Dubbed as the secret weapon by photographers and editors, the outstanding skills of a fashion stylist have to do more with culture, and its representation rather than the selection of clothes.

Visual editors or fashion stylists have a unique place in the field of fashion creation and communication. Are they designers? Not really. Certainly not writers either, but they narrate fashion stories through clothes, shapes, textures, colours and the non-mathematical formula of putting it all together and still, making sense.

Multitaskers, imagemakers, personal advisers, editorial-spread creators, clothes curators, are just a few nicknames for the work of a fashion stylist, an ambiguous position and, sometimes, poorly credited for their efforts in the final outcome. 

Bourdieu said that the “ordinary choices of everyday existence”, such as furniture, clothing or cooking, reveal our space and role inside society. Cultural Capital Theory states that taste and aesthetic dispositions can signify our differences and, as guessed, are there to be read by an observer.

In this context, fashion stylists are the masters of distinction. A person that constructs and reflects a certain way of life, crafting a visual statement to be captured in an image at their disposal, full of expressions, completely edited. Nothing in the work of a fashion stylist is ordinary, as no image in fashion is purely innocent.

Showcasing a Fashion Story: The Stylist’s Mission

Fashion journalist, Sarah Mower and Art Director, Raul Martinez date the first appearance of the title “stylist” in magazines to the 1930s. However, there is a mix of blurred terms involved, as sometimes, a stylist is indeed a fashion editor or a sittings editor in the context of a photo shoot. 

They work hand to hand with the photographer in order to get the picture, an image capable of capturing the essence of that fraction of fashion and time. Stylists are storytellers, with the ability of understanding the language of objects, decoding signs and being the photographer’s side eye. 

Polly Allen Mellen, the supreme fashion stylist -the only one who called two mythical photographers by their names: “Dick” for Richard Avedon and “Helmut” for Helmut Newton– is the living proof of an exceptional imagemaker career. 

She started in the fifties, but it was really in the sixties when the visual codes of fashion magazines around the world evolved into new ways of capturing reality and fashionable places where her career took off.

She is credited to be, perhaps, the first stylist to take photo shoots out of the studio and into exotic locations and unexpected fashion scenarios like Japan with Veruschka and Avedon himself, with whom she established the most prolific photographic collaborations of her career.

“I follow the camera. If the camera’s moving, I move with it. If the photographer is running, I run behind him. It does not matter what he is doing—I am doing it too” -Polly Mellen in Stylemakers: Inside Fashion. 

Her invisible hand, as that of many stylists, lies inside the work of the greatest fashion photographers of all time, like Irving Penn, Guy Bourdin, David Bailey, Deborah Turbeville and afterwards with Herb Ritts, Steven Meisel or Steven Klein. 

In this sense, the essential work of the stylist behind the camera is to merge all elements into sequences, to combine fragments of reality with fantasy, to bring objects from the past and present together, to act, in a way, as “bricoleur” reflecting new items of fashion and clothing; a concept borrowed from a Lévi-Strauss’ perspective.

Everything for the Picture: Fashion Styling Duties and Fields of Work

The role of the fashion stylist can be versatile and, as an image professional can branch into different career paths, such as editorial photography, advertising campaigns, film and costume design, performers style advisors, personal image consultant or aesthetic curators. 

Anyan and Clarke discuss the creative responsibility of a stylist in an editorial assignment. Authors concluded that it may fluctuate as it is dependent upon the publication, the editorial hierarchy, the photographer, the location, and if the stylist is working in-house or freelance. They define certain aspects a stylist could be expected to: 

  1. Plan the initial creative concept, proving story boards or mood boards as tools to communicate the idea to the team. 
  2. Scout possible locations according to the concept. 
  3. Cast the proper models. 
  4. Source, select and collect all clothing and accessories for the shoot, even its customisation. 
  5. Supervise the set design. 
  6. Supervise or direct hair & makeup design.

As imagemakers, they need to build bridges with different creative perspectives from design to photography. Even if they are all related, a stylist sometimes can be a creative director, and others can act as fashion producers. The styling field is a versatile profession that requires artistic skills whilst not neglecting the commercial reality of the market. Stylists can create an understandable -and attractive- fashion images balancing the two aspects.

Their role leads to the question: In creative images, who should be gaining the credit? Or, in some cases, who is the author? Is it the Photographer? Is it the Stylist? Is it both?

Shaping a Visual Culture Record: The Powerhouse Stylist

There are great examples of outstanding fashion stylists and their contributions to fashion magazines around the world. Now, thanks to the Internet and Social Media, they can grow a fan base according to style, themes, editorial approaches and, in some cases, enjoy celebrity status. 

Working on editorial fashion can lead fashion stylists to consult or to collaborate in building a brand aesthetics. Elusive stylist Joe McKenna, for instance, was the hand behind the image of Calvin Klein in the 90s, and the Kate Moss advertising. His rigorous and classic approach on styling influenced the way we normally dress today. 

Belgian stylist Olivier Rizzo is another case of bonding with brands, as he is in fact, an in-house stylist for Prada, besides regularly collaborating with photographer Willy Vanderperre to create campaigns for Raf Simons or Jil Sander to name a few. 

Katie Grand is a multitasker creative esthete force. Editor and curator, her vision has led her to take part in projects such as the renascence of Louis Vuitton with Marc Jacobs. She collaborated and was the mastermind behind styling the runway shows for 10 years. Spring of 2008 was a memorable moment with the models channeling Richard Prince’s artwork series “Nurses”. 

Lady Amanda Harlech, the muse of late Karl Lagerfeld -“his outside pair of eyes” as he referred to her-, is a long-life collaborator with the Maison Chanel, as she consults for the global image of the Couture shows, the Ready-to-Wear presentations and Accessories division. In addition to being a key force in launching John Galliano’s career.

Über-stylist Melanie Ward and iconic designer Helmut Lang’s long creative relationship; Lorie Goldstein, style adviser for photographer Mario Testino and Donatella Versace for her campaigns are solid examples of brand image building.

However, new blood is needed to perpetuate the legacy. Lotta Volkova, the in-house stylist for Vetements and Balenciaga led by Georgian designer Demna Gvasalia, has been a rising star inside the fashion industry and a key element for creating the “oversized awkward look” related to both brands.

Volkova’s style frames come from post-cold war Soviet street culture, delivering “bad taste” combined with alternative punk and hints of fetishism. All of the above, as a proof of great styling can boost a brand to the top.

There are three different areas of action for well-known stylists working in the fashion industry. First, the Editorial Pantheon; second, the Creative Direction Force; third, the Celebrity Stylist.

As for the celebrity arena, things get volatile, as fame and Internet culture can rise or vanish in seconds for every singer, actor or entertainer on the planet. 

Now in the middle of Awards Season, celebrity stylists are defying the absence of Red Carpet as a communication tool going fully digital, selecting Social Media as the channels to connect with audiences worldwide. 

Zerina Akers is the advisor behind Beyoncé’s Schiaparelli outfit in The Grammys days ago. The stylist selected a Daniel Roseberry creation from the surrealist fashion house. Carlos Nazario is the stylist behind singer Lizzo, besides the U.S representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez cover last year. He also styled Lanvin’s latest campaign featuring Paris Hilton. 

Law Roach, the stylist behind young actress Zendaya, or Jason Bolden, consulting for Trevor Noah, Jaden Smith and Alicia Keys are good examples of trust in style guidance; as well as Samantha Burkhart, the style hand that helped to shape singers Rosalía and Billie Eilish’s global image respectively.

Whether it is a brand, an editorial or a person, the role of a fashion stylist inside creation of fashion imagery is necessary and, in some cases, crucial in defining the definitive look for an era.