What used to be a behind the scenes job, red carpet styling has become a highly visible one, producing celebrities in its own right, thanks to shows like E!’s Fashion Police, which critiques red carpet looks, and Bravo’s The Rachel Zoe Project, which follows the life and career of top stylist Rachel Zoe. When stars walk down the red carpet at the Oscars on February 26, in what is the world’s most scrutinized annual gown fest, you know that behind all of the outfits anyone will be talking about is a stylist. And the money it cost to look that way might be more than the dress, bag, jewels, and shoes combined.
But what kind of a career is that—picking out outfits for a living? Many stylists will tell you it’s not actually a glamorous one. The work itself consists of borrowing clothing and jewelry from designers and storing it in a showroom where clients can come in and try things on. This requires a lot of Fed Exing, lugging around garment bags, and packing trunks of clothing—manual labor, most often done by interns and assistants. But the real struggle is getting the right gowns. Stylists will call in gowns weeks in advance so other stylists don’t get them first. Designers play games too: some won’t even send stylists gowns if their clients aren’t nominated.
But for all its nuisances, the job can be highly lucrative. Stylists usually bill on a day rate, and picking out an Oscar outfit is never a one-day job. While billing schemes vary, sources tell me that stylists dressing a celebrity for the Oscars can charge anywhere from $1,500 a day to upwards of $10,000 a day, depending on who the stylist and star are. So a stylist able to charge $10,000 a day, who dresses five celebrities for an award show, spending five days on each outfit, can make $250,000 from one Oscar ceremony.
The ability to charge very high fees also depends on who’s footing the bill. Rachel Zoe, who is probably the most famous red carpet stylist in the world with day rates rumored to be in the five figures, charged last year’s Oscar host Anne Hathaway “astronomical” fees, according to the Hollywood Reporter. And she may as well because it’s not Hathaway who’s paying her—the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who puts on the Oscars, is.
But rates vary greatly depending not on the stylist but also the type of work. Only a handful of them are in the same league as Zoe, and only a handful of celebrities are of the A-list caliber she serves. That kind of work “is not even an eighth of our business,” notes Lindsay Albanese, a stylist who’s dressed JWOWW and Paula Abdul. “Red carpet’s never been where the money is,” echoes stylist Phillip Bloch, whose client roster boasts Halle Berry and Salma Hayek.
While rates can be astronomical, they can also be pitiful—or nonexistent. If a movie company won’t pay for a stylist, the celebrity probably won’t either. After all, they’re celebrities, and celebrities are special people who often don’t have to pay for things. If an A-list star calls her stylist asking to be dressed for the Oscars as a favor, the stylist will most likely do it. “Honestly Salma never paid a dollar, I don’t think, in all the years I’ve worked for her. She and I were best friends,” says Bloch. Those kinds of favors are hopefully returned monetarily at some point. The celebrity might call on her stylist down the line when she’s shooting the ad campaign for her first fragrance—and that fragrance company can afford the $5,000 day rate, probably more—and the favor will have been returned.
Bloch says that since the recession hit, his rates have been cut to one-third of what he used to make. “I made more money back in 1993 when I started my career and I had no portfolio. I was making $5,000 a day—you can’t make that now,” he says. “The movie companies are paying so little now—they’re giving like $500 for hair and makeup combined and nothing for the stylist.” And if a star gets an Oscar nomination for a film put out by a small studio, her stylist’s bill might be paid by the studio that made another movie she’s also currently starring in, rather than the poorer Oscar-nominated studio. Whether she’s there to pick up a trophy for the bigger studio’s film or not doesn’t matter: she’s there, she’s critically acclaimed, and she’s currently a very profitable face of their picture.
Award shows hardly make up the bulk of red carpet styling work. Celebrities walk thousands of them each year at their film premieres and press junkets, all for which they’ll need clothes to wear. “The most I’ve been paid for an outfit has been $3,500—that was for a premiere night. I was told that was on the cheaper side,” says Annie Ladino, a stylist who went freelance after quitting her job at Elle as assistant to the creative director, Joe Zee, a couple years ago. Since striking out on her own, she’s traveled with Julia Roberts to dress her for her Eat Pray Love press tour, and worked with Brooklyn Decker on appearances for Just Go With It. “My rate has gone higher because of the celebrities I work with,” says Ladino, 60 to 70 percent of whose work is on celebrity projects, ranging from magazine photo shoots to red carpet appearances to daytime talk show appearances. There are the odd jobs too, like the time she picked out some new spring apparel items for Gwyneth Paltrow to showcase on her website Goop; she charges $1,000 to $2,000 a day for work like that, though agents tell her (she’s currently not represented by one) she can charge more.
Magazine shoots comprise a good amount of the favors stylists do for celebrity clients. Day rates for those can range from $300 into the thousands, and tend to be on the lower end of the scale in the current economic climate. “Magazines are realizing that because there are so many people wanting to be stylists, they don’t have to pay stylists to do shoots because they’ll always find somebody,” says Albanese. “You really have your hands in so many opportunities—and even the big, big stylists of the world are still doing these freebies.” It doesn’t matter how talented they are. “It’s 80 percent the push and the hustle and 20 percent the art of it, probably even less to be honest,” adds Albanese
“As a stylist, you work more days than what you’re paid for. You bill two days but end up working four days,” says Taylor Jacobson, a former assistant to Rachel Zoe who also starred with her on The Rachel Zoe Project before leaving the company. “You never want to say no, and there are a lot of favors, definitely around award season, or pretty much around any time of the year.” Jacobson might dress an up-and-coming pop star for free as a favor to a publicist who has hired her for other big jobs, for example. Besides, who’s to say the girl won’t become a mega star, paying her $15,000 a day one day?
Just styling is not enough to make a career out of being a stylist these days—many feel pressured to become personalities, who comment on (or star in) television shows, write books, and launch product lines. Magazines are increasingly hiring famous style bloggers, like Tavi Gevinson of the blog Style Rookie, to style shoots, for example, instead of stylists with no following. Ladino, who “chose to work behind the scenes for a reason,” says that in talking with agents interested in signing her, she’s learned that they only want to sign talent they can turn into brands, producing their own books, QVC lines or online newsletters. “Someone said to me don’t look at it as selling out look at it as trying different things,” she says. She did not reveal if that person was a celebrity.