When The Hollywood Reporter unveiled its annual ranking of the industry’s most powerful stylists last week, one thing was clear. The fashion force behind one of Hollywood’s most exciting new talents is enjoying her own break-out moment. But what lies ahead for fashion’s new dream team?
After a whirlwind six months, Micaela Erlanger has just been crowned the third most powerful stylist in Hollywood. A brand new addition to the list, her stratospheric rise to the top has been mirrored by that of her most notable client. Because Micaela Erlanger is stylist to Lupita Nyong’o, and Lupita Nyong’o (as if you didn’t know) is the fashion world’s current darling. In fact, you can go ahead and just call her Lupita, and most people with even a passing interest in celebrity will know exactly who you’re talking about. And while they may not have seen her Oscar winning performance in 12 Years a Slave, they can probably cite her best looks of the season. For an unknown Kenyan actress to attain first name recognition in six months is no mean feat, and Erlanger’s contribution to her success can’t be underestimated. As stylist Karla Welch puts it “A dress can change things for a girl”, and increasingly the Hollywood system is recognising the role that fashion can play in bolstering a publicity push for an actress or her movie. All it takes is a “fashion moment”: a look so strong it can catapult her into another realm of celebrity.
The media loves these moments, and last October, when Lupita Nyong’o stepped on to the red carpet at the LA premiere of 12 Years a Slave, a fashion star was born. After a strong debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, where her outfits garnered as much attention as her film, this was a statement to the industry that she understood the fashion game, and she was here to play. In a striking cockatoo print Miu Miu dress, she grabbed the world’s attention and has been running with it ever since, winning awards, legions of fans and a prestigious Miu Miu advertising campaign along the way. With everyone from fashion bloggers to mainstream media losing their minds over her every fashion choice, she embraced her transition from newcomer to fashion icon. More than that, it seems likely she engineered it as a crucial element of her flawlessly executed Oscar campaign. Simply put, Team Lupita harnessed the hype and rode it all the way to an Oscar victory.
These days, a nomination is nothing without a great campaign to bring it home. Like an election campaign, it involves meeting voters, giving interviews and generating buzz. As Vulture editor Kyle Buchanan explains it “A lot of nominees will take a couple of months off knowing that they’re going to be part of awards season, and they want to devote their full time and attention to it,” he said. “Doesn’t matter if you’re Jared Leto, who has been here pressing the flesh, or Lupita Nyong’o, who could be booking a new movie right now, but her management thought it was a lot better for her to just be doing the awards circuit.” Gambling a client’s future on the outcome of an awards season might seem a risky strategy, but Lupita’s willingness to play the game has been admirable. Like a publicist’s dream, she is gracious and eloquent in interviews, poised and stylish at every appearance. And style matters, because where the ladies are concerned, the media’s focus will invariably be on their fashion choices. As more and more actresses are learning to leverage their personal style to their professional advantage, establishing your fashion credentials has never been more important. Enter the celebrity stylist.
Fashion and entertainment have always enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, but as the rise of Lupita illustrates, fashion is playing an increasingly pivotal role in shaping the careers of celebrities. As stylist Leslie Fremar points out “Young girls can get famous today without having huge roles in blockbusters, just by having style.” The internet’s insatiable appetite for 24/7 celebrity coverage has been a game changer in terms of the way female celebrities are both managed and created. People with no discernable talent can build entire careers off the back of sex tapes and staged paparazzi shots. Actresses who become better known for making babies than making movies can use their personal style to keep a vital foothold in the tabloids or launch a lifestyle business or a range of accessories. And when it comes to casting a big name in the next blockbuster franchise, studios are looking for someone who can deliver the hard sell. They know that an actress with a track record for showing up to every event in an amazing dress has the potential to elevate herself off the red carpet and onto the computer, tablet and phone screens of several million blog readers all over the world.
Fashion buys them more P.R bang for their buck, and a new generation of actresses is capitalising on this, rushing to add “clothes horse” to their resumés. Leslie Fremar says “I’ve been doing this for ten years, and it’s become relevant as a business during that time. A big business.” Such a big business that studios are willing to pay around $1,500 per day to have a stylist accompany an actress on a press tour, recognising that this relatively small investment can have a serious impact on a movie’s bottom line. Actress Zoe Saldana, who is styled by Petra Flannery, explains “We’ve managed to convince a lot of directors who now have respect for what we put together, and for Petra’s essential place in a huge press tour like Star Trek. Which is very important for me, and for her, and for selling a movie.” Celebrity fashion is an evolving industry, and becoming a fashion darling can prove lucrative in more ways than one. Today’s stylists are not just creating the looks, they’re brokering major deals to benefit both their clients and themselves.
Stylist Kate Young sees her role as “making sure the image (the celebrities) project is how they hope to be viewed.” To this end the stylists have positioned themselves as the power players in this new economy, connecting the right stars with the appropriate brands and negotiating endorsements and allegiences. The perks of being a fashion girl range from long term exclusivity agreements to one off payments for wearing a particular item – Gwyneth Patrow was paid $1 million for accessorising her Tom Ford gown with a bracelet by a Chinese designer at the 2012 Oscars. How’s that for a night’s work? There are smaller deals for attending fashion shows and events, or package deals involving the whole shebang. The marketplace is awash with celebrities of all levels, and almost every aspect of their lives is potentially for sale if the price is right and the brand synergy is there. So it’s no surprise that both sides have come to rely heavily on their brokers to craft the kinds of deals that will enhance the reputations (and fortunes) of everyone involved.
In this market, the stylists are perfectly placed to enjoy both the benefits of celebrity status and the financial rewards of being an indespensible cog in the celebrity machine. Some designers would argue they’ve become too powerful, micro-managing their clients to the point where they’re practically designing the dresses themselves. It’s not unheard of for a top tier stylist to return sketches to the biggest designers in the world with suggestions on how they could be improved. Just how much input Micaela Erlanger had into Lupita’s eventual Oscar dress, a custom Prada, is not known, but all parties have acknowledged that it was a collaborative effort, with champagne bubbles and that evocative “Nairobi blue” as their inspriation. The dress will go down in history, the Prada name forever associated with it, but one of the most anticipated dresses on fashion’s biggest night was ultimately something of a departure from it’s wearer’s trademark style. But Micaela Erlanger quotes legendary costume designer Edith Head on her website: “You can have anything you want in life, if you dress for it.” On the biggest night of her life Lupita Nyong’o dressed like an Oscar winner, and she became an Oscar winner, so it seems a fitting motto, both for Lupita and for one of the key architects of her success.