If a picture paints a thousand words, what does a stylist do? In fashion, they are the story tellers. Stylists, those individuals who decide what and how to dress models and celebrities for many brands’ campaigns and visual assets, have long been taken for granted. Much like photographers and digital cameras, in recent years, their magic of making something look more expensive or chicer than it is has been overlooked and labelled as simply ‘dressing’.
Left - Hedi's idea of cool or just plain bad? Celine
Paula O’Connor, ex Fashion Editor and Consultant, says, “A stylist's job is to tell a story with clothes, to put them into a narrative. This could be for glossy pages of editorial/ magazines or film, or simply co-ordinating everyday outfits to suit someone's lifestyle, whilst understanding perfectly how to translate current trends in fashion into outfits to suit that person’s needs and their lifestyle whilst maximising their image and confidence.”
The majority of people don’t recognise good styling, but they certainly notice bad, and it feels like there’s a lot of it around at the moment.
And, that’s the crux of it, a stylist’s main job is to make, professionally, things or people not look bad. With many brands making cuts or struggling to produce content in lockdowns with less travel, then bad styling is becoming much more noticeable. While some brands may go deliberately for the slightly more ‘edgier’ or grungier look, even Balenciaga has a slickness in its ugliness, there’s a difference between this and simply bad. It’s the fashion equivalent of a hipster venue asking you to drink out of jam jars. It’s a cost saving spun as being cool.
Lockdown has really brought to light the importance of good styling and therefore a good stylist. Marketeers listen up. We became so blasé about perfect images, that, I think, we took them for granted pre-COVID, but it’s only, now, we can really see the difference and it’s coming from even the biggest of brands.
“Stylists are definitely taken for granted and they do not get enough respect for the skills they have”, says Jessica Punter, Freelance Stylist with almost 20 years’ experience, associate lecturer and Ex GQ Style and Grooming Editor.
“Stylists usually have an eagle eye over the whole fashion industry and draw on influences from a wealth of other areas such as art, music and pop culture. They can help steer or hone a collection and create fresh appeal. They can bring a lot to the table creatively, if given the chance.” she says.
Good styling has many contributing factors; concept, art direction, casting (model choice), location, props, looks (outfit choice), lighting, and, finally, how it’s all put together. It takes a refined eye and that’s worth paying a professional for. Many brands look like they’re doing it all DIY and it does nothing for their products.
Like anything visual, what is good and bad is subjective, but there’s a level. It also changes according in local markets and who they are targeting. It’s knowing which images to use when and where. While Europeans may scoff, the images could appeal to Asia or America.
Right & Below - Paul Smith AW20 looking like a hot mess?
“First, international brands cater to different markets. What appeals to one territory might not appeal to the next.” says Punter. “I often think of how different Nike US is to Nike EU. I know which I prefer, but it's all about knowing your market. Second, in the pandemic era we are seeing skeletal crews and brands needing to improve 'efficiencies'. During the first lock down I heard models were dressing themselves with samples sent to the photographer. I also heard celebrities were wearing outfits they had worn before for public appearances, rather than relying on a stylist to bring fresh looks. Third, there's a lot of dross product around. If a collection is really weak it can't necessarily be saved by styling.” she says.
Even the biggest brands have trimmed their expenditure. Do you think brand’s making cutbacks can be seen in their visuals?
“Yes, I am sure it is deemed necessary to make cuts, to use in-house staff and to limit outsourcing, but these short term savings inevitably have a negative impact on overall quality.” says Punter.
“There is definitely a noticeable difference in shoots that reflects that cutbacks. E-comm is increasingly shot flat instead of on a model, and there is a simpler approach to selling.” says O’Connor.
Can we put this down to lockdown issues of lack of expensive locations or doing things from home etc.?
“Certainly the impact can't be ignored. At the same time there have been lots of amazing distanced shoots. Self-styled Robert Pattinson for GQ US was a highlight for me. However, the clothes he wore were still selected in advance by a stylist, and no doubt heavily mood boarded and pre-styled into looks, which he may well have adapted. But the overall lesson is really that nothing can replicate a strong creative crew working closely, physically together.” Punter says.
“I think, previously, stylists researched and referenced a lot more.. films, art, photography catwalks .. but now everything is so fast and immediate, so there is a lot of imagery that is 'thin' in content. Also social media has boosted consumerism.” O'Connor says.
There is no formula for good styling. You need talented people, but it’s also an instinct, especially in something as unpredictable as fashion. A good stylist will be able to make the best of what they have, even if the budgets are tight.
“No one realises how much hard work goes into styling, It depends on the client, but there is never enough budget for what they want, so stylists sometimes have to work miracles!” says O’Connor.
There too isn’t a formula for bad styling, but get a few of those contributing factors - listed above - wrong and the chances are the pictures won’t be very good. It’s a false economy for brands and marketing departments to make cuts in this area, especially if they’re trying to peddle ‘luxury’. They are devaluing the product and the brand.
Left - AW20 Superdry styling looking far from contemporary
A great stylist is “someone who creates trends rather than follows them and has an innate understanding of what makes a great image.” says Punter, and this is something not worth skimping on.
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