huberman wore it to the IFTAs,” she laughs. “But the biggest reaction I’ve had was to the dress Stephanie Roche wore to the Ballon D’Or. She made the cover of six newspapers the next day - with Messi and Ronaldo looking longingly at her,” Helen recalls.

“I had calls from Argentina, LA, even the Caribbean about that dress.”

While that level of publicity is a boon, Cody believes it is nonetheless vital to “align your brand with the right celebrity - someone who reflects the brand’s signature”.

She admits she has been incredibly lucky in that department, especially when it comes to her biggest red carpet moment to date.

Last summer, Saoirse Ronan wore a Helen Cody dress after she put the designer in touch with her stylist, THR’s number 4-ranked Elizabeth Saltzman.

“I’m so proud of that moment,” Helen states. “What I loved most about seeing Saoirse in the dress was how effortless she looked. Elizabeth styled it simply, with very cool, flat pearl sandals that made it look so relaxed.

“Saoirse made Vogue’s best dressed list, and the fact that they credited me was wonderful. To be recognised by the world’s style bible was an amazing endorsement.”

And therein lies the power of red carpet styling. The synergy between fashion and celebrity makes the two natural bedfellows, and when the right designer meets the right celebrity via the right stylist, the result can be fashion magic.

With intense pressure on celebrities to avoid the dreaded ‘worst dressed lists’, Irish stylist Laura Mullett reveals what she feels her clients are looking for.

“For the red carpet, it’s about creating an aesthetic,” she says, “and the attention to detail I can offer to help them do that; but whether it’s a celebrity or someone looking for a capsule work wardrobe, I have to make people feel I’ve properly taken care of their needs.”

Stylist to some of Ireland’s biggest names, she’s also a personal shopper in Dundrum Town Centre, and she feels the prevalence in the media of styled celebrity looks is leading ordinary women to embrace the convenience of personal styling too.

“Ireland has gone to a whole different level in terms of style, and not just for celebrities.

“Every day people are going to stylists. For me, it’s about making someone’s load a little lighter,” she explains, “taking a burden off their shoulders when it comes to how they look. Doing that for someone who’s stressed about starting a new job is just as rewarding as doing it for someone on a red carpet.”

And when she puts it like that, it’s easy to see why the styling business is booming.


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