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  • In conversation with

    Elizabeth Saltzman

    She’s got the biggest smile in the industry and is unfailingly charming – no wonder stylist and brand consultant Elizabeth Saltzman is considered a fashion fairy godmother by stars including Gwyneth Paltrow and Uma Thurman. Here’s a woman who knows how to dress ‘her girls’ for the red carpet while always keeping it real.

    By Deborah Brett

    Walking the red carpet, whether it’s at the BAFTAs, SAG Awards or Oscars, may seem like a fun-filled night of glamour and parties, but for an actress with a film to promote – or who’s up for an award – it’s part of the job. An exciting part, for sure, but still daunting. Being on display, photographed from every angle and then judged in the next day’s social media is stressful, to say the least. Which is why cool girls Sandra Oh and Saoirse Ronan have celebrity super-stylist Elizabeth Saltzman on their team. Of course, she wasn’t always the woman behind the women with all the style. Elizabeth began her career at Giorgio Armani in 1983 before moving to US Vogue in 1985, where she was a fashion editor for eight yeas. Then she joined Vanity Fair, rising to fashion director. We sat down in London with Elizabeth to pick her brains on the best underwear for evening, tips on getting red-carpet ready and why she disagrees with Gwyneth when it comes to shoes.

    You’ve worked in so many different fashion arenas, from US Vogue to Vanity Fair, but where did you start out?

    Well I didn’t start in magazines – I started out on the shop floor at one of the best stores ever, Parachute in SoHo, New York. I was a stock girl and that’s what gave me my work ethic. That and my mom.

     What was your first big break in fashion?

    I went to Giorgio Armani. I was 18 and this remarkable woman, Gabriella Forte, tapped me at a nightclub I was working at called Area. It was very steamy and very cool and all about art and fashion, and I thought I was getting a ginormous job when they said they would love to see me at Armani. I thought I was going to be CEO, and then they offered me a job in the stockroom. I took it because it was Giorgio Armani. I had only seen it in movies. It was the first time they were opening up a store in NYC and it seemed a very big deal. Then they moved me to Italy to design Emporio Armani.

    How do you go from shop girl to designing for Emporio Armani?

    I think because of the hours I put in. I stayed late and I was always early and I cared. Any celebrity that came into the store was usually because I had met them at a club.  Armani was one of the great learning lessons of my life. You have those benchmarks and he is such a master. There weren’t even 100 employees; it was a small, family-run business with such distinct style and such talent.

    Did starting in retail and dressing real women inform what you do now?

    That’s a really good point, I think that it must have, but my mother was also a person who didn’t hold back, a pioneer who told the truth. My mom was the fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue. It was a huge job in a man’s world and she was always in a Yves Saint Laurent suit or Geoffrey Beene, Bill Blass or Oscar de la Renta. She was always elegant, but always working. I had the two greatest parents, but if you asked my mother to make a grilled cheese sandwich, it wasn’t going to happen. I just wanted her to show up at school in a dress like all the other mothers. It was the 60s or 70s and she would come in a Saint Laurent pin-striped, broad-shouldered suit and my brother and I would duck and say, ‘Oh we don’t know who she is’.

    How do new clients come to you?

    I’m terrible on social media, you can’t find me except on Instagram, which I don’t really do. I have an agency, The Wall Group, who represent me and I have all sorts of smoke signals that get sent to me – I’ve had someone come and cross a runway during a show.

    Who are your girls?

    Saoirse Ronan, Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Maya Henry, Coco König, Poppy Delevingne, Rebecca Ferguson, Hermione Corfield, Uma Thurman, Gemma Arterton and Gwyneth Paltrow. I feel like I have the new kids on the block, the established kids on the block, and it’s kind of lucky. I get scared that I won’t do my best for each and every one, especially if they’re all on the carpet at the same time – they don’t get panicked, but I do!

    How do you find the right outfits for your celebrities?

    I treat everything like a magazine, because I was in magazines for almost 30 years. I think about it like a story we’re going to tell and I try to editorialise it a little bit.  I think about what their message is – are they feeling great about their body or feeling not so great about their body, are they in love, are they breaking up? There’s stuff that no one needs to know, so that they get the compliments that they need. And then I just do what everybody else does, I search, and I try to use pre-existing clothes because I don’t want to waste money and other people’s time unless I know we need something special.

    When’s the occasion to get something made bespoke?

    I don’t pull in a whole rail of clothing, I pre-decide who we’re going to work with and what we’re going to work with. I already know that four of our women are going to the Met Ball in May. I just had meetings about it in Paris, so that ball is rolling. When it’s award season, it’s a little bit different because you don’t know for sure [they’re going to be there]. I found out a week before Christmas that Sandra Oh was hosting the Golden Globes [in early January].

    Do you always like to choose more fashion-forward dresses?

    Some of my colleagues take bigger risks, but I’m not doing editorial on the red carpet – I’m trying to make my clients the best versions of themselves. I just want them to have fun and feel good. I do try to push things and go to some extremes, though. Like Gwyneth in the white caped Tom Ford dress. That was a very conscious decision to not have any lace, or frilly or shiny bits. I knew I was pushing it and Gwyneth was so cool to see the greatness in that look. But I also will be the first to admit that I write the negative reviews first. So I said it could be: ‘The ice queen cometh’. It could be: ‘The caped crusader’. We really might get nailed and that won’t be ‘we’, it will be ‘you’. Because that’s where you can’t turn around and say, ‘My stylist did it!’ But I knew when I saw it on the hanger in Tom Ford’s office. I knew when she put it on – it was an ‘Oh wow’ moment and it stopped me in my tracks. Saoirse and Gwyneth are great ones to push, because they are fashion-friendly. I really try to let Saoirse’s beauty and personality shine through. She doesn’t do fashion on her own time because she doesn’t give a hoot; she loves clothes, but she likes life a lot more.

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    What people get when they sign on with me is a fashion fairy godmother

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    Describe your own style.

    I’m a Gemini, so one side of me has a uniform that doesn’t change – there’s always a white shirt involved and a black velvet trouser and jacket or a navy blue sweater or coat. And then the other side of me lives in Maui or Hawaii and there’s a floral dress – very rarely do people who don’t know me get to see that. That’s the side that I want my family and kids to see. A uniform is great and it’s really important for work, but the fun and frivolous is really much more important for longevity and life.

    What do you think are the top three iconic looks you’ve styled?

    Obviously Gwyneth has to be there. She wore this pink Prada dress with a high neck and a bow at the back to the Venice Film Festival, and I think she’s never looked prettier. Then Gemma Arterton in pink – it was regal. And Saoirse in the pink Calvin Klein at last year’s Oscars. Holy moly, I love the photos from the back. There’s quite a theme running along with me with pink and bows…

     Who would you love to dress in the future?

    I’m so interested in sportspeople right now, because sport promotes everything we all need to know. Sportspeople eat well, mental health is everything, health is everything. The public follows fashion, why not incorporate it [in sports] somehow? I look at how Gwyneth has been able to transition to being an awesome wife and mum, but also her wellness is really important and so is having fun. I think she’s inspired so many people, and I realise that I’m just not using my tools to inspire enough people.

     

     

    Make up by Emma Lovell at The Wall Group
    Hair by Nathan Dell @nathanpheonixhair

    Photography by Helene Sandberg

    Was your mom tough on your style?

    It wasn’t tough, it was honest, and I don’t think it was negative. She would buy me a poncho because it was the cool trend and I wore it for a year as a skirt because I thought that was the way. I remember us bickering about clothes, but in the funniest sense of the word, because I liked fluffy sweaters and she didn’t understand angora.

    What did you learn from her?

    It was great because I had access to fashion magazines and all of her reports, looking at slides of the runway shows – that was the only way you could see collections in those days. I would watch her work, making lists of trends. People think that is so glamorous, but no matter what job you’re in, it’s just not glamorous, it’s work.

    Do you have a similar critiquing style to your mother? How do you convey that maybe something isn’t the best choice for your client?

    I certainly don’t put anyone down, ever, I listen to people’s emotions and feelings and I’ve worked with most of my girls for so long. So I say, ‘Let’s see if we can top this!’ And you know, a lot of times, I have to agree to disagree. If someone’s fallen in love and they feel special, who am I to take that away from them, unless I thought it was going to hurt them in their career.

    It must be daunting for women to put themselves out there when their job is acting, yet they’re criticised about their choice of dress.

    What people get when they sign on with me is a fashion fairy godmother. When I was working at US Vogue, I could never compete with the greatness of my peers – Grace Coddington, Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele, André Leon Talley. I mean Polly Mellen was my first boss at the magazine. I would never be able to be like them; they were fashion creators. I don’t believe that I create fashion, I believe that I make smart choices for each client, so they feel good – and that’s why they stand tall. If you don’t feel good then you don’t look good, and it shows in pictures. Everyone is welcome to their own opinions as long as my co-workers and clients feel good.

    You’ve worked for quite a few years dressing Gwyneth Paltrow – what’s your relationship like?

    Gwyneth and I have the best relationship. She will literally text and say, ‘What am I wearing?’ She’s so cool like that, but it’s only because of so many years listening to her and understanding that she’s willing to push it and try things and be a bit of a leader, not a follower. To take risks that work for her, her business and her body. I’ve never forgotten beginning to work with Gwyneth – I like a sexy, skinny shoe and she would like something heavier, cooler. She was edgier than I was and we would just absolutely agree to disagree on shoes.

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    Gwyneth and I have the best relationship. She will literally text and say, ‘What am I wearing?’ 

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    What advice do you give to your girls in the run-up to an award ceremony?

    I’m a pretty firm believer in eating, because if you don’t eat your energy is gone. I really press people to have a proper night’s rest, vitamin drips and water, water, water until you’re about to go out and then you can drink whatever you want. I just want people to come in relaxed. It doesn’t take all day to get ready. Gwyneth does it in 45 minutes – hair, mani, make-up and dressing, she won’t give us an hour, so we’ve all learnt to do that.

    What are your tips for looking picture-perfect at an event?

    My thing is you don’t have to look over your shoulder, kick up your leg and act like a ding dong! Just look into the camera and smile. I like smiles, be calm, be elegant, you’re not a model so you don’t have to go out there and strike 400 poses with every flash.

    Do you have a bag of red-carpet tricks?

    I always take flash photos and I take photos in the worst lighting so that we can see how bad it will look. There are notes with every dress if I’m not around, like ‘Please get a bikini wax’ and we pack dresses up with underwear and nipple covers. Where would we be without Bristols Six nipple covers? I’m not joking, I should have invested in that company. They’re incredible – a woman in California makes them and you can wear them 10 times. We don’t need to show off everything.

    What underwear do you recommend?

    I swear by a few brands: Commando does an excellent body suit and I love their thongs. We use Wolford for tights. Also Cosabella, and then there are times when you need Spanx. They’ve got really, really fine high-waisted panties that I love.

    What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

    I think the hours and the travel are really hard. I travel with eight suitcases. I’m one person, and people don’t understand what I do. ‘Oh, we just need four looks!’ they say. People think we have this Wizard of Oz closet. They don’t understand that, let’s say Gucci or Givenchy, Louis Vuitton, Christopher Kane or anybody, has one set of samples for the world. For editorial, for VIP, for anything. You can’t call me at 11 o’clock, I do not have dresses just hanging around for you to wear that night!

    The BAFTAs are round the corner, and its not traditional Hollywood red-carpet weather in London. How do you plan for the cold?

    Between LodenTal and MaxMara, I don’t think there are better coats, capes and throws in the world. I also have hand and back-warmers; we have them taped to women’s backs. We don’t want them to suffer!

    How do you make all this travelling between cities work with a family?  

    I love living in London and my children are in London. I’m in NY and LA for work a lot, so instead of staying in LA for three weeks like any normal person, I go back and forth and then that makes me nervous about my [carbon] footprint.

    Why did you choose to make London your home?

    The honest reason is, I was nine months’ pregnant and I thought that my husband, who was living here for a couple of years, was coming home. He thought I was coming to London and it was whose schedule won. It actually worked out, because as much as I thought of myself as a global person in fashion, I was clearly not because I moved to London and met all of this talent I wasn’t exposed to. It was easy for me to fly to Rome, to Paris, to Milan. I loved the European touch; I’m so American in style that it’s definitely opened my eyes, so I’m pleased with my husband.

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