Vision of Beauty : She proved that West Coast stylists can put on a good face. But Chantal Cloutier would rather tend to animals than to expanding her business.

Times Staff Writer

Chantal Cloutier strides into Starbucks looking as if she decided to ditch her morning classes at UCLA. A worn khaki knapsack droops over one shoulder of a filmy peach and white polka-dot dress that grazes her tall, reed-thin frame. She apologizes forher ribbon-less espadrilles; one of her dogs chewed up the laces.

If she seems a little scattered, blame it on the move. The owner of the Cloutier agency, which represents some of the world's top hair, makeup and wardrobe stylists, is going from cramped quarters on Melrose to bright, airy offices on a pretty stretch of Montana Avenue in Santa Monica between two Starbuckses.

Cappuccino in hand, she leads a tour of the new place: The overstuffed Shabby Chic sofa will go here, the antique armoire over there, and the makeup room will have trompe l'oeil walls.

In a business where image is everything, this look is hardly cutting edge. But then, Cloutier is no Samantha Glick; she would rather save the sharks than swim with them. Yet in 14 years she has managed to build a hugely successful agency representing the artists who create drop-dead looks in print, videos, commercials and films: Francesca Tolot, Joanne Gair and Eric Barnard, who earn up to $2,500 a day. They may not be household names, but their clients are: Michelle Pfeiffer, Demi Moore, Claudia Schiffer, Madonna, Cindy Crawford, Alicia Silverstone.

Before Vogue begins snapping its eight-page spread on the latest luxe looks, before a $12-million-a-movie actress has her close-up, before a singer pouts for the cover of Rolling Stone, stylists do their magic. It takes a team of hair and makeup artists, plus wardrobe coordinators, to heighten reality.

Perhaps Cloutier's biggest coup over the years has been convincing such New York-based mega-magazines as Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Esquire and Elle that excellent stylists live west of the Hudson River. Once in the habit of exporting New York stylists to Los Angeles for shoots, the mags now fly Cloutier artists everywhere.

Cloutier has no plans for a New York branch any time soon, or even one in Miami, fashion's urban hot spot du jour . She would rather work for Native American causes or abandoned and abused animals, as well as care for her own brood of horses and dogs.

"My plans for growing right now," she says, "are going to be in volunteer work. And then, whatever may grow from that, which I'm sure something will. There's not a doubt in my mind that it'll be a natural progression. But it's not going to be more offices."

Why not conquer other cities? Chalk it up to age--43--and some profound life changes.

"I'm not worried about [not expanding] because I already know that something's probably in the works," she says, sitting at home a few days later, her long legs crossed on a dense white couch. Blond ringlets frame an angelic face. "My uncle worked for a bus company for 32 years. Big deal, there was nothing prestigious about it. And my cousins don't have glamorous jobs, but they are so happy. I mean, total joy. They're my role models. If I can be that happy I wouldn't need to go have another agency. That to me is the trap, when you have to start working to support your lifestyle."

Despite the new offices, Cloutier prefers to run her company a few days a week from a placid, spacious Topanga Canyon home virtually hidden by tall trees. A hand-made sign thanking local firefighters who saved it during a massive blaze in '93 still sits by the side of the road.

Guests drive up a narrow path that winds around a horse-filled corral, to a welcoming committee of four docile dogs that sniff curiously and wait for a pat on the head.

Within the house, scents of vanilla and tuberose waft from candles set among Victorian-era flea market finds. Her office is swathed in gold-flecked burgundy brocade, her living room graced by a white baby grand piano. She's too shy to play in front of people, even best friends.

It's easy to see why Cloutier is reluctant to leave. She works via the phone, fax and computer, and relies on her extremely loyal staff; one booker has been with her a dozen years.

From the beginning, when she conceived the agency at her dining room table, she made a conscious decision not to be the stereotypical agent--a soulless, steel-edged player.

"Before I got into the business I spent almost eight years studying spiritual teachings and metaphysics and things like that," she explains, "so when I started the business . . . I had my spiritual background, some basic philosophies about life and how to be. So I'm learning every single day that that is more fulfilling to me than being a superpower agent."

Cloutier recounts a Dickensian childhood, spent partly in Los Angeles, in which she and a younger brother became the pawns in a nasty, years-long custody battle. She shuttled between her mother, with whom she is not close, her abusive late father, and her adored aunt and uncle in Montreal. Life here was horrible, she says. Life in Canada with the people she considered her parents was "triple heaven."

At one point, the custody issues became so entangled that 7-year-old Chantal landed in an orphanage for more than a year.

She thinks back on it all calmly and says, "I don't really know what went on. You know how families have secrets?"

A strong self-preservation instinct saved her. Early adolescence was spent with friends' families, and at 14 she rented a Hollywood apartment with a girlfriend. She lived with a boyfriend for six years, then spent most of her 20s trying to figure out what to do with her life. She paid the bills with jobs modeling (mostly print, some runway) in Los Angeles, Montreal, New York and Japan, or assisting photographers and stylists.

On the cusp of 30, she still had no career in mind--until landing a job as the assistant to the late makeup artist Franklin Welsh. He gave her a thorough education in the business, from booking clients to handling the books to recognizing quality makeup to learning how to please art directors. She loved it, and quickly realized she had a gift for cultivating talent.

When Welsh returned to New York a few years later, Cloutier decided to start an agency.

"People would come to see me and they'd have three pictures in their book and you know they have the potential to be unbelievable--that part was fun," she recalls.

The part that wasn't fun was working without much income. She continued to model on weekends while burning up the phone lines, talking to art directors, editors and ad agencies.

"We would do little, little, little jobs," she says.

How little? Try fashion layouts in Playgirl--at the time the only L.A.-based magazine doing fashion, she says--and May Co.'s black and white newspaper ads.

But in time Cloutier built up her artists, their books, and gained more clients and respect.

"I'd first develop their portfolios, and I'd ask them to go out and do testings, where you work with a photographer and in exchange get prints for your book," she explains. "There's helping them deal with rejection, even learning what to do when you're on a shoot, how to present yourself, how to not take things personally."

But not everyone who met Cloutier came away a fan. She admits that some artists have had a less than enjoyable experience. "People come to me as an agent to get work," she says firmly. "If the [pictures] they're bringing me are not going to get them work, I can't lie to them."

Hairstylist Eric Barnard set his sights on the agency after spotting an ad for the agency in Interview magazine. Coming from a small central California farm town, he says he felt "totally intimidated for years" by Cloutier. But he appreciated her unwavering attention.

"She gave me self-help books and spiritual-growth books, telling me to get what I could out of them. She'd take me shopping at Maxfield and say, 'This outfit will get you through [business] dinners.' She advised me on not being late, on my personal appearance, on everything I really needed. I think she saw potential, and she wasn't about to let me make any mistakes."

Photographer Firooz Zahedi, who has captured Jodie Foster, Geena Davis and countless other celebs extraordinaire for Vanity Fair and other magazines, chalks up Cloutier's success to her distinct vision. "She has a good eye for talent," he says, "and there's a certain level of style [her artists] represent, and they're all in unison with it. It's sort of in her blood to be like that."

As Cloutier's business grew she fared well against a handful of other agencies and established a foothold in the industry. Her desire to succeed, she said, can be traced to something a spiritual guide told her years ago: "He said forget about having a goal and forget about thinking you're supposed to be doing as well as your friends are--but do what you love."

Actress Rita Wilson, who has known Cloutier since the two were teen-agers, says her friend "has a focus and a concentration on how to have her business succeed, while keeping her personal priorities. She's not compromising her beliefs and who she is to get ahead. And she's still successful."

But Cloutier says she didn't feel successful until just last year. The epiphany was sparked by a friend who died of lung cancer last spring.

"I think the night he was diagnosed and given six months to live . . . mundane things, stupid things, whatever, got re-evaluated that evening," she says, her voice heavy and tinged with sadness. "I realized that I was worrying more than I was enjoying my life, which was the opposite of how I started [the business]. But the wisdom that my best friend and lover gave me was that life is so short, and I really want to enjoy it at all cost."

Re-inspired, Cloutier dedicated herself to the volunteer work with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Native American tribes that she had begun several years ago. She spent a month in South Dakota and Montana working with Walking Shield, an organization that obtains and distributes donated food, clothing and household items.

It helps, she says, balance a career built upon makeup, hairstyles and clothes--things that are literally skin deep. "The only way that I can keep on in my business is with the volunteer work. And if I don't increase that, I will lose all my inspiration to do the other half, the agency side. Because I can't just think about hair and makeup and clothes."

As new competitors come into the market, Cloutier keeps a wary eye. But her relationships with rivals, including Angelika Schubert, owner of Celestine, are good.

Schubert was a Cloutier makeup and hairstylist when she decided to start her own agency of up-and-coming artists, Celestine/Cloutier. To avoid confusion, she later shortened it to Celestine. Another agent might have gone ballistic, but Schubert says Cloutier has remained supportive.

"I think she is extremely professional," Schubert says. "Of course, we compete, but we also share information--how much did you get from this client, that kind of thing. It's definitely good for all of us."

Marysa Maslansky of Visages says of Cloutier: "She was a visionary in the fashion scene in the early '80s. She created the first agency with really good people. Before that [this city] was not really known for its fashion talent, but from then on, L.A. really took off."

Cloutier contemplates the future again, half-listening to the wind chimes that ting outside her window.

"As you get older, you realize that there are other things in the world. If [the business] didn't go the way it was supposed to, I'd have been OK with that. I'd go on and do something else. It's just about being ready for whatever comes up."

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