Leading Mannequins

It’s an open secret that movie stars don’t dress themselves any more than your 2-year-old. Think Tom Cruise knew what a shawl collar was before someone put him in one? Or that Ryan Gosling woke up one day in a Henley? (Well, maybe.) Fashion in Hollywood involves as much calculation and bartering as negotiating royalties. Which is why the most important person behind an actor’s image isn’t his agent—it’s his stylist. Molly Young spends a week with a Hollywood dresser

The young actor Miles Teller looks like someone who was popular in high school. He’s 25 years old and handsome in a pulpy, scarred-up way—think Brando by way of Tampa. Very mammalian. Also hungover from a late night at a sports bar and in need of physical therapy from being run over by a golf cart. When I meet Miles, he is standing in the back room of Confederacy, a Los Angeles boutique co-owned by the stylist Ilaria Urbinati. Ilaria is plucking J.Lindeberg cardigans and Simon Spurr suit jackets from four bulging racks while Miles chugs from a plastic cup. (“This water is .”) “Try these,” Ilaria commands. Miles jams a pair of cudgel-shaped arms into the Lindeberg cardigan and looks at Ilaria for a verdict. Nope—she shakes her head. Miles is not a cardigan guy. “The rule,” she explains to me while handing her client a cream shawl-collar sweater, “is he doesn’t have to like it, but he has to try it on.”

The cream sweater has a louche, post-colonial vibe, and Miles—who is still new enough in Hollywood to gamely endure the styling process—obediently puts it on. Unknown until he was cast as Nicole Kidman’s baby killer in 2010’s Rabbit Hole, Miles went on to pick up a role in the remake of Footloose, where his character has a triumphant dance montage in a high school hallway and throughout the town. For a few months now, he’s been performing the ill-defined-but-high-stakes role of a young actor “poised” for Hollywood success. He wants better roles in bigger movies, and this week’s docket of parties, timed with the opening of awards season—the CAA party, the Warner Bros./InStyle party, the New York Times T Magazine party—counts as a series of informal auditions. Over tequila shots and beneath the stars on rooftop terraces, Miles will make a visual case for his talent before the kinds of people in a position to do something about it. He understands that leading roles go to actors who look like leading men, and he also understands that he has neither the taste nor the access to dress himself like one. Most actors don’t.

Technically, Miles hired Ilaria—but only after she agreed to take him on. If a publicist has a client who she thinks could benefit from Ilaria’s help, she’ll shoot an e-mail to see if Ilaria is interested. If the answer is not an obvious yes, Ilaria will open her laptop and do pretty much what a freshman stock analyst does, which is research the commodity and try to figure out whether it’s undervalued or overvalued or what. (Example of an overvalued commodity: Alex Pettyfer, the guy from I Am Number Four. A year ago, any stylist would have agreed to dress him. He was on magazine covers and dated starlets. Then he was on too many magazine covers. Then he failed to follow up with plum roles, acquired a reputation as “overhyped,” started calling Hollywood a “shithole” in interviews, and now elicits a one-word reaction from people like Ilaria: “Oof.”)

Miles turns around in the cream shawl-collar sweater. He looks like a blister.

“Off,” Ilaria instructs, picking a Calvin Klein suit jacket from the racks. Miles slides into it, and this one is a hit. It fits the way a jacket should, which is tighter than you’d expect. (Hint: You should not be able to throw a football in your jacket.) Ilaria buttons Miles into a matching vest and then steps back to take a look; it works so well there’s a near-audible click. Ilaria smiles, and Miles glances into the mirror to make the pained appraisal face that men make when they try on a sick suit. A tie bar is located and clipped into place. He looks like a rich man’s problematic son.

Ilaria beams with approval. “Do you like it?” she asks, hands clasped in hope. (She loves it.)

“Huh? Yeah. It’s cool.” (He loves it.)

Before Miles ducks out, the suit must be tailored. Ilaria orbits him, pinning and tucking and swatting his hand when he fidgets. The scene has a Madonna-with-child kind of ritual sweetness about it—the custodial female preparing a helpless young man for the world. When the actor first arrived, he was dressed like a fog bank, in head-to-toe gray. Now he looks worthy of a commemorative coin. Ilaria finishes and steps away once more, arms folded across her chest. The thesis of her stance is clear: This, she’s saying, is why a man needs a stylist.

Everything I know about the styling industry I’ve learned from watching The Rachel Zoe Project, which is exactly like Moby-Dick but with a tiny bronzed woman instead of Ahab, and Anne Hathaway’s Oscar dress where the whale ought to be. Zoe shudders and sermonizes over detachable taffeta trains, and her monomania is equally consumptive of everything that crosses her path (like, other people). It is a show in which viewers feel the dire consequences of each decision even as they know that no decision carries any consequence at all. That atmosphere of mixed frivolity and dread is one that seems to characterize a very broad strain of modern experience (the possibility of getting fired for a tweet, being self-conscious about your socks at a TSA screening, the News Corp. hacking of Jude Law’s cell phone). When I fly to L.A. at the start of awards season to learn about the styling industry, I am not expecting to find God in a Patrik Ervell “winter jean.” But it would be neat to see someone else find God in this way.

Awards season is the year’s densest concentration of styling activity. It takes place over a six-week stretch between the Golden Globes and the Oscars. This period also includes the SAG Awards, the BAFTA Awards, the Independent Spirit Awards, plus additional lesser-known award shows and a whole raft of ancillary luncheons, presentations, and parties. Stylists dress their clients year-round, but awards season is when their work receives the glare of global scrutiny. One false move (an appearance on a worst-dressed list, say) is enough to wipe out a stylist’s market value. The opposite is also true.

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