As a kid I had kind of a bad skin disease and I didn’t feel beautiful and fabulous, but fashion was beautiful and fabulous. I remember thinking at 16 — and I write about this in my book a little bit — that it was the life I wanted. I didn’t know what jobs were available in fashion, but I knew i wanted to be involved in something beautiful. I was always squirreling away a Vogue, a Glamour, a Mademoiselle. I was definitely a Condé girl from a young age. I remember thinking Claudia Schiffer was the most beautiful person.
When I was at Vassar, where I studied philosophy and literature, I had a very close friend who was French, and her mom got me an internship at Christian Dior in Paris. I was there the first season Gianfranco Ferré did couture. He studied the archives a lot for that collection, and at the time, I remember the press was kind of critical, saying, “This isn’t very original.” But having been there and being so close to the clothing, I was mesmerized by how unbelievably glamorous every look was. I felt like everything was made of spun gold.
I worked in the press department. We’d prepare the press samples for editors to shoot, and I thought that’s what I’d like to do — I’d like to be one of those editors. They weren’t nice to me in the office — they were snotty French ladies — but it didn’t make me adore them any less. I was so completely shocked by how fabulous they all were, how tall and skinny and gorgeous, and yet they all ate chocolate. It was like watching exotic rare birds flit around the office. And they all had lovers — they didn’t have boyfriends, they had lovers. It was just a whole different ball of wax, but it was great — it’s what I’d been yearning for. Going to the Dior offices every day was such a gift.
Then I got a job at Vogue. My senior year in college I took on a pretty massive thesis and lost a lot of weight, and that February I went for a test interview at Random House. Random House had been owned by the Newhouses, who own Condé Nast. I went in for an interview where I did that typing test — to see how many words you can type a minute — and I did seven, all of which had mistakes in them, and the guy said, “Why are you here?” And I said, “Well, I’m graduating, and I’m crazy about magazines and Vogue,” and for whatever reason, he called his counterpart at Condé Nast and said, “I have a live one for you.”
I ended up as Phyllis Posnick’s assistant; my first shoot was Irving Penn. That I lucked out that way was kind of amazing. I wound up working with André Leon Talley too. André was living in Paris at the time, but I was organizing all of his photo shoots. I got to work with Irving Penn and Herb Ritts, though I didn’t work with Steven Meisel until much later.
I left when Gabe Doppelt was the editor-in-chief of Mademoiselle and went to work for the fashion director there who was this English woman named Debbie Mason. I didn’t know how to iron or steam clothes — I had no idea what I was doing. But by the time I left Vogue, I could source anything — a robot, a penny from 1934, whatever it was that was necessary. No one ever asked my opinion until I got to Mademoiselle.
It was such a young staff, and it was such an experimental time for the magazine. Kate Moss was just coming up in ‘93, I was shooting with Mario Sorrenti and David Sims, and it was just such an exciting time in fashion. It was this whole English posse that invaded New York. Then Gabe left left the magazine and Debbie went to Vogue. So Gabe recommended me to Joe McKenna, and I ended up freelance assisting a lot of stylists — Karl Templer, Grace Coddington.
Oh, the craziness — are you kidding me? I was on one of the more infamous shoots ever — I don’t know if I’m allowed to tell, but I was freelancing at the time, and I will say that I was with Herb Ritts, and we went to Anguilla with Kate Moss, Bridget Hall, and Amber Valletta. Everything that could have gone wrong on this trip did, including the hotel I booked, where people had to share rooms. My editor was ready to kill me. Herb decided he wanted to do some underwater nude shots of Kate, and he wanted to do them with a particular type of seaweed, which was nowhere to be found in Anguilla. So he called his father in California, his father went diving, got the seaweed put it in a garbage bag with seawater, which was sent to the Vogue offices in L.A. and then put on a plane, and then I had to pick up it in San Juan. Just so we could shoot Kate Moss wrapped in seaweed. And the photos never ran — they were beautiful, they were amazing. I don’t know what they had to do with anything. But it’s very expensive to move seaweed across the world, so that instituted policy at the time of how much you can spend on a photo shoot.
Another time an editor asked me for 13 Chanel Camellias, and I called them in from all over the world, and I got 12. I was like, I have 12, who’s counting? The editor insisted on 13, and I could not find one more. So I had to stay up all night making a Camellia out of white cardboard and clear nail polish. Then I was like, found one in Hong Kong! It just seemed far enough away that who’d check?
I was rapidly becoming this go-to assistant, and I perhaps worried I was making a career choice to become an assistant. I didn’t want to be the world’s best assistant, I wanted to be a fashion editor. And there were some lean months in there where I would get phone calls to assist and I would turn them down — and I would call my parents and ask for help with rent and count change for cat food.
Eventually a photographer I worked with at Vogue asked me if I wanted to do a story for a magazine called D. I started working for D pretty regularly, and a year after that I got a phone call from my friend who said her sister just got a job at Mademoiselle. They ended up hiring me back at Mademoiselle with a new editor-in-chief named Elizabeth Crow.
I became senior fashion editor. I was there for four years, and then I got fired when a new editor-in-chief came in. You should get fired — it is no joke. It was a blow, but it was a blow that I was glad I experienced. It became a very different thing — when you’re an editor, everyone is sort of looking at you for work, so you command a certain amount of power. You get to choose the photographers, you choose the hair and makeup people, you choose the models, and when I got fired I didn’t really have anything to offer. But I still had an agent, so I could get freelance work.
That was kind of a hard year for me — it was a time in my life when I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know who to talk to or what to gravitate toward. I was so surprised when I was fired from Mademoiselle — it hurt my feelings so much that it made it harder to pull myself up when I got knocked down. I would get jobs randomly, though. I started working with real people — whereas at Mademoiselle, I did a lot of celebrity covers and shoots with models, I was doing commercials for Blistex and Hi-C. I was styling kids, and I started styling men and I started styling women who weren’t 6 feet tall and a size 0. At the time it felt like I was going nowhere.
I got enough jobs that I could support myself, but I wouldn’t say I was outrageously successful as a freelance stylist, because I was never the kind of person who said, Look at meee! I’m going to wear feathers and be fabulous! I never saw a stylist as being that way — we’re behind the scenes, and we’re on our knees, and we’re pinning hems, and I think part of it was I wasn’t sure I was good enough. I didn’t know how to fake that bravado. Stylists were all buddy-buddy with their favorite photographers, and they’d go out drinking and I felt I couldn’t do that.
And then I got a call from my agent saying, “There’s this show, and they’re looking for a stylist who has experience with all kinds of different people and can talk off the cuff” — I remember my friends in fashion saying, “You’re going to do television?” I might as well have gotten some blue-collar job — it just was beneath them.
I did four screen tests, and it was over the course of about eight months, maybe a little bit less than that, and during that time I heard every freelance stylist in New York who had an agent had been in to see them. I heard they had been interviewing everyone and everyone already had the job, so I sort of gave up — I didn’t think anything of it, and I went to Spain with my family on vacation, and my agent called me and said, “You have to come back and do one more screen test, you’re in the final 27.” And I said, “What do you mean? If they want me, I’ve done all these screen tests, why do I have to do another one? I’m not leaving Spain.” I hung up the phone and my stepmother said, “We’re putting you on a plane tomorrow, and you’re going to do the screen test and it’s going to change your life.”
I got the job about a week later. I was doing wardrobe renovations for private clients at the time, where I’d tell them what to hold on to and what take to Goodwill, so I was already doing “what not to wear” before I did What Not to Wear. I think I stood out because I’m a real person. I’m educated, I’m smart, I can think fast on my feet. A lot of it had to do with being able to improvise in the moment with a client. It was also that I was real — I had a real body, I wasn’t perfect-looking, and people can relate to that.
I was excited about it and shot the episodes, but I never expected it to go anywhere. I figured I’d shoot a few episodes, and it would be on TV and then I’d be able to charge my clients more. I didn’t think that transition to TV full-time was even possible.
We started with 11 shows, then did 26 shows, and then they said, “Let’s do 50 shows.” It was insane, I was tired all the time — I had a fiancé and he didn’t like it, but it really felt like this very small window of opportunity, and I chose to do it because I thought this opportunity would never happen again.
The third season I was asked to do Oprah, and that was when things really blew up. I had been on Oprah once — I just did a spring fashion trends show for her, and then they asked me to come on to talk about jeans. And I had to fit Oprah in jeans and I had to fit all these women in jeans who were all size 10, but they were also of all ages and had all different body types. It was a wildly successful segment — I started to get a lot more press, I started getting noticed by people.
Now it’s been 10 years. I’m not going back to styling, but that is why I founded Style for Hire [which hires out stylists to people around the country], because I believe so strongly in the power of personal styling. I believe that in the same way we invest in financial advisors, we should invest in our personal style. Finding the right clothes is hard. Whoever is able to help you achieve the look that you’re after, that is something worth investing in, and it shouldn’t break the bank. Fashion is about the industry, but style is about the individual. It’s the blend of fashion and self-esteem.
Young girls ask me for career advice all the time. For the most part they ask me if they should go to FIT for college, and I say, go to FIT if you want to be a designer. Styling is about getting into the workforce as soon as you can.
You have to beg for work. People who tell me they really want to style, I refer them to the Black Book, which lists every stylist. Write to every one you like and tell them why. It’s not about you — it’s about the work.
I spent five and a half years assisting — and you cannot have an ego, and you cannot take credit, and you have to make yourself indispensable, and you have to anticipate what people need before they need it.
I had one assistant I’ll never forget at Mademoiselle. I was interviewing him and I said, “You’re responsible for production, you’re responsible for our travel and petty cash and props and locations, and it’s really a 24-hour gig — there’s no time off, we shoot on weekends, we go away.” And he was like, “Listen, Stacy, I will stay up til 4 o’clock in the morning making a purple papier-mâché dress if that’s going to make you happy.” He wound up being one of my best assistants ever.
I have girls come up to me and say, “I want to be you when I grow up,” or “I want to be on television,” and I’m like, what is that? You need a skill. Saying you want to be famous is not a job. It worries me — it bothers me that that’s the thing that people see sometimes and not the blood, sweat, and tears that really go into finding yourself and finding a job that you can do well. That takes a lot of effort and a lot of soul-searching and a lot of stamina, and that’s what I don’t see: I don’t see kids with stamina.
What Not to Wear’s last season airs this year. It’s been 10 years. I wouldn’t be surprised if it runs on repeat for the rest of my life.
I started a production company two years ago, and I’m working on developing four shows — two scripted, two unscripted. I’ll also work on growing Style for Hire. I don’t feel like I’ll disappear from television. I feel at home there. And we’ll see what happens. You know, the first time I did Oprah, I really had to pinch myself. The first time I got to report on the Oscars and walk the red carpet and I got to do Pantene commercials — like, Who the hell am I? I’m the girl with the big nose. I’m overwhelmed sometimes by how amazing it all has been. And hard.
But I am nothing but grateful. I have to say, it’s been such a wild ride.
As told to Amy Odell.
Stacy London is the author of The Truth About Style.