Designer garments were prepped and packed. Shoes and accessories were organized in suitcases. Jessica Paster had everything ready to go for her longtime client Emily Blunt’s jam-packed “A Quiet Place II” press tour when the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a national emergency on March 13. Instead of jetting off to London for the U.K. premiere, she stayed back in Los Angeles to quarantine as all her future engagements and bookings were called off.
Soon enough, Paster ― who has been a fashion stylist for 24 years and works with high-profile actresses such as Blunt, Dakota Fanning, Felicity Jones, Freida Pinto and Olivia Munn ― had to figure out a way to make ends meet amid Hollywood’s production closures and red carpet cancellations. That task seemed a bit daunting. Would she be dressing clients for virtual press appearances? Should she still move forward with plans for big events like the Met Ball? And what about her employees? How would she keep her team going without their usual crammed schedule?
She met with her assistants and let them know that they’d have to shut down for six weeks, but would be on to organize two days a week at a lower day rate. By the second week of April, Paster realized the lockdown would last much longer than originally predicted. Practicing social distancing rules and wearing a mask and gloves, she began personal shopping and parsing through the closets of paying celebrities and non-celebrities to keep herself and her employees afloat.
“I needed to figure out a way to support myself and pay my bills because I’m still waiting for my unemployment,” she said. “I still haven’t gotten a phone call or letter and I’m not holding my breath. I feel like both the state of California and the United States of America have failed me.”
Those anxiety-ridden circumstances are in play for a lot of stylists. When the film and TV industry halted production, there was a ripple effect throughout the entire ecosystem. It’s obvious that the lives and careers of movie stars, producers, directors and studio heads are impacted, but what about crew members? Boom operators, film editors, hair and makeup artists, gaffers and production assistants are out of steady jobs for the foreseeable future. Marketing teams have little, if anything, to promote. Ushers at cinemas are deemed useless.
And there’s really no need for someone to hire a personal stylist to put together a cozy tie-dyed quarantine look.
“With no movies, you have no clients promoting movies and no press tours happening. There truly is no business for us and it has essentially dried up as of March. That is a scary thing,” Micaela Erlanger, who dresses Lupita Nyong’o, Michelle Dockery, Meryl Streep, Jared Leto and Common, told HuffPost. “And in terms of shoots and other types of projects that we work on, in light of all the social distancing rules, those bookings aren’t happening, so those opportunities are impossible.”
The life of a celebrity stylist seems luxurious when compared to what others are facing in our country right now. But like many working professionals, they’re freelancers who are trying to find gigs, secure some sort of salary and fight for their own worth as the pandemic looms large. And their work, in part, makes the fashion industry go ’round.
“For actors and musicians, the ability to influence trends is almost as important as the reception of their creative projects, and they aren’t the only ones to benefit,” Vogue’s Janelle Okwodu writes. “In addition to the A-listers, brands count on a cabal of so-called ambassadors to take a designer’s work into the real world and make it palatable to a broader audience. A network of behind-the-scenes players — stylists, makeup artists, nail techs, and more — relies on the income and attention generated by a year’s worth of highly publicized events and the folks at home watching with interest, dissecting every gown and heel.”
Those players are the ones who represent celebrity clients and negotiate million-dollar deals with top-level designers. They get you to ogle over stars on the Oscars red carpet. They’re the masterminds behind those magazine covers or advertising campaigns that catch your eye on the grocery store line.
Without opportunities, they are vulnerable. Finances are currently a concern for many stylists who admit they’ve adjusted to a nice way of living over the years. According to Vanity Fair, in 2014, celebrity dressers were making anywhere between $1,000 to $1,500 to wrangle and plead with design houses to spare gowns or clutches for their elite clients. And for men’s styling, studios — who pay for the promotion of projects and talent’s press obligations — cap at $500 to $750 per look. But advertising is where the “big money” comes from, according to Erlanger.
“I had a number of clients with press and beauty campaigns for summer, which are really important for stylists because they tend to subsidize a lot of our costs,” she said.
Ilaria Urbinati, who’s turned famous men like Bradley Cooper, Chris Evans, Ryan Reynolds, Donald Glover, Rami Malek, Dwayne Johnson and others into style stars, told HuffPost that the lack of usual earnings is no doubt “panic-inducing.”
“I have a high overhead and am used to a certain level of income,” she said. “That has fully stopped since March. But there are definitely people in much tougher positions, so I won’t whine.”
On top of the lack of stable income and unemployment filing issues, a stylist, who preferred to remain anonymous due to concerns over professional repercussions, told HuffPost that studios are offering a smaller stipend to dress talent for Zoom press appearances. Netflix reportedly tried to lower the stylist’s fee recently, despite creating and touting a $150 million COVID-19 relief fund to help laid-off members of the entertainment community.
When reached for a comment, a spokesman for the streamer told HuffPost that they haven’t reduced rates for stylists. In terms of the fund, Netflix has been providing financial aid to the hardest hit workers on its productions until government safety nets kick in. The company has also donated $30 million to third parties and national and international non-profits, including the SAG-AFTRA Foundation, the British Film Institute, the Italian Film Commission and the Brazilian Institute of Audiovisual Content, among others.
Although one would assume the workload would be a bit lighter for a virtual look, stylists said that’s not necessarily the case. It’s hard to get a true sense for what’s working or the overall vibe of a look when there are no in-person fittings. And Paster said all the clothes need to be dry-cleaned, sprayed and handled in a sanitary fashion before being sent to a client.
Still, there’s work to be had. Urbinati styled Charlie Puth for album artwork and videos ahead of his summer single release, “Girlfriend.” Lady Gaga’s stylist duo Sandra Amador and Tom Eerebout worked on a music video with Sylvie Kreusch, who is quarantining in Belgium with Eerebout and his husband, director Joost Vandebrug. They also worked with photographer and director Rowan Papier and model Madison Headrick to shoot a remote video using a drone.
Earlier this month, the BET Awards broadcast a virtual ceremony consisting of livestreams and videos from Megan Thee Stallion, John Legend, Alicia Keys, Usher, Chloe x Halle and Beyoncé, all of whom looked very put together for their performances and acceptance speeches.
Bryon Javar, whose client roster includes Saweetie and City Girls, styled host Amanda Seales in 13 looks from local and international Black designers, including Pyer Moss and Sergio Hudson. He told HuffPost he completed all of his selects through email and consulted over a few weeks for Seales’ custom looks, all of which were worn during her 12-hour BET Awards Zoom taping.
“We all had to be tested for COVID for the job, so during fittings we had to wear our mask ― of course [with] limited interaction and people around,” Javar said. “The day of taping, in between her 13 looks, myself, her makeup artist Renee and hairstylist Nicki B. would be on FaceTime telling her what looks were next, how to do her hair and makeup, etc. It was definitely different, but it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.”
Although Javar admitted he missed the stress of prepping for an award show red carpet, the socially distanced experience with Seales and her team prepped him for “the new normal.”
“We’ve had to be resourceful and get creative,” Erlanger said of her community. “Now is the time to tap into that resilience, and we will come out of this stronger.”
Fans who follow celebrity fashion on and off the red carpet are surely missing that form of escapism in the time of coronavirus. A slideshow of looks from the Met Gala would’ve been a brief distraction from a tense election year and some of the painful realities popping up around the country. But as hard as it’s been to adjust to unfamiliar terrain, stylists told HuffPost they know their industry will pick up once again — it’ll just take some extra safety measures (and a vaccine) to get there. In the meantime, they’re using this atypical downtime to their advantage.
Urbinati welcomed twins in the fall before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Instead of having to completely dive back into work, she was able to spend more time at home with her babies and 4-year-old daughter, as well as sit with some ideas she’s never had the chance to explore.
“This quarantine really did wonders for my entrepreneurial spirit,” she told HuffPost. “In the beginning it was really about that time with the babies. Around month three, I realized styling might not come back full blown for a while, so I got busy busting my ass on a bunch of other dream projects I had been wanting to do a long time, but never had time to. My dream side hustles became my full-time job.”
Although she didn’t disclose details about those projects, Urbinati said the fruits of her labor will come out by the end of the summer and admits this time in lockdown has been “the best thing that ever happened to me from a creative and career standpoint.”
Amador and Eerebout have also been thinking outside the box and exploring the parameters of the industry from their respective quarantine spaces in New York and Belgium.
“We’ve been brainstorming and experimenting with new ways of working as well as reading and researching for new inspiration,” Amador said, noting that she’s been meditating to remain centered. “It really has given us a moment to realign with ourselves creatively and gain clarity on our intentions and values as artists.”
Paster thinks it’s an added bonus that she and her peers have had the ability to focus on other passions and be fully present with their families, considering most of them work around the clock all year long.
“The only time I’ve ever had off is around Christmas. I take 10 days off. I’ve never taken a vacation,” she said. “So in this downtime I’ve been really taking care of myself. I lost an extra 10 pounds. I’ve been working out; I’ve always wanted to start my wedding website so I’m doing that, and I’ve been looking into other things to do. I mean, I love dressing celebrities and I will continue dressing celebrities, but I found other interests, as well.”
Erlanger is harnessing her social media community while also focusing on her luxury bridal styling service, which has of course taken a slight hit due to restrictions on larger events. In light of that, she’s offering complimentary virtual consultations to couples whose nuptials have been impacted by the pandemic in return for donations made to Direct Relief and A Common Thread, as well as racial justice organizations EmbraceRace and Pretty Brown Girl. She’s also navigating her own shifting wedding plans.
“Even though all my brides have postponed, at least there’s work to be had in the future. I’m very grateful in that sense. But, yeah, it’s a really tough time,” Erlanger said. “My heart goes out to hair and makeup, too. We’re all gig workers, right? We get booked per job and we’re not getting booked per job right now.”
If there’s one thing they all miss, it’s planning ahead for big events like the Cannes Film Festival or the Emmy Awards.
“Venice, as well, is one of my favorite events to style for,” Urbinati said of the “Big Five” film festival in Italy.
Venice is moving ahead with its scheduled September dates and will adhere to social distancing rules as it debuts a reduced slate of movies in outdoor screening locations. But it’s unclear if the red carpet will still even happen or if the festival will eventually be canceled or postponed like other major events.
“I was dressing the host of the Met [Gala]. I was dressing Meryl Streep!” Erlanger said of fashion’s biggest night on the first Monday in May. “Dresses were in production, fittings were scheduled, all of that was underway. And for other client-related activations too beyond Met, we tend to book out our time at least a month or two in advance and slowly everything started to get canceled.”
The thought is that upcoming award shows, like the Emmys, will function in a similar fashion to the BET Awards, with celebrities appearing virtually rather than at a venue. Paster assumes celebrities will be styled and photographed for the event, but admits all her peers are “in limbo” when it comes to predicting the future of, say, the Golden Globes or the Oscars, which have both been moved by nearly two months to February and April 2021, respectively.
“This is a scenario that none of us have been in before, but I think it’s important everyone stays safe and follows the precautions to minimize the spread of the virus. Everyone’s health should come first and foremost,” Eerebout said, with Urbinati adding, “There have been pandemics before. They don’t last forever. It just might not [be over] quite as soon as we would all like it to.”
All of the stylists agreed that the normal happenings surrounding Hollywood events, magazine shoots and press tours will most likely be on hold until a vaccine becomes widely accessible. Until then, it’s a guessing game on how the entire industry will resume. Not only are production timelines affected, but fashion brands are unable to produce collections in certain timeframes, making it hard to imagine if samples or eveningwear will even be available for future award shows. Erlanger hopes this predicament will lead to more re-wears and sustainability on the red carpet.
“I know that when things do resume, the focus and emphasis on choosing to wear things that have a message or a reason behind them and are more thoughtfully curated will really come into play,” she said. “Whether that is a sustainable message or a political message, that will be something that we see more of as talent has a platform and a voice to be heard.”
Javar said that for the time being, things will function similarly to his recent experience of dressing Seales: experimentation, virtual consults and fittings, no red carpet in sight.
“I hope we are able to look back very soon like, ‘Whew, we made it through something we didn’t see coming,’” he said. “I’m praying for a red carpet in early 2021. I’m begging and pleading.”