For mere mortals, it's hard to watch events like the prime-time Emmys — coming up Aug. 25 — without wondering if it would ever be possible to look as pulled together as the stars. After all, who has the resources of these celebrated women?
But the stylists who devise near-perfect looks for their celebrity clients say the average woman can be red-carpet-worthy for any important life event by putting forth a good chunk of effort and following some tricks of the trade.
A handful of Hollywood's top stylists break it down:
Know your body shape
"Most people aren't the size of a hanger, but not everyone on the red carpet is either," says Erin Walsh, a New York-based stylist whose clients include Kerry Washington, Sarah Jessica Parker, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Kristen Wiig. She believes fashion rules are far less important than concepts about what works and doesn't work on certain body proportions. "This is one of the most important tips to looking great," she says. "Remember, all women, no matter how thin and beautiful, have insecurities and certain fixed, less-than-perfect body proportions. It's knowing how to maximize the sum of their parts."
Los Angeles fashion stylist Ilaria Urbinati, who dresses Bradley Cooper, Nina Dobrev and Lizzy Caplan, suggests if you don't know where to start in the journey, find a celebrity who has your body shape/proportions and see what works and what doesn't on them. "It will give you a great place to start," she says.
Details, details, details
"Sweating the details is key to being good at anything you do, especially styling," says Los Angeles fashion stylist Rob Zangardi, who along with his partner Mariel Haenn has styled Jennifer Lopez, Rihanna, Gwen Stefani, Pharrell Williams, Lily Collins and Rachel McAdams.
For important days, genius is indeed in attention to the details: hair, makeup, nail color, accessories, undergarments, how you'll photograph, even perfume. It can be a bit overwhelming, but "sweating these details is the key to harmonizing one's look. As a stylist, I might spend more time searching for the perfect accessories than I do on pulling the actual dress," notes Los Angeles stylist Tara Swennen, who styles Kristen Stewart, Connie Britton, Kaley Cuoco, Julie Bowen and Lauren Conrad.
Build on a solid foundation
Looking polished is about "elongating and streamlining to create a smooth silhouette" says Walsh, and choosing the best undergarments is always key. Special occasions call for special undergarments. "You want them to be invisible, and lend you sleekness; it's not about trying to squeeze into that dress," explains Walsh.
Haenn says Spanx and Commando shapewear "are go-to for every woman [on the red carpet] and luckily come in every format under the sun." And if you'll be photographed, she says having great control on top requires excellent, correctly sized undergarments. "Knowing your correct size is important in all clothing, but especially with undergarments since many times, they determine the way everything looks." She says spending more on lingerie and undergarments — and getting a professional fit — makes good sense.
Professionals can help, so use them. Stylists suggest having your hair and makeup done professionally on an important day to really elevate a look. "I think these blow-dry bars are genius," says Urbinati, who notes some hair establishments also do makeup, providing a one-stop glam team. "They're easy and affordable to everyone."
And "use the Internet," suggests Swennen. "Almost any question you could think of regarding how to dress one's body shape, how to complement one's complexion, how to create a look using specific pieces, etc. can all be found on the Web."
Many style experts blog and vlog about how to accessorize, style or create new looks, some even with step-by-step tutorials. Zangardi says there are young budding stylists, especially in Los Angeles, looking for experience to build a portfolio who might be able to help for a nominal fee.
Take photographs and practice
"Not everybody has a stylist but everybody has a friend," says Urbinati. "And that friend most likely has a camera phone. Take photos." She suggests photographing from all angles and in different light. "Photographing is the one thing I can't live without while styling. It's basically the method everyone uses, and it's free. We make no decisions until we see the pictures." Sometimes mirrors can hide things; photos rarely do.
Walsh says practice makes perfect; no one wants to find out a slip shows through an expensive dress an hour before an event. "A practice run-through builds confidence and that goes a long way toward looking stellar."
If there's one way to look put together, stylists agree it's hiring a tailor for a custom fit. "Most women have heard it before but so few do it," says Walsh. "The most important thing you can do to look great is to use a tailor. I guarantee you'll appear five times more expensive-looking."
Urbinati says it doesn't need to be pricey; many dry cleaners have great tailors. She uses Ella's House of Tailoring on La Cienega for both her red carpet events and for her personal wardrobe. Crown Cleaners in West Hollywood and West Los Angeles tailor and pattern maker Saverio Pisano are also good choices. "Almost every outfit looks better with just the shoulders raised," notes Urbinati.
Don't deflect, accentuate
"Always work with what you have and not against," advises Walsh. "A lot of people think styling is about hiding defects but really it's about focusing and highlighting what you want to accentuate instead of hiding and deflecting what you think are not your best physical assets." She says this means knowing your body, your shape and its proportions and then letting the positive push the show forward. "People sometimes think to use jewelry and accessories to deflect attention, when really it's far better to highlight your great features."
Balance and harmony are key
One of the easiest ways to kill a look is to go overboard. Stylists say the average woman might think, "OK, it's a big, special event; I'll wear more makeup, get my hair styled, wear some statement jewelry, buy expensive shoes and purse and wear some clothes that stand out." It's a quick way to ruin.
"In my opinion, balance is the key to looking cuts above," says Swennen.
Agrees Walsh: "Too many beautiful things just compete and then nothing takes center stage. Knowing how to balance and harmonize and edit is really important. If you're not sure, always ask."
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