LONDON — Hollywood actors are on strike and now some of the stylists who dress them are joining in, unionizing for the first time to demand better pay, working conditions and more respect from the studios and streaming giants who pay them to glam up the stars.
A group of U.K.-based stylists who dress film and TV actors for red carpet appearances, promotional tours, press junkets, galas and other special events have formed the Celebrity Stylist Union, a branch of Bectu, the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union.
In most cases, they’re expected to cover job-related costs such as prep work, travel, fittings and shipping with that $500 fee, so they also want a budget for expenses.
The union is looking to create a rate card with fees based on a stylist’s years of experience, resources, relationships and value they can bring to the job. It also wants employers to understand the length of time it takes to fulfill a given job properly.
The stylists are also demanding higher rates for out-of-hours, weekend work and last-minute requests, and an end to what they claim are unreasonably long payment terms. In the U.K. that’s anything more than 30 days.
“Bad rates and high expectations are crippling us. Most days we walk away with less than minimum wage,” union leaders said during a presentation here earlier this summer.
Michael Miller, founder of the Celebrity Stylist Union, described the relationship between studio and stylist as unregulated and said he’s been paid the same $500 fee per look since he began styling in 2016.
Some studios, he said, will occasionally stretch the per look payment to $1,250, but that still includes expenses.
“There are no terms and conditions. Some agents do deal memos, but they don’t have much of a leg to stand on. The studios set the rates, and there is little or no room to negotiate,” said Miller, who has styled actors including Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Allen Leech, Shazad Latif, Jared Leto and Matt Bomer.
Regarding budgets for expenses, Miller said the studios “would never ask the cameramen filming the junkets to hire their own equipment, or pay for the lights, would they?”
Philippa Childs, head of Bectu, claimed freelancers working in fashion face many of the same challenges common in the wider creative industries, “including low pay, long hours and, at times, toxic workplace cultures. Exploitative practices are unfortunately all too common and can be hidden behind promises of work in a glamorous industry.
“Being part of a union is one of the best ways to ensure you have a voice at work. The more members we have, the stronger our influence, so it’s great to see more celebrity stylists joining Bectu and getting active in their union to help bring about change. Bectu is committed to making the fashion industry a happier, healthier place to work; we encourage celebrity stylists to join us and get involved as we fight for change,” she said.
According to the Celebrity Stylist Union, a stylist creating 60 looks a year at the standard Netflix rate of $500 would make $30,000. Stylists usually pay an agency commission of 20 percent, while expenses eat up a minimum of 30 percent, and that does not include tailoring or assistants.
That adds up to annual earnings of $16,800 a year, or $8.08 per hour based on a 40-hour week. At current exchange that take-home pay comes to 12,993 pounds per year, or 6.25 pounds an hour.
The union argues that even if the studios were to triple the rate to $1,500 per look, that still would not be enough money to sustain “a highly skilled professional” living in London.
It’s hoping to set a new rate model and, in the meantime, pitch a negotiable starting rate of $1,250 per look, rising annually in line with inflation.
The union also wants members to draw up a deal memo for every job; turn down $500 per-look fees; ask clients to cover all expenses on jobs when there is no expense budget; set working hours, and charge clients per day for late returns.
“This has become an unsustainable line of work. It’s a broken business. In fact, it’s not a business at all,” said Micaela Erlanger, the New York-based stylist who has dressed actors including Lupita Nyong’o, Ana de Armas, Shailene Woodley, Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver.
Erlanger described work conditions for celebrity stylists on both sides of the Atlantic as “egregious and abusive” and said she applauds her British colleagues for forming the union.
“We don’t have a seat at the negotiating table at all, and that puts us at risk in a very serious way,” said Erlanger, adding, “I hope the [new union] starts to change the narrative, bring awareness and lead to change in the U.K.” and the U.S.
“We have to stand up for the next generation of stylists as well. It’s about our community,” Erlanger added.
Zadrian Smith, who works with business partner Sarah Edmiston, said the stylists’ union “has been a long time coming. We see our brothers and sisters on the front line with SAG-AFTRA, fighting for workers’ rights and fair pay and we support them 100 percent. We also see the impact that union representation has on these individuals and recognize it as something that all unrepresented workers would benefit from greatly.”
Smith and Edmiston have worked with clients including Ariana DeBose, Hong Chau, Winnie Harlow and Freya Allan. They also have a podcast called “Let’s Talk About It With Zadrian + Sarah,” where they invite fashion and creative arts professionals to talk about their experiences and hopes for the future.
“The entertainment industry is a multibillion-dollar industry employing vast groups of people in different fields, and it’s crucial that people in power do the right thing,” added Smith. He argued that celebrity styling should be a more accessible career, and open to people from marginalized communities, too.
“Unfortunately, if things continue as they are now, [celebrity styling] will always be about the selected, privileged few who are able to sustain themselves working within a business that does not pay them accordingly for their work and efforts,” Smith said.
Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video and Paramount+ did not return requests for comment at press time.
Erlanger and others say styling is never a one-day affair. It requires many hours, and sometimes weeks, of preparation and sourcing clothing from brands or retailers. The clothes then need to be delivered; fitted and tailored (sometimes multiple times, depending on the person’s size and measurements), and returned to the source following the event.
Miller said the job can be time-consuming, particularly when the actor is not a big name.
“If you are dressing Leonardo DiCaprio, you can call [a brand] and get an appointment the following day. If it’s a lesser-known person, it could take three weeks to get that same outfit because people just keep closing doors in your face. It’s very difficult to predict how easy it is to get clothes for any one person until you start the job,” Miller said.
The stylists argue that they are the linchpin between actors and brands, and the image-makers whose looks generate online engagement, and thousands of dollars in earned media value, for fashion companies, talent and studios.
According to research by the influencer data analytics company WeArisma, once stylists post images of their looks on social media, engagement rates soar.
Stylist KJ Moody, who has 81,600 Instagram followers, styled Beyoncé in custom Gucci for the Grammy Awards earlier this year. He shared the look on Instagram and Twitter, and generated an engagement rate of 64.1 percent.
For online influencers, an engagement rate of between 3.5 and 6 percent is considered high by industry standards while anything above 6 percent is considered very high.
Stylist Maeve Reilly, who has 1 million Instagram followers, styled Megan Fox in the London-based label Miss Sohee for Vanity Fair’s Oscars after party.
WeArisma said in the seven days following the party, Miss Sohee’s social numbers soared compared to the previous week. The engagement rate was 3.7 percent compared with 0.04 percent the week before.
Stylist Carlos Nazario, who counts 209,000 Instagram followers, styled Emily Ratajkowski in the new London label Feben for the same Vanity Fair after party. In the week following the party, Feben’s engagement rate reached 5.5 percent. By comparison, in the week before the Vanity Fair party, Feben’s engagement rate was 0.01 percent.
Miller and the other stylists have other lines of work. They do editorial and commercial shoots and work for fashion brands, which have more generous fees than the studios.
“If we work with a brand on a commercial job, that brand will pay significantly more. Fashion brands understand our work. They’re going to pay you $1,000 a day because they understand that you are freelance,” he said.
In addition, some A-list stars pay the styling fees for their preferred people, but many would argue that they should not have to subsidize the studios. “Celebrities should not have to pay out of their pockets to promote a movie studio’s project,” said one stylist who requested anonymity.
While the union may be new, fashion stylists have been around for centuries helping to build the image of royals, celebrities and major figures. Kensington Palace has dedicated an entire exhibition to the role of the stylist in Georgian England, and in contemporary times.
“Crown to Couture,” which runs until Oct. 29, looks at the historic importance of fashion stylists. It spotlights the work of the celebrity stylist Frances Abington, a famous 18th-century London actress who introduced new fashions while on stage, and who was paid to advise rich, powerful or aristocratic women on their looks before appearing at the royal court, and at other public and private events.
The show also highlights the work of contemporary stylists including Rose Forde, Elizabeth Saltzman and Sam Ratelle and the looks they created for red carpet events such as the Oscars, the Met Gala and the Grammy Awards.
— With contributions from K.J. Yossman, Variety, which is also owned by Penske Media Corp.