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Monday, November 24, 2014

The Young Stylist shakes up the Celebrity Runway on the Red Carpets | @Fashionista


PHOTOGRAPH BY JUSTIN BISHOP.

About a year ago, a woman you may have never heard of, Lupita Nyong’o, was in the running for an Oscar nomination. Aside from a knockout performance in a film, and a series of winsome interviews, this quest also included an endless parade of red-carpet appearances. When it came to the sartorial portion of her campaign, Nyong’o did a curious thing for a new and untested actor. Rather than play into the cautious breed of glamour the red-carpet industry perpetuates, Nyong’o wore clothing that flaunted the unwritten rules of Hollywood dressing.
She wore patterns, like the navy-and-marigold floral-print Carolina Herrera dress she paired with cobalt heels for the AFI Awards Luncheon. She wore vintage, attending the SAG Awards Nominees Party in a white mod mini-dress spangled with psychedelic hibiscus flowers by the great Hollywood couturier Valentina. She wore colors. Even when she chose a red-carpet classic like J. Mendel, it was in a bold highlighter hue. At every turn, she looked fresh, modern, and compellingly confident, and she became an immediate favorite in the film and fashion worlds. By the time she arrived at the Golden Globes, appearing as if beamed down from another planet in a red cape-back Ralph Lauren gown, people watched Nyong’o’s red-carpet appearances in a kind of frenzy. When she walked onstage in a foamy blue Prada to accept the award for best-supporting actress at the Oscars, in March, she had become a fashion icon in the span of five months (she eventually landed on Vanity Fair’s 2014 International Best Dressed List.)
BY JASON MERRITT/GETTY IMAGES
Nyong’o had a not-so-secret weapon: 29-year-old stylist Micaela Erlanger. Erlanger has emerged as quickly and brightly as her star client, and her work with Nyong’o, Michelle Dockery (another 2014 I.B.D.L. inductee), Olivia Munn, Winona Ryder, and others is carving a new path for how actresses can attire themselves in the public eye, at a moment where red-carpet sameness is more scrutinized than ever.
It is striking how young and modest Erlanger is. When I met her for coffee last month at New York’s Café Cluny, she arrived in skinny jeans, a Breton-stripe shirt, and a surplus jacket. She has a kind of finishing-school poise, speaking graciously and articulately in a Barbara Stanwyck husk with the posture of someone who’s just heard an unexpected gunshot. (For Erlanger, finishing school was comprised of the six years she spent as a right hand to the late stylist Annabel Tollman.) Erlanger looked much more the part of your cool friend who lives in the West Village and dispenses girlfriendly wisdom over extra-dry cappuccinos than the intimidating power stylist (whom I’ve always pictured as a cannibal clad in Céline). Her youth feels like an asset, which undoubtedly has helped her become so influential so quickly, with just a clutch of clients.
The red carpet has become a serious business, a battleground where actresses demonstrate their ability to conform to a high and narrow standard of glamour. A misstep can be detrimental to an actor’s status, while a reputation as an actor with a wardrobe to watch can endear a woman who rarely works to the world. A whole cottage industry of criticism has cropped up around celebrity dressing that includes everyone from the snobbiest of fashion critics, to the blogosphere, where the spectrum runs from Perez Hilton to Jezebel.
As a result, the public has come to expect its stars in very particular silhouettes—strapless fishtail gowns, peplum cocktail frocks—that reinforce a retro kind of feminine, Hollywood glamour. Its touch points are icons like Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, and Audrey Hepburn. Even Jennifer Lawrence, (against whom Nyong’o was pitted in last year’s best-supporting-actress race) who is routinely celebrated for her candor and spontaneity, hues close to the Hollywood uniform in this arena.
BY ANDREAS BRANCH/PATRICKMCMULLAN.COM
What Erlanger has done with her clients is to shake up that uniform. With Nyong’o and Dockery in particular, her clients’ fluency in fashion rivals that of a fashion editor. She pulls equally from the tweedy glitz of Chanel, cerebral Prada, fashion-insider favorite Suno, and young designers like Rosie Assoulin. (In fact, Nyong’o’s appreciation of fashion seems to mirror Lawrence’s handle on the circus of celebrity: refreshing, modern, and bold.) One often gets the sense from the red carpet’s monotony that many actors, under the thumb of lucrative brand relationships and authoritarian stylists, are merely told what to wear, but Erlanger’s efforts work because her clients are truly interested in clothing, how it communicates, and its transformative power.
Perhaps that’s because the dictatorial cartoon that comes to mind at the mention of her profession—a woman wielding a rack of Elie Saab and Armani like a shield, with a fistful of Hollywood Fashion Tape in one hand and a green juice in the other—isn’t her style at all.
BY DAVID CROTTY/PATRICKMCMULLAN.COM
“It is a conversation,” Erlanger says of her methodology. “It’s a collaboration, down to a T. There has never been an instance where I say, ‘You have to wear this or that.’ There is a real process.”
For Erlanger that entails a fashion mind meld, in which the simple question of what to wear to your next cocktail event means conjuring a level of fantasy usually reserved for glossy editorials. She and her clients exchange texts, e-mails, and even Pinterest suggestions (Erlanger has private Pinterest boards for many of her clients).
“It’s always a conversation with me,” she says. “There is constant communication going on and I think that’s why our results are as good as they often are, because we really understand one another and I know how to introduce what it is that they are looking for. There’s always a story. We’re always looking to tell a story through image.”
It’s easy to see how actors could get romanced by that sort of conversation, how it might make the carpet before an event sound like a lot of fun rather than a night of getting photographed and picked apart from every angle.
As for Erlanger’s ability to draw her clients into “risky” garments—new designers, uncommon silhouettes, or pieces that simply look unusual to the fashion eye trained on the red carpet—the conversation helps, but it’s also the result of her nuanced understanding of what rules to bend or break. “I think it’s about not being afraid to try something new,” she says. “I think it’s about being able to interpret the risk or edge in a wearable way.”
BY JASON MERRITT/GETTY IMAGES
Dockery, for example, attended this year’s Emmys in a gown of layered petal-like folds of pale pink, blue, and green by Rosie Assoulin, the seasons-old designer whose sculptural pieces are favored by Leandra Medine, Claire Distenfeld, and other members of New York’s street-style avant-garde.
Erlanger’s successful campaign with Nyong’o has brought her a slate of new clients for this season. It’s easy to see how her work style, in which actors are considered to have something to say about fashion, might be appealing to stars who are tired of a sea of mermaid dresses and recognize the plaudits their more daring peers are earning.
But with Nyong’o out of this season’s race and Erlanger’s career just a few years old, what will this season bring? If her success depends on her close relationship with her clients—“at this point, we’re friends,” she says—how will she develop that depth with a new batch of actors?
BY FRAZER HARRISON/GETTY IMAGES
“It takes time to get to know somebody,” Erlanger says. “It’s not like we’re gonna hit it off with a bang. You have to get to know someone, the designers have to be familiar with someone, it’s a gradual process and it takes time. As long as you’re really on the same page and you’re communicating, then you can have fun. That’s when it gets really exciting, too: it all sort of builds over time and with the events that percolate and the press that surrounds it and all of that.”
The pressure is on, then, for Erlanger to introduce us to a new crop of style stars—for all we know, there are three more women with Nyong’o-like fashion instincts who are right in front of our eyes but have been waiting for Erlanger’s touch.
“In some ways, I almost feel that the red carpet is the runway now,” she says, “and it’s up to, in some part, the talented actors and actresses that walk that red carpet to show the world what fashion can be.”