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Stylist Maeve Reilly dishes on singer-actress Janelle Monae’s fashion evolution

Obama Nordic Summit, Washington, USA
Singer-actress Janelle Monae arrives for a state dinner for Nordic leaders at the White House in Washington, D.C.
(Harnik / AP / REX / Shutterstock / WWD)

Singer Janelle Monae has already established herself on the stage, known for her high-energy performances, powerful voice and sharp black and white suits. This year she’s also emerged as an acting force to be reckoned with, breaking out in two of the season’s most praised films, “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures.” She’s also logged a record number of red carpet appearances over the last 12 months, showing off style that’s evolved from androgynous to feminine. Her longtime stylist Maeve Reilly chatted with WWD about how she creates Monae’s many black and white looks.

WWD: How did you and Janelle first begin working together?

Maeve Reilly: Three-and-a-half years ago someone at her record label reached out. They were in a pinch for a stylist for a music video, and it also happened to be the BET Awards. I think we had 12 racks of clothes at our very first fitting and an entire kitchen island full of jewelry. We meshed well together. She’s never left in all these years and she’s gotten me on every big shoot that she’s done, from Pepsi to Cover Girl. The loyalty is beautiful and rare to find. It happened by accident and I’m so excited for this new chapter in her career with this movie.

WWD: How do you and Janelle go about putting a look together?

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M.R.: Janelle loves accessories. That’s always the most important thing, as crazy as that sounds. Shoes are her thing. If you look at any photo of her, it’s never simple. It’s usually something really interesting or fun or playful. I think that came from her look being so conservative [originally]. The first few years we worked together she really only wore suiting, so it was her way of having fun with fashion and jewelry. Any photo you see of her, she has a diamond ring on every finger. That’s sort of a signature clients always know. I’ve literally found an earring and said, “We have to make this earring work for this outfit.” Or she’ll be like, “I love this shoe. Let’s make it work.” When you find a piece that you love, you’re like, “How can we style around this specific piece?”

WWD: How has her style evolved?                                                        

M.R.: For Janelle, it’s been a progression from the black and white only suiting to popping in some red. The Met Gala, when she wore that long red cape, was probably my favorite look. That girl was on capes way before anyone. As the years have gone on, she’s changed it up by putting on dresses or skirts or crop tops, pushing it a little bit outside of her comfort zone so that now it is comfortable. A lot of people ask me, “Was it a big conversation when she started wearing dresses?” It was the right time, the right event, the right moment. Then it became easier for me because it gives me more options. Preparing for all of the “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures” press, we would say, “Does she stay musician Janelle or do we step into maybe a little more — not conservative — but more actress-y type looks?”

For singer-actress Janelle Monae, black and white play a major role in her wardrobe.
For singer-actress Janelle Monae, black and white play a major role in her wardrobe.
(MediaPunch / Jim Smeal / Chelsea Lauren / Broadimage / Variety / Buckner / REX / Shutterstock / WWD )

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WWD: Prior to this award season, what’s been your most meaningful moment on the job together?                                        

M.R.: When we worked together on the Prince tribute for the BET Awards. He was her inspiration and her mentor and a really good friend. It meant so much to her to do him proud. We started working on it months in advance and custom-made everything. It was a long road and it was hard and it was emotional. That’s what I love so much about my job: from the outside I think people could look at it as being rather vapid, but you get to create important moments in people’s lives. A lot of the time, I’m the last person that these people see before they step on a stage in front of millions of people. It can be my responsibility to be the light and the good energy that they see right before they go on stage.

WWD: Who did you work for before going out on your own?

M.R.: Rob Zangardi and Mariel Haenn, during Rihanna’s Rated-R era. And then I worked with April Roomet, who does a lot of the hip-hop guys. That’s how I fell into styling men. I worked with Russell Brand and Jamie Foxx for a long time. That’s kind of how I got hired with Janelle. She saw my work and was like, “Well, she knows how to do a suit, so she can do me too.”  

WWD: How would you describe your fashion philosophy?      

M.R.: It’s my job to make sure that my clients feel good and that their look is individual. From Janelle to Hailey [Baldwin], they couldn’t be more different. It’s looking for stuff that fits for them and not trying to make a cookie cutter revolving door of the same look on the same kind of client.

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