The fashion industry is synonymous with histrionics and hissy fits. But the dramatic social media retirement announcement by celebrity stylist Law Roach last week, on the heels of the Oscars — fashion’s Super Bowl — was a throwdown for the ages, with pundits scrambling to decode what it all really means.
Roach is arguably the world’s hottest celebrity stylist, responsible for Celine Dion’s transformation from beloved Canadian chanteuse to couture queen and keeping Zendaya at the top of every best-dressed list. He styled six top stars for the 2023 Oscars, including Megan Thee Stallion and Kerry Washington. But last week, something caused Roach to snap.
On Instagram, he posted a red banner in the form of a rubber stamp reading “Retired,” with an accompanying caption that cited “the politics, the lies and false narratives” for his shock decision, concluding, “You win. I’m out.” This was the moment stylists, the definition of a supporting player, came into their own main character energy.
The gossip mill kicked into overdrive. Video surfaced of Roach and Zendaya at the Louis Vuitton show in Paris, where she was given a front-row seat and he (initially, at least) was not. Twitter wondered if Zendaya (a rumoured new Vuitton ambassador) was gesturing for him to sit in the row behind her — otherwise known as Siberia, in the fashion pecking order — and if that had poisoned their relationship. Then, comments from Priyanka Chopra, another Roach client, were examined in new light. Earlier this month at the South by Southwest Film Festival, Chopra said she was moved to tears by “someone” telling her she wasn’t sample size. (Designer sample size is 0 to 2 — very tiny — which means that actresses can’t borrow clothes as easily if they don’t fit into that size.) Chopra did not name Roach, but people assumed it.
What elevates all of this beyond fashion internet talk is how it illustrates the messy, shifting power dynamics in the fashion world, where huge luxury brands, up-and-coming stars and top-tier stylists are increasingly at odds with one another.
The top fashion brands are in a period of upheaval. The economy, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have all played havoc with sales. The runway model is being resurrected in a new way with a focus on special shows, just for VIP clients who spend upwards of seven figures at couture houses. Fashion houses increasingly want to lock the most exciting Hollywood starlets into contracts, thereby locking out the stylists like Roach who helped make them exciting in the first place. If Zendaya does join Louis Vuitton as an ambassador, she’ll be following the example of Margot Robbie and Kristen Stewart for Chanel and Anya Taylor-Joy for Dior.
These exclusive deals are lucrative for stars, but they often make for less compelling fashion looks. Roach is a mix-master who brought out the personality of his clients by putting them in a wide range of outfits, high and low, from many different labels. Case in point: Celine Dion in the Titanic T-shirt by Vetements with jeans and gold heels at the January 2017 couture shows, that was both a nod on her most famous song, and a bittersweet reference to her recent bereavement. Roach is widely credited with transforming Zendaya, a Disney channel child star, into a red carpet legend. They’ve been working together since she was 14, when he dressed her in what he called a “puke green, patent leather Alexander Wang skirt” for a Justin Bieber event.
(Happily, rumours of a rift between the duo appear to be just that: In an interview with The Cut, Roach absolved Zendaya of all responsibility in the Vuitton seating affair, called her his “little sister” and said they plan to keep working together, perhaps with Roach as creative director overseeing a stylist.)
On the outside, Roach had what looked like a meteoric rise in the industry. In reality, he has come a long way from his hard-scrabble roots in southside Chicago, where he has spoken poignantly about often being left hungry as one of five children of a single mother. Encouraged by his grandmother, he began his career by dressing friends out of the back of his car before opening well-regarded vintage shops, called Deliciously Vintage in both Chicago and Harlem. He has a TV footprint, as judge on “America’s Next Top Model” and voguing competition “Legendary.” He has been named on Hollywood Reporter’s Most Powerful Stylists lists, and last year won the prestigious CFDA Stylist of the Year award.
The role of stylist has changed dramatically over the years. The first credited stylist was Rose Bertin, who styled Marie Antoinette (and was later named Minister of Fashion). Even Queen Elizabeth II had a stylist, dressmaker Angela Kelly, for the last quarter century of her life. But it wasn’t until the ’80s and ’90s that stylists emerged from behind the pages of magazines to work with individual celebrities (and now, influencers) to create buzz through image.
Top stylists today are fast becoming celebrities themselves. Canadian Karla Welch (who styles Justin Bieber and Sarah Polley) gets profiled about her period underwear startup and Jason Bolden (who dresses Michael B. Jordan and Vanessa Hudgens) was recently featured in Architectural Digest.
This next step that Roach is taking marks the beginning of a new era where stylists are crafting their own job descriptions. Roach is aligned with many of us these days, in the post-pandemic shakeout, re-evaluating how we spend our time and energy. In his Cut interview, he said his declaration was not a PR stunt, but rather a way to give himself “permission to do something else with his life.” In the era of the Great Resignation, Roach is taking his future, and his happiness, into his own hands. Brands need to take heed, because matching the right clothes to right personalities is a whole lot harder than it looks, and stylists with their own wattage are here to stay.