Meet the super-stylists, the backstage pros changing the way we dress

Thanks to social media, the emphasis on ‘authentic’ personal style has never been greater
Beyoncé (@beyonce) at this year’s Super Bowl © Rex Features

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Styling — the business and art of dressing people, be they actors, TV stars, models or anyone with enough money to spend on wardrobe aid — is a changing business. Where in the past the focus may have been on the avant- garde and the exceptional (remember Lady Gaga’s meat dress in 2010), today celebrities are as likely to make an appearance in a tracksuit and Timberland boots. As the trend for relatable, street-led styles has crept on to the catwalk, so a more utilitarian wearable style has arrived on the red carpet and beyond: the new mood is one of uncompromising realness, stripped of artifice and irrespective of price tags.

Arguably, this change is down to social media, where huge audiences look to platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat to observe a star’s style offstage as much as their appearance on it. Where a celebrity might once have enthralled with a single red-carpet ensemble, today it’s their daily wardrobe that is subject to constant scrutiny.

Beyoncé’s stylist Marni Senofonte (@marnixmarni)

It’s perhaps ironic then that the new focus on “natural” style, the sense that an individual has crafted their look instinctively, is increasingly the work of another. And while we may not be familiar with the names of these super-stylists, we’re all feeling their influence.

Despite having worked for years as a stylist, Marni Senofonte, 42, was little known until on February 6 2016 Beyoncé released a song called “Formation” via a surprise video. Currently putting the finishing touches on the wardrobe for the singer’s world tour, which kicks off in Miami on Wednesday, Senofonte has styled Beyoncé for performances and commercial jobs since 2007, and took on a bigger role last year. She was instrumental in creating Beyoncé’s Deep South swagger for the video, in which the singer snarls round a post-storm, assumed-to-be New Orleanian set wearing new season Gucci, Alessandra Rich, Zimmermann, DylanLex and others. The following day, she performed the song in a Dsquared2 gold-embellished military jacket (an homage to Michael Jackson) at the Super Bowl in San Francisco.

“It was magic,” Senofonte says of the response to “Formation”. “I think that we’d all been hungry for a good visual. We hadn’t seen one in a while. It turned out to be an art piece — something that can’t even really be described. Everybody who watches sees it as something different. But what she wore — despite some pieces that needed altering for movement — was actually pretty straightforward.”

Magic is a good word for it. The clothes, in context, mirrored the sociopolitical fire of “Formation”, in which Beyoncé champions and defends her roots and her community. Senofonte referenced subtle Antebellum South styles, blouse-y, lacy and freshly laundered white Zimmermann and Alessandra Rich dresses, mixed with street-culture clothes such as logo-ed custom Gucci tracksuits (made with Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele’s blessing). That the garments were all highly fashionable yet still true to Beyoncé in spirit is credit to Senofonte’s skill; who’d have thought that Look 8 from Gucci’s SS16 collection — a vibrant red shirt and skirt (£745 and £990) with a handwritten motif — would look so right worn with combat boots atop a flooded police car?

A still from Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’ video

Beyoncé’s “Formation” incarnation is a far cry from the Givenchy “nude” dress — in crystal-embroidered diaphanous tulle — that she wore to last year’s Met Gala in New York. Although a beautiful gown, it was not exactly everyday wear. Senofonte (who didn’t style the singer for the event) says she feels the need for Beyoncé to look “relatable”. “You always think about how the clothes are going to translate to the public,” she says. “I call it ‘the Halloween effect’. Will there be girls in Gucci tracksuits in October? Probably.” It’s real-life clothing.

Few stars have Beyoncé’s levels of social-sartorial influence. All who do, use stylists. Rihanna works mainly with Mel Ottenberg (as well as Anna Trevelyan, who dressed her in a Tommy Hilfiger dance hall dress in a video for her current hit “Work”). Kanye West, himself the creator of the bestselling Adidas collaboration Yeezy, employs a team of creatives which includes Off-White’s Virgil Abloh and Ian Connor, a 22-year-old Yeezy consultant. Lady Gaga, who landed on the map thanks to her love of the outré and the artificial, has reined in the more outrageous aspects of her look with her current stylist, and close friend, Brandon Maxwell.

Mel Ottenberg (@melzy917) with Rihanna (@badgalriri)

“Gaga knows exactly what she wants,” says Maxwell, 31, who has styled the performer since 2012 and has his own label, too. “It’s generally a simple process — for the Golden Globes, we had one dress. That’s it.” (Said dress was a black velvet Versace gown with a sculpted neckline.) While Gaga’s style is never going to be ordinary, she appears more comfortable in her current Hollywood-glam repertoire, and has never looked better than at the Academy Awards in a Brandon Maxwell trouser suit. Maxwell received a number of inquiries following the event; however, given the amount of fabric and draping required to make the outfit, plus a desire to “keep it special for Gigi [his nickname for the singer]”, the piece won’t be recreated.

Brandon Maxwell (@brandonmaxwell) with Lady Gaga (@ladygaga) © Getty

Of course celebrity endorsement has the power to raise a brand’s profile far beyond the reach of a catwalk show. And so it is the stylists who offer a vital link between brand and consumer. Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video has amassed nearly 700m views since its launch on YouTube in October. One of its greatest beneficiaries was Moncler, skiwear specialists and makers of the $1,150 red puff jacket the singer wears in it. (Drake worked with stylist Nicky Orenstein for the video.) When Rihanna tweeted a picture of herself wearing Dolce & Gabbana headphones priced north of $9,000, they sold out the next day. Meanwhile, New York-based Chris Gelinas noted a “huge impact on demand” when one of his dresses was photographed for a story in American Vogue. The model who wore it? Kendall Jenner. He later nicknamed the dress the “Kendall”. Fame and followers can indeed translate into cash.

Few names of late, however, have ricocheted as loudly as that of Lotta Volkova, the stylist behind the feverish excitement surrounding Vetements. Volkova styles and consults for the Paris clothing collective run by Demna Gvasalia, and for Balenciaga, the Kering-owned French house at which she also works under Gvasalia’s direction.

Virgil Abloh (@virgilabloh) with Kanye West (right) © Rex Features

Volkova’s approach is youth-inflected, raw and unashamedly wearable: it’s partly down to her that fashion is awash with trackpants and hoodies. Her influence, though, has not come via work with a celebrity, but the fashion show. Many of Volkova’s models (and catwalk stars) are members of the loose network of friends and colleagues that surrounds the Vetements team (she herself met Gvasalia a few years ago while clubbing), and their aesthetic is often marked by its ordinariness.

Her interest in street culture began in childhood in the Russian port city of Vladivostok, where her father was a sea captain. “We were quite privileged,” says Volkova, 32, “because we were always connected to the outside and to the western world — even during the final days of the Soviet Union. My father would go to Japan, the US, Korea, and come back with stories.” This mix of transitional Russian identity and an international sense of the underground is evident in her cool mix of hardscrabble and minimal, tough and tender. She’s not afraid of something a little bruised and a little ugly. Many of her references are drawn from the tumult of the post-Soviet 1990s: her favourite flower, for example, is a “gvozdika [a carnation]. It’s the kind they used to bring to demonstrations.”

Lotta Volkova (@lottavolkova) © Pierre Ange Carlotti

“I’m inspired by subcultures, by Russian youth cultures,” adds Volkova, who studied fine art at Central Saint Martins in London and has been a stylist for eight years. “And what the internet can provide in terms of meeting and seeing people. I was obsessed with the internet when we first got it in the 1990s — and I’m still obsessed with it now.” Volkova’s vision has become a bona fide movement in which high fashion is being recalibrated with a street inflection.

“What I am most proud of,” she says, “is that I have a personal relationship with a majority of the people I work with. This gives you an opportunity to build something very strong, because . . . well, it’s real.”

Photographs: Rex Features; Getty Images; Pierre Ange Carlotti

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