Portraits in style

Fashion stylists once worked behind the scenes, their faceless names relegated to the credit pages of magazines. But lately some have been stepping into the spotlight (hello, Rachel Zoe), gaining recognition for the important role they play when it comes to trends, the red carpet and popular culture.

Artist Kimberly Brooks became so enamored of stylists that she has dedicated an entire exhibition to the trade. “The Stylist Project” opens with a public reception from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday at Taylor De Cordoba in Culver City, and the fashion world will be watching.

Featuring a dozen portraits of L.A.'s top stylists, costume designers and influential tastemakers, the exhibition includes subjects such as Zoe, Andrea Lieberman, Liz Goldwyn, Cameron Silver and Elizabeth Stewart, who styled themselves for individual photo shoots with Brooks. The artist then spent up to 80 hours creating each painting.

“Painting portraits of live people is a huge responsibility,” Brooks said in a recent interview. “You can’t help but to inhale their energy and the mood, and then you have to translate that on canvas with color and body language.”

For one shoot, the Melrose shop Decades opened early so that celebrity stylist Jessica Paster could be photographed nude save for some black beaded necklaces and a pair of panties. “Mad Men” costume designer Janie Bryant was shot draped over a sofa wearing a 1960s emerald cocktail dress and holding a cigarette that was painted in after the fact.

Brooks set stylists such as Jeanne Yang at ease.

“There’s such a confidence in her and I felt like she was an old friend even though I just met her,” said Yang, who designs the women’s label Holmes & Yang with Katie Holmes. “We sat down and had some bagels and then I left it in her hands.” The result is a vibrant and sultry portrait that Yang hopes will end up hanging in her home.

The exhibition challenges the viewer to think about the meaning of personal style and question who is ultimately responsible for trends that take off in popular fashion. A LACMA talk that Brooks attended on Elsa Schiaparelli’s and Chanel’s influences on Matisse’s paintings sparked the idea for the portrait series, which is the first of its kind.

“She really captured the essence of me, and the thing that was so shocking was that I think I look really beautiful in the painting, and it’s not really how I see myself,” said Arianne Phillips, the 2006 Oscar-nominated costume designer (and stylist for Madonna) who wore a faux fur neckpiece and a velvet capelet to pose alongside her dog Lucy. “The woman in the portrait is very intriguing.”

Brooks’ process involved photographing the subjects as well as their surroundings and personal effects for inspiration. “Most of the stylists seemed to feel a bit awkward posing for the camera, which makes for great portraiture because you’re getting a raw image of them,” noted Brooks, who studied English at UC Berkeley and fine arts at UCLA and Otis College of Art and Design in L.A.

As word spread and Brooks made more contacts, she found herself with too many subjects for just one exhibit. In spring 2011, she plans to go to the Big Apple to showcase portraits of New York-based stylists and style makers such as Vogue’s Grace Coddington, Chloe Sevigny, Nina Garcia, Georgina Chapman of Marchesa and many others.

Fashion portraiture is a major change from her last solo exhibit, “Technicolor Summer,” which focused on family, nature and illness. It was inspired by the illness of Brooks’ father, acclaimed surgeon and author Leonard Shlain, who died last year from brain cancer. He dedicated his first book, “Art & Physics,” to Brooks because it was her questions about art as a 12-year-old growing up in Mill Valley, Calif., that inspired the work.

After discovering painting at age 18, Brooks moved to Paris for a year to work on her art and study at the Sorbonne. “I played piano in hotels and restaurants at night,” she remembered. “It was a magical time even though I was starving.” She developed a love of painters such as Matisse, David Hockney and Albrecht Durer.

After she returned to California, painting became a bona fide obsession. “I discovered the golden light of Los Angeles and that’s when I decided to pivot and move here,” said Brooks, who writes about art for the Huffington Post and is a P.S. Arts board member. “The call to paint with oil and canvas became much stronger, and I threw myself into it full time after I had my children.” She is a mother to two children, ages 9 and 11, and is married to filmmaker and actor Albert Brooks. She studiously avoids revealing her age, saying that even her husband doesn’t know how old she is.

Brooks found her Venice studio, which she has decorated with a wall of inspirational photos and tear sheets, nearly six years ago, and it has become her refuge at least four hours a day. She takes rides on her turquoise Electra beach cruiser between canvases and listens to Sinatra and classical music while painting.

With the show right around the corner, Brooks is ready for the fashion set to see her work. And thanks to the exhibition she has learned a thing or two about her own personal style. “Since doing this project I’m much less afraid of mixing colors in my own wardrobe,” she said. “Now I try not to buy black because L.A. has a much broader palette.”

“The Stylist Project” runs through April 3 at Taylor De Cordoba, 2660 S. La Cienega Blvd. (310) 559-9156. 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.