Do you identify as a stylist?
I am not a stylist – I write about styling. That has been the shift. I did some styling work years ago as a freelance stylist, but that was mainly interior styling.
That’s interesting; styling isn’t something that people research on an academic level.
This is why I did it.
You studied textiles. How did you move towards education and academic writing? In textiles, people aren’t really pushed into writing.
It happened organically. I started off studying textiles and fashion design and specialised in woven textiles. That is quite specialist, quite a niche. I had every intention of becoming a freelance textile designer. I did a mixture of woven and printed textiles, followed through an MA in textile design with more of an experimental approach to fabric construction – for example, mixing print and weave techniques.
The thing is, when you weave, you can’t avoid the technical side. You have to think about the structure, it’s quite mathematical. I left college, thinking I need to find some work in textiles. Moved to London, but I couldn’t find any work in textiles there. I found a job that had an element of visual merchandising in it. It was visual merchandising for shop and in-store windows. That moved me in a different direction than I intended to until I would find something more relevant. Through that, I ended up doing styling work. I would be styling the catalogues, which was very commercial, very product-lead styling. I styled exhibition stands for any trade shows they did. That basically led to styling work. I decided to become a freelance stylist, because I didn’t enjoy working for only one person. There were a lot of opportunities. I mainly did freelance interior styling. Then, the education part came through. It was the 2008 recession. It was quite a motivator because suddenly there was no freelance work. I thought, well – I did some visiting lecture sessions at my old college and I enjoyed doing those so I thought education could be a way of making some extra money. I also didn’t feel that I was using my brain enough. I enjoy styling, but there is a lot of admin. At times, I felt like I was working for a removals company.
I don’t think people realise how admin-based styling is.
Exactly. It got a bit formulaic. I want to stretch my brain into an area that was new to me. I enjoyed the guest speaking, and the visiting lectures that I was doing and just started asking around to see if there were any opportunities. There were courses which were teaching styling on a degree level. I was invited to write some of these courses, and I just ended up teaching on them. That is how I got back into education. I liked it because I never really enjoyed interior styling. I was always more interested in fashion. For me, it felt like an opportunity to return to my original interest in fashion. It felt like I had gone full circle, I was actually able to use the skills that I had forgotten I had.
“There wasn’t any academic treatment of the role of the stylist. There is a hell of a lot on the fashion designer. There is also a lot in the field of photography, but fashion styling – I just felt like that wasn’t really being covered.” – Philip Clarke
How did you end up at CSM?
I was teaching at Middlesex university before. I was the course leader of Fashion Communication and Styling. All of my teaching has been in fashion communication. From doing the original teaching on a BA fashion styling course in Southampton, I moved to Middlesex and spent five years there as a course leader and a programme director for fashion. Then the opportunity to work on the BA Fashion Communication here at CSM came along. I liked the fact that it combined fashion communication with promotion, which incorporates styling, art direction and photography. We also got the fashion history and theory and the fashion journalism pathways. I had already started a PhD at Middlesex. I was very into the theoretical side of things, the theory of fashion. It felt like a good mix of my interests.
“There is this feeling that styling is a made-up job. That partly goes back to education.” – Philip Clarke
Makes total sense. When it comes to your doctoral work when did you decide to dive deep into the history of styling?
It was from teaching, I think, because there were so many books. There were a lot of coffee table books. There was the Sarah Mower book, and the Katie Baron book, which are beautiful coffee table books. There were a lot of how-to books, which were more career focussed. They basically tell you what you need to do if you want to be a stylist. How the job works kind of thing. There wasn’t any academic treatment of the role, exploring it in a more complex way, where the role of the stylist sits in relation to other fashion pathways. There is a hell of a lot on the fashion designer. There is also a lot in the field of photography, but fashion styling – I just felt like that wasn’t really being covered. The frustrating thing with a PhD is that as soon as you start it, people start writing about it. The knowledge gap just gets smaller and smaller. Since starting the PhD to finishing it, there were books published by a researcher in Denmark, called Ane Lynge-Jorlen. She produced an anthology of various writers’ perspectives on the stylist. I was asked to contribute to that as well. That was also a good opportunity to consolidate my ideas and get something published during my PhD. So really, the idea came from identifying that not much had been written about it and that stylists weren’t getting the credit they deserved. I continued to see articles in newspapers and magazines where people asked the question – what do stylists do? Nobody really understands what a stylist does. Looking back in the 80s, there were articles in i-D and The Sunday Times, which started saying that nobody knows what a stylist does. What is a stylist? What does the job involve? A couple of them had quite a mocking tone, which is again a thing that I have come across through the research process from talking to stylists and reading things. The stylists themselves don’t feel like they are acknowledged enough or being given the credit– I think that partly has to do with the copyright and image rights and the fact that the photographer will always have the rights to an image and the other contributors aren’t considered the owners of that image. I think it has a lot to do with that.
Also, there is this feeling that styling is a made-up job. That partly goes back to education. As I said, now there are a lot more specific courses that train people to be stylists, but previously, it was something that people just fell into if they didn’t become fashion designers. A lot of people that I interviewed, studied design and just didn’t enjoy the production and manufacturing side of the process. It didn’t interest them, but they were image makers, they loved fashion, and they just didn’t want to make clothes.
“Most freelance stylists do editorial work to gain recognition or for status and association with particular publications. That is a means to an end.” – Philip Clarke
Who did you approach for interviews as part of your research?
I spoke to about 17 people in total. Interviewing a range of stylists, fashion editors, photographers or art directors. I spoke to Caroline Baker, Simon Foxton, Mitzi Lorenz, Sarah Miller, who used to work for Cosmopolitan as a style editor and writer, I spoke to Stephen Jones to get the designer’s perspective, Roger Charity who was a photographer, and Mark Lebon. I wanted to get the perspectives of the stylists themselves, but also of the people who worked with them. I wanted to know how they felt about the stylist’s contribution to the creative process, whether they valued that kind of contribution to the creative process and where the stylist fits into the hierarchy of creative roles around them in fashion image-making.
A large part of the project was oral history, I decided quite early to focus it on the 80s because of the editorial research I had done. So, I started with editorial research, looking at magazines, and trying to identify when stylists were first credited. I decided to focus on Britain just because I had to frame it somehow, so it would become manageable. I ended up looking at all the fashion or style publishing that was produced between 1980 and 1985, which is already quite a lot of magazines to look at. So, I focussed on British publishing and looked at the style of press publishing. I looked at independent publishing, youth publishing, but also mainstream publishing. I was comparing the ways stylists were being credited in i-D, The Face, and Blitz with the way they were or were not being credited in mainstream titles – that is how I identified how and when they were first being credited.
I noticed a definite increase in the credits for stylists from 1983 onwards, but also style-related terms started to be used in mainstream publishing. There was this awareness that style was a term that defined anti-fashion. I think that was quite key to the way that people were framing themselves as stylists. A lot of people became freelance stylists, who had previously no experience in working in publishing. The stylists were definitely quite important, and they were becoming recognised. It was something that you could do without any qualifications. You weren’t necessarily going to get paid work, but there was a lot of opportunities specifically at that time, which I think is super important in the recognition of the stylist. However, it’s worth noting that there were stylists in other fields for a long time, in product design or the car industry. In Europe, the terms ‘stilista’ or ‘styliste’ were used in conjunction with the development of ready-to-wear fashion.
I don’t think many people know that being a stylist is truly multidisciplinary. Stylists do creative direction, build a narrative around the clothes, and not to mention all the admin work that goes into pulling the garments, which requires serious project management skills. Budgeting, PR with the magazine titles, PR with the PRs… There are so many components needed to be a successful stylist but few trained eyes can spot a great stylist, and really grasp the importance of this role. As you said, with the images, the photographer gets the full copyright and credits.
Absolutely. A whole area I didn’t touch on was commercial styling. That was factored into the project. Most freelance stylists do editorial work to gain recognition or for status and association with particular publications. That is a means to an end. That is for getting commercial work, which is going to pay them money. But that is also work they are frequently not credited for.
So for commercial jobs, a stylist doesn’t get credited as they do in magazines.
Exactly. So quite early on, I made the decision to not incorporate too much of commercial styling in my research, because it was just difficult to do. Looking at advertising campaigns from the 80s, if you don’t know who was involved you have no way of finding out. Caroline Baker, was someone who had been working since the late 60s, she is best known for her work for Nova magazine in the 60s and 70s. She was always credited as a fashion editor because at that time, people weren’t necessarily crediting people as stylists. That carried on; fashion editors were in-house salaried staff.
“Students have a quite romantic idea of the stylist. It becomes clear quite quickly, that on a practical level, it’s actually quite hard work.” – Philip Clarke
It’s hard to pinpoint that as well because some people are sometimes credited as fashion editors with the same credentials as the stylist.
That is what I found interesting during my editorial research. I started by looking at the masthead. I would look and how and who was credited as part of the core team and who was credited as a contributor. That was quite a good indication of who is in an editorial role and who is a freelancer. Contributors will be people who just do one specific feature for the magazine. The boundaries became less clear because publishing became freer. This is not specifically a British phenomenon, but it has to do a lot with the political situation in Britain at that time. Shifting away from a trade union-controlled industry, there was a lot more freedom for freelancers.
There were possibilities for freelance staff, in a range of fields. Most people before that had fixed posts. It is very interesting that the shifts in publishing have carried on down that route, so the style press wasn’t paying people a lot of the time for the work they were doing. It was very home-made. It sat outside the established structures of publishing or fashion publishing. The ways of working for the style press have since carried on with other magazines so that you could quite easily become a fashion editor. Like you said – the boundaries have shifted.
Titles are not linked to an actual position.
It is less clear. It would have been the case that a fashion editor is salaried, and a stylist is freelance, but I think the publishing industry now is much looser. It’s less clearly defined. Obviously, the opening up of digital has changed things. There is a lot more flexibility now.
“There is something about the stylist that is sometimes considered menial as a job role.” – Philip Clarke
When it comes to financial instability, what is it like for the stylist and the fashion editor? Do you think it has gotten worse? Are people less interested in styling because of that?
Just thinking of it from a student perspective, I think the students have a quite romantic idea of the stylist. It becomes clear quite quickly, that on a practical level, it’s actually quite hard work.
Do you think through assisting they realise the reality of the job?
Yes. Assistants have such a hard job as well. When people start to realise that this idea of creative direction or concept development or sourcing the clothing are just the perks of the job. There is all this administrative stuff, lugging stuff around, liaising with PRs to make sure you are getting all the items you want and then having to collect and return those. That sometimes puts students off becoming stylists. I do also think that stylists are undervalued. There is this idea that stylists would, career-wise, aspire to be creative directors or sometimes art directors. There is something about the stylist that is sometimes considered menial as a job role. And certainly, the stylists I have spoken to – only very few of them remained stylists. There is a general feeling that being a stylist has a time limit, because of the physical aspects of the job that they wouldn’t wanna do in later life. They would go onto doing other things, like being an artist of focussing on the journalistic side of things. I think there is a lot of undervaluing or stigma, which shouldn’t be overlooked.
It’s hard to look at your job as something important if nobody around you thinks of it as important. It can really affect you in the long run.
Definitely. Having said that, there are stylists who work on a commercial level or with personal and celebrity clients. There is a lot of money to be made there.
“Taste is something that can be very much trained if you are engaged through visual research, you are aware of the visual possibilities.” – Philip Clarke
This might be London-specific because the editorials are more artistic, and people have more access to youth publications, but when styling students experiment with styling, it is always on an editorial level. It makes sense that the “artistic” is very encouraged but there are so many different ways into styling, which aren’t necessarily less creative, but more stable career-wise.
Yes, absolutely. I think there is still a hell of a lot of work out there. Going back to what you were saying about what makes a good stylist – taste is such a big part of it. It is that sort of ephemeral thing that doesn’t help the argument if styling is a valid career or not. Because someone can think that you can only do it if you have good taste. I don’t think that is the case – it is still something that can be very much trained if you are engaged through visual research, you are aware of the visual possibilities. If stylists are working on advertising projects, then taste is the main part of their role. It is about understanding the audience and what they are wearing.
“In the last five or six years, fewer students are interested in being stylists.” – Philip Clarke
There is a lot to analyse in the relationship between the designer and the stylist. I think there are very few designers who also credit stylists. During the show or during the whole brand building. But still, for stylists to reach a point when they are styling a show – they have to go through a lot. This discourages people because it is objectively quite hard. Since you have been working in education for a long time, have you seen a change in people wanting to become stylists? Was there ever a significant increase/decrease?
In the last five or six years, fewer students are interested in being stylists. I don’t know if I can be that specific. Having said that, there are some great stylists that have come through Fashion Communication at Central Saint Martins. People like Ib Kamara, who are really focussed and committed to being stylists. I think further possibilities have opened up for visual communicators. Students are more interested in other possibilities because they can get instantly more results.
“In the 80s, what you could buy on the highstreet was a lot more limited. So, in a way, stylists were inventing new products.” – Philip Clarke
Oh, so you see students going down that route more?
Yes, through COVID as well. In the last few years, there has been a shift towards digital and film. Because of the inability to access clothing, they simply found ways of expressing themselves through software. I am constantly contradicting myself, but some of the styling projects we saw during COVID were super creative.
“Young stylists need to demonstrate that they are creative, show that they aren’t afraid to innovate and push the boundaries. They need to understand the process of styling, the craft of styling, how the stylist works and networking with other roles.” – Philip Clarke
You wouldn’t pull from brands you would create images with what you have.
Exactly. They had to bricolage, just like the stylists did in the 80s. The ones who worked for independent titles had to use what was available, they were finding clothes wherever they could. In the 80s, what you could buy on the highstreet was a lot more limited. So, in a way, stylists were inventing new products. You can really see what the stylists did at that time was adapted by the mainstream and acknowledged by the designers. Look at what Gaultier was doing in the 80s. There is a lot of two-way traffic here. He was influenced by what the stylists were doing. As they were by him. They were suggesting possibilities with clothing. They were suggesting silhouettes. They used clothing as an ingredient.
As a teacher, would you advise an aspiring photographer, filmmaker or stylist to focus more on a portfolio and career building or invest more in their personal work and go out there to make connections with more established names?
It has to be both. You need to start from the ground up. They need to establish relationships with the PRs, they need to understand how to find clothing, and they need to understand the influence brands and designers have on what is seen in the magazines, but also kind of not to be deterred by that. Young stylists need to demonstrate that they are creative, show that they aren’t afraid to innovate and push the boundaries. They need to understand the process of styling, the craft of styling, how the stylist works and networking with other roles.
“We want a student who is willing to experiment with all media.” – Philip Clarke
A big part of our audience is aspiring students and a question we get a lot is what teachers at image-making courses look for in prospective students.
From our perspective, it is essential that they aren’t deliberately fixed on one specialism. We are not a course that trains people to just be stylists or photographers – we incorporate a range of different media so we are looking for someone who is interested in everything. We are less likely to recruit someone who already knows that they want to be a photographer or stylist. We want a student who is willing to experiment with all media. A lot of the projects we set on aren’t even medium-specific. We don’t give a specific photography project, we set a collaborative project where we give them a problem, or we just give them a theme. They decide what they want to do with it. We look for that in portfolios. We look for creativity more than anything. It could be using whatever media and making it original. Originality is really difficult because it’s almost impossible to be completely original. It’s about not being afraid to be weird. That is the thing. A lot of the time, applicants will try and guess what we want.
And copy the portfolio.
Yes. So we’ll end up with the same portfolio over and over again. The ones who are different are the people who have a particularly unusual obsession, hobby or the one thing they are passionate about – that is what makes them different from the rest. That is what is always interesting – something you haven’t seen before. They aren’t all original, they are all going to be influenced by the images you see on social media.
“We have hundreds of applicants every year. We filter them and seek out the gems of people. They got something very specific about them that is interesting.” – Philip Clarke
It makes sense within today’s context because we are so overwhelmed by that imagery, it’s almost hard to get out of it. It’s so subconscious nowadays. It tells you what you should be doing because it is on your visual agenda.
Absolutely. It’s really just seeing someone who’s got that real passion for something. And they need to be not bothered about what other people are doing. They shouldn’t be that influenced. Other people are doing their thing. We are always more interested in a different approach, a perspective or a creative practice that isn’t just what everyone else is doing.
“My advice to students is to just be weird. Stop asking what is appropriate.” – Philip Clarke
Makes total sense.
We are always excited about that. We have hundreds of applicants every year. We filter them and seek out the gems of people. They got something very specific about them that is interesting.
What is the most common advice you are giving to your students?
PC: It always relates to just being yourself. Stop asking what is appropriate. Stop asking your classmates on how to do things.
“There are no shortcuts. You have to work hard for the research stage.” – Philip Clarke
And be fine with a teacher not liking it?
Exactly. And be prepared to defend your idea. Just be you – that is what we are looking for. Obviously, working hard is the main thing. We constantly reaffirm that if you put the hours in, you will get the results. If you just stick to focussing on one idea and work hard at it, you will get very good results out of it. As long as you are doing original things. And that is because you are being invested into your own idea. From the research process through to development and testing of things to the final outcome. There are no shortcuts. You have to work hard for the research stage. You have to go out there and reference points that are very specific to you and what your own interests are. Then you develop through trial and error. That is how you get something unique – you have to work hard basically.
And balancing the personal with the business in order for you to make money.
Exactly, that is important. It is important to know how things work. Assisting someone is the best way of doing that. You can also find that out by working for a PR company or assisting a photographer. You need to understand the mechanics and dynamics between the fields, and how everything fits together, that is the important thing.