There she goes, strutting that strut. Her outfit is arranged just so. She’s got the bag with the umpteen-person wait list, not yet available in stores. The cameras flash. It’s a fashion moment. It’s a watershed. It’s a marketing opportunity.
For fashion houses looking to leverage the star power of celebrities, the holy grail had long been the red carpet, the bigger an event the better. Special teams at major labels might court actresses, their reps and their stylists for years to dress their top clients, and spend tens of thousands of dollars or more to make custom outfits for them. A hit could make a brand, or cement its status, paying dividends for years to come as the moment was fondly recalled in best-of lists and debated by carpet pundits.
That was then.
With social media ascendant, there is a new, and increasingly important, runway for the stars, and a rising guard of stylists working to dress them for it. It’s the sidewalk. It’s the airport. It’s the Starbucks run.
For those women whose followers feverishly track their every move and every selfie — your Hadids (Gigi and Bella); your Kaia Gerbers (Cindy Crawford’s look-alike model daughter); your Emily Ratajkowskis; Selena Gomez, your Instagram queen (the platform’s most followed person) — any moment can be a moment. Their presence is an event. They need no carpet; they are the carpet.
“Five years ago it was all about the red carpet moment,” said Christian Classen, 31, a stylist for Gomez and young celebrities including Disney star Dove Cameron, singer Banks, Instagram poet Rupi Kaur and actress Zazie Beetz. “Less now. An Instagram selfie on some people can be 10 times more important.”
Classen does style many of his clients for formal appearances, but he has made a specialty of casual off-carpet looks. When he struck out on his own as a stylist in 2015, labels tightly guarded their stores, lending clothes only for specific red carpet occasions. “Now, if it’s for a street style or an airport, they’re going to give it to me right away,” Classen said.
Not that the red carpet has disappeared. It remains, ready when needed, for the Oscars, the Emmys, the Grammys, the premieres. And so remain, at the ready, the legion of red carpet stylists. But joining them are a new wave of “day stylists” whose forte is the casual, tossed-off, this-old-thing look of street style: what the stars would throw together on their own (but often don’t have to).
Even the most casual of looks — the jeans, beanie and pap-proof goggle shades the star may wear to scurry to the gate of her departing flight — may well take a village. (The highest-profile stars may have separate stylists to work on their biggest red carpet events. Gomez, for example, also works with stylist Kate Young.)
“A lot of people probably think that they choose on a daily basis from their own closets,” said Mimi Cuttrell, 26, a stylist who works with Gigi Hadid, Gerber and Hadid’s mother, Yolanda Hadid. “Sometimes there are outfits that are completely planned out from head to toe. I’m really particular with tailoring, too. There’s a lot of pieces and back work that goes into getting one street style look ready.”
Big brands aren’t immune to the charms of the street-style moment, and regularly send out news releases with watermarked photos from outlets like Splash News (familiar to readers of Us Weekly and In Touch) touting their designer wares in the wild: at Narita International Airport in Tokyo, at Los Angeles International Airport, “out and about in Los Angeles.” (Spot the hotel doorman in the background, or the bodyguard at the ready.)
And not by accident, important labels and noisemakers have co-opted the street as their own: Balenciaga’s new ad campaign features models hiding from paparazzi as they make their security-escorted way; Kanye West showed his latest Yeezy collection with a series of famous friends in faux paparazzi shots, disseminated on social media.
But the moment has been especially fruitful for up-and-coming labels, some of which have enjoyed the boost of such patronage before they were fully up and running. Alexia Elkaim, the founder and creative director of Miaou, whose high-waist, belted-and-grommeted jeans have become a uniform for digital-age starlets, had barely gotten out of the gate when a pair of her pants found their way to Bella Hadid in 2016.
“It was almost like that verified my brand as a real brand, you know?” Elkaim said. “I probably had 45, 50 pairs of jeans at the time.” Gigi Hadid, Gerber and others followed, reaching out either directly or via their stylists; and in the new gravity they have helped to shift, an order from Bergdorf Goodman followed them.
The rush that comes after a good placement — a selfie, say — was immediate. “I had never seen that before,” Elkaim said. “At the beginning, it was kind of like you’re chasing a high.”
Jason Stalvey’s line of exotic-skin handbags and accessories, Stalvey (his gateway item is an alligator baseball cap, $5,000), was in its infancy when the Hadids got wind of him. “Gigi was basically the first person to start the madness,” he said. She has been carrying a small top-handle bag ($11,500), so small as to be more or less impractical. In one photo, Stalvey spotted a phone cord dangling out of it: “She was literally using it as a phone charger.”
When Hadid began carrying the bag, it was not yet available for sale. Even so, Stalvey said, retailers began increasing their orders. Traffic on his website went “up and up,” he said, eventually cresting at eight times its usual amount.
“It’s not like a person can run to Barneys or the Webster or wherever and at least see it in pink and come to the website and order it in green,” Stalvey said. “They were truly buying the product sight unseen. These girls really drove the wave.”
(In fact, they drove the wave among one another. Bella Hadid’s stylist reached out to see if her client could borrow the same bag as Gigi, her older sister, was carrying. “That consumed my entire afternoon,” Stalvey said “At the end of the day, I said: ‘I can’t pull it from Gigi. Why doesn’t Bella go and ask her sister?’ The very next day, Bella was carrying the bag.”)
The point of such styling is to look effortless, natural and, in one of fashion’s favorite terms, “authentic” — even when that authenticity is mediated by an on-hand stylist to offer up the glossiest version of your authentic self. So much so that many of the millions of fans watching along on social media may not realize they’re looking at a tailor-made ensemble.
“It’s a version of giving your friend advice on what to wear, but then there’s actual results from it,” said Emma Jade Morrison, 27, who in the fall left a job at Vogue magazine to begin styling Ratajkowski professionally. “I find now that a really strong street style outfit can resonate more than a red carpet outfit. There’s such a fashion-conscious public now. They know that the red carpet gowns are custom-made, that the jewelry is borrowed.”
With street styling, she added, her goal as a stylist is to gussy up her clients without a trace, an invisible hand of the market. “You want to believe — at least I want to believe — that they own this,” she said. “That’s what matters. Maybe it’s not, and maybe we’re all aware of that, but it should look like it.”
Morrison stressed that whether items are borrowed, bought or gifted, her clients look like the best possible versions of themselves. She described working on Ratajkowski’s street styling as: “I make the buffet, and she makes her plate from it.” (For red carpet and much photographed events like fashion weeks or the Cannes Film Festival, Morrison guides with a firmer hand.)
For the pieces soon to come down the pike at New York Fashion Week, and fashion weeks in London, Milan and Paris after that, their star turns may well be on the street. Classen noted that many more collections are now showing sneakers rather than heels, the choice of the street versus that of the red carpet. And without a doubt, many of these women will be on hand to see these shows, casually yet fabulously assembled (with just a little help).
Even those who still may benefit from red carpet placement are in no rush to restore its former domination.
“The street wear moment, I personally like it more than the red carpet,” Stalvey said. “Don’t get me wrong, red carpet is amazing. But to see a girl using a bag because she wants to use it, she gravitates to it for her personal wear, to me just means so much more. In the wave of social media, my guess is, the customers themselves, the girls watching these girls, they respond to that, because they see it as being truer to their personal taste or more authentic than seeing something on a red carpet.”
That said, some of the moment’s beneficiaries sounded the occasional note of regret for the fashion’s former elevated glamour, even as the new world order has democratized the system.
“Growing up, I had another idea of what fashion was,” Elkaim said. “Today it’s at the mercy of paparazzi photos. It’s just different.”
Still, she said, “It’s easier and it’s more accessible, and it’s incredible from a business point of view.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.