Why Hollywood can't get dressed without Rachel Zoe's say-so
Chris Ayres on the rise of the superstylist who has become a powerful broker of taste and fame
In the war that rages between stars and the paparazzi on the streets of LA, Rachel Zoe – pronounced "Zoh" – is the queen of the arms dealers.
For tabloid photographers, she can turn a mundane encounter with an up-and-coming actress into a front-page fashion scoop. For that same actress, she can spin those "just out of bed" pictures into a £150,000 (€182,000) endorsement deal. And for the designer who pays for that deal, she can drum up so much business, all the sweatshops in China couldn't keep up.
In theory, Zoe is a 'stylist'. In reality, she has become one of Hollywood's most powerful brokers of taste and fame,, with her own clothing and accessories lines and a roster of clients (the 'Zoe-bots', as rivals have derided them) that includes Jennifer Lawrence, Jennifer Garner (aka Mrs Affleck) and Kate Hudson.
Indeed, Zoe, along with her relentlessly competitive rivals now wields more influence than many LA studio executives.
When Zoe agrees to meet at her Melrose Avenue office – encircled by the West Hollywood outlets of Alexander McQueen, Helmut Lang and Marc Jacobs – it's ostensibly to discuss her latest book, Living in Style. But it soon becomes clear that 42-year-old Zoe – who is the mother of two little boys, Skyler (3), and newborn Kaius – is also keen to counter some of the less flattering stories that have circulated of late about her trade.
These aren't just the usual complaints about Zoe's "mommyrexia" and her infamous black coffee and grapefruit diet. In Vanity Fair, for example, there has been talk of "dress trafficking" and exorbitant £4,000-a-day fees; of murky deals with designers and fashion blacklists for undesirable celebrities; of stylists butchering gowns to satisfy their own egos on Oscar night.
To some, Zoe and her ilk are responsible for the all-pervasive, inch-deep culture that saw Jennifer Lawrence's new hairdo – a pixie cut – being deemed worthy of a breaking-news alert on CNN.
Unsurprisingly, these are opinions with which Zoe takes issue. "I know this might sound very LA and ridiculous, but I believe in karma, and that you can succeed in this business without being shady or a back-stabber," she explains, after ushering me into her minimalist office. "Yes, there are stylists who don't have one client – or one client who they'd want to have – because of how they've treated people in the past, or lied or stolen or manipulated. But you're either that person or you're not. And ultimately, if you are, you'll get discovered."
It would be foolish, of course, to dismiss Zoe as just another LA airhead. She might play the ditz, but there's no doubt that the woman sitting in front of me is one of the celebrity industry's most brilliant tactical minds. What's more, when Zoe isn't on the red carpet, she leads the life of an abstemious, hyper-competitive CEO. "I barely drink," she tells me. "I've never done drugs. I go to sleep at between 9pm and 10pm. And I've been with the same man for 23 years." (This being Rodger Berman, her Beatles-haired husband and a former Wall Street banker. He takes care of the operational side of the business.)
To fully grasp Zoe's shrewdness, it is first important to know that what she does for a living didn't exist until about 15 years ago. Before then, sloppily dressed celebrities, usually eating junk food, were prize game for the paparazzi who circled Beverly Hills and West Hollywood in tinted-window SUVs. ("No one looks good eating," a photographer once confided to me.) Glitzy award ceremonies, meanwhile, were held only two or three times a year, and the twirl up the red carpet was treated by many as a kind of fancy-dress parade.
A young Zoe cultivated an early Vogue habit, but she had no idea how to make fashion a career. So she read psychology and sociology at George Washington University, where she met Rodger. Then she moved to Manhattan to take an assistant's job at teen magazine YM, since closed. She was 22. Three years later, she went freelance, renting herself out to the publicists she'd befriended at record labels.
By the time Napster and iTunes put an end to the fun, Zoe had settled down with Berman (they married in 1998) and was getting bored at work. "It became somewhat formulaic to turn around the images of these pop stars," she says. "And despite how much money I was making, I wasn't actually enjoying it. I had this epiphany that I'm a fashion girl, that I want to make women look glamorous, so I had to change things up."
Next stop: LA.
It was 2002 when Zoe got her first Hollywood client: Jennifer Garner, the up-and-coming star of a new TV show, Alias. Which means to say that instead of music labels paying Zoe's fees, she was now retained by the publicity department of ABC, the TV network. And when Zoe put Garner in a cream halterneck Narciso Rodriquez for the following year's Emmys, it changed both of their careers. Zoe pulled off another triumph with a vintage, tangerine-coloured Valentino that Garner wore to the 2004 Oscars. "When Jen put it on, I told her, 'I don't know if people are going to understand this,'?" Zoe recalls. "I thought it was a gamble. But it was the most talked-about dress of the year."
Zoe quickly became the most sought-after stylist in Hollywood. Instead of playing it safe, however, her next client was a long shot: Nicole Richie, daughter of Lionel. Richie had no talent to speak of, but she was young and attractive and had a rising profile in the tabloid press. When the paparazzi took shots of Richie, for example, Zoe made sure that it wasn't of her client looking drab in undignified poses. Instead, Richie would be walking to or from some LA hotspot wearing a meticulously low-key ensemble and clutching a killer accessory. Richie's publicists would then encourage the photographer who took the pictures to offer them as a fashion story, not a gossip titbit. And the tabloids lapped it up. The effect on high street sales – in particular accessories – was profound. "Fashion makes the star makes the fashion," went the mantra of Zoe, who, by 2006, had become a celebrity in her own right due to her power to create stars and sell products out of what seemed like thin air. (She published her first book a year later: Style A to Zoe. A reality show, The Rachel Zoe Project, followed in 2008.)
As Zoe's clients demonstrated their ability to sell tabloids, the more the tabloids wanted them. And the more the tabloids wanted them, so did everyone else. One of the early opportunities Zoe spotted was for red-carpet events, which, like paparazzi shots, could be used aggressively as a tool to advertise whatever it was her clients wanted to endorse. Such cheap programming made the TV networks happy, too. As a result, the so-called Oscars pre-show was tripled in length to an hour-and-a-half and given a running, football-style commentary. The way Zoe tells it, even the Oscars night dress-selection process is relatively straightforward, albeit not without its moments of hysteria. Yes, she admits, some big fashion names refuse to supply samples to stars they consider unworthy – the "do not shoot" list, as it's known – but as soon as a garment can be bought in shops, "they can't control that any more". In contrast, a few designers have exclusive deals. Typically, this means a star will be supplied with four or five gowns of the same label for a big event, and must go with one of them. (Jewellery is a separate issue, with a single earring placement reportedly worth £50,000.) The vast majority of female nominees at any awards show, however, will be free to pick from a deluge of samples or sketches that will be presented to them months beforehand. Instructions for adjustments will then be sent back to the ateliers in Paris, and the final product will arrive via FedEx a day or so in advance.
Motherhood has forced Zoe to simplify her fashion rules, a point she makes in her new book. "I maintain more of a uniform," she concedes.
"I have 10 pairs of black tuxedo pants in different fabrics, 10 pairs of my favourite jeans in different washes, a million different tops that I wear that are my go-to basics, and I change my jacket and shoes every day. Oh, and I wear half the amount of jewellery that I used to, because it's so sharp and spiky."
LIVING IN STYLE: INSPIRATION AND ADVICE FOR EVERYDAY GLAMOUR BY RACHEL ZOE (SPHERE, £18.99) IS OUT NOW