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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Fashion trends come and go, it’s in their nature, but, every so often, there is a trend which seems to carry on, continue to grow, get bigger and bigger, look unstoppable and you can’t judge when it’s going to run out of steam. One thing for certain is, they always will, but it’s just trying to pinpoint the moment when something peaks.
Left - Buy? Bye, Balenciaga?! - Zapatillas Triple S - € 725
The trend I'm referring to is the chunky, fugly trainer. The have proliferated so far down the fashion food chain that every designer, brand and retailer has brought out their own version, so, it was obvious to ask, when will this fugly trainer madness end?
This is a trend that started building three years ago, which, in fashion trend terms, is a long time. During that time we’ve seen them get bigger and badder, with the end result of people looking like they were wearing concrete blocks on their feet. I’m looking at you, the Triple S!
Learning when to call a trend in fashion takes experience, but, also, a lot of guess work. It takes instinct, an amount chutzpah and the early data to say when something is about to start its descent.
“It’s a “trend” that will see people paying £150 for a pair of shoes which they won’t be wearing in about 4 weeks time. I think many are over it already.” says Katie Owen, Founder, Sargasso & Grey, a British shoe company that create fashionable wide fitting shoes for women who have wide feet.
Right Tod’s - Shoeker No_Code_02 in High Tech Fabric - £450
I knew it was all over when I saw a chunky trainer from LK Bennett. Yes, the home of the home counties kitten heel has moved into the chunky trainer arena. A stylist friend had been to their #SS19 press day preview, before Christmas, and had taken an image of the shoe and put it on their Instagram Stories. Instantly images of Sam Cam in a Roland Mouret or Kate Middleton picking Prince George up from school flashed across my mind, and it was then that I knew it was over. Stabbing a stiletto into the heart of this youth driven trend, this is what kills trends; when the parents start to wear it.
Another case in point, Tod’s, long the bastion of the nobbly driving shoe, flew the fashion press over to Milan for the big reveal of a new product in October, 2018. It turned out all the fuss was over a new trainer/sneaker or “shoeker”, as they’re calling it. The Tod’s “No_Code”, they said, “represents the constantly evolving change we’re seeing in the design industry, a progressive more elastic world that has no boundaries. We are living in a world where we are constantly on the move, whether it’s a boardroom meeting or weekend coffee with friends, the way we dress needs to adapt with ease.”
While not exactly a chunky trainer, the Shoeker - this name is not going to catch on - showed the attention these middle aged brands are giving to casual footwear and trainers. It was unveiled as part of the Tod’s No_Code brand umbrella, designed by Korean designer Yong Bae Seok who before joining the world of footwear at Tod’s, worked in the automotive industry. This is a trainer or sneaker for dads, who want to spend £450 on a pair and wear it to work along with their Donegal tweed jackets and slim jeans.
“Fashion is constantly trying to reinvent and occasionally we come across a novelty style that sticks. It then doesn’t matter if it’s flattering or a clever design, the hype takes over and makes it a sellout. The chunky trainer is a classic case of shoe marketing that we will look back at, and.. well, cringe, in all honesty,” says Paula O’Connor, Fashion Director. “You wouldn’t see Sarah Harris.. Jackie Kennedy , or (all hail ) Kate Moss in a pair, so leave we’ll alone .. “ she says.
When “Sneakers” is the first drop down on the shoes section on zegna.co.uk you know what the brand’s new priorities are. Another luxury “dad brand", the minute the kids see their parents in these, they’ll be ditching them faster than you can say “Jeremy Clarkson”.
When ASOS announced its shock slowing of growth before Christmas, one of the most interesting snippets of information from ASOS CEO, Nick Beighton, was that, in menswear, they had seen "a slowdown in sneaker brands, which has been quite dramatic”, he said.
It is well known the young male shoe buyer was becoming the biggest consumer of footwear - read more here - and it was trainers and sneakers he was buying. There could be many factors at work here, but undeniably the market is saturated and the trend has run its course. Trainers will continue to be a huge business, but it won’t be a “thing” anymore.
Left - Ermenegildo Zegna - Leather Cesare Sneakers - £540
Designer brands liked this trend because they could increase the prices for chunkier styles and nobody would complain that they were made from plastic and glue. The margins and volumes are huge.
There was interesting data from the NPD - the industry authority for the footwear market - on Q4 2018 footwear: "The 'democratization' of Adidas’s Yeezy franchise also led unexpected gains, with sales up more than 6X. Whether Yeezy can withstand the pressure of the expanded allocation remains to be seen.”
This is a classic case of over exposure and the generation gap killing a trend. The clock on your chunky trainers is counting down, so get stomping in them now.