Anyone who’s watched The Rachel Zoe Show has probably gotten the impression that fashion stylists are responsible for at least a third of the carbon emissions in Los Angeles. Dresses, shoes, baubles and handbags FedExed by the dozens from New York and Paris, glanced at, and air-mailed back. Assistants in SUVs driving to every store in spitting distance of Beverly Hills. Countless cups of Starbucks caffeinating the frenzy for stuff, stuff and more stuff. But if fashion styling seems, unavoidably, to be profession all about more, Melissa Meister proves that real style comes from doing more with less.
It’s only recently that people outside the fashion industry have realized that styling is, you know, an actual job. But pretty much everyone is still a little fuzzy on what exactly a stylist does. So, what do you do?
It depends. If I’m working on a commercial, say, I’m pulling clothes from stores and showrooms that I use to create the look at the shoot. When I work with my clients, the process is similar, but it’s tailored to their personal sense of style. Like, right now I’m working a lot with Serena Williams, because she’s just published a book, and so she has a lot of press going on—talk shows, photo shoots, personal appearances.
Did you always want to be a stylist?
I always wanted to work in fashion in some capacity, but styling was something I kind of fell into. I was working as a commercial model and dancer in order to pay the bills while I made clothes in my garage, and I wound up making clothes for the Dixie Chicks to wear on tour. Their stylist kind of showed me the ropes—I assisted her for six months and then struck out on my own. But then, because a lot of my friends were producers and directors, I got kind of sidetracked into costume design. Now I do both. Like, I was the New York costume designer for Sherlock Holmes, which is how I met Guy Ritchie.
Most stylists get into the business because they want to work on editorial shoots, withmodels, or because they want to work with actresses and do red carpet. You seem to eschew both those things.
I’ve done that stuff, and I came out the other end of it feeling like it was a lot of smoke and mirrors. I had one of those crises, you know, where I was like, how do I make this work meaningful? To me, to other people. I’m very committed to the concept of service. And around the same time, I was educating myself about climate change and learning about all the things we should be doing to mitigate our impact on the planet, and it seemed like it would be a service to implement those ideas into my work.
How do you do that? At the end of the day, styling is a pretty consumption-driven profession. You’ve got to get the look that’s "now," you know?
It’s challenging. First of all, just in terms of my business operations, I try to reduce waste as much as I can. Anybody who’s ever assisted me knows, we write on both sides of any sheet of paper, and we never throw away a hanger. I’m notorious for returning garments to stores and, if I think they’re just going to toss the shopping bag, asking to keep it. That kind of thinking extends to my personal life, too—I’m always carrying around empty bottles, looking for a place where I can recycle them. The idea of putting a plastic bottle into the garbage makes me nauseous at this point. Beyond that, I use a lot of vintage in my work, and Iremake vintage myself. And I try to support designers who are producing sustainably. I’ll be honest—it’s a challenge. Legitimately sustainable design is hard to find, because most stores don’t carry it, and a lot of brands that claim to be green aren’t, really. The onus is on me to do the research, and figure out what’s legit.
Do you get any pushback from your clients?
Well, when you’re dealing with people who are accustomed to luxury products, getting them into an eco-mindset can be a challenge. It’s like, after you’ve been driving a great big SUV with all the toys, buying a hybrid can feel like a sacrifice. And it’s the same with clothes—you’re going to have a hard time convincing someone that they can swap out six designer dresses for one that can be worn a dozen different ways. I feel like my role is to show clients that they can do more with less, but other than that, I keep my mouth shut. No one likes being preached to. More than anything, I just try to lead by example.
Have you converted anyone?
Well, Serena still teases me about my ecoobsessions, but then again, we’re cleaning out her closet now, picking out things she can donate to charity, and I think that would have been a much harder process for her just a few years ago. She’s come around to the idea that she doesn’t need quite so much stuff. I think we’re all amenable to some change, we just need to be exposed and re-exposed to the information about how to make those changes effectively. There’s no point buying a recyclable bottle of water from Whole Foods if you don’t know how to dispose of it properly, for example.