‘Our job is highly skilled and should be highly valued,’ says the newly-formed Celebrity Stylists Union, which is fighting back against low wages and poor working conditions
“People don’t want to pay or treat you fairly because what you do is for ‘fun’. They think it will only take you five minutes. Well my five minutes costs fucking money – pay me for it,” says London-based celebrity stylist Michael Miller, who has dressed actors including Willem Dafoe, Alfie Allen, Callum Scott Howells, and Asa Butterfield. Miller is the driving force behind the Celebrity Stylist’s Union, a newly formed group for UK-based celebrity stylists which seeks to establish a baseline for fair pay and treatment within the sector. The action chimes with the striking efforts of SAG-AFTRA (the American actors’ union), many members of which are CSU stylists’ clients.
The catalyst for the union was a particularly intense press tour in summer 2022. Miller noticed that all of the hair and makeup teams were chatting, laughing, and swapping stories, whereas the stylists were all holed up in their individual changing pens, not saying a word. “It just felt like you could drop a pin, there was so much tension in there,” Miller says. That tension and lack of camaraderie was, Miller felt, playing into a lack of solidarity within the sector and an inability to tackle the stagnant rates and shoddy treatment stylists were facing on jobs, dressing celebrities for premieres, press junkets, photoshoots, public appearances, and more.
Desperate for change, Miller went home and emailed every single celebrity stylist he could find a contact for, encouraging everyone to come together to improve conditions for all. The early meetings, he says, were referred to as ‘therapy sessions’ as attendees shared their stresses and swapped industry horror stories. But soon, talk turned to what needed to change.
“Netflix’s standard base rate is $500 per outfit [US companies offer US currency-based rates, even to UK stylists], and that’s been the same since my first job with them in 2016,” Miller says. That might sound OK to some – who wouldn’t want $500 dollars to pick out a nice outfit? – but the union’s Styling101 document, which lays out a stylist’s work process, highlights why that rate is unworkable in 2023.
For just one look, the preparatory work [which includes contacting multiple brands and arranging deliveries] is a minimum of four days; receiving deliveries, unpacking, logging, prepping, editing, and building multiple looks take a further one to two days; fitting takes at least one hour per look; returning unused looks is a further day; tailoring is a minimum of one day, dressing the talent is a minimum of half a day; and recouping the clothes from the client and then returning them is a minimum of one more day. That’s a minimum of nine days worked for one look, but often it’s more like two weeks.
“People don’t want to pay or treat you fairly because what you do is for ‘fun’. They think it will only take you five minutes. Well my five minutes costs fucking money – pay me for it” – Michael Miller
Taking that all into account, $500 is already looking pretty low, but it doesn’t even represent what a stylist takes home. It’s all inclusive so must cover all expenses. Expenses can range from £40 per courier, £150-230 per day for a stylist, £300-400 for tailoring, and £500 for international returns. And there are agency fees of around 20 to 30 per cent to throw into the mix too.
Even when they’re styling numerous looks, with all inclusive rates and enormous expenses, stylists are often working for below minimum wage. “Right now, if you look at what we’re being compensated by some multibillion dollar streamers, it’s very laughable,” says Zadrian Smith, who along with his professional partner Sarah Edmiston was among the first to join the union. “I’ve had people offer as low as £250-300 a look. If you’re lucky you get a thousand but that’s few and far between.”
Smith points to the history of styling as to why it’s such a chronically low paid job despite being part of a billion dollar eco-system of Hollywood stars, global streaming platforms, and big budget press tours. “The job of a stylist was created by Condé Nast for Edna Woolman Chase, and for society women in New York. Those women didn’t need to work because they were all married to very affluent men… and they were never really fussed about if they were being paid or not, they were happy to receive a bag or an invite to a fashion show,” he explains. “Of course, times have changed dramatically and people from marginalised communities and people who don’t come from affluent backgrounds who are just as creative want to dip their toe in this water. But many haven’t been able to because we’re working below minimum wage or we’re working in the red.”
“If you look at what we’re being compensated by some multibillion dollar streamers, it’s very laughable” – Zadrian Smith
Compounding the sector’s position as a playground for the privileged is the fact that stylists are not only expected to work for little or no money, but to have near-endless budgets to buy clothes up front. “My main issue at the moment is constantly being expected to front shopping budgets and production costs for styling which can range anywhere from a few hundred pounds to £6,000 for shopping,” says one stylist who preferred not to be named due to uncertainty about how her clients would react. “I’ve had producers working for some of the biggest household name British brands tell me they expect this from me. It’s exhausting always having to justify why you don’t want to pay for all of this upfront out of your own pocket. There is a culture of working for low pay, but why should lucrative brands with huge amounts of revenue exploit this when they can absolutely afford to cover the cash flow for their shoots?”
According to Miller, some stylists who work with music acts are expected to front shopping bills of up to £50,000. It’s an unworkable situation, which the union seeks to change. Operating under Bectu [the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union which Miller says he discovered through the Fashion Assistants meme account] the CSU is aiming to set a baseline rate of £1,250 per look, as well as overtime pay, courier budgets, tailoring budgets, assistant budgets, shopping budgets, kit charges, and travel expenses. Rates will be based upon an 8 hour day [many stylists work up to 20, according to Smith], and payment will be expected within 30 days.
Currently, the CSU is operating thanks to the efforts of six people working behind the scenes, but they have rallied the interest of many more stylists and a large scale meeting with publicists, artists, actors, and agents is imminent plus, Miller says, studios and streamers are at least willing to engage in conversation. Unionising freelancers is a tall order, especially in such an unregulated industry but the CSU see themselves as the guinea pigs laying the framework for other fashion freelancers to unionise. It’s starting with celebrity stylists but the hope is that others will use their model and follow suit.
To make it work, however, other players in the industry need to step up. “It takes people higher up the food chain to make others feel safe and secure,” says Miller, who along with his peers, is calling upon everyone from major fashion houses and publications, to the BFC to step up in solidarity. The demand is crystal clear: “Our job is highly skilled and should be highly valued. Pay us fairly and respect the work that we do.”